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Concert Review

Placer Pops Chorale

City Lights - May 4, 2014

by Dick Frantzreb

Placer Pops Chorale, with 72 singers and a 12-piece orchestra, is capable of a big sound in any venue, especially the intimate space of Sierra College’s Dietrich Theatre, and a big, attention-getting sound is what they presented when they opened with “New York, New York.”  The idea behind “City Lights” was to feature music about a number of cities, and the second number in the program stayed in New York with a “West Side Story” medley that offered many delights.  One of my favorites was the trio of ladies singing “[I Like to Be in] America” – and Noreen Barnett, Hannah Barnett (mother and daughter), and Dena Kouremetis.  Each had a strong voice with a good accent and Puerto Rican flair.  Those elements, plus props and costume accents set the standard for so many strong, expressive solos and small-group pieces that were to follow.  Another example was Joyce Scolnick's beautiful solo in “Somewhere,” with its lush choral backing.

(Click here to open the program in a new window.)

I should mention at this point that, as is their recent practice, the great majority of the music in this concert was sung from memory.  It was also interesting to note that for the first time chairs were  provided for the chorus so they could sit during solo and small ensemble numbers.  I think it’s a great idea:  how can one sing one’s best if fatigue sets in from having to stand too long?  Another innovation was the freer use of costumes and props, along with stage decorations and some lighting effects.  But especially noticeable were the sparkling new blue tops worn by the women.  All of this, plus the large number of performers on stage, created a lot of visual interest throughout the concert.

The Chorale is able to sing with great power and drama, but none of that was needed for “Lights,” a piece I had never heard before, and which was dramatically different from anything I’ve heard the Placer Pops Chorale perform.  It featured a pulse-pounding pop sound with lighting effects.  Not surprisingly, the chorus could not stand still as they sang.  Even allowing for different musical tastes, I’d venture to say it is the kind of piece you would like from first hearing – and the enthusiastic audience of all ages seemed to agree.

After “Lights” was the first of 5 or 6 times when Director Lorin Miller addressed the audience, acknowledging the soloists and giving a bit of background to each piece of music.  His easy manor and ready humor made it appear that he was talking to old friends – and in a sense, he was.  It certainly made the concert a more pleasant, personal experience.

Next, the 16-member Ladies Ensemble performed “The Boy from New York City,” and it was, for me, one of the highlights of the concert.  With the personality and good voices they all displayed, especially the soloists, I was completely wowed by the number.  My notes had comments like:  “They can rock!!” and “When did he turn these people loose?”  The implication of that last comment is that a doo-wop number, done so well, was something I had never seen the Placer Pops Chorale do before – at least not that I can remember.  It was stand up and cheer music, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

The next piece, “The Seal Lullaby” was a composition of great beauty by contemporary favorite, Eric Whitacre.  Although I couldn’t make out the words, I’m sure they were as beautiful as the music I was hearing.  “The Sound of Silence” continued the string of winning songs, presented in a stunning new arrangement.

This is now the second concert of the Placer Pops Chorale that has taken the ensemble to a new level of creative repertoire and sheer quality of entertainment.  In my notes I wrote “PPC Unleashed,” and given my long experience of the group, that’s really what it felt like.  Good singing has to be a given, but to my mind it is programming that really distinguishes a chorus, and Lorin Miller clearly is expert at programming.  The bottom line is that the PPC excels in their genre – in fact, I’m not sure there is any other chorus in that genre – and they are a community treasure.

The first half of the program ended with a medley of songs from the musical, “Chicago.”  Personally, I find that show’s music marginally tuneful and listenable, but the chorus worked hard and really managed to “sell” the medley with noticeably good diction.

That old Monty Python slogan “And now for something completely different” could characterize each succeeding selection in this concert.  And after intermission “One Short Day” from Wicked felt to me like something completely different from everything that had gone before.  And if you love Wicked (as I do) you would love this arrangement and the way it was performed.

The next number “The Mad Hatter” from Wonderland was delivered with great flair by Noël Shusted, an irrepressible actress.  She was playing her part even during the choral sections when she was not singing, and I’m sure she had a few of the old guys in the audience checking their pacemakers.

The long medley from The Light in the Piazza is one this chorus has sung before, and it’s a favorite of Miller’s, which he described as "fantastic" and a "cross between classical and Broadway."  It’s a quirky story, and if you don’t know the plot, some of the lyrics don’t quite make sense.  Miller explained the plot after the medley was performed, and I think people would have appreciated having that explanation beforehand.  Hearing the music again (after performing it years ago), I still had trouble latching onto the melodies in most of the selections.  To me, this is music that is hard to like on first hearing – unlike so many other parts of this concert.  But then, maybe I'm just betraying my own shortcomings in understanding the unique way it was composed.

Although the printed program doesn't make it clear, the next 3 pieces were sung by the women of the chorus.  "Nella Fantasia" is one of the two pieces for which there were notes in the program, and its note included the lyrics.  And the performances by both soloist, Joyce Scolnick, and women's chorus did justice to a beautiful piece of music with a beautiful sentiment.  The magic continued with the short and pretty "La Luna" and with Brian Holmes' "Pie Jesu," a setting of that text that I had never heard before, but which was delightful, thanks to the lovely tone and blend of the women and the solo horn accompaniment.

I had another personal disappointment in the next piece, "April in Paris."  I can't fault the performance of it, but it was a jazz version that seemed to me to be over-arranged to the point of taking away the pleasure of the familiarity of the music.  But then, that's jazz, isn't it?  Clearly, this concert had something for everyone, so it's no surprise that, except for those with the broadest musical taste, someone like me would find a couple of pieces not to his liking.

My enthusiasm was revived with the next piece, an arrangement of "Tuxedo Junction" by Kirby Shaw that I've taken great pleasure in singing in the past.  The 18-member mixed ensemble obviously loved singing it, as well.  It was apparently a favorite with the audience, too, because they greeted it with murmurs of anticipation when it was announced.

Cities were left far behind with the performance of "Home on the Range," and it was a real surprise to see this old familiar piece on the program.  But the simple arrangement and gorgeous harmonies created such a soothing choral sound as to transport me – and I'll bet all of us – to happier, simpler times.

"America the Beautiful" provided an inspirational, moving conclusion to this wide-ranging concert.  It began with a simple piano accompaniment, and I noticed the patriotic combination of the red light on the screen behind the chorus that was complemented by the women's blue tops.  Never losing the quality choral sound, the singers and instrumentalists built to a big ending that got a lot of people applauding on their feet and and that evoked an involuntary "Bravo" from the man sitting next to me.  Earlier, he confided that he has been attending the concerts of the Placer Pops Chorale and its predecessor Sierra Community Chorus for more than 15 years.  After hearing what he heard this afternoon, there's no question that he and his wife will be back.

2014 Reviews