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Concert Review

Reconciliation Singers Voices of Peace (RSVP)

Journeys - November 15, 2014

by Winslow Rogers

This was my first opportunity to hear Reconciliation Singers Voices of Peace (RSVP), apart from their twenty-minute set at SacSings last June. I attended their concert Saturday, November 15 at the Granite Springs Church in Lincoln. I'm glad I allowed enough time to find this out-of-the-way location. This cycle of concerts also includes performances on November 14 in Lincoln, and November 21 and 22 at St. John's Lutheran Church in downtown Sacramento.

To me, RSVP occupies a unique niche on the Sacramento choral scene, one that they created for themselves and occupy with distinction.

First, this is an extremely talented group of sixteen singers, with a home base in jazz and a broad musical range, especially in music of spirituality and of social protest from around the world. They sang a completely memorized program, much of it a cappella, with panache. Jennifer Reason, the new Artistic Director, was a standout.

Second, they have a strong commitment to social-service nonprofits in our community, groups that are chronically under-funded. Each cycle of concerts is dedicated to one organization. RSVP singers are volunteers, the venue is donated, and there is no ticket charge, so 100% of the free-will offering goes direct to the nonprofit.

This time around their concerts benefit NextMove that started in 1972 as a homeless shelter. It has now grown to provide a wide range of services to an average of 500 homeless people per day.

The third element of their niche is a lack of egotism, in favor of respect for the music. Soloists do not project themselves as personalities but are part of the musical tapestry. At Saturday's concert the singers, dressed in simple black, were back-lit in a dimly lighted auditorium. When the house lights were brought down further, the singers were mere silhouettes. Jennifer Reason conducted unobtrusively, also appearing to be just another member of the ensemble.

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

The concert was ninety minutes long with no intermission. "Baba Yetu," the opening number, is a Swahili adaptation of the Lord's Prayer. The simple harmonies were sung with energy and spirit.

The next sequence of songs was the emotional heart of the concert, a blessing for the homeless. As I mentioned, the lights were lowered, and there was no applause until the end of the sequence. The first song was Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More," a gritty lament and plea for social justice that is in stark contrast to his more familiar songs. They followed with the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei from Henry Mollicone's Beatitude Mass for the Homeless. The sequence ended with "There Will Be Rest," Frank Tichelli's a cappella arrangement of a Sara Teasdale poem. RSVP's spot-on performance of this pellucid piece provided a benediction to what had gone before: "I shall find the crystal of peace above me. Stars I shall find." This was the end of the first half.

The Jim Martinez Trio then came out to perform a set, which provided a break for the singers. The trio consisted of Jim on piano, Alex Wright on upright bass, and Jeff Merriweather on drums. 

Martinez has a fine mainstream jazz piano style reminiscent of Oscar Peterson. He specializes in jazz renditions of hymns and other unexpected songs. He performed "Jesus Loves Me," "All The Things You Are," "Amazing Grace," and "In a Mellow Tone." "Amazing Grace" was played on top of the 5/4 rhythm of Paul Desmond's "Take Five" there's amazing grace for you! Bassist Alex Wright also contributed beautiful solos.

After their performance the Martinez trio stayed around to provide accompaniment for some of RSVP's second-half numbers.

The second half of the program was not as intense as the first half, but was just as well performed. The songs fulfilled the "Journeys" theme of the concert. In "Voice Dance" RSVP showed off their musical chops with a fine wordless ensemble sound and wonderful high notes. They produced amusing train-sound effects in the traditional "Nine Hundred Miles."

"He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," arranged by John Coates, Jr., was the ideal conclusion to the concert. Musically, but not moralistically, it brought us back around to the issue of homelessness that pulsed through the evening.

I went away impressed and inspired by this wonderful group. I like everything about Reconciliation Singers Voices of Peace except for their cumbersome name. To me it gives the misleading impression that it is a gospel group, or is affiliated with a church. If they asked me, I would recommend abandoning the long name and going forward simply as RSVP.

Winslow Rogers is a retired English professor, university administrator, and guest artist series producer. He has had a strong love of jazz since his teens, and of hip vocal groups like Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the King's Singers, and Manhattan Transfer. 

2014 Reviews