The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Give Me Music - May 17, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
This Sunday afternoon performance at Placerville's Church of the Nazarene was the second of the Cantare Chorale's two spring concerts. It also marked the end of Director Mariia Pechenova's first year as the Chorale's director. You can't deduce all of a director's influence on a chorus from a single concert, but Cantare singers are lucky to have the experienced and talented Pechenova, and from the start of this afternoon's performance, I was aware of her sensitive and precise directing.
As emcee Larry O'Shea observed later in the program, the concert began with "serious music," which O'Shea compared to the meat and vegetables of the dinner (in contrast to the dessert that was to come). Indeed, the first two pieces were hard for us in the audience to get excited about — perhaps more of a warm-up for the chorus. It wasn't until the third selection, "My Bonny Lass" that the chorus came alive with smiles and moving bodies. Though they continued to sing from scores, it appeared that many had this lively piece pretty much memorized.
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After these first three songs, emcee O'Shea addressed the audience, as he did before every subsequent selection. His comments were mostly an historical background of each piece of music. Honestly, I found this information interesting, with a lot of details I was unaware of, even concerning music I knew well. But it was O'Shea's occasional humor that made these introductions especially enjoyable.
Director Pechenova's Russian roots came out in "Kaleenka." I've heard and sung this traditional Russian folk-style piece since I was in college. And I've seen its accelerating tempo and authentic Russian style delight audiences in many parts of the world. Not surprisingly, this Placerville audience was no exception. The chorus, too, had great fun with the song. My only suggestion would be that they should have sung it in Russian. The chorus part would have been easy and only the soloist would have had a significant challenge with the Russian words. With a little more authenticity, I think the audience would have enjoyed it even more.
"Choose Something Like a Star," from Randall Thompson's Frostiana suite, got my attention from the beautiful opening high notes by the sopranos. It went on to provide more dynamic variety than the pieces that had gone before, and the chorus reached its first fortissimo — well delivered in the overall context of a very sensitive performance.
"Soon-ah Will Be Done" is another piece that I'm very familiar with. In fact, it was hard to keep myself from singing along with the bass part, and that's because the chorus performed it with such confidence and spirit. I was reminded of my high school choir director who once rebuked us in rehearsal: "If I don't see heads shaking, it means you're not committed to singing this music." Looking around this afternoon, I saw a lot of heads shaking as this piece built to a glorious final chord.
The next piece, "Shenandoah," was full of delightful surprises for me. It's another song I've heard performed dozens of times over the years — mostly in the same traditional arrangement. This arrangement though, with 4-hand accompaniment, was fresh and interesting — more complex musically and emotionally than what I've heard before. In addition, I thought I detected from Pechenova a little bit of Russian interpretation of this distinctly American piece. It made me think how enriching it is to have music from one cultural tradition interpreted by another.
At the conclusion of "Shenandoah," emcee O'Shea came to the microphone and said, "This next number is indescribable" — and he sat down. Having gotten our attention, he rose again and prepared us for, "Ti-Ri-Ri" from Chimes by Valery Gavrilin. He called it an oratorio, but on the Internet I found it described as a "symphonic choral work," and I think that must be a better description, though what we heard was only one of 13 parts of the piece. We were warned that there would be no words and that it would somehow involve "gossiping," but it was still a total surprise. Performed a cappella with a repeating phrase from the basses, it was full of strange vocal riffs from different sections and soloists. I'd say it was certainly interesting, but also wonderfully funny, seeming to emulate conversations in gibberish, punctuated by comments from individuals. Honestly, I didn't (and still don't) understand it, but I loved it, and I'm looking forward to hearing it again.
The first half of the concert ended on a more serious note with "Give Me Music." The words, from a poem called "Music at Twilight" by Richard Watson Gilder, were important enough to the chorus that they were printed on the inside front cover of the program. The rhythmically challenging piece itself was performed with great energy and spirit and careful articulation, as the chorus navigated through many moods. I paused to reflect that this might have been their best performance of the afternoon.
After an intermission that featured complimentary drinks and goodies served on the church's patio, we returned to find set-ups for more instrumentation — guitar, bass guitar and drum set — signaling that the "dessert" part of the concert was at hand. The chorus began with a mellow rendition of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." As they sang, I became aware that Pechenova was bringing to the informal repertoire the same energy, precision, and sensitivity in her directing that she had displayed in the preceding "serious" part of the concert.
Setting up "Route 66," emcee O'Shea injected a little extra fun by challenging us to identify how many states are covered by the real Route 66 and which state is not mentioned in the song. (We eventually learned it is 8 states, with Kansas the only one not part of the lyrics.) The song is a jazz standard, and though the chorus performed it with energy and style, it was accompanist Wendy Payton who captured most of my attention. I was pretty much awed by her versatility. I'd call her a credible jazz pianist, and to me, her performance was just stunning.
Next came another one of my special favorites in this concert: "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." It was the most elaborate arrangement of the song I've heard, obviously great fun for the chorus, and their smiles were accompanied by lots of animal sounds. The whole thing was so delightful that I forgot about keeping notes, and just relaxed and enjoyed what I was hearing. Soprano Carrie Penaloza sang the key solo part, which was perfect in pitch and style. (Her humorous part in "Ti-Ri-Ri" had been a highlight of that song, as well.)
There was more fun in "Sweet Georgia Brown," from the whispered beginning to the slide whistle solo. And I could tell from the body language of director Pechenova that, though she may be from St. Petersburg, she had an authentic feel for this thoroughly American song.
I felt transported right back to the 1940s with the lyrics and arrangement of "Java Jive." The chorus performed it a cappella with a gentle rock tempo that was full of style. "Style" was the word that came to mind again when I heard them perform the sweet arrangement of "Georgia on My Mind." The soloists certainly had the easy manner that the song demands, and it was pleasant listing right up to and including the song's sophisticated surprise ending.
Last on the program was Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing." Once again, accompanying by Wendy Payton was a highlight. It was a great arrangement by Mac Huff, but it was well performed by the chorus that was clearly having a finger-snapping good time. Meanwhile, Pechenova, was directing every nuance and leaving nothing to chance. With the director, chorus and accompanist putting their hearts into it, how could the audience stay passive? I saw lots of bodies moving and toes tapping throughout the audience, which followed the end of the piece with extended, enthusiastic applause.
That wasn't the end, however. Pechenova said they had one more piece "from our hearts to yours." It was "You Raise Me Up." Sure it's not the kind of stand-up-and-cheer music one might expect for a finale. But it indeed felt like it was sung from the heart, and it brought this concert to a perfect conclusion.