The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Master Singers
Celtic Journeys - March 17, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
A concert by the Sacramento Master Singers is never just about performing a repertoire of songs. There’s always something more. Tuesday night at Harris Center in the final concert of their “Celtic Journeys” concert series, the first “something more” came as a surprise as I entered the lobby of the theater. It was lively Irish music. That alone was pleasant enough, but at the other end of the lobby were 15 students of the McKeever School of Irish Dance (www.mckeeverdance.com), performing Irish step dancing. With delighted concert-goers crowding around and clapping to the beat of the jigs and reels, the dancers (most in their early teens through early twenties) performed, sometimes in an ensemble of 6 or 8 or 15, but mostly in brief individual solos. They were dressed all in black with Irish insignia and red sashes — and necklaces of flashing green lights. Their director, Nicole McKeever, stood out in a tee-shirt that advertised her school, and she danced, too. To my eye, they performed beautifully, especially considering they had to dance on a rug, rather than a hard floor. For almost 30 minutes, they set a festive mood for what was to come.
The beginning of the concert couldn’t have been more dramatic. Soloist Thomas Voigt entered the stage with a bodhrán (large, hand-held drum) and began the medieval chant, “Media Via.” Then, with the theater darkened, the men of the chorus started singing behind the audience. They processed onto the stage from both sides of the theater in a measured march that was almost funereal. As the women entered the theater, they joined in the chant. It’s hard to imagine a more authentic Celtic beginning to what turned out to be more of an experience than a simple concert.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Advancing at most only a few centuries, the next piece, “Salve Rex Gloria,” continued the heavy, stirring sound established previously, accented by excellent solos (see the program for names of soloists). All of this, like most of tonight’s program, was performed a cappella and from memory. I should note that projected on a screen behind the chorus was a large emblem, possibly 15 feet in diameter, of what looked to me like an ancient shield. The men of the chorus were in dark trousers and gray vests over long-sleeved white shirts, closed at the collar with a medallion. The women were in long black dresses, accented with a red stripe in front that went to the floor — and identical gold necklaces.
I had been impressed with the medieval music so far, but “The Maid of Culmore” just blew me away. First of all, it was a jewel of a piece, and as the women began to sing, I was struck by the purity of their unison tone and their excellent articulation. Then the men’s section took over, and I found myself thinking: “Is this the best bass section I’ve heard? The best tenor section?” As men and women continued together, I was struck (as I would be over and over in this concert) with the dynamic range of this chorus: the softest pianissimos, and fortissimos that were powerful without loss of musicality. Thinking about their control and sensitivity, it seemed to me that this ensemble has the tightness of a group one-quarter its size.
At this point in the concert the Master Singers were joined by the folk-music duo, Men of Worth. In recent years I’ve often noticed their shows in our area, probably because half of the group, Donnie Macdonald, lives here. Also, I’ve seen them perform before, and tonight my impression of them was confirmed: they are master entertainers. They both play a variety of instruments and sing beautifully, and between songs, we got one hearty laugh after another from their jokes and stories. Their integration with the Master Singers was seamless, thanks to the chorus’s resident arranger, Clifford Shockney, who was in tonight’s audience.
If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to insert an aside here. One of the many things I admire about Sacramento Master Singers (SMS) — especially their Artistic Director and Conductor, Ralph Hughes — is their demonstrated caring about people. Hughes acknowledged Shockney in the audience for each of the three songs he arranged. At one point, he even thanked Harris Center’s administrative staff, tech people and ushers. And there was this. Due to a scheduling quirk, the Folsom Lake College (FLC) Choir was going to be performing in one of the other Harris Center theaters tonight at the same time. Hughes and FLC Choir Director David Newnham (both professors in the Los Rios College District) got together, and the starting time of the FLC concert was advanced. When it was over, all the FLC singers got free seats in the balcony for the SMS concert — and Hughes even acknowledged them at one point during the concert. Not surprisingly, these students were among the most enthusiastic audience members. And here’s something else. The SMS concert program was full of thanks. This didn't surprise me because such recognition and appreciation of others is a hallmark of SMS under the leadership of Ralph Hughes. I admire excellence in musicianship, but I also admire graciousness, and somehow it makes the music sweeter.
Back to the concert. After performing “The Rising of the Moon” with the chorus, the Men of Worth performed the next 4 numbers on their own, playing a variety of instruments (guitars, banjo, concertina, mandolin, bouzouki(?), and various drums. These were Irish and Scottish folk songs — eminently listenable, even reverie-inducing — and by this time the concert felt like a total immersion in Celtic culture.
