The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Platter Party! - May 24, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
It felt like a somewhat awkward beginning to this concert: the chorus waiting outside the tiny Wm. J. Geery Theater because there was apparently no place inside that could serve as a green room for them; singers in formal attire and much of the audience in jeans and shorts; performers filing in to take their place in four rows of chairs on the stage, while an audience only slightly greater in number than they looked on in silence. But the awkwardness I felt quickly dissipated as the program got underway.
I always have fun at Samantics concerts, but it’s always a different kind of fun because each program is so drastically different from the one before. Indeed, there is no formula for Samantics concerts. And the reason is that Artistic Director Sam Schieber draws his inspiration from 150 years of (mostly popular) music, and he always seems to take a different path through that rich field of material.
It’s the humor that I have especially enjoyed in the past, but this time the humor was largely confined to Schieber’s introduction. Reading from a script, he took us through a wonderfully witty history of music media, with special emphasis on the long-playing albums that were the inspiration for tonight’s concert. In his wide-ranging research forays, Schieber had uncovered the arrangements used for two LPs he referred to as “concept albums.” The first was the 1965 Ray Conniff Singers album, “Love Affair.” The second was Gordon Jenkins’ paean to New York City, “Manhattan Tower,” a combination of narration, skits, mood music, and songs (solo and chorus) – with orchestral accompaniment. It originally appeared in 1946 on two 78-rpm records, with a "High Fidelity" 33-1/3-rpm version in 1956. Tonight's piano reduction of the orchestral score appeared in the 1950s.
After his introduction, Schieber ceremoniously approached a record player that had been set up on a stand next to the piano, carefully removed the records of these two albums from their jackets, and placed them on the spindle of the record player. Then he sat at the piano, and the concert began. I should mention here that Schieber’s playing is one of my favorite parts of any Samantics concert. He seems comfortable with a wide range of styles, and his technique is always professional and expressive.
As the chorus began to sing, it seemed to me that this was the best ensemble sound I’ve heard from them. They don’t produce the crafted, blended sound I hear in some other groups, but their singing is accurate and disciplined with sharp cutoffs and entrances. That alone is remarkable in that, with Schieber constantly accompanying, they sing without a director until the final cutoff. But what I enjoy most about them is their spirit, which is evident in so many of their faces as they perform.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The program began with the music from the first half of “Love Affair.” There was nothing flashy about it, but the chorus did a good job of imitating the stylings of the Ray Conniff Singers: bright, energetic, bouncy, and often lapsing into scat (or is that too technical a term for singing syllables that have no particular meaning?). This ensemble may have lacked a bit of the brightness of the original group’s sound, but it’s not fair to compare a studio recording to a live performance like this. To add to the authenticity, the piano accompaniment was occasionally augmented by guitar, accordion, and light percussion (shakers and a muted tambourine).
Hearing this music was a special delight for me because I was a big fan of the Ray Conniff Singers and other pop-singing choruses back in their heyday. The smiles on their faces made me think that the chorus enjoyed this music, too: many of them were young enough that this concert might have been their first introduction to these songs, or at least to these arrangements.
“Manhattan Tower” was a very different experience, more like a radio drama than a series of songs. But it was also interesting and enjoyable, especially for the variety it added to the “concert,” which now seemed more like a production.
The show was performed without intermission, but half-way through the “Manhattan Tower” material, Schieber got up from the piano and turned the two records over – to the delight of everyone in the audience, except the two children who had no idea what was going on.
The 6 songs from the flip side of “Love Affair” concluded the formal program with a return to what was, for me, simply happy music. I wrote “cute” in my notes with only the positive connotations of that word in my mind. As for the singing itself, if anything, it seemed to improve throughout the concert: I noticed good articulation of lyrics, a unison sound that got better and better, and some sweet harmonies.
By the time the show ended, the audience had swollen to fill nearly all 50 of the seats, so people were sitting on the floor and standing at the back. After our enthusiastic applause, we were treated to an encore of Conniff’s arrangement of “Somewhere My Love” (“Lara’s Theme”), which was a Top 10 hit in 1966. It included another pure Samantics touch to end the evening: to imitate the sound of a balalaika, many of the singers were ululating (the celebratory sound you may have heard from Arab women). More fun!