Sacramento Valley Chorus
MGM Grand to Winter Wonderland - December 7, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
The Christmas show of the women’s barbershop chorus, the Sacramento Valley Chorus, was held in Sheldon High School’s Performing Arts Center on a Sunday afternoon. Like SVC’s recent shows, this one (at least the first half of the show) had a story line: they were pretending to be in a competition. Accordingly, none of the songs were about Christmas – that would come in the second half. And personally, I found the break from Christmas music refreshing.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
One of the first things that struck me about the Sacramento Valley Chorus was how precisely they moved together while singing. And the singing itself was remarkable for the flawless harmony and how well the group stayed together with subtle changes in tempo and volume. It’s obvious that these ladies are thoroughly rehearsed and committed – driven even? – to be the absolute best they can be. And as I listened to the first piece, “Once Upon a Time,” it seemed to me that it wasn’t just sung: it was shaped and crafted, displaying great range in volume and, ultimately, in emotion.
The next selection, “Red, Red Robin” felt like a competition piece to me. It was performed with great energy and with cute, elaborate choreography that had the singers moving in various formations. And these movements appeared as complex and as slickly performed as the formations of a good college marching band at a football game. It gave us in the audience a lot to look at, and when it was over, I could see that the singers were recreating the excitement of their second-place finish at their regional competition last April, complete with cheering, jumping up and down, and hugs all around.
Another cute, highly choreographed number was “It’s Raining Men,” during which they brought out life-size cutouts of 3 male strippers. The “I Gotta Feeling” medley kept up the energy, and during it, I was conscious of how visually dazzling this show was. I was sitting in the back of the large theater, and I suddenly became conscious of how the singers’ outfits sparkled. Then I was conscious of a shimmering effect on the screen set up behind them, later to display stars. They even had decorated their risers with tinsel hanging from each level, so they didn’t look like ordinary risers at all, but like some sort of glittering platform.
In this and several other numbers, I noticed a technique that’s not new to barbershop choruses, but which SVC used to great effect on this occasion. The 15 or 20 most limber members stand in the front of the risers, and they move out in various formations, even dance, so that one gets the effect of the chorus as a living organism. And Director Lynne Erickson is the heart of that organism, constantly moving – feeling – the music. She doesn’t so much direct in the sense of keeping the beat and mouthing the words: she reminds the singers what they should be feeling, because she herself is so immersed in the music. And when she turns to the audience in the crescendo at the end of a song, you realize that she’s been directing you, too. And you can’t help but share the excitement they’ve created.
Quartets are at the heart of the barbershop movement. I think most barbershoppers feel that good quartet singing is the pinnacle of the art, and the formation of quartets is encouraged in barbershop choruses. They also feature quartets at concerts, and I’ve heard some that are quite good. But I must confess that the quartets are, for me, a let-down from the intense excitement of the performance of the chorus. For that reason, I don’t have much to say about the 5 quartets or the 6-member Blue Divas that were featured in this show. I heard some solid barbershop harmonies and some good solo voices, as well as a few pieces that ventured pretty far from barbershop. I also heard good control and good balance. And I'll confess I was delighted by “Mr. Grinch” from the quartet, Quirk, which performed after intermission. If it were a quartet-only show, it would all have been good entertainment, but in comparison to the chorus, they were all just overshadowed.
When the attention returned to the full chorus for the last 3 numbers, the excitement resumed. I particularly enjoyed the ABBA medley, which was introduced by the lowering of a mirrored disco ball. As I listened to this piece, I reflected on what was really happening between the people on the stage and the people in the audience. Here’s what I wrote: “Music is all about emotion. A song works when it conveys emotion, and everything this chorus is doing is full of emotion, reflected not only in the sound but in actions planned and spontaneous – even unconscious. When all this works together, it connects to the audience in a profound way.”
All that I thought and have said about emotion was confirmed in moving speech given by Becky Garcia Grose before the last song before intermission, “The Climb.” She made us understand how profoundly the Sacramento Valley Chorus feels about their accomplishment and how dedicated they are to pursuing even higher goals. And that sentiment couldn’t have been portrayed more strongly in the music and lyrics of “The Climb” – or with the fervor with which it was performed.
After intermission, it was suddenly Christmas. The chorus had changed into holiday-themed outfits and all the music was seasonal. I have to say that for many of the songs – “O Christmas Tree,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Winter Wonderland,” in particular – they delivered the best arrangements I’ve heard this season. Then the Beach Boys “Little St. Nick” was loads of fun, and “The Man with the Bag,” turned out to be a great, new Christmas novelty number.
The post-intermission show was nice and a satisfying boost to one’s holiday spirits. But it was the first half that was great, showing the true quality of this chorus that is very much “on the rise.” It demonstrated that these ladies are not just singers: they’re entertainers – and darned good ones.