The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Magnificent Magnificats - November 15, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
Nearly every chorus gives a Christmas concert. How about an "Advent" concert? Maybe November 15th is a little early for the precise definition of "Advent" but that was the essence of this performance, highlighting as it did, the Magnificat, or text from Luke 1:46-55 in which the Virgin Mary speaks of the significance, to her and to the world, of the coming birth of Jesus. And that title, "Magnificent Magnificats" was singularly appropriate because the music I heard, especially the final work, was indeed magnificent.
The concert started with an orchestral selection that showcased the 16-piece orchestra. It was Handel's "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" from the oratorio, Solomon — energizing music, and a great way to start off any concert, especially with the friendly acoustics of Sacramento's First United Methodist Church. To my mind, oboists Curtis Kidwell (principal) and Laura Harrington turned in virtuoso performances in their solo passages.
Next came a surprise. The men of Camerata California intoned a Gregorian chant offstage. This selection was not noted in the printed program, but the surprise was a pleasant one, a sobering introduction to the text of the Magnificat that we would be hearing several more times in the course of the concert. (Checking the program, I discovered that the first movement of the Pergolesi was based on this chant.)
Camerata California is a fine, underrated chorus. I say "underrated" because this chamber choir (and orchestra) essentially performed to a "chamber audience" — far too few people for the magnificent concert we were treated to. Every Camerata California performance I've attended has left me delighted, and maybe a bit surprised by the quality of music I've been introduced to and the expertise with which it was performed.
I think we in the audience were still a bit surprised by the chant or lulled by it because when the 19-member chorus entered the stage, we failed to give them the welcoming ovation that they deserved. We did, of course, applaud the entrance of the soloists and conductor, Pete Nowlen. As they always do, the singers took their places, each standing behind a music stand. One virtue of this approach is that singers' faces are easily visible as they perform, and there is no temptation to hold music high enough to block one's view of them or fall into the trap of singing into one's music.
There had been quite a turnover in the group since I last heard them perform in February 2014. Only eleven of the twenty I heard then were singing this evening. Yet the quality of their singing was, of course, undiminished. And you can tell from their profiles in the program, how experienced each of these current choristers are.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
With everyone in place, the performers began the Pergolesi Magnificat. Is there anyone who doesn't find Baroque music soul-satisfying? That was my feeling as I listened to the wonderful energy of the this 18th-century music. Maria Bueb gave a strong incidental soprano solo in the first movement, and the other soloists (about whom I will comment individually later) gave equally solid performances in their brief solos. I can't really give an informed commentary on the structure of this or the other works in this concert. For that, the program notes are truly excellent.
The next selection in the concert, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Magnificat, was performed by the women of Camerata California, the orchestra, and contralto, Kathleen Moss — plus flautist Maguette Kuper, who delivered a fine performance. I'll confess that I wouldn't number this among my favorite compositions by Vaughan Williams. Still, I found its many musical moods and textures engaging, and Moss's solo performance was one of extraordinary power and a great sense of drama. Hers was a very demanding part, and I would say that she is easily the most talented contralto I've heard in a very long time. The piece itself is fraught with emotion, and as I watched Pete Nowlen conduct, it was clear to me that he felt that emotion and inspired the singers and players to bring it out in their performance.
After intermission and with the addition of 4 more instrumentalists (3 trumpets and a timpani), we were ready for the showpiece of the concert, Gabriel Ruiz-Bernal's Magnificat. This was to be the American premiere of the work, which was first performed on December 4, 2013 at the Teatro Lope de Vega of Seville with the Orquesta Sinfónica Hispalense, having been commissioned by the Choir of the University of Seville, Spain. Ruiz-Bernal currently holds the position of Senior Faculty at the Levine School of Music in Washington, DC, though he remains "actively connected" to his native Spain. Amazingly, Ruiz-Bernal was in tonight's audience.
The first of the eleven movements provided a lush, lovely beginning, until the grand entrance by the chorus, enhanced by the brass section. Soprano Ava DeLara's solo in this movement gave us the first taste of her rich, controlled voice. As she sang, I was impressed with her restraint as she built to a thrilling climax. Even in this first movement I was impressed by the stirring quality of the music, and I wrote in my notes, "This is a work that any classically-inclined director or chorus would want to perform."
In the second movement, I thought I could perceive the Spanish influence, with its sophisticated and rousing rhythms. Then in the third movement, tenor soloist Norman DeVol joined soprano DeLara. I should insert that DeVol is the tenor against whom I measure all others. I'm sure I was the only one in the church who has had the pleasure of knowing him for nearly 40 years. His listenable tone and control of his upper register have not faded over the years. And as the duet was proceeding, backed by the full chorus, I found myself reflecting that this oratorio would make for pleasant listening, even away from the concert hall.
Taking in the great sense of movement and excitement in the fourth movement, I was thinking that this Magnificat, with its variety of styles and fresh musical ideas, was unlike anything else I've heard. After the lovely trio in the fifth movement, the spotlight (had there been one) turned to bass Burr Phillips. His profile identified him as a bass-baritone, and no doubt he has that flexibility, but in this role Phillips performed as a true bass. His strong, versatile voice displayed no strain at either end of his register, and the drama he brought to the music had us — figuratively, if not literally — on the edge of our seats.
You can find the composer's own notes in the concert program, and I recommend them to you. For example, I wasn't sure how to interpret the unusual and pleasing sounds I was hearing in the seventh movement, but the notes describe it as a blend of "rhythmic pizzicato and legato lines." Indeed, I'm incompetent to characterize the overall style of this modern oratorio, but I can say with confidence that it was intensely engaging from beginning to end.
Phillips returned as the focal point of the eighth movement, performing masterfully as before, as the music gave him the opportunity to demonstrate his versatility and artistry. I could imagine professional vocalists competing for the opportunity to perform the bass solo in this particular movement.
The composer described the ninth movement as "sweet, ethereal," and those were the vocal qualities DeLara demonstrated in her part of it, ending on a beautiful, prolonged high note. By the tenth movement I was wondering how much of what I had been hearing could be characterized as jazz. Surely, it was an influence, at least to some degree, on Ruiz-Bernal — but just one of many threads woven into this fascinating composition. The final movement echoed the text and music of the first movement, with its range of emotions, ending in an "amen" that was truly glorious.
It took mere seconds for all of us in the audience to rise to our feet and deliver the longest standing ovation that I can recall. In this premiere, we had witnessed a major event, the debut of piece from a young composer that may well become a mainstay of the contemporary classical repertoire. For me, it was a moment of awe, as I believe it was for all the others who just could not stop applauding. But a great portion of that awe was due to the artistry of Conductor Pete Nowlen and the Camerata California Chamber Choir and Orchestra (and soloists) who delivered a magnificent performance of these "magnificent magnificats."