Voices of California
A Holiday Celebration! - December 6, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
With the memory of last year’s Christmas show by the Voices of California still fresh in my mind, I was looking forward to this year’s offering. The festive, holiday spirit began as soon as I entered Stage One of the Harris Center at Folsom Lake College. There was a pianist (unnamed in the program) playing – beautifully, I might add – Christmas favorites. The buzz in the theater was noticeably louder than I’ve heard on other occasions at the Harris Center. Not only was it a sell-out crowd, but it felt like everyone knew each other: there were lots of conversations among friends and families. Eventually, the pianist was joined by a drummer and the audience began to acknowledge them with applause, though the talking never ceased.
When it was time for the show to start, the roughly 80 men of the Voices of California entered quietly, surrounding the main part of the audience. With their charismatic director, Gabe Caretto, leading them from the center of the theater, they began singing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” the first verse in unison, then breaking into harmony with their characteristically beautiful, crafted tone. Still singing, they moved to the stage (not the risers yet), greeting each other as they arrived. I have to pause and comment on this gesture of greeting. I have experienced it before in a choral setting, and it works magic. You can’t greet another without a smile, and a smile does something, not only to the quality of one’s singing, but to the emotional connection with the audience. (These are real people, not singing stiffs!) The person-to-person interactions continued, and the effect of this simple, familiar Christmas song grew as the arrangement became more intricate until it reached a powerful ending. As happens so often with a quality barbershop chorus – and I’ve seen VoCal do this time and again – that last chord builds in intensity – really blooms – until the audience can’t stand it anymore and breaks into applause.
As in all the VoCal shows that I’ve seen, this one was tied together by a skit. Santa Clause (Jim Dyer) is depressed by the materialism of the season, gives up, and takes a nap. The Spirit of Christmas (Michael Rankins) tries everything he can think of to rouse Santa, and that involves cleverly introducing each succeeding number or performing group. I must say that this time, the script was genuinely funny throughout, and Rankins was especially effective making it work.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
“Jingle Bells” was the second number, but before it started, a young boy – no more than about 5 years old – came out to join the men in their formation. He was dressed in a dark suit just like them and sang with them – just another member of the chorus! This is the only thing that could draw attention away from the 12 or 13-year-old boy (son of one of the members) who I’ve seen singing with VoCal for the past 3 years. No special attention was drawn to these boys, and that’s the most remarkable thing about it.
After a “Jingle Bells/Sleigh Ride” medley, the chorus performed the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick.” Through both of them, I was asking myself why the audience was loving this performance so much (as demonstrated by sustained applause and roars of approval after each piece). For one thing, it’s happy music. But VoCal takes it up several more notches. When these men start singing, they just come alive. Each one is bit of an actor, but it doesn’t feel like an act. There’s not a guy who doesn’t exude energy and enthusiasm, and it’s just infectious. I think these men must live longer than the average. All that positive spirit has to be healthy.
For several years now, these Christmas concerts of the Voices of California have been showcases for other performing groups, organized by VoCal's own impresario, Morris Schlesinger. And much as one might like to hear more of VoCal, it makes for a rich concert experience. The first guest performing group was the very accomplished Sacramento Children’s Chorus. Actually, this organization has 5 different choruses, and the one we saw has to be their most advanced. They were, I would guess, all middle-school-aged children – 39 of them – and they produced a trained, cultured, controlled sound – all from memory. The repertoire isn’t published in VoCal programs, and Director Lynn Stevens announced each piece, but it was hard to get the details down (writing in the dark). To the best of my recollection, their music was (1) a chant written by Sacramento choral luminary, Donald Kendrick, (2) a piece that emphasized the story of Elizabeth (cousin of Jesus), (3) John Rutter’s “The Colors of Christmas,” (4) three songs from the movie, Frozen, including “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and (5) a piece called “Christmas Morning.” They were appropriately sedate in the first piece, then began to come alive in the second. As their set continued, I was struck with how well they were performing difficult, sophisticated music. In part of the music from Frozen, they were singing in Norwegian with challenging rhythms and meters – again all from memory. By the time they got to “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” we saw a completely transformed group of kids, interacting with each other, bubbling over with personality, all the while performing essentially difficult music confidently, accurately, and expressively. By “Christmas Morning” they were young actors, full of energy, but highly disciplined. Predictably, the audience loved them (and the influence of Director Lynn Stevens that was so evident in this performance).
