Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra
Stained Glass Concert - October 25, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
Last Saturday night marked the beginning of the 19th season of the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra. The large Fremont Presbyterian Church was already nearly full when I arrived 20 minutes before the start of the performance. Although the highlight of the concert was to be Handel’s “Dettingen Te Deum,” the performance began with organ music: Maurice Duruflé’s “Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain.”
In his introduction to the concert, SCSO Board President James McCormick explained that this piece is so difficult to play that few organists will attempt it. Thus it was an appropriate challenge for SCSO’s resident accompanist, Dr. Ryan Enright. It’s often the mark of a true expert that they make whatever they do look easy. And Enright’s calm demeanor made his performance look easy. His fingers moved deftly, and there were no grand gestures. Yet as he got into the piece it seemed impossibly complex – not just the rapid succession of notes, but moving among the 4 manuals and managing the foot pedals and volume control. At several points, I saw his right hand spanning two manuals to play notes simultaneously on each – something I’ve never seen before.
The piece itself had a rich variety of musical ideas, and I found it interesting and engaging, clearly the work of a modern composer. The music was now intricate, now peaceful and contemplative, now grand – all building to dramatic conclusion. I didn’t time it, but it must have lasted 12 or 14 minutes. And there was no printed score. To me it was a feat of memory that matched Enright’s artistry.
The choral part of the concert began with the chorus performing two Gregorian chants, each followed by a motet based on it. (Click here to open the program book in a new window. Of special interest are the well-researched program notes by James McCormick, starting on page 5.) As the applause for Enright slowly died down, the 160-member chorus quietly surrounded the audience. Then with Dr. Donald Kendrick directing from the church’s center aisle, there were 3 notes on a gong, then an introduction on the organ, after which the chorus filled the room with a pure, balanced sound as it performed the “Ave Regina Caelorum” chant. There were 3 more notes from the gong, and then the choral sound blossomed into the wonderful, rich Renaissance harmonies of the Di Lasso motet.
The “Adoro Te Devote” chant was similarly presented, and I found myself especially impressed with the Caracciolo motet that followed. I had never heard anything by this contemporary composer, and the recurring theme, picked up in different ways by each voice part, was absolutely beautiful, especially the a cappella section toward the end of the piece. What’s more, the piece was performed with exquisite sensitivity.
During the organ interlude between each of these four pieces, succeeding parts of the chorus moved to the risers at the front of the church, until they were all assembled – an impressive sight filling the front of the large church. As they moved, I reflected on what a pleasure it must have been for these singers to perform with the accompaniment of this magnificent organ.
Until all the singers were in place, Kendrick stayed at his position in the aisle, giving me the opportunity to observe his directing – something I enjoy doing when he’s close enough to make this possible. He is always a picture of intensity, eyes wide open to capture the singers’ attention, forceful gestures as if to pull the music out of them, and mouth open, as if he were singing along (or reminding them to keep their mouths open – something which the vast majority of this chorus do more consistently than other choruses I have observed). But while directing, he is always dignified, focused, and self-confident – never relaxed, but, as I’ve said, a picture of intensity. The movements of the chorus during these four pieces were carefully staged, and amounted almost to a procession or ritual, accentuated by Kendrick’s demeanor. Whether you understood the words or not, the music and procession made it all feel like a religious experience.
There was no intermission, and the instrumentalists next took their chairs and warmed up. In what was to follow, trumpeters John Leggett, Dan McCrossen, and Chuck Bond, oboists Kathy Conner and Cindy Behmer, with Matthew Darling on Baroque timpani provided an air of elegance and authenticity to the forthcoming Baroque masterpiece. Mezzo Soprano Karlie Saenz, dressed in a dazzling blue gown, also assumed her position on the stage. With all in readiness, Kendrick gave the downbeat for the “Dettingen Te Deum.” Written to commemorate the British victory over the French at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, this is clearly an heroic piece. To me (and perhaps to most), it’s easily recognizable as Handel’s work. As I listened, though, I marveled how each section could have such a distinctive sound (melody, style, etc.). The 40-minute composition felt like a concert in itself, full of great variety. I spoke with some of the singers afterwards who told me how much they enjoyed performing the piece; listening was equally enjoyable.
There seemed to be less emphasis on solo parts than in other works by Handel (the Messiah, for example). The mezzo solos were a small part of the piece, and that was just as well. My heart went out to Karlie Saenz because she produced a lovely sound, but was completely overmatched by the chorus and instruments. I learned afterwards that they had tried to cast a counter tenor for part (who would have cut through competing sounds), but were unable to do so.
Baritone John Martin, whose part was lengthier, was much easier to hear, and he produced a pleasant sound, well articulated during the many long and intricate phrases. My first impression was of a light voice, but toward the end of the piece he displayed significant power, leading me to conclude that he is obviously an accomplished, versatile singer.
As for the chorus, I was conscious of their energy, displayed in sharp attacks and crisp phrases. This was all the more impressive because about 10 minutes into the piece, I and those around me were conscious that the room had become far too warm. That must have been even more noticeable to those on the stage, and their unflagging energy was therefore nothing short of heroic. At one point, I noticed the exceptionally pure sound of the tenor section. That made me listen more intently to the other sections for a while, and none suffered by comparison. Also noteworthy was the chorus’s articulation. It was nice to have the text in the program (and enough light to read it), but knowing the words made it even more apparent how much attention was being paid by the individual singers to make themselves understood.
I was so glad to be introduced to the “Dettingen Te Deum” in such a fine performance. The lady sitting next to me had never heard SCSO perform before. In our brief conversation, I gathered that she had recently moved here from the Bay Area. At the conclusion of the concert she told me how surprised she was at what she heard – and greatly impressed – as well she should be. It was a triumphant beginning to the SCSO’s new season.