The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Master Singers
Sing We Now of Christmas - December 30, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
This Sunday afternoon concert in the very large St. Francis church had been sold out for two weeks, and the crowd, which had been in their seats long before the 3 p.m. start time seemed anxious for the performance to begin. It was a few minutes after 3 when the church darkened, and the murmuring in the audience stopped. The chorus members entered from behind the altar of the church in silence, each carrying a real candle, and then proceeded down the center aisle in two rows. “Puer Natus Est” is an ancient Gregorian chant, and the men began singing this music as they processed. Their voices were complemented by the ringing of hand chimes (“tubular bells” per the program) which were carried by many of the singers. Eventually the women took over for the men, and the processional continued down the side aisles until the audience was completely surrounded. The singing stopped, the church bells chimed, and the men began performing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in unison while the church bells continued to chime. The purpose of all this was to create a solemn, reverential mood, and I have to say it was completely successful. After the simple unison start, the arrangement became more complex, the women joined, the piano began accompanying, and various soloists were highlighted.
Then without a break in the mood, there were more bells, and the next piece, a setting of Luke 2:9-14 (the angel announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds) began on a wordless chord. After an excellent solo by tenor Stephen Hill, there was an explosion of polyphony. The program says this: “With careful observation, the listener may discern seventeen parts divided among three choirs.” I don’t believe there is anyone who could analyze what was going on to that degree of precision. All I can say is that I can’t imagine any other musical setting that could have better presented the incredible excitement of the meeting between the angel and those shepherds. In my notes I wrote “spine-tingling drama.”
Next in this highly staged first part of the concert, the chorus moved down the center aisle in two rows to form a circle in the center of the church. From this formation, they sang “Deep in a Winter’s Night." Although the acoustics of the church made much of the lyrics indiscernible, those same acoustics enhanced the luscious harmonies of the music.
(Click here to open the program, complete with lyrics and program notes, in a new window.)
Still to the accompaniment of the hand chimes, the chorus now moved to the risers singing “Away in a Manger.” The piece began simply, then transitioned to an altered melody, still completely lovely, and performed sensitively and expressively. Finally, and for the first time since the concert began, we in the audience were allowed to applaud, which we did with repressed enthusiasm for the experience we had just been given.
The singers got in their own clapping during the next number, “Ríu, Ríu, Chíu.” This energetic piece, sung a cappella, was highlighted with rhythmic, stylized clapping throughout, as well as by the softest pianissimos and the strongest fortissimos. Then "Regina Caeli" had a clearly contemporary sound, also full of passion, and ending in a perfectly tuned, but unusual chord. “Gifts for the Child of Winter” was more melodic with lovely solos, dramatically presented by Matt Metcalf and Michelle Miller.
It's been many years since I've heard "Betelehemu" performed, and what a pleasure it was to see how enthusiastically this Nigerian carol was presented by the Master Singers. Maybe "enthusiastically" is an understatement. There were drums, a tambourine — and different chorus members had shakers. After a slow beginning, the chorus started swaying and then added hand clapping. About this time I noticed how much space there was between the singers on the risers, and I recalled one of the choral maxims I've embraced: a chorus member with lots of elbow room is a happy singer. Certainly there was plenty of happiness in that group, and as the tempo became more frenetic, there were spontaneous exclamations from singers, and even more elaborate handclapping and drumming. It was a joyful African celebration. I certainly didn't question its authenticity, and neither did the audience which exploded in approval when it was over. Along with being pure fun, the performance was, to me, an amazing feat of memorization — of music, rhythms, and choreography.
After intermission, it felt like we in the audience were witnessing less of a "show" and more of a concert — a very good concert, of course. The singers sang from scores for the first 3 pieces, and though the first piece, "Joy to the World" was performed a cappella, the next several songs featured the expert piano accompanying of Heidi Van Regenmorter. "Joy to the World" was familiar — sort of. But before it ended, Jackson Berkey's arrangement felt more like "Fantasy on Joy to the World" — very inventive and full of variety, with a surprisingly subdued ending. You can't pull off a song like this without smart and talented singers. And maybe I should add "hard-working" and "committed" to those descriptors.