Before the final song of their set, Donnie Macdonald asked the audience, “Have you ever heard Danny Boy?” After the laughter subsided, the duo gave us a gentle, fresh presentation of that well-loved Irish air, with some very nice guitar work. I’ve heard the song hundreds of times, but this is the version I’d like to listen to again and again.
After the set by the Men of Worth, the men of the Master Singers left the risers to the women, and Assistant Director Tina Harris led the women in “Cúnnla.” Performed a cappella and from memory — in Gaelic — this was an extraordinary demonstration of vocal gymnastics — on the part of the two soloists and of the whole ensemble. Singing at the incredibly fast tempo and with such complicated rhythms was nothing short of a demonstration of choral virtuosity. And then later in the program the men of the chorus performed an identical feat with “Dúlamán.”
After “Cúnnla” the men rejoined the women for “Mouth Music” and a different demonstration of vocal dexterity. This piece, which just overflowed with energy, involved a vocal technique called “Celtic mouth music” or “diddling” that I’d never heard before. As they sang, the chorus members moved and made eye contact with each other — obviously having great fun. I wrote in my notes: “This all sounds so authentic.”
The final piece before intermission, “The Rocky Road to Dublin” was nothing short of a spectacle, accompanied by piano, violin, bass, pipe and drums. The chorus really loosened up, acting the song out and interacting with one another. The scene could have been a pub late on a Saturday night — it actually seemed rowdy. The whole presentation was quite a contrast to SMS’s crafted sound. And it was totally fun. No wonder the audience erupted in cheers when the piece concluded.
The first song after intermission, “Heia Viri,” — a 6th century song performed in Latin and, again, a cappella — was one more demonstration of SMS’s mastery of dynamics. This piece began with a big choral sound that was almost overwhelming. But then it proceeded to a pianissimo that was almost sotto voce — and equally impressive. Then they ranged between these extremes throughout the piece in an extraordinary demonstration of vocal control. I saw this same control in the next selection, “Ye Jacobites by Name,” which included more of that deliciously intense soft singing within the larger context of overflowing spirit that bordered on the same rowdiness that we in the audience had seen earlier.
The Men of Worth then entered to accompany the chorus on the next song and continue to perform another set of 3 songs on their own. It was the kind of music that gets one moving. If you can’t get up and dance, you can at least tap your toes to the captivating rhythm. This set featured some wonderful instrumental work, including some expert “fiddling” by SMS member Kirk Rosander. And then there was the humor. At one point Donnie Macdonald explained that he and James Keigher don’t read music, but it was “wonderful to get the sheet music with all these lines and dots…. I got an anaconda and a hippopotamus [when I connected them].”
Something else that impresses me about SMS (and Hughes’ American River College choirs, too, for that matter) is that they don’t shrink from singing in unfamiliar foreign languages. There was so much Gaelic in this concert that I imagine that they must have had to recruit a language coach. But even when singing in English, they were sensitive to accent. I noticed that especially in “Loch Lomond.” Both the ensemble and the three fine soloists came through with a natural-sounding Irish accent that went perfectly with the mellow sounds of this familiar piece. But it was not only the accent that was noticeable. At one point the men produced an interesting clicking sound. Then later there was a section of non-word vocalization (I don’t know what else to call it) that fit the music perfectly. With the rhythm of this piece invading the body of each listener, the vitality of the song got to us in the audience, and when this complex, varied, and beautiful arrangement came to an end, it earned spontaneous cheers to go along with the extended applause.
At this point, the women left the risers, and the men proceeded with an a cappella performance of “She Moved Through the Fair.” The song began in unison with the men singing gently in their “head voice.” As the singing proceed into harmony, the sensitivity remained, and it was just exquisite. Like so many of the songs in this concert from which it was so different, this piece was meticulously crafted, and the effect was mesmerizing.
The final piece on the program was “The Voice,” and it was much like “The Rocky Road to Dublin” that ended the first half of this concert: heavily instrumented, with Men of Worth joining the ensemble — and full of intensity and spirit. When it concluded I looked around the audience noticing something interesting, an indicator of audience approval that I hadn’t thought about before. I saw many applauding hands held at chest level or higher, as if to ensure that the sound would reach the stage. Of course, people were soon on their feet, cheering as they continued to applaud. Our enthusiasm earned an encore, a lush version of “Danny Boy,” giving the audience one last familiar piece, for which they once again showed their unbridled appreciation.
No question, it was a grand way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day: a concert suffused with authenticity, full of variety, never dull, and with consummate musicianship. And if by now you’re sorry you missed it all, I have a bit of good news: more than half of the songs performed by SMS on this night are on their new Celtic Memories CD, available at www.mastersingers.org.