The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Voices of Wonder - June 7, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
The Davis Chorale occupies a special niche among area choruses as one of the few dedicated to classical and neo-classical music. And it seems to me that they tend to favor shorter works or excerpts from longer classical works — another characteristic that distinguishes them from the few other classically-oriented choruses. That was the nature of their program at this evening’s performance, and it was especially interesting in that there was a chronology to it. The seven works proceeded from the 17th century to the 21st: Schütz, Bach, Mozart, Bruckner, Rachmaninoff, and Gjeilo. As the program notes observe: “Harmonies become more lush, chords become fuller, text treatment shifts.”
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The first two pieces, Schütz’s “Psalm 110” and “Psalm 8” were performed with the chorus split in half: one semi-chorus on either side of the director’s podium, and both well in front of the risers. The purpose of this was to emphasize the antiphonal effect in the music: alternating phrases, as if having a choral conversation. This was interesting, even fun, to listen to, and I found my attention going back and forth from left to right, as if watching a tennis match from center court. From the start, though, I was treated to rich harmonies, lovely melodies, and interesting vocal lines. The only drawback was that, with the chorus far in front of the shell that surrounded the risers, their sound was not projected into the audience as well as it would be later in the program. One interesting fact about the two psalms is that a member of the Chorale created new editions of the 1850 settings of these psalms for this performance, rescuing them somewhat from the relative obscurity that they had fallen into.
Director Alison Skinner spoke to the audience before each section of the program, essentially restating the notes in the program. Before the Bach cantata, “Christ lag in Todes Banden,” though, she went beyond the printed notes to help us appreciate the piece more, and I’m glad she did. She explained that the 7-part piece was based on a chorale by Martin Luther, which Bach really elaborated on. She had the violin play the theme that would be repeated in many ways so that we might recognize it when it reappeared. (I’ll confess it was of little help to me. The theme was too complicated for my ear. Not so for someone near me in the audience who I actually heard humming the melody.) Skinner also encouraged us to follow the German text, which had been printed in the program. I was glad for this advice because in doing so I was better able to recognize and follow the musical lines of the various voice parts.
The cantata began with a lush instrumental “Sinfonia” from the 5 string players and keyboard, followed by the delightful interplay of the voice parts in the first choral section, culminating in “hallelujahs” that were unmistakably joyful. In subsequent choral sections of this cantata, aside from just appreciating the crisp singing, I was mindful of the chorus’s unified pronunciation of the German text.
In the first duet, I was impressed with the transparent technique of both soprano Carol Ann Kessler and alto Tania Mannion, and how well matched their voices were. I also appreciated the animated playing of cellist, Dan Barker. Then came Matthew Zavod’s tenor solo. I’ll confess that half the tenors I hear are mildly annoying because of idiosyncrasies of their tone, timbre or overall style. Zavod was in the good half. I appreciated his singing the more I heard it, and later, I was struck with the lovely tone in his sustained high notes in his duet with Kessler. And listening to her, I wrote in my notes that she is the kind of soprano that I could listen to all night. When we finally heard from bass Jeffrey Fields, I was relieved: I’ve heard too many baritones struggling to sing what was really a bass part. Fields displayed a rich, resonant bass voice, but tonight we only got flashes of the potential power of his instrument.
The next major work was Mozart’s “Missa Brevis in D Major K194.” I was surprised to learn that Mozart wrote 10 “Missae Breves” (if my Latin is correct). No worries about this one, because Skinner assured us that it “highlights all the good stuff in Mozart.” With that, she turned the baton over to Assistant Director, Garrett Rigsby, and took her place on the risers to sing with the chorus. Skinner was right about the “good stuff.” The range of dynamics was breathtaking, the piece was full of vocal and instrumental flourishes, and I loved the way they handled the fugues. As I listened and reflected on the singers’ perspective, I thought this piece (and really the whole program) must be wonderfully fun to sing. And that goes for the soloists, too, who gave their best in their brief parts of this “Missa Brevis.”
Rigsby, who is pursuing a degree in choral conducting at UC Davis, seemed a little uncomfortable entering the stage, but that was momentary and could have just been my imagination. As soon as he took his place, he seemed assured and in control, signaling the changes in mood and giving important cues to chorus and orchestra.
It’s hard to top Mozart, but Bruckner’s motet, “Os Justi” was clearly a highlight of this program for me. With Rigsby continuing to direct, I think what appealed to me most was the fact that the majority of the piece was performed a cappella, and I found myself really appreciating the harmonies. Very different in style from the Mozart we had just heard, the choir were moving more together at first, until the polyphony took over. Then there was a quiet section where I noticed a particularly lovely ensemble sound. I got the sense that a lot of feeling went into the performing of this piece, and there were many beautiful passages, sensitively performed.
With Rachmaninoff’s “Blazhen Muzh,” Skinner resumed directing, and the choir tackled what had to be a tremendously challenging piece. For one thing, they performed it, not just in Russian, but in Old Church Slavonic. They sang delicate passages that alternated with forceful “alleluias,” and overall it seemed to me that they captured the Russian spirit of the piece. Toward the end, I became increasingly conscious of a well-blended, well-articulated sound that made for very pleasant, even inspiring, listening.
This was the choir that introduced me to the music of contemporary, Norwegian-born composer, Ola Gjeilo. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard of his compositions in the past, and I was looking forward to this last piece, “The Ground” from Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass — and I was not disappointed. With the Davis Chorale’s excellent accompanist, Ellen Deffner, at the piano, the chorus gave a polished performance of this soul-filled music. For all its contemporary compositional elements, the piece was deliciously soothing at the beginning, eventually becoming uplifting and even energizing. There were so many elements that I couldn’t appreciate individually, and maybe that’s one hallmark of good music — it begs to be listened to again and again, studied (and performed, if you have the skill), all the while revealing new levels of subtlety and artistry.
This was yet another enjoyable concert experience for me from the Davis Chorale. It’s not that I consider classical music superior to every other form, but I think I’d go so far as to say that I see the Davis Chorale as guardians of our culture — at least in Sacramento area. They’re not the only such chorus, but the role they play is unique.