The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Folsom Lake College Concert Choir & College Chorus
All-American Music - May 5, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
What a surprise! I had heard the Folsom Lake College Concert Choir perform a year ago at the Collegiate Sing! event held at Sac City College. Frankly, it was disappointing. But I knew that the choral program at Folsom Lake College had gotten a boost when Dr. David Newnham stepped down from his role of Vice President of Instruction to become Director of Choral Ensembles. I had been unable to hear their previous concerts last fall or on March 17 or at this year’s Collegiate Sing!, and I assumed that they had improved. But I was not prepared for what I heard this night.
Actually the first surprise I was given by the Folsom Lake College Concert Choir and College Chorus occurred as I entered Harris Center’s acoustically perfect, 100-seat Recital Hall. I was handed the largest concert program I’d ever seen: 1 page, printed front and back, but 11 x 17 inches. You couldn’t hold it up without poking the person in the seat in front of you, but it sent a message that things were going to be different — and special — before you heard any singing.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The singing began with a women’s sextet performing the “Star Spangled Banner.” I fear that the audience might not have stood up if I hadn’t led the way and looked around to see who would join me. Patriotism aside, the performance itself was worth standing up for, and there were one or two sopranos who could really hit the high note demanded by that piece.
“Sorida” began with 17 men, dressed in tuxes, swaying to the beat of the music and singing this song of greeting. The women of the chorus stood at the sides of the room in their long black dresses, and with the help of two drummers, added their voices, filling the room with joyful, exciting music. It was a celebration — a celebration of a new day for the Folsom Lake College choral program. And these singers, with their confident smiles, filled the room with music — and life. Director Dr. David Newnham didn’t even enter until toward the end of the piece, and with the song concluded, the women moved to the risers to the accompaniment of cheers from the audience that filled the Recital Hall.
I was delighted to see that the next piece on the program was “The Rhythm of Life” a sentimental favorite of mine. The chorus performed it from memory, as they did nearly all the music in this concert, and they added a lot of hand gestures that I thought made the performance even more entertaining. But what connected with me, and I think everyone else in that room, was the great enthusiasm with which they performed, helped by a dynamic four-hand piano accompaniment.
It was at this point that Newnham first spoke to the audience, brimming over with enthusiasm about the progress of this chorus and explaining the diversity that would be presented in this concert of “All-American Music.” Here and at other points in the evening, it was clear from his comments that he has been steeped in choral music, with connections, even personal friendships, with many notable composers and arrangers. These comments led to the next two spirituals. I’m familiar with “Soon-ah Will Be Done,” having sung it on many occasions in years past. That why I was absolutely floored by the tempo, which was twice as fast as I’d ever performed it or seen it performed. It required excellent articulation with the words coming in rapid succession, and the chorus executed beautifully. It was clear that they were extremely well prepared.
Everything I’d seen and heard so far convinced me that Dr. Newnham is an excellent director. But he’s also an educator. And his pride was evident as he introduced the next two pieces, “White Winter Hymnal” and “Song of the Lonely Mountain from The Hobbit,” performed by student ensembles who had selected the music and prepared it on their own.
The men of the chorus then performed “The Pasture” from Randall Thompson’s Frostiana suite. During this gentle piece I noticed a particularly pleasing sound from the tenors. Newnham pointed out on several occasions that his choirs are not auditioned. And to be honest, there were occasions in the evening when I noticed chords that were not well tuned or a section’s singing that was more enthusiastic than accurate. No doubt there are chorus members that need vocal training. But I have no doubt that they will learn and grow — and have great fun — under the tutelage of a director who, from what I saw tonight, is simply a dynamo of positive energy.
“Stomp Your Foot,” with its foot-tapping beat, brought a return to the excitement that began the concert, and once again I noticed how confident and spirited these singers were.
“Next,” said Newnham, “is something you might recognize… with a little twist.” With that the chorus sang, a cappella, the first verse of “Bringing in the Sheaves.” From the nice 4-part harmony, they might have been singing from a hymnal. Then the piece took a sharp turn and began to really rock. Of course, the singing was great but it was the extraordinary piano work by accompanist Shelley Rink that gave this piece its soul. To me, she played like one possessed.
Then signaling a dramatic change of pace, Newnham introduced “Dawn,” a piece written just 4 years ago, and with “an ending a little different than you’re used to hearing in choral music.” Singing for the first time from scores, the chorus gave us more sophisticated, but very pretty harmonies, culminating in an ending that was intentionally dissonant. It was a broadening experience for us and no doubt for the chorus, as well.
Bookending the concert with another patriotic piece, the chorus treated us to “God Bless America.” But t was performed in a gospel style that began a cappella and grew to include piano and drum accompaniment and a very soulful solo. Once again, I became aware of the great enthusiasm of the chorus. They sang the piece, but better than that, they channeled its spirit.
Finally, with a very fast tempo and a cappella again, the chorus marched out singing, “Now We Thank You One and All.” It was in the form of a round, and when they completed it at the back of the Recital Hall, the audience erupted in applause and cheers. Why the overwhelming enthusiasm? Apart from our appreciation for an excellent concert, we were all glad to see pride return to the Folsom Lake College choral program.