The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Woodland Chamber Singers
It's the Holiday Season! - Sunday, December 8, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
This was my first experience of the Woodland Chamber Singers, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. After taking my seat, I looked over the program and saw that the Messiah (Part 1) would be the highlight of the second half of the concert. And then I noticed the first few pieces in the program, and prepared myself for a concert of serious music. But I soon discovered that there’s nothing stuffy about this group. Rather, I found them versatile enough to present the serious music with artistry and then loosen up and really have fun with the lighter pieces.
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After a greeting by Board Chair Jan Arnold, the curtains opened on the seated chorus members, nearly 70 of them. Women were in black tops and skirts; men in black trousers and shirts with lime green ties. Director Lenore Turner-Heinson entered and began “Personent Hodie.” I found it interesting that she directs with a baton, something I don’t recall seeing other choral directors do. It seems to me that somehow it may help achieve a crisper sound with more accurate entrances and cutoffs. That much was evident, and as I listened further, it occurred to me that this might be one of the best soprano sections that I’ve heard lately.
The next selection on the program, the “Wexford Carol,” was sung by a 17-member group a cappella. They produced a pretty, integrated sound with the delicacy that the piece required. I was struck with the quality of each voice part, especially the tenors, as well as with the quality of the individuals who had incidental solos.
After this fairly serious music, the “Thirty Second Fa La La” was a nice change of pace that drew smiles and laughter. And much of that fun came from Turner-Heinson’s good humor and easy interaction with the audience.
“Wolcum Yole” was performed by the women alone. The musical figures in this piece required a lot of vocal control, and I felt they were well coordinated for such a large group.
“All Bells in Paradise” was a lovely song, gently delivered with such satisfying harmonies. And what made it even more of a pleasure for me was the two signers. I believe I’ve made this point in another recent review, but I’ll repeat it. I see signers as performing a gentle ballet of the whole upper body that adds significant visual interest to a choral performance. So for me, the addition of signers is always welcome. Of course, I was also watching the singers, and it seemed to me that I saw more open mouths than in the average group. (It’s remarkable how many singers I’ve noticed who barely open their mouths.) Besides that, I was aware how closely the singers were watching the director. Much of this concert was sung from printed scores, but so many chorus members paid the director such close attention that I have to believe that they had memorized large sections of the concert – besides those that were obviously performed from memory.
With “It’s the Holiday Season,” a medley of gently rocking holiday tunes, the chorus (and Director Turner-Heinson) really loosened up and had fun with the piece. The fun continued with “Christmas! Baby Please Come Home” when soprano Lola Kraft brought out a big picture, sighed over it, and then put in on a tripod at the side of the stage so that we could all see that the image was that of Elvis Presley. Backed up by a 9-person ensemble who acted out the song, Lola sang into a telephone, and I think I can speak for the audience when I say that we found it awfully cute – a pure delight.
The rendition of “White Christmas” that followed was performed by the men of the chorus, and it was one of my favorite parts of the afternoon. It was the version recorded by Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters in 1954 and made popular 5 or more years ago by a cartoon video that featured a Santa singing with 4 of his reindeer. This send-up of that old arrangement was completely unexpected – and was it ever a hoot!
Then the men had a complete change of character with a beautiful performance of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” It was as entrancing as “White Christmas” was fun, with the second verse sung in German, and the third verse featuring an unusual high tenor descant by Jason Wilmot.
With all the semi-chorus numbers that we’d just heard, good as they were, it was refreshing to return to the big full-chorus sound with the “Angelic Christmas Fanfare” that included an interesting, fresh take on the familiar “Westminster Carol” (“Angels We Have Heard on High”). As I listened, it struck me that there was an especially good balance between the men and women of this chorus – without resorting to electronics to achieve the balance. At one or two points earlier in the program, I thought I was hearing individual voices, and then I realized that the chorus was surrounded by curtains that one would expect to dampen the sound. I wondered if a shell would have projected their sound even better to the audience and perhaps help singers avoid any tendency to oversing. It’s to their credit that they were able to achieve such good balance with the sound-dampening features of the stage set-up.
After intermission, we were treated to the most educational sing-a-long I’ve experienced. Bob Edmonds gave extensive (and erudite) introductions, both to the concept of the “carol” and to each carol we sang. I’ll confess I learned a lot.
The Messiah of the second half had distinct differences from other performances I’ve heard. For one thing, the solos were sung from memory – and quite competently – by different chorus members. I’m glad whenever I see members given the opportunity to sing these wonderful solos, rather than bringing in professionals. And though what I heard may fall a little short of what I’d expect from a professional, the singers produced a fine cultured (and I would guess, trained) sound that was very listenable and in no way amateurish.
When the chorus came in with “And the Glory,” it was simply exhilarating. As they sang, I was especially conscious of the strong sound of the tenor and bass sections, exposed as they often were in this contrapuntal music. Throughout, I felt that the Messiah really danced, and I perceived the influence of a lot of interpretative thought by the director – and perhaps on the part of individual soloists, as well. The triumphant quality of the Hallellujah chorus was felt by all, and by its close, all of us in the audience had risen to our feet – a gesture honoring tradition for which Director Turner-Heinson thanked us afterward.
The concert ended with a tradition unique to this chorus: performing “I Wish You Christmas,” a lovely, uplifting piece rendered even more delightful by the dual signers. We learned that the Woodland Chamber Singers will be performing at Carnegie Hall in March. That’s no surprise. The entertaining mix of traditional and contemporary music that they presented this afternoon showed that this is a big-time group, ready for new challenges and new forms of recognition.