The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Colla Voce Chamber Singers
Celebrating a Musical Journey - May 3, 2015
by Winslow Rogers
This was my first Colla Voce concert, so I was fortunate that it happened to be their tenth anniversary concert. It gave me an overview of the work of this distinctive musical organization. The concert was held in the Pioneer Methodist Church in Auburn; the group had also performed the program in Grass Valley.
The Chamber Singers, a thirty-voice auditioned chorus, is the most visible element of Colla Voce ("follow the voice"), an arts organization headquartered in Auburn. They also sponsor a children's chorus, a non-auditioned family choir, and a musical docent program in the schools. Their stated goal is to "create life-changing opportunities for engagement in the arts." They are resolutely collaborative, intergenerational, and interdisciplinary. The concert I attended brought together voices (soloists, the chorus, and also the audience), instruments, the spoken word, and the visual arts.
The singers wear their values on their sleeves, though not in an overly sentimental or doctrinaire way. The program book contains photographs of all of the singers accompanied by their personal words about singing. Artistic Director Janine Dexter adds an essay about the value of the arts for all of us. We have all felt some of these emotions, but seeing them in print was moving to me.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The concert opened with warm-up exercises for the audience to prepare us for our sing-along part. The program provided words to the old hymn "How Can I Keep From Singing." The chorus came in and stood along the side aisles, and the song was sung partly by chorus soloists, partly by the audience, and partly by the full chorus. The arrangement got more complex as it proceeded, with lovely antiphonal effects from one side of the church to the other.
Since I have limited space, I will postpone a description of the non-musical elements of the concert to the end of this review. They were woven into the fabric of the concert, so this review can't do justice to the total effect.
The Chamber Singers is at heart an a cappella group, though they also utilized unobtrusive accompaniment by Angela Roland on piano, Vivian de la Cruz-Stanley on flute, and Leigh Dexter on percussion. The group has a light, homogeneous blend, with a strong first soprano section. At times I almost felt that Colla Voce meant "follow the sopranos."
They sang a wide variety of songs, but as a first-time listener I was more struck by the consistency of their sound than by the range of material. This speaks to the continuity of the group over its ten years. The texts and the melodies came from a variety of places, but the arrangements were all late 20th-century or early 21st, which also helped give a unified effect to the program. I'll point out striking individual performances, however, that knocked my socks off.
They made their way onto the stage after "How Can I Keep From Singing," each one singing their own snatches of melody that gradually morphed into "Simple Gifts" with Jennifer Wood as soloist.
The concert proceeded with no intermission, and included spirituals ("Wade in the Water," "My God Is a Rock"), Morton Lauridsen favorites ("Sure on this Shining Night," "Dirait-on"), and familiar old songs in new arrangements (Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" with a relaxed and pleasant solo from Timothy Smith, and Harry Belafonte's "Turn the World Around" with infectious rhythmic effects. Occasionally a singer would read the text of a song before the group sang it, a nice touch.
The pieces that blew me away were Silvestri and Whitacre's "Sleep," Curtis and Barnum's "The Sounding Sea," and Henry Mollicone's "National Weather Forecast." "Sleep" delicately conveys the experience of falling asleep, the long calm lower notes contrasting with the dissonant higher notes that convey anxious wakefulness. The two strains gradually draw together "as I surrender unto sleep," the final words of the lyric. Thrilling.
"The Sounding Sea" is a setting of George William Curtis's 19th-century poem that begins by evoking the raging waves that will still be there "when our wild hearts shall beat no more." Even so, the poet affirms that "sitting close to me/You could not hear a sweeter song." Colla Voce takes this song way over the top, the singers swaying back and forth to convey the surging waves and drawing a large white canopy over their heads that looked like a giant whitecap.
In "National Weather Forecast" the comedy was even broader. The song starts out as a straightforward weather report, but things get wilder as the piece proceeds, the singers imitating tornadoes, heavy winds and rains, and other meteorological misfortunes. Each episode ends with the reassuring fact that "California will be sunny and mild," sounding funnier each time. The singers played this line to the hilt, breaking out their sunglass and reveling in our state's allegedly perfect weather.
In another concert this might be just a novelty number, but at this concert I didn't take it that way. All three songs fit the overall theme of the concert, even the zany weather report song. "Singing is an extension of life — the highs, the lows and everything in between." Sleep, the sea, and the weather are universals that exist on the planet every day. Music can help us feel them not as isolated phenomena but as part of a shared rhythm.
The encore, the familiar "For Good," from Wicked, echoed the opening number, "How Can I Keep From Singing." I got more out of this song than ever before, especially the ironic twist in the last line.
Finally, here's a brief description of the non-musical elements that played an important part in the concert.
Joan Stockbridge told stories from two different cultures about female figures who brought beauty and love into places where they were resisted and unfamiliar but ultimately accepted.
Children from the audience came up over the course of the concert and pulled ribbons that released strips of fabric that gradually became a joyous banner by Jason and Leah Cole.
At an earlier Colla Voce concert audience members had written the names of lost loved ones on small slips of paper. At the end of this concert a beautiful collage by Deborah Toohey was revealed, in which she had joined the slips of paper together to create a flow of names that spread across the canvas like a great river. Barbara Hoffman created a third piece, a water color painting, "Celebration," as a gift in honor of Colla Voce's 10th anniversary. Like many audience members I stayed after the concert to let the beautiful images sink in.
Winslow Rogers is a former literature professor, university administrator, and guest artist series producer. He lives in Grass Valley and regrets that he has missed Colla Voce on their previous visits to the area.