Faire is the Heaven - May 2, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
Occasionally, it is necessary to set the stage for a concert, and that happened this evening when the audience was given a few introductory words by Sara Noah. “What and where is heaven?” she asked, commenting briefly on the wide range of answers to that question from different parts of society, and explaining that the concert would be exploring the concepts of heaven and spirituality. Then, as if to turn the audience’s attention from the physical world, the first two songs were performed from the back of the church. And they were, indeed, ethereal. “Pilgrim’s Hymn” was very much like a prayer, and “Beati Quorum Via” featured beautiful harmonies and lovely, delicate, interwoven melodies. The singers next moved to their positions at the front of the church, dressed in different pastel-colored silky outer layers over black pants and tops. (Obviously, this is a man writing the review: it should be enough that I was impressed with their appearance!)
While the chorus was still moving, Sara Noah went to the lectern at the front of the church for the first of 7 readings of poetry or other writings, all related in some way to heaven. She had a pleasant voice and was skillful in “speaking the written word.” But even more than that, she gave her readings with dramatic flair, complete with accents and gestures. There was a point where her reading almost made her (and many of us, no doubt) cry. And her reading of part of Mark Twain’s humorous short story, “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” earned her spontaneous applause from the audience. These poems, stories and essays were charming in and of themselves, but they also were well integrated with the concert program, giving thought-provoking introductions to each section of music.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
As the concert proceeded, there were many musical pictures of heaven and in them, surely a little experience of it. There were songs that were choral adaptations of hymns, African-American spirituals, selections from major classical works, and other pieces I can’t readily characterize. It made for a diverse, ever-fresh concert experience. Then there was the singing itself. The ensemble sound was well balanced, with no protruding voices. In the past, I’ve commented on the exceptional quality of the sound of Chanteuses’ first sopranos. Tonight it was the rich sound of the second altos that came through frequently and was so appealing. For the whole chorus, there were moments of power and other moments of tenderness, sometimes in the form of a beautiful, prolonged, soft chord at the end of a piece. I have heard Chanteuses sing well, but this was different – soulful, even inspired.
The singing was often enhanced by the chorus-friendly acoustics of the Lutheran Church of the Master, with its high ceiling and brick and plaster to reflect the sound. (This is where you want to record your next CD.) But the texts of the songs were often themselves intriguing, and despite the chorus’s excellent articulation, the church’s acoustics provided a reverberation that made me strain to hear some of the lyrics – and miss some. I wish now that I had noticed the message at the bottom of the program, announcing that the complete texts and translations were online. The church remained well lit during the concert, and I wouldn’t have disturbed anyone if I had navigated to Chanteuses’ website and followed the words on my iPhone. You can do it now. The texts and translations are at this link.
If the first half of the concert was characterized by more or less traditional sounds, the second half was more venturesome. It began with the Sacramento premiere of Libby Larsen’s “A Womanly Song of God” – an interesting, listenable piece that was both energetic and energizing. With complex rhythms from the start, it began with nonsense words that eventually became discernible lyrics, eventually accompanied by stomping and clapping. It had to have been incredibly difficult to memorize.
Another highlight of the second half was the title piece, “Faire is the Heaven” by English composer, William Harris. Although this piece is apparently widely performed by mixed choruses, this was its first performance anywhere in an arrangement for a women’s chorus. Yet another example of the adventurous programming of the second half of the concert was “Lux Aeterna” by Michelle Roueché. It had contemporary harmonies with an aleatory section (where the timing and selection of words and notes are more or less at the singer’s discretion). To me, it was intelligently and accurately sung, as it evolved into more traditional harmonies to reflect the traditional text.
One more song that I especially liked was “Heaven Bound Train,” a traditional piece arranged by Stephen Hatfield. In this double-choir setting, it had all the rhythmic energy of a revival meeting. And with the help of some non-singing vocal effects, one could hear “the train.” Although much of the music was performed a cappella, Steven Johnson gave strong and confident support at the keyboard for the pieces that were accompanied by piano. And Barry Moenter did the same for the organ accompaniment to “In Paradisum” from the Duruflé Requiem.
This peek at heaven through different lenses was not all sweetness and light. However, it ended sweetly with an encore: Billy Joel’s “Lullaby.” As the applause faded, I reflected on what I had heard. The interesting, beautiful music, the commentary by Sara Noah and the adherence to a theme as universal as “heaven” made this a rich concert experience that I will long remember.
Having heard a number of Chanteuses concerts over a couple of years, it seems to me that each concert has been better than the last, and much of the credit for that improvement should go to Music Director Dr. Chris Alford, whose talents were apparent tonight, not only in his passionate conducting but in the programming of this concert. I’ve attended a lot of choral performances in the past 2 years, and I feel that the best of them craft a distinctive experience for the audience, an experience that may be moving, exhilarating, humorous or simply unique in some way. This was one of those well-crafted concerts.