Colla Voce Chamber Singers
America Sings - May 9, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
The feeling I get from every concert of the Colla Voce Chamber Singers is that it is a carefully crafted, multidimensional experience – and never the same, never formulaic. And that was abundantly true of this evening's performance of "America Sings." The venue itself was new (to me, at least), St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Auburn, a large, church with a squared, or rather diamond-shaped floor plan, contemporary styling, and comfortable seating that I'd guess could accommodate about 400 people. In fact, the audience on this occasion was the largest I've seen at a Colla Voce concert, not quite filling the available seating.
Before the concert began, Artistic Director Janine Dexter addressed the audience (as she always does), warming their voices up for the sing-along that would be part of the program, asking them to hold their applause until the conclusion of the sixth piece in the program ("Alleluia"), telling them what they may do during that piece (explained in detail below), and inviting them to dance in the aisles when we came to the part of the program when the chorus would sing "As Time Goes By" – an unusual preliminary briefing to say the least.
This diverse and creative choral concert began with something besides choral music, a performance on a Native American flute by Marion Cole. Outfitted completely in traditional dress and beginning to play at the back of the darkened church, he proceeded slowly down the main aisle of the church to the front, the solo flute setting a tranquil mood, accompanied by the subtle effect of wind chimes. The singers built on that mood, performing "Yanaway Heyona" in the native language – from memory! With each voice part positioned in a different corner of the church, the sopranos began (accompanied by flute) with a intensely pure sound that built into echoes of the principal phrase, almost like a fugue. Soon the tenors joined from the opposite corner of the church, followed by altos and basses, each part overlaid on the others. Eventually, each section but the sopranos proceeded to the front of the church, then down the center aisle to the back of the church, singing or chanting an aleatory (independent timing and words for each singer) part of the piece that ended, after they had assembled at the back, in a whispering section that sounded like moving water or rain. It was nothing short of a stunning musical experience, and it got me thinking that there are many more artistic things to do with a chorus than to have them sing from risers.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Without a break and still performing from the back of the church, the chorus proceeded to “Hard Times,” a beautiful, rich arrangement of a song by Stephen Foster, that was full of interesting musical ideas. And the interesting ideas weren’t only in the music but in the thought-provoking text. The spell woven with these initial pieces continued with “Simple Gifts,” toward the end of which the chorus moved down the aisles to the risers. As they moved, their singing was once more in an aleatory format as individual singers repeated phrases from “Simple Gifts,” according to their own timing and using a variety of melodies.
All of this built to a performance of the showcase piece of the concert, “Borrowed Time.” The text was a poem by Brennan Toohey, a Viet Nam veteran, and the poem (which you can find in the program) expresses gratitude for having survived combat, as well as a measure of survivor’s guilt. The music to which it was set was commissioned by Colla Voce and premiered in this concert series, with both poet and composer in the audience. And as so often happens at Colla Voce concerts, there was representation of another medium besides music. On display in the aisle of the church was a flower arrangement inspired by the poem, created by floral artist, Charlene Schmitt.
The poem itself was extraordinarily compelling, and the music was equally so. Especially in the beginning it was full of challenging chords and note progressions, with an elaborate, interesting piano accompaniment. It contained many moods – frenetic, reverential, confused – expressing a veteran’s troubled psyche. Yet the music was ultimately not only listenable, but powerful enough to match the emotional impact of the poem. Toward the end, an offstage voice read what was for me the most moving part of the poem, “If it is true a coward dies a thousand deaths/ And a brave man but once,/ Then why do these brave men die again and again in my dreams?” The piece concluded with a trumpet part followed by measured piano chords that seemed to imitate the tolling of a bell or the chiming of a clock.
