The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Cantare Chorale of the Sierra Foothills
Celebrate the Wonders - January 4, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
With Christmas 2014 in the rear view mirror, I was attending a concert of Christmas music 10 days after the holiday. How would I feel about it? I was delighted! It was Christmas again, only this time without the anxiety of uncompleted shopping, preparation for guests, and all the other stressors of the "big day." And I think others felt as I did because the Placerville Church of the Nazarene was filled to overflowing with an enthusiastic audience. They actually had to bring in extra chairs to accommodate everyone.
The sanctuary of the church said "It's still Christmastime" from the moment we entered. There was a large Christmas tree in the corner of the room, a display with smaller trees and make-believe snow to the right of where the chorus would perform, garlands and wreaths around the room, and a screen over the altar displaying a looped video that would play throughout the concert, showing a snow-covered evergreen branch moved by a gentle breeze.
The church's Worship Pastor, Vicki Reese, gave us a warm welcome while we waited for Cantare Chorale to enter. As they filed in, we could see that this mixed chorus has just 14 singers at the moment, but for all that, I was soon to find that they had a pleasing, unified sound that filled the room without individual voices standing out. Furthermore, I think it's safe to say that they are on an upswing because they have an accomplished new director, Mariia Pechenova, and as the concert proceeded, I think we all felt the energy that she is bringing to the group.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
From the moment they started singing "Joy to the World," it seemed to me that Cantare's singing was very disciplined. And as they proceeded to the rather difficult madrigal, "In These Delightful Pleasant Groves," I was impressed with their articulation of passages that emulated laughter. In fact, the articulation of the chorus was so good that I don't believe I missed any of the lyrics throughout the concert.
Each song was introduced by chorus husband, Larry O'Shea, who commented on the song to come, often giving background on the music or the composer or sharing insights into the chorus itself. He had a magnificent speaking voice and acted as a genial host who was both entertaining and informative.
There were many touching moments during the afternoon. The first was the singing of "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace" (often referred to as the "Prayer of Saint Francis"), which was dedicated to "those who have lost someone in the past year." It was during this piece that I was particularly attentive to Director Pechenova. Young as she is, she has impressive credentials from her native St. Petersburg, and I was constantly aware of the precision, expressiveness and confidence of her directing. The chorus's attention to her was nothing short of rapt.
With the next piece, "Alleluia Fugue" by J.S. Bach, arranged by J. North, I realized that this concert seemed to have more challenging material than I remember from previous Cantare Chorale concerts. That was confirmed by the smiles of the chorus when they successfully completed this difficult piece. Accompanist Wendy Payton deserves a lot of credit, too. Although many of the selections in this program were performed a cappella, Payton's confident, accurate playing was a highlight of both this piece and "The Sleigh" that ended the first half.
With "The Sleigh" (think of the 1944 cartoon with Woody Woodpecker on skis) and many other parts of this program, I got the feeling that the singers were being asked to do things they have never done before. Certainly, I was impressed by the delicate, nimble singing in "Ding Dong Merrily on High," but during the afternoon I also heard sweet sounds (as in "Merry Christmas Past") and humor (as in "A Song of Santa" toward the end of the program). The concert was very diverse and demanding, and I felt that the singers brought it off so well due to the confidence instilled by Pechenova.
After an intermission, there were some pleasant surprises. One was a lovely, contemporary arrangement of "Silent Night," with the arranger, Shelley Rink, present in the audience so we could applaud her work. Then I particularly enjoyed the "contemporary madrigal" called "Throw Open Your Shutters!" I found it exuberant, joyful and ultimately charming.
The sweetest moment of the concert for me was in the gentle, traditional arrangement of "I'll Be Home for Christmas," that was accompanied by guitar, bass, percussion and piano. As it was performed, I could hear humming from the very elderly lady sitting next to me (and she was in tune). From her age, I wouldn't be surprised if she first heard this piece in 1943 as a 20- or 30-something, perhaps with a husband or sweetheart off fighting in WWII.
"A Song of Santa" was introduced as "almost every Santa song ever written." It was a lively, happy medley during which the singers really loosened up and had fun. I bet nearly everyone in the audience was smiling throughout — I certainly was. You can see all the songs included in the medley from the attached "quiz." (Click here to view it.) This was distributed to the audience during intermission, and my big disappointment was that in going over the answers, emcee Larry O'Shea didn't ask how people did. You can see I got only two wrong, and I might have won!
As much as "A Song of Santa" was a demonstration of the versatility of chorus and director, the following arrangement of "The First Noel" was a demonstration of their competence. It had a lovely, gentle start, building to a big climax, with a lot of complexity and interest along the way. Noticing the director in particular during this piece, I wrote in my notes, "She really knows what she's doing."
With the audience's enthusiastic reaction to what seemed like it might be the end of the concert, we were treated to an encore — the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah. In moments after its start, the audience was on its feet, honoring the centuries-old tradition, some singing along. As it concluded, there was not only applause but cheers for a first concert by a new director and a late Christmas present for an enthusiastic audience.