The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Grass Valley Male Voice Choir
Ring in Christmas - December 19, 2015
by Diane Boul
On this Saturday afternoon, I had a warm and pleasant experience when I heard the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir at Sierra Presbyterian Church in Nevada City. Here was a thirty-eight-strong, traditional men’s choir treating us to beautifully sung music in a venue that was cozy, bright, comfortable, and nicely decorated. The church was full on this somewhat rainy Saturday afternoon.
If you go to this choir’s website, you can read their interesting history, which goes back to the early 1900s when it was the Cornish Carol Choir with men singers only. Recent history dates to 1990, when Eleanor Kenitzer, an experienced choral conductor in the community, worked to revive the Cornish singing tradition by forming the Cornish Christmas Carol Choir, with men and women. When this new choir visited Cornwall in 1997, they heard the wonderful sounds of the Cornish male voice choirs, and Eleanor was encouraged to establish a second choir, the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir (GVMVC). Both groups entertained us today, as did the newly formed eight-member, a cappella choir, GOLDRUSH, making their preview appearance.
When David Loofbourrow, Chairman of the Board and choir baritone, enthusiastically introduced the program, telling us what we’d hear and from whom, I knew this was going to be an enjoyable afternoon. The audience was ready for a good show. But.... where was the choir?? Not appearing on cue, someone suggested the audience fill the void by singing; so we did, welcoming the choir with our special jumbled arrangement of “Jingle Bells.” Then, founding Director/Conductor Eleanor Kenitzer exuberantly greeted the audience and introduced each piece with a brief history or explanation.
It’s worth mentioning that, throughout the concert, I didn’t hear any individual voice (except for solo voices) projecting beyond the realm of the choir, which would have distracted from the blend and balance. There were four voice parts maximum, I think; usually I could hear at least three.
Opening with “Silver Bells,” I quickly got used to not hearing soprano voices—nice for a change. This song didn’t seem to be quite in tune all the time, but maybe it was just an unusual arrangement.
(Click here to view the entire program in a separate window.)
“Come and See the King” started quietly; then soloist, Rod Fivelstad, warmed us up with his mellow bass voice. The choir had a nice blend, and the first tenors were right on, as this piece moved into a dynamic gospel groove.
The next piece was probably my favorite, even though I’m partial to music I’ve never heard before. But, “Coventry Carol” made me tear up. Accompanist, Karen Driscoll, and guest pianist, Laurie Gautney, played with four hands and the choir sang beautifully. This piece seemed to suit these men just perfectly; so special!
Soloist, John Darlington, did a nice job with “O Holy Night.” He sounded a bit nervous at first; you would be, too, if you were singing a song that everyone knows. The choir provided good backup without overpowering the soloist. This was a stunningly expressive, understated arrangement which I liked very much.
Assistant Director, Darrell Crawford, wrote and conducted “Lowly, Lowly.” The violin, played beautifully by Ann Gaines, provided the appropriate instrumentation. However I’m not sure all the singers knew their parts well, because I couldn’t understand the words. I kept wondering how it would sound with a mixed choir, with greater separation between the voices.
Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” written in 1964, was given appropriate attention when the all-male chamber ensemble, Chanticleer, added it to their repertoire. The lyrics are comprised of a hybrid of two ancient texts, the Angelus Domini and the Ave Maria. Singing a cappella, each soloist opens with a chant from the “Angelus Domini”; the choir responds with the “Ave Maria.” The soloists, Jerry Maloney, David Loofbourrow, and Rob Fivelstad, were clear and steady. The choir’s pianissimos and voice control made this difficult piece exquisite!
“Pader Agan Arluth,” a Cornish “Our Father,” is a lovely song, sung in Cornish with an ethereal tone, that didn’t sound anything like our American version.
GOLDRUSH is an ensemble of eight singers who gave us a preview of what we can expect in the future. They may have only started to get their small-ensemble feet, but they sounded quite together in terms of their harmony and voice balance. This a cappella group was directed discreetly by baritone David Loofbourrow. I would say they need to work on more vocal dynamics and visual expression. I enjoyed the traditional “Come, All Ye Faithful,” not attributed to any particular arranger. I could hear all voice parts and they were nicely balanced. “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” was done with vocalizations (fas, las, doos, dahs, etc). It was a fun version, nicely in tune, with good harmonic blend. The spiritual, “Look up Children,” had a nice spirit, but could have been more expressive.
After intermission we heard a little history of the Cornish Carol Choir (CCC)—from the taverns to the Methodist Church. Their carols date to 1876, and this season the CCC is celebrating 25 years under their founder and director, Eleanor Kenitzer. This mixed a cappella choir (dressed this afternoon in Cornish-style attire) sings songs that date to the 5th century. Historically, their music was learned by rote; so, of course, the music was always memorized.
Their set of songs was not printed in the program. (I hope I understood the titles correctly when they were announced.) All these carols were sung with simplicity, good diction, and good harmony. Sometimes the songs sounded like basic hymns or folk songs; but then other times they seemed much more complex, like Thomas Merritt’s canon.
“Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy” opened the set and was followed by “Sans Day Carol,” with the words, “The first tree in the green wood, it was the holly.” (The holly refers to Christ.) Next was “Lo, the Eastern Sages Rise,” a song about the three kings, also known as “Star of Bethlehem.” Thomas Merritt, who had only six months of musical training, wrote “Lo, He Comes an Infant Stranger,” with overlapping voice parts, like a canon. The traditional end to a caroling was always “Diadem,” a Christmas carol from 1779, now more commonly known as “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night.”
A "herd of bumbling reindeer" stumbling in as a GVMVC quintet, singing “Reindeer Rap.” This short, funny ditty had lyrics in the refrain, “Without us, Santa’s nothing!” Humorous without being too cutesy! The audience loved it!
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” has been one of the most popular Christmas songs on Billboard’s published list since the early 2000s (based on radio airplay). The Male Voice Choir sang this favorite with a nice smooth legato. The dynamics were nicely contrasting; the blend and balance of voices was good. I would have liked to have experienced more enthusiasm.
“Whisper! Whisper!” was another of my favorites this afternoon. This piece featured soloists Craig Hall and George Carter. They all whisper-sang (not an easy thing to do) very effectively. Good dynamics! I really enjoyed this.
The toe-tapper “Who’s That Baby?” was next. Soloist Jerry Maloney has a clear, clean voice. The choir sang with one-voice unisons and well-tuned harmonics. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” again featured Jerry Maloney. He’s a first tenor with a warm tone to his voice. I liked it. (This was not accompanied by four-handed piano as indicated in the program.)
Next came what was probably the best execution of Chuck Bridwell’s “Various Themes on ‘Fa-La-La’” that I’ve heard. Set to the traditional carol, “Deck the Hall,” this creative arrangement is based on themes from Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”; Beethoven's “Fifth Symphony”; Strauss' “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” and Tchaikovsky's “1812 Overture.”
“Ding! Dong! Merrily on High” was the finale, expertly accompanied by the four hands of Laurie Gautney and Karen Driscoll. Singing with good expression and sharp cut-offs, the men ended a really exceptional program on an upbeat note. Woo-hoo! These men rock! You won’t be disappointed if you make the trip to the Grass Valley area to hear GVMVC. I certainly wasn’t.