Next on the program was the men’s quartet, Artistic License (Jason Dyer, Rich Brunner, Todd Kidder and VoCal Director, Gabe Caretto). They are strong competitors in the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Competition (placing 13th this past July), and their showmanship and vocal quality are simply outstanding. At this show they performed: (1) “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” (2) “We Three Kings,” (3) “Joseph’s Lullaby,” and (4) a medley of Santa Clause songs. As they finished their first song, you could tell from the roar of approval from the audience that Artistic License had given them what they came for: solid, exhilarating barbershop harmonies. The majority of the audience were, no doubt, barbershoppers who know when they’re getting the best of barbershop quartet singing.
The next “act” was something that none of us would have expected from a choral-themed show: the Camellia City Flute Choir. This “choir” of 20 performers, plus director, had instruments that I, for one, had never seen before. Eventually, we were introduced to the components of the choir: the piccolo, the C flute, the alto flute, the bass flute, and the contrabass flute – the two examples of the latter standing taller than either of the people playing them. But there was much more to this performance than novelty. The range of sounds produced by these instruments gave a complete orchestral effect, and I think we all found it very satisfying. I believe the program was as follows: (1) Bach’s “Sinfonia” from Cantata No. 29, (2) Pietro Yon’s “Gesu Bambino,” (3) the overture from “The Nutcracker,” (4) Saint-Saëns’ “Benedictus” (I believe from his Oratorio de Noël, and (5) the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The multi-part harmony from these delicate yet rich-sounding instruments, especially when playing familiar music, could hardly have been more satisfying. Beyond that, this is clearly a very accomplished musical organization, whose genuine virtuosity was on display. By the end of their segment, I was determined to find the opportunity to hear them again.
After intermission we were treated to another outstanding barbershop group, the women of the Sacramento Valley Chorus. To my knowledge, these two choruses have not performed together, at least not in recent years, and seeing them on the same program was quite a treat. In the Sacramento Valley Chorus, with their own charismatic Director, Lynne Erickson, I heard the same refined tone, the same satisfying harmonies, the same high energy that characterizes the Voices of California. They began with the rousing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” and I could hear that award-winning blend. Then came “O Christmas Tree,” more subdued, but no sag in singing quality – and the articulation was amazing. Next was “Winter Wonderland” and a cute song I heard for the first time, “The Man with the Bag.” Then for a total change of pace, we got “Hawaiian Santa.” With the chorus silent, a recording of this song was played – by the Brothers Cazimero, I believe – while three women danced the hula, one of whom was a member of the chorus. To my way of thinking, it was a nice bit of spice to add to the set of music. After their rest, the chorus gave an animated presentation of “Jingle Bell Rock,” with a bit of choreography that made me write in my notes, “These ladies are really having a lot of fun.” The Sacramento Valley Chorus then closed their part of the show with a heartfelt version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
The Voices of California came back and gave us a version of “The Little Drummer Boy” that seemed to whip the audience into a frenzy. Then the skit, which had introduced each guest performing group, got a new character: Hanukkah Harry (Robert Lenoil), complete with Brooklyn accent and a ridiculous hat topped with a menorah. Although it was generally a nice bit of levity, I happened to be sitting in front of a group of people from Sacramento’s Congregation Beth Shalom, and I heard a sotto voce comment that this bit of farce was overdone. However, it did set up a Hanukkah song, which the chorus performed with their characteristic gusto. This was followed with a more subdued performance of “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”). Then, joined by Artistic License, conga drums and other percussion, the chorus really loosened up with the calypso song, “Ring de Bells.” When this party ended – and it really looked like a party – VoCal performed a beautiful arrangement of “Believe” (from the movie, The Polar Express). It was so well done, so full of heart, that it felt like they really made us “believe.”
That appeared to be the end of the show, because the curtain closed and the characters of the skit gave what seemed like their final lines. There was also enthusiastic applause, with people on their feet. But the curtain opened again to display all the performing groups on stage together, except the Sacramento Valley Chorus. The finale began with the Sacramento Children’s Chorus singing “Silent Night” in German, while the ladies of SVC entered the theater and surrounded the audience. Next VoCal sang a verse of “Silent Night” in English. Then Artistic License sang a verse in their own creative arrangement. Then the Sacramento Valley Chorus (and many of us in the audience) contributed another verse, all culminating in a verse by the Camellia City Flute Choir. The effect was spellbinding, and as we exited the theater, I think all of us present felt we had experienced something very special.