The Sacramento Choral Calendar

 

 

Concert Review

Samantics

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.

The third part of the concert was a serious work: The Captive, a 45-minute cantata for mixed chorus with soprano and baritone soloists. It was written in 1891, several years before Herbert began writing his string of successful operettas.  

The soloists were Lisa Singh (soprano) and Robert Rennicks (baritone). Sam Schieber accompanied at the piano, after apologizing for the lack of an orchestra that could provide the full range of musical effects in the original score. 

This cantata is an interesting contrast to Herbert's later work. It is spare and craggy, and contains echoes of the Mendelssohn and Brahms whose influences he absorbed during his musical education in Germany. 

It is based on a short poem (printed in the program) that provides a dramatic sketch, with no filled-out plot. A maiden begs that a handsome captive she sees passing by on his execution march be released from his sentence. It seems that this may be possible, but the captive chooses death over dishonor, since he has pledged eternal love to another. Sentimental stuff, but Herbert gives it an effective setting. 

The piece has a long instrumental opening, well played by Schieber. I found the first half of the piece overly long and somewhat monochromatic. It takes a while to get going.   

Things heat up with the soprano entrance. Singh has a powerful voice, and her "Loose his bonds" cry leads to dramatic interplay between solo and chorus. There is an intense climax, with pent-up emotion flooding over. 

Then the mood changes completely. The captive replies with a simple unadorned declaration, with only piano for accompaniment. I cannot imagine it sung more effectively than Rennicks did.  

The execution march recommences, sounding a bit tinny, I'm afraid. The music builds to an intense sotto voce question from the chorus -- "Shall thy life be ended?"  

There is a break and a quiet musical interlude, and we realize that the climax has been passed over, and instead the chorus enters with a sentimental epilogue about the linden tree that grew over his grave, and the tireless bird who sings of faithful love in its branches. 

The work got a rousing, well-deserved reception from the audience. Samantics sang a jaunty little Goodbye and Thank You encore. I guess it was by Herbert, but it sounded more like Gilbert and Sullivan in a particularly goofy mood.

The concert ran less than 1Ĺ hours and without an intermission, long enough to feel I had gotten a generous dose of this charming music, but short enough to whet my appetite for more.

 

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.

 2013 Reviews