The Sacramento Choral Calendar
UC Davis, University Chorus
American Choral Works - June 7, 2013
by Dena Kouremetis
A white-hot summer Friday evening found this reviewer attending the performance of UC Davis’ University Chorus American Choral Works, where 80+ singers gathered in formal garb to offer a varied program of American music classics, much of which was done in interesting and provocative arrangements.
As I took my place on the level just above orchestra, I noticed the chorus already seated on stage, the singers chatting amongst themselves. And as the lights dimmed and conductor Jeffrey Thomas appeared front and center, I was delighted to find his commentary articulate and descriptive in introducing the program as talented accompanist Jonathan Spatola-Knoll seated himself at the piano.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
What first struck me was the impressive number of men in the chorus, a usually difficult feat for many mixed choral groups to achieve, and as the chorus began singing William Billings’ Modern March, the harmonies and entrances reminded me somewhat of Robert Shaw’s choral arrangements. Being an OCD choral singer, I pay attention to a number of things many might not. In the case of the University Chorus singers, I was pleased to see most eyes rarely downcast to their music, instead watching every movement their conductor was making.
Shaker genre compositions Simple Gifts and At the River, two numbers from American composer Aaron Copeland’s early repertoire of “vernacular” style music came next, followed by Samuel Barber’s Sure on This Shining Night and Steven Sametz’s I Have Had Singing, where the chorus proved its skill at singing poetic phrases at nearly a whisper at times – an accomplishment born of practice, practice, practice. Then a choral group favorite begins almost distantly, gains strength and wanes again as conductor and accompanist change places and Spatola-Knoll conducts the group in the haunting harmonies of Randall Thompson’s Alleluia.
Thomas alluded to the concert’s bittersweet timing, when goodbyes and good lucks are heard all over campus as he introduced contemporary student composer and audience member Garret Ian Shatzer’s The Lesson, with its unfamiliar harmonies and purposeful dissonance. We were treated to Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen and Gerre Hancock’s unusual arrangement of Deep River as Thomas made the nearly seamless connection between American spirituals and jazz. But no two numbers in the entire program were better received and loved (by me, at least) than African-American composer Moses Hogan’s The Battle of Jericho and Elijah Rock. Formed by men’s voices, Jericho’s syncopated rhythms were the firmament under which the women sang melody, and as the men droned OH-E-LI-JAH, a number of strategically placed solo voices added to the spirit of the song, making me want to jump up on stage and join in the fun.
Thomas ended the program with numbers composed by modern-day darling Eric Whitacre, as the group sang his Sussex College-born Alleluia and left us with his masterpiece, Sleep, a number originally made famous by Whitacre's 2011 Virtual Choir project, on in which more than 2,000 vocal recordings were uploaded by choir members from 58 countries and combined to make one haunting, colorful journey into the slumber world we capitulate to daily.
All in all, the concert fulfilled its theme as a touching tribute to American choral works, but I would have enjoyed at least a few more spirited numbers as well as a more spectacular ending to the performance itself. Thomas’ expert conducting and control of his voices as well as their talent were commendable, as the good, long standing ovation indicated.
Event reviewer Dena Kouremetis studied languages and psychology at Ball State University, Deree University in Athens, Greece and at l'Aliance Française in Paris. A native of San Francisco, she grew up in a family of musicians as well as in and around her father's piano store. A writer, author and journalist, Kouremetis is also a professional blogger for Forbes. She has sung alto voice under Sacramento's Donald Kendrick in University Singers, under Alan Simon for Soli Deo Gloria in the San Francisco Bay Area and currently sings with Placer Pops Chorale under Lorin Miller, where she also serves as corporate sponsorship chair for the newly-formed non-profit organization.
Dena Kouremetis may be reached at email@example.com