Sierra Master Chorale & Orchestra
Spring Concert - May 15, 2014
by Winslow Rogers
I was intrigued by the unusual program announced for the spring concert of the Sierra Master Chorale and Orchestra in Nevada County. There was a Rossini overture, ceremonial Baroque music, austere Baltic and Norwegian a cappella works, a jolly Mozart opera aria, and more. Imaginative programming is one of the hallmarks of the Sierra Master Chorale, and for this concert director Ken Hardin outdid himself.
A varied musical palette supported these ventures. In addition to the finely-honed 70-voice chorus, a chamber orchestra is now an integral part of the organization. Bass soloist Gary Aldrich added his beautiful voice. Assistant conductor Toon Vandevorst replaced Hardin on the podium for two numbers and also accompanied at the harpsichord.
Sierra Master Chorale concerts are held in the Grass Valley Seventh-Day Adventist Church's comfortable and acoustically fine sanctuary. There is a social hall nearby where singers mingle with audience members during intermission over coffee and goodies. As usual, this program was performed twice, on a weekday evening and again the following Sunday afternoon. I was at the Thursday evening performance. There were more empty seats than I would like to have seen, but their Sunday concerts usually sell out.
The two threads I found running through the concert were songs of praise and rejoicing, and musical quirkiness.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The first number was one of the quirky ones. Rossini's overture to Il Signor Bruschino was the only instrumental work on the program. In this overture the second violins periodically tap their knuckles on their instruments and their heels on the floor to provide rhythmic accents. This was an amusing effect, quite adventurous for 1813.
The choir entered to Handel's magnificent anthem, Zadok the Priest, composed for the coronation of King George II. During the instrumental opening the singers walked in from the rear and along the sides until they were arrayed around the audience on three sides. The sound of the glorious anthem ("God Save the King! Long Live the King!") resounded through the hall. Then there was an instrumental interlude long enough to give the singers time to get up to their places on stage. They sang the great chorus again, and having the sound come straight out from the stage gave a beautiful contrast. The overall effect was nothing less than awe-inspiring.
Gary Aldrich had solos in three places scattered throughout the program. He has a long and impressive resume, and is affiliated with the voice department of the University of Nevada-Reno. His first appearance was in two bass arias from Bach's St. John Passion. No. 48 (Eilt ihr eingefocht'nen Seelen) is mostly a solo, with the chorus providing occasional accent chords. In No. 60 (Mein Teurer Heiland) the instrumental background is reduced to a harpsichord and cello continuo. The piece was very moving. The soloist implores Christ on the cross to give him confidence in his resurrection; after he receives Christ's assurance the choir sings a simple chorale setting behind his song of thanksgiving.
Ola Gjeilo is a Norwegian-born composer who is becoming increasingly well-known and appreciated as a choral composer. The concert included two of his a cappella pieces, Prelude and Northern Lights. The Sierra Master Chorale is masterful in a cappella works. The Prelude continued the thread of praise and rejoicing in the concert, though it was understated, in subdued colors, sung against a sustained ground note.
Northern Lights was a stunning, difficult piece that celebrated the "terrible beauty" of the northern lights, yet with serenity, with a text from the Song of Solomon. Here's another quirky connection — Solomon was the biblical king actually crowned by Zadok the Priest. OK, I'm probably stretching it.
We then doubled back to another Baroque piece of praise and rejoicing. Hasse's Laudate Coeli Dominum is reminiscent of Handel, a lively piece for bass, chorus, and orchestra in three parts (fast-slow-fast). Gary Aldrich provided a powerful lead and the choral support was sensitive and effective.
The first two numbers after intermission were conducted by assistant conductor Toon Vandevorst. The first was Arvo Pärt's a cappella piece Which was the Son of…, a setting of the biblical passage that repetitiously traces Christ's genealogy from Joseph back more than seventy generations to God. The conductor noted that this odd piece is not to everyone's taste, and it did not win me over on first hearing. It is very difficult to sing, and some of the exposed entrances for individual parts were fuzzy and uneven.
The Mendelssohn Dona Nobis Pacem that followed was a pure delight. With Handel, Bach, and Hasse in my ears, I could hear how much Mendelssohn loved Bach and the Baroque era, and how well he absorbed it into his nineteenth-century idiom. It is a gentle piece that begins with a canon by the low instruments, joined by the tenors and basses. Then the piece opens up like a flower as the women's voices and the higher instruments join in. The piece rises to a gentle climax and then dies away. Vandevorst clearly loves this music, and he led with sensitivity and conviction. The blend of voices and instruments was rich and beautiful.
Ken Hardin and Gary Aldrich returned to the stage for a Mozart opera aria for bass and orchestra. Aldrich took off the gloves and came out as a great opera singer, with flamboyant gestures and mannerisms. They were appropriate for a bragging aria in which the singer boasts that he is the greatest lover "from Vienna to Canada." He got a well-deserved ovation.
The announced program ended with the lush and beautiful Pavane by Fauré in its choral setting. Ken Hardin told us that the choral version — with lyrics by a relative of Fauré's benefactor — was more-or-less forced on the composer. I had never paid attention to the lyrics, which turn out to consist of light banter, gossip, and insults traded among the dancers as they perform the graceful pavane. The piece was performed beautifully, and Hardin's having directed our attention to the silly lyrics added another quirky twist to the program.
For an encore, the choir walked off the stage and again took their positions around the audience for a reprise of Zadok the Priest. It was an abrupt change from the shimmering delicacy of the Pavane, but a rousing conclusion to the concert.
After the concert I realized that the balance between chorus and orchestra had not once been an issue for me. The singers sang with clear diction and balanced sound, and the accompaniment was always in proportion.
As someone who enjoys coming early to a concert to read the program notes, I was grateful for the excellent no-nonsense program book, complete with translations (except for the Mozart aria). Clear and detailed program books are another hallmark of this group.
You don't have to come up to Grass Valley to hear the Sierra Master Chorale. They will perform highlights from this concert at SacSings, on the Saturday evening June 14 Stage 1 program: Handel's Zadok the Priest, the two a cappella Ola Gjeilo pieces, Mendelssohn's Dona Nobis Pacem, and the Fauré Pavane. You won't be disappointed. (Information at www.sacsings.org.)
Winslow Rogers is a retired university professor and administrator living in Grass Valley. Full disclosure: Win sang briefly in the Sierra Master Chorale several years ago, has friends in the current group, and sings with a few of them in another local chorus.