Dreams and Dances - April 5, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
This was an enjoyable evening of music from one of the few Sacramento-area choruses dedicated to classical and neo-classical music. An enthusiastic audience was in attendance at Brunelle Hall, a jewel of a performance facility and a treasure for the Davis community. After a warm welcome by the audience, Director Alison Skinner got right into the first piece. I was immediately struck with her sharp, confident directing, though later in the program I noticed her exceptional fluidity. And after a brief opportunity to see her work with the chorus in rehearsal, she seems like the kind of director singers enjoy singing under.
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The first section of the program was five “Choral Dances,” from Benjamin Britten’s opera, Gloriana about the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It was all performed a cappella, and the articulation of the Chorale was such that I could make out the words of Britten's music without having to refer to the program. I made another observation early on: it occurred to me that these were disciplined singers. They were using music, but I could see all their faces. That is a testament to their self-control in not burying their faces in the music – a bad habit to which so many choral singers fall victim.
As with just about everything performed this evening, Britten’s music was delivered with sensitivity. You could feel the joy of the first section ("Time"). And the second section ("Concord"), appropriate to the name, was full of lush harmonies. Then I could tell how difficult the third section ("Time and Concord") was to sing. It was maybe a release from that tension that made the following section ("Country Girls," sung by the women only) seem especially exuberant and playful. Then it was the men's turn to cope with the difficult rhythms and wordy text of "Rustics and Fishermen," before the entire chorale sang the "Final Dance of Homage."
At the conclusion of the Britten, Skinner spoke to the audience, introducing Corigliano's setting of Dylan Thomas' "Fern Hill" as "beautiful music that has become dear to us in recent months." Then she went on to alert us to some of the musical ideas to listen for, reinforcing the poet's ideas of "life, death, and resurrection." Fundamentally, it is a story of the poet's life in microcosm, and the story-telling quality was especially well brought out in the solo section by mezzo-soprano, Tania Mannion, who sang alternately with beauty and passion, never looking down at her score. The addition of strings, harp and the piano gave additional interest to the piece, and I could see how it would be “dear” to the chorus.
The Beethoven was a change of pace to earlier compositional styles, and I enjoyed picking out the melodies and following the musical line. In this piece particularly, I noticed the delicate sound of which the tenor section was capable. Then came the Schütz, performed by a small chorus, with excellent soloists, and an ensemble that was precise, nimble, and spirited.
Having been introduced by the Davis Chorale to the work of Ola Gjeilo last year, I have since heard several of his compositions, though this was my first exposure to "Across the Vast, Eternal Sky." I'm beginning to conclude that Gjeilo really knows how to use a chorus, and this piece was full of exceptionally pleasant listening and a style of writing that holds one's attention, keeping one interested to hear what is coming next. The piece was full of wonderful recurring melodies.
The Schubert ("Der Tanz" – "The Dance" in German), delivered by animated singers, indeed felt like a dance, and it was an appropriate lead-in to the final piece, "Dreams and Dances" by Gwyneth Walker. Skinner had earlier described Walker as having produced a "hugely eclectic repertoire," and that was borne out by the drastically different three movements of this piece. I must confess that my favorite (and the audience's) was the first. It began with finger snapping and was full of playful choral effects – pure fun. The subsequent sections were more lyrical – but still evocative. In the second movement's depiction of a dreamlike state, I really felt the smoke referenced in the text. And then the third section built musically to the triumphant concluding thought: "let love be at the end." This piece was the perfect culmination to any concert – music that left you wanting more.
The concert, with no intermission, lasted only an hour, but it felt like we had heard a lot of very diverse music – and we had. I’m not a music critic: far from it. I’m just an experienced choral singer who attends a lot of choral concerts. My object is report how I experience the concert: what I saw and heard. And the side benefit of reporting on those observations is that I’m entertained and get to broaden my horizons in music appreciation. I’ve attended just two concerts of the Davis Chorale, but in both those concerts, Alison Skinner and the Davis Chorale have introduced me – expertly – to some wonderful music.