Sacramento Master Singers
Songs for a Lifetime - May 17, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
The theme of "Songs for a Lifetime" was the "circle of life," the range of human experience from birth to death, and I found the concert full of honest sentiment. In fact for me, it was an experience more than a concert, an invitation to reflect on one's life – its meaning, its trials, but especially its joys.
The joys of this evening began with a beautiful a cappella arrangement of Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game." I was instantly taken with the blend of the ensemble and the articulation that defeated the consonant-killing reverberation of the First United Methodist Church. The song had a gentle folk feel, and I noticed that the singers' open scores rose and fell like the waves of the sea as they sang. I remember thinking how their sound seemed at the same time highly controlled and highly expressive.
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Throughout this program many of the songs were performed by small ensembles: (1) eight women delivered a comforting folk sound in "For You I Sing," which (for me) evoked the idea of a mother singing to her small children. (2) A 13-voice mixed ensemble performed "We Are," which felt like a European folk tune. (3) An 18-voice mixed ensemble delivered John Rutter's "Sing a Song of Sixpence," in a complex arrangement typical of Rutter and very far from a simple nursery rhyme, but delivered with great intensity and animation. (4) A 10-voice mixed ensemble with an exquisite blend gave us Eric Whitacre's "This Marriage" – a piece that could be performed at any wedding, and which, thanks to their interpretation, is now one of my favorite Whitacre compositions. (5) An 8-voice women's ensemble that sang "On the Wings of Grace," a delicate canon that was comforting enough to carry one to the next world, which was the thought expressed in the lyrics.
Of all these small-ensemble pieces, the most compelling for me was "Hide and Seek," a contemporary, somewhat confusing piece that, according to the program notes, expressed the composer's childhood memories of her parents' separation. It was performed by 4 men and 2 women (all on microphones), and their cohesion was simply arresting. The arrangement was full of unusual pop music devices, but the singers' crafted sound grabbed my attention, as I focused on their refined technique that amounted to musical modern "art" – in the best sense of that word.
Throughout the concert, much as I enjoyed the work of the smaller ensembles, I relished the return to the full, rich sound of the complete group. One such moment was the fresh setting of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 in “There Is a Season.” I’m beginning to recognize that dynamic control is a key characteristic of the Sacramento Master Singers. It’s at the heart of expressive singing and conveying the emotional content of a piece of music. I began to notice and appreciate more consciously the arcs in each musical phrase they sang.
Let me pause here to observe that there is more to the Sacramento Master Singers (SMS) than refined performance of interesting choral works. There is something else at work here, a recognition that performing gains extra meaning when it accepts the fact that it is part of something larger and more significant: a community of diverse values and pursuits in which individuals work to achieve significant goals. That sounds abstract, but I think I've witnessed in every SMS concert, a heart-felt recognition of individuals who have striven to make their mark or make a difference in the lives of others. On this occasion, it was the dedication of the concert to Joan Tooker (1937-2014) who was honored for her community involvement and many years of volunteer work for SMS. Another evidence of this chorus's larger purpose was the introduction of 4 high school and college winners of the Asya Pleskach Scholarship for Young Choral Singers. The oldest of these, Justin Pratt, was given the opportunity to perform a Schumann composition that demonstrated his fine tenor voice.
Another "larger purpose" in SMS concerts is Ralph Hughes' impulse to take advantage of local talent. An example of this was “Rocking Softly (on Mother’s Knee)” by Davis resident, Christina Brice Dolanc. The program notes explained that she composed the piece while expecting a child, and it appears that the lyrics were penned by a sister-in-law. The music, though full of sentiment, presented many challenging moments for the singers, and my overall impression was that it was sensitively and artfully sung. Furthermore, as I listened, it struck me that it was a sophisticated composition worth consideration by any mixed choir in America (or beyond). The composer was present at the performance, and it was nice to be able to acknowledge her effort before and after the performance of the piece.
Another example of the use of local talent was the jazzy arrangement of “I Get a Kick Out of You” by Matt Falker and performed by the women of the chorus. It seemed a bit out of character for SMS (complete with scat solos) until I read that Falker is currently a guest clinician. Ultimately it was proof of SMS’s versatility, and the women’s ensemble, directed energetically and confidently by Assistant Director Tina Harris, really seemed to enjoy performing the piece. I wasn’t buying, but to be honest, they really sold it – and a lot of the audience really seemed to like it. And there was more to the music than I imagined. Fortunately, I happened to be sitting next to a friend (with a teenage daughter) who pointed out that there was a section in the arrangement that was an echo of a song by the singer, Pink. I didn’t have a clue, but it was a clever device to appeal to a different generation.
