The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Voices of California
Believe - December 7, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
I’ve learned to expect something different at every concert by the Voices of California (VoCal), and this afternoon’s program confirmed that expectation. The music actually began with a pianist playing Christmas songs while the audience entered the largest theater of the Harris Center. When we were all settled in our seats, the 90-voice chorus entered the darkened theater and completely surrounded the seats in the orchestra section. They were carrying artificial candles and singing what was initially a traditional arrangement of “Veni, Veni Emmanuel.” It was stunning, the tenor part in particular, and I found myself involuntarily saying, “O God, that’s beautiful.” The last half of the piece got a barbershop twist, but it was still a most impressive way to start a Christmas show.
Recent VoCal performances have had a unifying story line, and this afternoon it was provided by an emcee dressed in white (Paul Greisen) who introduced himself as Clarence Odbody, the angel from the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Clarence introduced each section of the concert, providing humorous patter (in character) that was quite well done.
After Clarence’s initial monologue, VoCal presented two contemporary Christmas classics, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Like everything performed by VoCal, the songs were memorized and sung a cappella. “Do You Hear…” was particularly interesting because it I began as a solo, with a second and then third voice added, before the whole chorus joined in. Listening to these pieces I reflected that it is hard to imagine better men’s a cappella harmony. But then, that’s not surprising – this is an award-winning, nationally competitive chorus.
It seems that barbershop choruses don’t maintain a large repertoire of music – at least not for public performance. Instead, they devote a lot of their energy to perfecting a few pieces for their competitions. So for a full concert, they invite other performers, and this time it was four very different singing groups. (Click here to view more information about each group in the concert program.)
The first guest chorus was The Vocal Art Ensemble (VAE). They began with a rousing version of “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal” and continued with a sensitive, delicate, almost mesmerizing rendition of Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium.” I think that the audience that filled this 850-seat theater consisted mostly of barbershop fans. So a small mixed chorus with a totally different repertoire and style may have caught them off guard. I’d venture to say many of them had never seen anything like VAE’s incredibly diverse (and adventuresome) set of music. But in the end, I believe that the audience was delighted by what they saw.
I had seen all five pieces performed this afternoon at VAE’s concert last month, and I felt they were as effective on the large stage as in the far more intimate venues in which VAE typically performs. There was the Serbian “Adje Jano” which had several chorus members playing a variety of instruments (including an accordion) to accompany the singing and ethnic dancing of the rest of the ensemble. Then there was “A Child’s Prayer,” with harmonics about as far from barbershop as could be imagined, and highlighting two soloists who were frequently singing notes a mere semitone apart. It was brilliant and artistic, but could this audience appreciate it? I’m still not sure. Finally, there was “Hamba Lulu,” a Zulu wedding song with compelling rhythms that featured 6 or 8 simultaneous dance moves and had director Tracia Barbieri, herself an entertaining focus of attention, moving with the singers and coaching their moves. I felt it was great fun – highly entertaining – and the audience’s reaction showed that they agreed.
In a complete change of pace, the Sacramento Women’s Chorus was on next, and they immediately won over the audience with the humorous “Christmas Shopping Blues,” accompanied by piano and a wailing saxophone. The 50-member chorus performed with great animation, and the dense lyrics of this song came through clearly. The humor continued with the hilarious “Christmas Time Is No Time to Diet.” Even before the singers pulled out tongs for percussion, the audience’s laughs were almost continuous.
“One Candle” was a major change of pace – a lovely song with inspiring lyrics, during which each singer held a candle. (Where did they keep all those props?) Another feature of this song was that it was signed by two chorus members who came out front for the purpose. I always welcome signing. To me it has the grace of ballet performed with the upper body, and I think it greatly enhanced this piece.
There was a return to humor with the “30 Second Fa La La,” during which the chorus (and Director Robin Ritchie) just overflowed with personality and spirit – yet maintaining the unified sound that they had been consistently producing. The Sacramento Women’s Chorus’ finale was “The Twelve Days After Christmas,” accompanied by appropriate gestures and enthusiasm that earned them cheers as their set of music concluded.
The next performance was by Artistic License, the award-winning and nationally competitive quartet formed from VoCal members (including Director Gabe Caretto). These men were clearly a sentimental favorite of the audience, and they did not disappoint. They performed “Silver Bells,” “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” a “Santa Claus” medley, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” with humorous patter between each piece. The singing was nothing short of stellar: complex, creative, varied, and interesting arrangements – all masterfully sung, expressive and with the tightest of harmonies and perfect coordination. The audience went crazy after every piece, and justifiably so.
After intermission, there was yet another change of pace with the 6 boys and 6 girls of the Christian Brothers High School Jazz Ensemble. They delivered a well-crafted performance of sophisticated arrangements of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” When they began, I was conscious of their young voices, but as they proceeded, they seemed to warm up and relax, singing with more confidence and the ease that their jazz arrangements required. Having sung the first part of their program a cappella, they ended with “I Just Want You,” accompanied by a recorded track. To me, this was the highlight of their performance, with each of the girls and one boy delivering great scat solos. I felt I had heard some really good jazz singing, and the audience seemed to agree.
VoCal closed the concert with a long set of music. First was “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” in which all the singers struck a casual pose, interacting with each other. Then the Beach Boys tune, “Little Saint Nick” brought even more elaborate choreography in a piece of music that was pure fun for everyone. In a nod to the other big holiday of the season, a subset of the chorus sang a Hanukkah song, the precise title of which I couldn’t figure out. Next, we got a straight barbershop arrangement that mixed “Jingle Bells” and “Sleighride.” And after the exhilaration of that piece, the chorus slowed down to a heartfelt rendition of “Believe” from the movie, The Polar Express.
For me, who had to leave before the absolute end of the show (which had already lasted almost two-and-a-half hours), the next piece was as good a finale as I could have asked for. It was the Calypso-style “Ring De Bells,” which featured percussion and a soloist with a darned good Jamaican accent. Everybody was moving to the beat (even some in the audience, I’ll bet), and the stage was full of life and energy.
They called it a concert, but to me it was more of a music festival, with an incredibly diverse array of performing groups (and within each of them great diversity of music). Bottom line: it was as entertaining a show as any I’ve seen in recent years.