The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Placer Pops Chorale
A Holiday Homecoming - December 13, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
This was the Placer Pops Chorale’s first of five concerts of this Christmas season, held at Harris Center at Folsom Lake College. I was a member of this group’s predecessor for 15 years (1996-2011), so I have a sense of how far they have come, especially during Lorin Miller’s 10 years as Artistic/Musical Director.
The concert started with a drum roll, and we got what is increasingly the signature sound of this chorus: a high-energy, fast-paced, jazz arrangement of “Deck the Hall.” It seemed like this was what the large, enthusiastic audience was expecting because this first piece generated a lot of cheers. The “Holly Jolly Christmas” continued that “signature sound.”
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
A lot of this concert – I’d say more than usual for past Placer Pops Chorale shows – was carried by small groups and soloists. Accordingly, the third selection was performed by an 11-person mixed ensemble. They introduced a new Christmas song (2013) called “Give Me Christmas,” still upbeat in style and with a cute byplay between the men and women of the group and fine solo work by Julie Cuneo.
The next song, traditionally referred to as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” but more properly titled “The Christmas Song,” slowed down the tempo without sacrificing the “pop” sound. And with the chorus providing background, Candice Asoro gave a confident, poised solo performance.
“Christmas Dreams,” another new song, also first published in 2013, was a delicate, beautiful piece that really brought out the quality choral sound produced by this group. The words, too, were fresh and inspiring. I got much of the text as the song was performed, but it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to review the full lyrics later that I perceived just what a gem this piece is. Unfortunately, lyrics are copyrighted, and you can’t even access these particular lyrics online. My advice: look for this song to be used more widely in the future and pay particular attention to the uplifting words.
Lorin Miller, as he usually does, addressed the audience every 2 or 3 songs, with his characteristic easy-going warmth. At this point, he introduced a 6-member a cappella group (4 men and 2 women – all Chorale members, including Miller himself). Their name is The Eclectics, and I understand that the group is being revived after a lapse of a number of years. They sang an updated, sophisticated version of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that generated cheers – apparently an audience favorite to this point. Then another 8-person ensemble delivered “Let It Snow,” with strong support from brass and drums.
One of the things that I admire about Lorin Miller is his programming. He always manages to produce a diverse concert, full of fresh, new music and new arrangements. The next piece, “The Hands That First Held Mary’s Child,” is another example of his up-to-date programming, with this arrangement first published in 2011. It was one more piece with moving words and an uplifting sound, especially during the 4-part harmony of a section with light accompaniment. I know that the Chorale gives great attention to diction, but with 73 singers and an orchestra in the large open space of Harris Center, lyrics are bound to be lost. I picked up a lot of the words to this song during the performance, but it wasn’t until I saw the full text afterwards that I appreciated the full emotional impact of the piece. Interestingly, this gem was apparently first introduced in 1985 as a hymn, and the full lyric is available at this link (opens in another window). Check it out, and you’ll see what I mean.
Two more solos rounded out the first half of this concert program. The first, a song called “Peace” was delivered by Miller himself. As he explained to the audience, this was the first time he’d sung a solo at one of these concerts in several years, and it’s a tradition that deserved to be revived. It was a professional, sensitively delivered performance, and to my ear, he’s lost none of the remarkable vocal quality I first heard 10 years ago. Miller is a man of faith, and with texts like “O Lord, keep me in your reach” and “In You, I find my peace,” you know that they come from the heart. Predictably, the performance earned sustained applause from the audience.
The next solo was by Lyndsay Barham, a friend of Miller’s (not a member of the Chorale) who has recently earned degrees in vocal performance and choral conducting. She displayed her pleasing voice and performance style in “Let It Go,” the wildly popular song from Disney’s animated movie, Frozen.
I should mention that this entire program was performed from memory, and maybe that is why I didn’t see many smiles from the chorus: I bet they were really focused on remembering the music and lyrics of their first performance of this challenging program. However in “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” they really seemed to loosen up and have fun.
Next came “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” In a way, this is a dangerous piece to perform because everyone knows it so well, and it can become boring with its repetitiveness. Not so with this arrangement. First, it generally dropped repeating the text after “five gold rings.” But beyond that, each verse was presented very differently, and the whole thing culminated in a grand style that was almost symphonic. Bored? Not me.
The program continued with The Eclectics returning for a funky version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” It was as “pop” as a pop version could be, with complex chords and key changes – and even beatboxing (vocal percussion). Overall, it was a sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard at a Placer Pops Chorale concert, but it was well received, and I imagine that popular styling will appear in future concerts.
A third mixed ensemble (with 11 members) came out to present “The World for Christmas,” another new (2012) song. It was introduced as a child’s perspective on Christmas. Actually, I’d say it was far more complex than that, presenting the idea that the fate of the world is fragile and ending with the lyric “Please make it last…. Give me a present for the future.” Beginning by layering on a cappella voices, the piece was presented with beautiful harmonies, good balance, and excellent articulation. To me, it was captivating.
The next two pieces were medleys. I counted, and I believe that “Sing Glad Tidings” included segments of 12 traditional Christmas carols. Throughout, there were many moments of sometimes thrilling, sometimes lulling choral sounds that demonstrated the full range of the capabilities of this chorus. At the end Miller commented “I love that arrangement,” and there were murmurs of agreement throughout the audience.
The next medley consisted of music from the movie White Christmas. I’ll confess I haven’t seen the movie since I was about 8 years old, so I was surprised how many familiar songs it launched. Each was presented in a fresh style and with a lot of personality from chorus members. It was all well done, but I wish I had a recording of Vivian Baughman’s solo of “Count Your Blessings” – it transported me back to my childhood when I first heard and learned to love that song.
After this extended nod to the more traditional songs of Christmas, the Chorale performed what is probably the most familiar Christmas carol, “Silent Night.” It was an elaborate, fully orchestrated version of that simple song, but sacrificed none of its appeal. And in contrast to the high energy of the start of this concert, it all ended on a gentle note, like an earnest Christmas wish for the happiness and peace that the season is supposed to bring. After giving the performers a well-deserved standing ovation, that “happiness and peace” was the feeling we audience members carried with us into the lobby and beyond.