The Sacramento Choral Calendar
California Music Educators Assn.-Capitol Section
Honor Choirs Concert - January 25, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
Hosting the annual performance of the CMEA-Capitol Section middle school and high school honor choirs has become a tradition for Fremont Presbyterian Church, and on this Sunday afternoon, this large church, while not quite full, probably held about 600 people in the audience. The Middle School Honor Choir numbered 76 singers, and the High School Honor Choir, 112, so I would guess that nearly all the attendees were parents and family members of the singers. It's a pity, too, because I heard some outstanding, entertaining singing that would, I think, have delighted the average person.
Schools must apply to participate in this event, and there is a per school and per student registration fee. In addition, schools are required to submit participants by quartets (SATB) for the high school choir and by trios (SAB) for the middle school choir and school choir directors are expected to be present and take an active part at rehearsals and on the day of the performance. Maybe that's why for the Capitol Section that covers Sacramento, Yolo, Amador, El Dorado and Placer Counties only 10 middle schools and 13 high schools were represented.
The singers learn (memorize) the music on their own and at their home schools, and assemble for three required rehearsals: two Thursday evenings, all day on the Saturday before the concert, plus an early Sunday afternoon warm-up before the later afternoon performance.
To start things off, the audience was briefly greeted by Cheryl Eshoff, the church's Minister of Music. She then introduced Dr. Donald Kendrick, among whose many credits are direction of the Graduate Degree Program in Choral Conducting at Sacramento State University and direction of several Sac State choirs, in addition to direction of Schola Cantorum and the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra. As if those activities weren't enough to keep a person busy, Kendrick is the organizer of this annual honor choirs event. It's difficult to tell which of his accomplishments might explain it, but his introduction was greeted with cheers of welcome from the audience.
Kendrick clearly takes a personal interest in the honor choirs, and his comments about the value of choral music in the lives of children and young people were inspirational. To emphasize the importance of their work, he asked the choir directors and school administrators in the audience to stand for recognition. He also demonstrated a fellow professional's respect by giving extensive background information (and personal appreciation) for the conductors and accompanists for both choirs.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
I was immediately impressed with the Middle School Honor Choir and its conductor, Susan Tevis, and accompanist, David Lee. Honestly, I didn't know what to expect from 6th, 7th and 8th-graders, and I was surprised at what they accomplished. The first two pieces were in Latin (remember, sung from memory), and the kids produced a very pleasant choral sound. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising since this was a very selective group, committed to this performance. But this was not merely a performing experience for these children; it is clear that they learned a great deal in the preparation, particularly from their very accomplished director.
The first two pieces were performed with piano and then piano and flute accompaniment. The third piece, "Hey, For the Dancing," was sung a cappella. It's a piece I've sung myself (in Hungarian, under the title, "Dana-Dana") and remembering how difficult it was to learn the tricky rhythms at such a fast tempo, I was surprised to hear how well it was performed by these middle schoolers. It was a significant challenge, even in English.
The fourth piece, "Flying Free," was delightfully melodic, especially with the addition of Elaine Werksy's flute, and I dare say it would have made pleasant listening for any audience. The finale, "Praise His Holy Name," was a toe-tapping, gospel extravaganza, with tambourine and other percussion added to the piano, and hand-clapping from the singers as it built to a conclusion. I caught a glimpse of Kendrick smiling in approval from the side aisle, and the audience erupted in cheers when the piece concluded.
Kendrick and CMEA Capitol Section Board President, Brad North (of Woodcreek High School) gave the traditional bouquets to conductor and accompanist, and then Kendrick announced "45 seconds for photos," during which time everyone on the stage stood still and held their smiles. This whole concert was tightly organized and obviously planned to last no more than an hour (which it did). (This was all repeated later for the High School Honor Choir.)
While the middle school kids had been dressed fairly informally, some showing evidence of their school's choral uniform, the high schoolers looked really impressive: boys mostly in tuxedos or dark suits, girls in long dresses mostly black. Once they were in position on the risers at the front of the church, Kendrick introduced conductor, John Sorber and accompanist, Catherine Fagiolo. As before, he recounted their accomplishments at some length.
As might be expected, the program for the high school honor choir was more challenging than that of the middle school choir. The first piece, sung in Latin, demonstrated what was for me a surprisingly rich sound with refined technique. Watching Sorber work, I could see that he is an inspirational leader and that he had worked intently with these students to bring out the subtleties and artistry in this composition. A good director like the two I saw today will take their singers to a place they'd never been and that perhaps they couldn't even have imagined.
The second piece (by Mendelssohn) was in the original German, and I got the sense that it stretched the singers to master the pronunciation of the words, especially important because it was sung a cappella. Besides that, the piece was long, and memorizing all that German was, to my mind, an heroic feat for these kids. And for those of us in the audience, both original and English words were printed in our programs a convenience I've noticed in all the concerts in which Donald Kendrick has a hand.
The difficulty of the first two songs did not let up with the third, "Son de Camaguey" (the third and fourth pieces were switched from the order in the program). However, I could see the singers relax somewhat and move with the rhythms of this Cuban folk song, again performed a cappella in Spanish.
The next piece, "The Nightingale," was an ambitious one, with 4-hand piano and violin accompaniment (by Paolo Reyes). This was an American folk song that, despite a fairly banal text, I found quite moving. I think that was true for the singers, too. Throughout their performance, I heard good voices producing a good choral sound, but there was something special about the sound they produced in this piece a difference that was even reflected in their faces.
The final piece was the rousing, "Ain't Got Time to Die." This is another song that I have experienced performing. It's always been an audience-pleaser, and I knew that would be true this time, too. But what made it special was the outstanding male soloist (whose name I didn't catch). When the fourth verse came to a close, people in the audience were immediately on their feet, cheering. Soon the chorus, too, was applauding in a release of enthusiasm for their obviously inspirational conductor.
This is an event that could easily slip under the public radar, with the assumption that it would primarily be of interest only to family members. But I heard a lot of excellent singing that would, I believe, delight any audience. Think about attending next years performance of the CMEA-SC Honor Choirs. I, for one, hope to be there.