My impression of them being "committed" was reinforced by their subsequent performance of "Mary, Did You Know?" Specifically, I noticed how animated they all were as they sang. But how could they not be animated with such an expressive director? Like so many of the previous pieces, this one was full of gentle lows and excited highs, and watching Hughes conduct, I found myself imagining him as the operator of a massive vehicle, steering it precisely with subtle movements.
Next on the program was "little tree," a poem of e.e.cummings set to music by Eric Whitacre. Hughes commented that it was a favorite of his, and he explained the poem as the perspective of a young child viewing a Christmas tree. I'm afraid, though, that I couldn't share his enthusiasm: although the musically intricate piece was performed expertly (weren't they all?), I found it more cerebral than emotionally engaging.
For the next two selections, the men departed, leaving a fine women's chorus. They gave an energetic performance of a very contemporary arrangement of "Sing We Now of Christmas" and then moved up to the edge of the audience to perform the wonderful gospel song, "Now Let Me Fly." I watched closely and saw engaged, responsive, alive singers — full of spirit with expressive faces and a wide repertoire of styles and sounds. These, of course, are elicited by Hughes, who I began to see differently. Instead of the driver of a large machine, I imagined him as an artist, painting on this very responsive canvas of people with a wide variety of gestures tantamount to the many colors and shades on the artist's palette. I wasn't the only one profoundly impressed by the women of the Master Singers. As they yielded their places to the returning men, the audience gave them a particularly lengthy applause.
The next two carols performed by the men, "We Three Kings" and "The First Noel" look pretty tame and traditional on paper. They weren't. Both arrangements were by Patrick Rose, and the first was a much more rhythmic interpretation of that piece than I've ever heard. The second piece was equally creative, with what seemed to me like a very agreeable pop sound.
I was prepared to be a little disappointed when the women rejoined the men for "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." After all, so much of the concert had been so sophisticated, and this seemed completely out of character. But it was no more out of character than is dessert after a full meal. It started as a finely crafted, nuanced performance, but when the singers touched their thumbs to their heads, with outstretched fingers to imitate reindeer antlers, nuance no longer mattered. From that point on the song was full of "choralography" as the chorus acted out the words of the song. Bottom line: it was a wonderfully cute, funny performance that delighted everyone.
After the innovative treatments of traditional Christmas carols that we had been witnessing, the interesting, elaborate arrangement of "Silent Night" by Paul Johnson with its updated rhythms was no surprise. Then there was a return to the African celebration we had experienced earlier. The piece was "Ogo Ni Fun Oluwa! (Glory to God in the Highest!)" and it was a spectacle. There were 6 percussionists and constant choralography that really looked authentically African. Then the chorus left the risers, still singing and gesticulating, and danced in a large circle in the center of the church, chanting and singing. To me, it was yet another amazing feat of memory and coordination.
In closing the concert, conductor Hughes noted that Sacramento Master Singers has been performing Christmas concerts at St. Francis church for more than 2 decades. During such a long period of time you would expect traditions to evolve. Indeed, one such tradition is to conclude their concerts with "Peace, Peace" by Rick & Sylvia Powell and arranged by Fred Bock. In performing this song, the chorus once again surrounded the audience, signing (in American Sign Language) as they sang. In my notes, I was moved enough to write "Be kind to one another." It doesn't appear to be part of the lyric of the song, and I don't recall whether it was spoken by Hughes, but it expressed the uplifting spirit of the moment. We were then invited to join in singing "Silent Night," and I think nearly everyone did. And a surprisingly large number signed the words as well.
I've witnessed many fine choral concerts this season, and I don't want to compare their merits because so many of them were wonderful celebrations, full of excellence and heart. Let it be said, though, that what I experienced on this Sunday afternoon was a performance by a virtuoso chorus led by a virtuoso director, who has graced Sacramento with his talents and those of his singers for 30 years. And "grace" is the right word to describe that tradition.