This was the moment at which people were free to accept Dexter's invitation given at the start of the concert. Some two dozen audience members moved to any of three locations in the church where they could light a candle to memorialize family and friends who had fallen in the service of their country: military, police or fire. They also wrote their heroes' names on scraps of parchment which, we had been told earlier, would be used by Brennan Toohey's wife, Deborah, in a future work of art. During this time, the Chamber Singers sang Randall Thompson’s very appropriate “Alleluia” from memory. From memory is significant because “alleluia” is the only lyric in that complex piece. I don't recall the exact timing, but at some point veterans in the audience were asked to stand and be recognized for their service.
With the audience emotionally drained, we were roused with the lively spiritual “Somebody’s Knockin’ at Your Door." As I listened, it seemed to me that the chorus was full of "the spirit," eventually clapping rhythmically. Then Dexter turned to the audience to get them clapping, different sections in different rhythms – and it seemed to me that people weren’t the least bit shy about participating. It all felt like a catharsis, considering the emotional peak to which the concert had previously built. As the energy began to wind down, Elizabeth Gillogly delivered a strong, soulful soprano solo before the piece receded to end on a tranquil note.
But then, as if to keep the audience constantly off-balance and unable to anticipate what’s next, the singers donned cowboy hats and pioneer women bonnets as they performed the folk song, “Kansas Boys,” acting out the lyrics. I began to see that in this “America Sings” concert there was to be a representation of many, many kinds of American songs. And when you set out to provide “something for everyone,” it’s a good bet that everyone will find something they don’t like. I’ll confess that was true for me with the presentation of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” It was performed by 13 of the (mostly) younger members of the Colla Voce Chamber Singers with dance moves, zombie imitations, solos on a hand-held mic, and lots of percussion. I noted that many of the singers seemed to be of an age to have been exposed to this 1982 piece as children or teenagers. For them, it really must have been a trip down memory lane, and they really got into the performance. But I didn't "get into it," and found myself anxiously looking to see what would be next.
The variety in format and style continued with “Hard Trials Will Soon Be Over,” a gospel song performed with good, lively harmony by a men’s quartet. They were followed the Colla Voce Children’s Chorus. This was the first time I had heard this group, formed only last year. First, I was surprised by the size of the chorus: 67 children representing 5 sub-groups. Next, I was surprised by the quality of their sound: a nice unison and darn good part singing. Finally, I was surprised at their musicianship. All three of their pieces were sung from memory (one in an Indian tongue), and they handled some very challenging sections with energy and accuracy.
With the Children’s Chorus still in position, it was time for the audience sing-along, 4 pieces of traditional Americana for which a lot of us didn’t really need to consult the words that were in the program. This sing-along warmed us up for the next phase of the program: the debut of the Family Choir, a group of 16 people of widely different ages, with several members of 5 families. The idea behind this new chorus is to get people singing – and singing together – regardless of ability, in a low stress environment. The Family Choir joined the Children’s Chorus to perform the eminently appropriate, “If You Can Walk You Can Dance” (which also included the lyric, “If you can talk, you can sing”). Actually, it didn't seem to me to be a very easy number, but it was enjoyed by all, with people swaying to the music – until the chaotic ending when they all pretended to be arguing with each other, reconciling at the final chord. The whole thing elicited cheers from the audience.
The Colla Voce Chamber Singers returned to center stage for the final 4 pieces listed in the program. The mellow “As Time Goes By” inspired at least 15 couples to get up from their seats and dance in the aisles. It was charming. Then there was a jazzy version of “All of Me” and a fast and intense rendering of the spiritual “The Battle of Jericho.” I’ve sung and heard this arrangement over many years (not at the incredibly fast tempo that I witnessed tonight), and the audience just ate it up. The finale was “Sacramento Sis Joe,” which included echoes of Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races,” in a complex arrangement that was accompanied by 4 female dancers in pigtails, bandannas, t-shirts, and jeans performing what almost looked like a cheerleading stunt routine.
For an encore, the chorus circled the audience and sang “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya.” The lyrics' reference to the dust bowl migrations of the 1930s was emphasized by a costumed actress who went around dusting off the singers. When the music and applause stopped, the singers remained in the aisles to interact with the departing audience members. It was a nice final touch to a concert full of humor and heart.