The Sacramento Choral Calendar
The Captive and Other Victor Herbert Rarities - October 25, 2013
by Winslow Rogers
With all the buzz about Samantics I was glad to finally see them in person. Any evening of Victor Herbert music would be a rarity, but this program would amaze even those who know his operettas inside and out. I was not disappointed. The music was presented with panache, respect for Herbert's music, and enjoyment of the often unintentional humor.
The encyclopedic printed program shows what a titan Herbert was on the musical scene a hundred years ago. In addition to his dozens of wildly-popular operettas and hundreds of songs, this musical Zelig was a virtuoso cellist, led a regimental band that ranked with John Philip Sousa's, built the Pittsburgh Symphony into a great orchestra, co-founded ASCAP (to protect composers' royalties), helped George Gershwin complete his Rhapsody in Blue, wrote the first-ever film score (for Thomas Dixon's Fall of a Nation), and wrote a cello concerto that inspired his friend and colleague Antonin Dvorak to write the greatest cello concerto of them all.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Herbertís reputation has been in decline ever since his death in 1924. His melodramatic plots and flowery love-scenes are passť and his songs invite parody. No song could survive the unforgettable send-up of "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" in Young Frankenstein. This concert was designed to brush the dust off some of his forgotten music and give it a fresh look.
I attended the concert at the First United Methodist Church in Sacramento; the program was also presented in Vacaville and Berkeley. The large church has comfortable seating and splendid acoustics. The hall was less than half full, and this was unfortunate since any music-lover would have relished this program.
The 28-voice chorus came out with the men in tuxes and the women in black. Leader Sam Schieber sat at a piano in front from which he conducted and accompanied the group and gave informative introductions of the numbers.
The program was in three parts. First came a compilation of eight of the most famous songs from Herbert's operettas, in clean and uncluttered arrangements. The chorus sang the tuneful refrain of each song just once, without Herbert's overblown verses.
The chorus was well trained and produced a pleasant, blended sound. Diction was excellent. A few of the stronger voices stood out, and the soprano sound was a little harsh, but these were not major detriments to my enjoyment of what was essentially high-quality parlor music.
The second part of the concert was a collection of seven long-forgotten choral numbers that showed the range of Herbert's output and provided ample doses of unintentional humor.
One of these songs, an "Alma Mater Song of the Catholic University of America," was written for a school Herbert never attended. The name of the university is too long to appear in the song, and instead there is repeated praise of "good old C.U.A.," making the song sound like a sentimental tribute to a government agency.
"The American Serenade" is a ragtime number written with kid gloves on. It has a ragtime beat, but is really a song about ragtime, ending "I like to Hear a Real American Song." The light rhythmic beat of the chorus was impeccable.
"The Dodge Brothers March" brought down the house. It is a tribute to two friends and supporters of Herbert who invented the Dodge automobile. The brothers make their way "from the hills of San Jose" (say what?) to fame and fortune in Detroit. The song becomes a tribute to the Motor City, mecca of the new automobile age. The Samantics chorus achieved the right balance of respect for the music and hearty enjoyment of the silly lyrics.
The "Opening Chorus" to The Idol's Eye, one of Herbert's early operettas, was the chorus's only descent into unmitigated rip-roaring travesty. The 1897 music is blown up to become the pretended score for a movie extravaganza of two or three decades later. The Idol ("Juggernaut") is a King Kong figure threatening a screeching horde of damsels in distress. It is difficult to sing so far out-of-tune and make it sound right, but the Samantics women did so, and a good time was had by all.
Winslow Rogers has taught English and American literature at Harvard, where he got his Ph.D., and at other universities in the Midwest and in Southern California. He has also held administrative positions including as producer of a university guest artist series. He lives in Grass Valley but has begun to come "down the hill" to review concerts for the Sacramento Choral Calendar.