At one point an announcer said, “This concert is a little different for us, and we’d like to know what you think of it.” One way in which the concert was different was in the repertoire – most of it completely unfamiliar to me. I imagine Ralph Hughes as spending half his productive time exploring new music – and that research yielded many fresh delights in this program. One such was “My Little Picture Frame.” It was a mood-inducing piece, with a women’s part that was repetitive, fine solos by Kelsey Smith and Matt Wihl and an interesting obbligato part for the women – all performed a cappella. I found it very enjoyable.
Another unexpected delight was “Uniamo in Amore,” the only selection performed in a foreign language (with a translation in the program). It came just before the intermission and to that point it was the only piece that I would describe as “dramatic.” To me, it was full of Mediterranean passion in the composer’s expression of love for his wife. It built to the biggest forte in the program and earned enthusiastic applause and even cheers from the audience.
“100 Years” was another number that was surely “a little different” for SMS. Perhaps more than any other song, this one embodied the preoccupations of people in the different stages of life. With a piano and bass accompaniment, it was full of syncopation from beginning to end, and I thought this group, that does so much serious music so competently, was successful in delivering the pop style of this piece.
“Fix You” is a Coldplay song, but the way it was performed made it seem like it was written for a chorus: such a pleasant, lulling sound. It seemed to me that the singers really embraced the music, as they did with so much of the contemporary selections in this program. I should add that, if my memory serves, about half of the songs in this concert were performed reading from the music. The trend now, of course, is for choruses to perform from memory as much as possible, but as I listened to this piece, I found myself thinking that this group loses nothing when performing from open musical scores.
“Fix You” was followed by Tina Harris directing the women in “Dream On.” This was an edgy arrangement of a song by Aerosmith, which was nevertheless a toe-tapper and which the youngest members of the audience seemed to embrace the most enthusiastically. The thought that came to me during this piece was that SMS maintains its edge of quality by trying new things and stretching themselves.
The next selection, “Slow Me Down,” was one of four premieres in this concert, at least it was the first performance of this commissioned arrangement for women, penned by Ben Bram. I’m glad they took the trouble: I found it arranged and performed beautifully. Another Ben Bram arrangement followed with the men of the chorus singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It packed a lot more energy and intricacy than Simon & Garfunkel’s original, and it was easily handled by a men’s section much larger than is typical for our area’s mixed choruses. Two highlights of the piece were a section performed by a men’s quartet and a solo by Andrew Smith that featured his pleasant, pure tone.
There were so many touching, soul-filled songs in this concert, but one more that deserves special mention is “If I Sing,” arranged by Clifford Shockney (who was in the audience). It was from an off-Broadway musical revue you never heard of (Closer Than Ever) and was performed by the men of the chorus with great attention to the thought behind the words: a man’s appreciation of his father’s influence on his life. It seemed to me that Hughes was particularly intense in directing this piece, and the men who performed it were heroic: I couldn’t have sung it without choking up. It was followed by another selection (“Father of Fathers”) from the same show, quite different in style but still moving. I marveled that a men’s chorus could capture so well the feeling of these songs: you could see it on their faces, as well as hear it in the sound they produced.
Another emotional high in this concert was “Long Road” (from the same Latvian composer, Ērik Ĕsenvalds, as “My Little Picture Frame). The words, by Latvian poet, Pauline Bārda, express marital love and the shortness of life: “To love, our lifetime was so short.” Accompanied by recorder and glass harps, this music and these words would move anyone with a heart, and I noticed many people around me carefully following the text in their programs. This was all performed a cappella and included a wordless section of ebbing and flowing sounds. Music-making like this is a vehicle for the most profound emotions. To produce it requires more than technique; it requires life experience and empathy.
With no break, the chorus proceeded to perform “Pilgrim Song,” an early American hymn tune with new commissioned lyrics by Pat Pagendarm. Fundamentally, the updated song is about love, the love of life’s joys. And as I thought about it, I realized that “love” was the common denominator of most of the music on this program, a common denominator of lyrics and the spirit of the music, and a common denominator of the spirit in which the music was performed.
The concert ended with a repetition of the first piece, “The Circle Game,” and with familiarity came more pleasure in the song. In fact the whole concert was a pleasant experience. I remember thinking that there seemed to be a comforting gentleness to so much of the music. Hours later, I was home and getting ready for bed, and I found myself humming “The Circle Game.” They had not only given me 2 hours of pure pleasure, but some music to take with me.