River City Chorale
'Tis the Season - December 5, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
Christ Community Church is a beautiful setting for a choral concert – expansive, with comfortable seating and reasonably good acoustics. When I entered, the chorus risers seemed distant from the audience, but once the concert started, I had no trouble hearing. The concert began with the 17-piece orchestra playing “Sing We Now of Christmas” as the chorus filed in, singing the piece from memory. As they continued singing on the risers, I was conscious of the good choral sound that they produced.
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It seems that the River City Chorale has a tradition of including at least a selection from a major “serious” choral work in their Christmas concert. Last year, they performed a “Magnificat” by Kevin Memley, and in 2012 it was Daniel Pinkham’s “Christmas Cantata.” This year, it was three of the seven movements of John Rutter’s “Magnificat.” These undertakings are ambitious and demonstrate the versatility and skill of the Chorale. The first movement (“Magnificat”) was lively, interesting, and melodic. If you’d never heard it before, I believe you’d find it engaging and entertaining – even festive. The second movement (“Of a Rose”) was contrasting: pensive, then stately, then peaceful. The third movement (“Gloria Patri”) returned to the lively mood of the first movement, and included a lovely solo performance by Beth Messina. My overall impression of these selections from Rutter’s “Magnificat” was that they were well-executed. Although I may have heard it before, I’m not really familiar with the piece, but listening to it being performed tonight, I felt enriched by the experience.
Next, the three Slovak carols were performed a cappella and were a delight: satisfying harmonies, good blend by the chorus, and clear articulation of the (English) words, crisply sung. Director Richard Morrissey then announced that he had written the next piece, “The Friendly Beasts.” Musically, it felt like a worthy effort, but I strained to hear the words. I appreciated those I could make out, but it would have been nice to have them in the program (and a little more light to read the program by).
After a very pleasant arrangement of “Il est né le divin enfant,” (with excellent French pronunciation – except the word “divin,” with which I take exception), the Chorale gave us a rollicking setting of “Deck the Halls” (“Fa-La-La” in the program). In this piece, the normal course of the song is interrupted by snatches of familiar classical themes: the William Tell Overture, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the Blue Danube, and the 1812 Overture. It must have been incredibly difficult for singers and instrumentalists to switch gears, but we in the audience loved it.
After intermission, the program was turned over to the Bel Tempo Handbells. As I’ve said before, a handbell choir performance makes such a nice complement to a choral performance: a totally different sound and so in keeping with the holiday spirit. The four pieces performed by the handbell choir were amplified by the church’s audio system, and that was a good thing: everyone could hear even the most subtle sounds. The pieces seemed to be of increasing difficulty and complexity and, in their diversity, each one was a fresh treat to the ear.
One of the fascinations about a handbell choir for me is that there is so much to observe. Each of the ringers is so busy, and then it is interesting to note the variations in technique that they use. I'll confess I was a bit concerned to watch Director Mary Balkow, who had to lead the group standing a couple of steps up on a stepladder. She was OK, of course, and seemed unaffected by the precariousness of her position.
In the third and fourth pieces, the choir was enhanced with first a violin, then bongos and a marimba, and in the impressive fourth piece, I found myself wondering whether this might be the pinnacle of handbell art – at least it seemed so in my limited experience, and I credit Mary Balkow's excellent work. One more thought occurred to me and enhanced my respect for the ringers and their director. In a chorus, you always have someone else singing your part: if you make a mistake, you’re covered. In a handbell choir, each ringer is a soloist – even more than a soloist, because their note(s) are critical to the chord or phrase of which they are a part. Their attention has to be perfect – and thus it seemed to me.
Next on the program was the River City Chorale’s 20-member Chamber Choir. Their first selection was by Bach, and I believe it was one of his chorales. It was an ambitious undertaking for a small choir: they produced a lovely sound, but I felt they were a little overmatched by the orchestra. The next piece, “Mary, Did You Know?” – with piano accompaniment only – was a better demonstration of their quality sound. But Chamber Choir’s final piece, “Ding-a-Ding-a-Ding,” was truly impressive. It must have been incredibly difficult to sing – and memorize – with frequent repetition of the nonsense syllables suggested by the song’s title.
The full Chorale returned for the final three pieces. First was “Betelehemu,” a Nigerian carol, which the Chorale sang in the original language of Yoruba – from memory. Director Morrissey read the English translation so we would understand the Christmas significance of the music. Then with piano and multi-percussion accompaniment, along with swaying and hand and arm movements, they gave us a lively performance that included a strong, rich solo by Dianna Cossey. From the audience’s reaction, I’d say this selection was their favorite of the whole concert.
The next piece was “Birthday Carol” by popular contemporary composer, David Willcocks. It wasn’t my favorite piece on the program, but it was certainly interesting, and must have been incredibly difficult for piano accompanist Kathy Earl and the Chorale to perform, with its extraordinarily difficult, changing rhythms. I couldn’t deduce the time signature, but I bet it changed a lot during the piece.
For what was really the first nod in the program to a traditional carol, we next heard a big, rousing arrangement of “Joy to the World,” featuring the orchestra’s brass section. And if that wasn’t enough of a joyful conclusion to the concert, the audience was invited to join the chorus in singing a trilogy of 3 Christmas favorites, in an arrangement by Morrissey. I should add that Director Richard Morrissey was a genial host throughout the evening, giving a brief introduction to each piece. Together with his programming and thorough preparation of the singers and orchestra, I admired this other talent: his having arranged two of the pieces on the program and composed a third. And while I’m acknowledging talent on display, I don’t want to overlook accompanist Kathy Earl’s excellent work and that of the players in the orchestra: to my ear they provided a perfect complement to the work of the chorus.This was one of the most diverse concerts you might expect to hear at Christmastime. The big challenge in a Christmas concert is to avoid the music everyone gets on the radio, at the mall, etc. – and still provide the familiar, satisfying sounds and texts of the season. Year after year, the River City Chorale succeeds brilliantly in this.