The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Doreen Irwin Singers
Memorial Day Carnegie Hall Concert - May 17, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
This group was formed for a special event: an appearance at Carnegie Hall on this coming Memorial Day. There's more to it than that, though. The heart of this special event will be the opportunity to perform (along with 5 other choirs) John Rutter's Requiem — directed by the composer himself in what is expected to be his last appearance at Carnegie Hall. There's even more. With the success Doreen Irwin's Sac City College choir had at Carnegie Hall in 2012, this chorus was invited to perform its own "pre-concert" for the Carnegie Hall audience, in advance of the Rutter piece. All of this, plus the personal draw of Doreen Irwin and her 37 years of choral directing brought this impressive group of singers together.
This second of two concerts on succeeding nights was essentially a warm-up for their performance at Carnegie Hall a week later, and the program would be identical: Rutter's Requiem, and the 5 pieces that would constitute their "pre-concert." Unfortunately though, this evening started with a problem. The Requiem was to be the first part of the concert, but the oboist (a key part of the orchestration) discovered that his instrument would not work properly. He had to secure another oboe, and he hadn't arrived when tonight's concert was scheduled to start. Doreen Irwin spoke to the audience, informing us of all this, and explaining that she had decided to perform the first two pieces of their “pre-concert” set of 5 songs. The last 3 were so lively that the Rutter might seem anti-climactic.
As the singers filed in, I couldn’t help noticing that this was a younger chorus than many I’ve observed — but still decidedly mature. Many choruses are heavy on retirees; in this one middle-aged people and even those a bit younger were very much in evidence. Perhaps the Carnegie Hall adventure had drawn younger singers. I think, too, that many were former students of Irwin’s.
Once in place, before they started singing, everyone put their music folders on the floor. Those were for the Rutter; the “pre-concert” program had all been memorized. As soon as they began “Stars I Shall Find,” I was struck with the rich sound they produced, and the tenor section was especially impressive. When Irwin was recruiting for the Carnegie Hall appearance, she made it clear that she was looking for “good singers” — and she apparently got them. When they got into the louder sections of the piece it was clear that they had a big enough sound for Carnegie Hall — almost too big for this church.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The program offered this explanation of “For the Sake of Our Children”:
"This piece is intended to bring forth an awareness of the tribulations in the world and its effects on our children. It is a call to human kind to become ambassadors who uphold peace around the world. Our song is dedicated to all children and their families who face calamity on a continual basis.”
Before proceeding, Irwin introduced the violist, Rima Haidary (also a member of the chorus), noting that her mother, Jeanne (also a singer) has family at risk in Syria. With that comment having gotten our attention, the music began with a beautiful tenor solo by Quin Smith, then a gentle exposition by the chorus that turned edgy, almost like a protest, eventually building to a remarkably powerful climax. I got enough of the words to be moved by them; surely there were tears in the audience when the chorus delivered the final lyrics: “O God save the children, Shelter them with your loving arms, May your angels guard and protect them, we pray.” Along with the excellence of the chorus in this piece, the viola and piano accompaniment (the latter by Dan Pool) were also a highlight for me.
At this point, oboist Curtis Kidwell appeared, and the chorus prepared for the major work of the evening. I’m sure I’ve heard Rutter’s Requiem before — probably more than once — but I don’t own a recording, so my delight with the Requiem was that of a first-time listener. I quickly found that one doesn’t have to be familiar with this piece to enjoy it. I was immediately struck with the beautiful melodies and the unified sound that the women made when they were singing in unison. Throughout the first of the seven movements, I was constantly aware of the great range of this chorus. I don’t think it was just my imagination when it seemed like each singer was a disciplined musician. (In fact at the end of the concert, director Irwin noted that “there are a lot of soloists in this group.”) I found myself thinking of the thousands of choral music lovers out there who should have attended this performance. Those who were there were certainly impressed. We weren’t supposed to applaud until the end of the piece, but at the end of the second movement (“Out of the Deep”), there was a whispered “Wow” near me that echoed what we were all thinking after listening to an exquisite decrescendo.
There were so many highlights: the great cello solo at the beginning of the second movement, the excellence of soprano soloist, Candis Elkin, in the “Pie Jesu,” the joyful “Hosanna” at the end of the fourth movement (“Sanctus”), the simple yet powerful presentation of John 11:25 & 26 in the fifth movement (“Agnus Dei”), and the solo in the last movement (“Lux Aeterna”) by soprano, Stephanie Blackwell. I must add that there was something special in her performance that I don’t often see. It came to me that she wasn’t just singing notes and lyrics expressively, she was singing them to the audience. Granted, it’s a subtle difference, but I certainly felt it.
There was another singer, not a soloist, who made an impression on me. At some point I became aware of one soprano. Whenever she wasn’t singing, she had such a beatific expression that it was arresting to me. She maintained that expression throughout the Requiem, and frankly, I couldn’t stop watching her, singing or not. It’s hard to explain why, but she inspired me. Her demeanor was the perfect accompaniment to the magnificent music I was hearing. She was experiencing something special in the music, and I couldn’t help but feel at least part of what she was feeling.
Throughout the Requiem, I was conscious the controlled dynamics of the chorus: the softest pianissimos, the strongest fortissimos, with so many twists and turns between these extremes to bring out the meaning of the text and the musical figures accompanying it. This extraordinary expressiveness reflected both on the skill and artistry of director, Doreen Irwin, and on the flexibility and alertness of the chorus.
Thinking about the Requiem as a whole, the many beautiful melodies made for such pleasant listening, and there was an abundance of interesting musical ideas. Besides that, I appreciated the many texts not present in other requiems. I have heard and sung many requiems over my lifetime — compositions that were musically interesting and exciting or comforting. Tonight I felt all those emotions, but something more. Whether through the skill of the composer or of the chorus and director — or both — I felt inspired.
The last three pieces of this concert took it in a totally different direction. Moses Hogan’s 7-part “The Battle of Jericho” brought out something new in this chorus. Singing from memory, I saw heads shaking and whole bodies moving as they performed this high-energy piece, complete with a bone-chilling wail by a high soprano. It was intensely exciting, and I’m sure everyone in the audience felt it.
“Shout Glory” was genuine gospel, featuring soul-stirring solos by Tiwana and Ellington Porter, and Dan Pool at the piano was just on fire. As for the chorus, they simply came unhinged. Arms of many went up spontaneously. One tenor started rhythmic clapping in which he was soon joined by most of the chorus and the audience. At the end there wasn’t just applause from the audience, but cheers.
Going into this concert I was probably the last person in the world who didn’t love Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” But that’s because I hadn’t heard it in 4-part harmony — from this chorus. It was a concert version of the song that was simply thrilling. The singers performed it with fervor, almost standing at attention. And when it concluded, the audience were immediately on their feet, giving this New York-bound chorus a well-earned, heart-felt and lengthy ovation.