Sacramento Master Singers
Mass2 - March 16, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
This was the second of two performances by Sacramento Master Singers of their concert titled, “Mass2.” (The idea is that they would present two full masses.) I've never attended one of their concerts for which the house wasn’t nearly full. And this afternoon’s concert was very nearly a sell-out. Of course, the First United Methodist Church isn't a particularly large venue, but there's no question this chorus has a large, dedicated following – and with good reason.
Maybe that's why this loyal audience applauded the entering chorus until the last person was in place on the risers. I've seen this often with European audiences, but rarely here. And the same courtesy was extended when the chorus returned from intermission. In both cases, the clapping was punctuated by cheers for conductor Ralph Hughes when he entered.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
Frank Martin's Messe is an unusual piece. For one thing, as the program explains, this a cappella mass was for him such a personal expression of faith that he couldn’t bear to have it performed until 40 years after it was written. It began with a delicate weaving of the upper parts until the more forceful bass entry. Throughout the first movement, I was struck with how expressive and intense the chorus could be – and how controlled they were through the abundance of legato passages. The second movement was more exuberant, and the joy the singers found in it was evident from their faces. As I listened, it struck me that this distinctly 20th century music was easily as accessible and appealing as the 19th century (and earlier) masses with which I'm (somewhat) more familiar.
The Sacramento Master Singers are a finely tuned and balanced instrument. More than that, as I scanned the risers, it seemed to me that these people really enjoyed singing this piece, perhaps because it constantly presented new challenges to which they enjoyed rising. Whatever the motivation, positive energy like that results not only in a quality sound, but in an energy that connects with an audience at a profound level.
As the third movement began, I was conscious of the fact that each movement had a distinctive sound, rich with interesting musical ideas. It seemed to me, too, that each movement showcased a voice part, and whenever that happened it was clear that there were no weak sections in this chorus. One observation that kept recurring to me is the extraordinary dynamic control that this chorus displays, clearly a priority of Hughes' directing. I don't know where I've heard longer or more controlled crescendos and diminuendos. And the delicate trailing off of sound at the end of so many pieces was truly impressive.
Bookended by two masses, the middle of this concert was devoted to music that couldn't be more different in style: 8 spirituals and hymns. As this middle section began, the women left the risers and Hughes explained that Justin Vaughn, who had been a student and sung with SMS for 4 years, would be leaving. As a going-away gesture, Hughes was about to "give him the keys to the Rolls Royce" and have him direct the men of the chorus in "Abide with Me." It was a lovely, sensitive arrangement, with some creative and interesting touches, and Vaughn, predictably, did well.
Next, the women traded places with the men, and performed "Go Where I Send Thee" under the direction of assistant conductor, Tina Harris. This was the first piece in the program to be accompanied by Heidi Van Regenmoreter’s masterful playing. And with her help, it really rocked. It's hard to imagine happier music, and the women performed the difficult, lyric-heavy arrangement from memory with great energy, accentuated by a bit of hand clapping.
The men joined the women on stage for "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?" another piece full of energy, with occasional finger snapping, hand clapping, and even foot stomping. At times it felt like a revival meeting, but the precision of the singing never wavered. My only disappointment with the piece was that I felt that the soloists (who performed very well) should have had microphones.
The first half of the concert closed with Moses Hogan's familiar arrangement of "Elijah Rock." The chorus pulled off the complex rhythms, entrances and exits beautifully in delivering this always stirring piece. Of course, it was Hughes thoughtful, precise and highly sensitive directing of this Rolls Royce of a chorus that made all this work so perfectly to the delight of me and my fellow audience members.
The first selection after intermission was "I Will Lift Mine Eyes," and I noticed that both it and "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?" had been arranged by Jake Runestad (http://jakerunestad.com). He's a 28-year-old composer with a remarkable talent. I had never heard his work before, but I'm sure I will hear more of it in the future.
“I Will Lift Mine Eyes” was sung a cappella, and it was simply lovely. It was followed by the energetic “Ain’t Got Time to Die” which seemed to be an audience favorite, with soulful solo work by Ian Tillman. Then the women took over with a rousing version of “Set Down, Servant” accompanied by both Heidi Van Regenmorter and Ralph Hughes at the piano. My high school (and college) choirs performed this piece decades ago, and it was nice to hear an updated arrangement.
Changing places with the women on the risers, the men closed out the spirituals section of the concert with Moses Hogan’s fun arrangement of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” including what seemed like a conversation between sections of the chorus. There were only 24 men performing, but they sounded like a group twice the size, and at that, their pianissimos were even more impressive than their fortissimos.
Before proceeding to the final work in the program, Hughes paused to pay tribute to Walter Kerfoot, who had an extensive career as a choral director in Sacramento and who was a member of the American River College faculty from 1961 until his retirement in 1991. This tribute was extensive and included a summary of the highlights of Kerfoot’s career, a poem about Kerfoot (written by his mother) which Hughes read in its entirety, and the reading of a resolution honoring Kerfoot, which was passed by the California State Assembly (and which had been nicely framed). The most compelling part of all this was that the 87-year-old Kerfoot was present with his wife.
The culmination of the concert was the area premier of Ola Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass. A year ago, I had never heard of Norwegian-born, 36-year-old Gjeilo (http://olagjeilo.com). But I have been profoundly impressed by the music of his that I have heard, and it seems that he is about to become as much a favorite of choral directors as Lauridsen was 10 years ago and Eric Whitacre has been in recent years.
The text and structure of the piece is the ordinary of the mass, sung in Latin. But the sections are given different names: The Spheres (Kyrie), Sunrise (Gloria), The City (Credo), and Identity & The Ground (Sanctus & Benedictus). I must admit that I was enthralled by this piece from the very beginning. “The Spheres” seemed like a soundscape or wash of choral sounds. It was transcendent and felt like it was full of light, though “Sunrise” had not yet begun. When that section did begin, I felt the rising of the sun, and at the same time, I began to experience this piece as a profoundly religious experience: contemplative, moving, and inspiring. But I was in for much more. In fact, the variety of musical forms in just this second section was remarkable, and by the time the chorus was singing “laudamus te,” it felt more like the “Hoe-down” in Aaron Copland’s Rodeo Suite. (Remember “Beef: it’s what’s for dinner”?) Then there were more quiet parts that were so delicately performed that I didn’t dare stir in my seat for fear that the pew would creak and break the mood for those around me.
The third movement was indeed evocative of the energy and vitality of the city. Then in the final movement, when the chorus and orchestra got to the “Pleni sunt” section, I felt simply caressed by both the composer and the singers. And “dona nobis pacem” was beautiful enough to bring tears to one’s eyes (as I thought I later saw with several audience members).
I think that GJeilo’s Sunrise Mass has to be a major discovery for anyone who appreciates serious choral music. In fact, I can’t imagine a more engaging, pleasant-listening setting of the mass. The whole thing was stunning, and when they offer it on CD, I advise you to buy it.
Of course what made it all work was the profound artistry of director, orchestra and chorus. I think the best thing I can say about this part of the concert is that I wasn’t conscious of technique; I was completely immersed in discovering, through the performers' efforts, a wonderful new composition. This chorus has great range, and it was displayed time and again in this afternoon's concert.
At the end of a concert or other performance, there is usually this question in an audience member’s mind: did they earn a standing ovation? This afternoon there was not a shred of doubt. Standing ovation – sure. But also cheers and involuntary exclamations like the “wonderful” I heard from the woman seated near me. It was more than a concert; it was an experience.