Sacramento Master Singers
Songs for a Lifetime - May 17, 2014
by Tracia Barbieri
Songs for a Lifetime: intriguing concept, and certainly a lucrative theme for a choral concert. As described in the opening comments made by members of the Sacramento Master Singers, this concert was intended to provide a ‘choral soundtrack,’ mirroring various chapters of our life experience.
This theme was christened with The Circle Game, one of several pieces on the program arranged by Ben Bram. This first piece was an accessible opening, and it became quickly apparent that the evening’s music was to be of a more popular nature. Though I certainly could have done without the static modulation (flashes of Barry Manilow come to mind), the piece was effective both in introducing the overall theme (especially when performed with such animation and joy) and in serving as a built-in encore that folded the evening in upon itself (a nice touch).
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This was just one of many pieces that showcased the Singers’ talent for crystal clear diction and the power with which a large operatic-style chorus can deliver it. In fact, I saw little need for them to print lyrics in the program, as the Singers really did all the work for the audience. Clearly director Ralph Hughes goes to great lengths to ensure the Singers accentuate crisp consonants, which takes all those texts and cuts them into easily digestible bits. Commendable dedication on the part of the conductor and singers!
However, that same aforementioned power of this chorus can also be a double-edged sword. Though I certainly applaud the refreshing change of texture offered by smaller ensembles, in this concert they were mostly hit and miss. I found the competing solo vibratos in the ladies octet For You I Sing and Whitacre’s This Marriage highly distracting, working against what was clearly intended as a tender lullaby and a heart-felt blessing on the union of two people. It was intriguing to hear a SSA arrangement of Aerosmith’s Dream On, but its individual rock singing style did not offer the same choral blend as the rest of the concert. And the varied vocal textures of We Are were quite compelling but strayed from the Singers’ normal unwavering intonation, instead creating a bit of a ‘tonal vortex.'
Perhaps it was just that that ensemble was simply too small to provide a stable tonal center, since the half-chorus rendition of Rutter’s Sing a Song of Sixpence was incredibly accurate even without a conductor, and provided a rare joy to see the singers directing their “dancing faces” at each other even while holding music folders. And perhaps the most intriguing piece on the program was the sextet Hide and Seek, which mimicked the vocoder of Imogen Heap. With tight jazz chords sung senza vibrato, the four men and two women delivered stellar intonation and intriguing tonal ambiance that brought the concert to a whole new level.
Another highlight of the program included Dolanc’s Rocking Softly, which Hughes interpreted as ‘phrase painting’ – there was no rhythmic rocking here, but instead a timeless lingering that made the most of the shimmering sopranos and subwoofer basses. Equally impressive was My Life Like a Picture Frame, where Hughes seemed to plunk notes from the choir like a stringed instrument, creating a chance for the tenors to shine over those ambient chords.
I found it confusing, however, as to why that second piece wasn’t later in the program; instead of being placed before This Marriage, it seems it would have been more appropriate in the second half, as a look back on treasured memories by the man reminiscing on the love of his wife when it was new and fresh. Though perhaps this is only a testament to this theme’s compelling nature, as I would not have found myself trying to parse any inconsistencies I saw if I weren’t emotionally involved in the story of this person’s life, and the obvious desire the Singers had to express it all to the audience.
Besides that, the overall theme was effective, though perhaps by its very nature proposed certain challenges. In tracing a person’s entire lifetime, you have a momentum in the first half as it grows through childhood and budding adulthood. Songs for a Lifetime did the same, coming to a perfect Act I closer with Uniama in Amore, the only piece on the program not in English. Accompanied by rich French horn by Chris Jones and exceptional piano accompaniment by Heidi van Regenmorter, the piece truly showcased the Singers’ signature full choral sound, alluding to the height of a person’s romantic life (after all, what can be more romantic than a Latin language?).
However, that sort of height was never to be repeated in the second half, which gave more of a sense of looking back and of life slowing down. This works against what you want in a concert experience, especially one that already runs quite long with the addition of award ceremonies like the included Asya Pleskach Scholarship for Young Choral Singers. I feel the program would have been stronger with strategic culling of several pieces in the second half; they were too similar in texture and musical motifs and even outnumbered those in the first. In short, I felt several didn’t add anything new to the program and just weighed it down.
I also feel the second half relied too heavily on the use of microphones, which were simply not necessary given the power of the voices in this ensemble. At one point, the soloist for Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water noticed feedback in his microphone and ceased using it, and the sound was a marked improvement—it was clear that he could have easily carried his own without amplification against the ensemble just by standing in front of them. Unfortunately, the chamber solo group of men then moved towards their microphones and the blaring result only muddled the natural beauty of their voices (not to mention it was mixed wayyyy too loud!).
This being said, it was definitely enjoyable to feature the men separately in the second half. The two most effective pieces were presented seamlessly (and I would have liked to hear more of that as well!): If I Sing and Father of Fathers from the Off-Broadway Review “Closer than Ever.” Arranger Clifford Shockney elected to stick to the ‘sweet spot’ of the men’s ranges, enabling the Singers to provide a rich and beautifully blended male singing tone. The sentimental texts of learning from, and later saying goodbye to, a parent and mentor also provided a meaningful emotional pinnacle to the evening, which was dedicated to Joan Tooker (1937-2014).
I also would have liked to see the program conclude with The Long Road. Though the Singers did a remarkable job tuning their unison/octave singing in The Pilgrim Song that followed (that is much harder to achieve than one would think!), emotionally I felt robbed of an introspective moment that could have been provided by lingering in silence after the other-worldly sound of The Long Road’s wood flute, tonal clusters, and crystal goblet drone. This evoked images of what lies beyond, and I longed to savor and contemplate this favorite moment of the whole evening before moving on to something else so quickly…
This brings me to my final assessment of the program as a whole. Earlier in the evening, a member of the Master Singers casually mentioned to the audience that this concert was ‘different,’ and they wanted to know what we as audience members thought of it. I can only presume that by that she meant that the repertoire consisted of more popular music than what they typically present. To that invitation to offer feedback, I say this: Though I am definitely a proponent of experimenting and creative programming, in a time when popular music can be so easily attained with an iPhone, I personally would hate to see the Sacramento Master Singers depart from the quality repertoire that has earned them such a high reputation (as it appears Chanticleer has done in recent years). Though I think great music can certainly be found in all musical genres, if this reviewer is given a vote, I’d like to see the Sacramento Master Singers focus their energies on only the highest quality pieces that allow them to continue to shine. The amazing talent of the director and singers deserve nothing less.
Tracia Barbieri is the founder and director of The Vocal Art Ensemble, an a capella adult chorus, and has been conducting choirs and teaching piano for over two decades. Shortly after graduating from UCDavis with a music degree, it was originally her desire to pursue a career as a music critic before she turned to teaching.