The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Mountain Melody Women's Chorus
Winter Phoenix Rising - December 6, 2015
by Diane Boul
The decorated barn was packed at Ayrael Vieux Vineyards in Douglas Flat, Calaveras County. The wine was flowing. Goodies rested on a table in the rear. The buzz was all about Mountain Melody Women’s Chorus’s concert, "Winter Phoenix Rising — Up from the Ashes of the Butte Fire," a reference to the disastrous conflagration in September of this year. Many wondered if there would even be a concert this Christmas season. (Considering their losses, how could they possibly get it together? They even lost all their sheet music.) But Julia Shelby, Artistic Director, and other singers said rehearsing for a concert was part of the healing process. It was a good distraction, being able to concentrate on something positive, after all the devastation. So here we were in this cozy, rustic setting on a beautiful fall day, sitting with a community of friends, our host and hostess, Bob Eisenman and Linda Stockstill, and the vineyard dog, Ollie, waiting for the opening number from the brave ladies of Mountain Melody Women’s Chorus.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
We were treated to “Carols Three,” which opened with a “Gloria” fanfare and moved into “Angels We Have Heard on High”; Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”; and then “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” We were in the spirit! I was especially struck by the pure sounds and nice balance of “Lo, How a Rose….” This beautiful hymn has quite a history that dates from the 16th century, the German text penned by an anonymous writer.
Before commenting on any other songs, I’d like to make some general comments about my observations of this choir and their production of the music presented. All of MMWC’s music was memorized, allowing for a better connection between singer and conductor and between singers and their audience. Since most songs tell a story which needs to be understood, excellent diction is obviously very important, and this choir excels in this task, not always as easy as it sounds. MMWC also shows off its individual personalities; I like this. Although emotions might be similar and voiced in the lyrics, not everyone interprets or feels the same when singing the same song. They sing a mix of a cappella and accompanied pieces which shows diversity and accomplishment.
Master of Ceremonies, Jackson Baker, introduced us to the choir and enticed us with little hints about what we were about to hear, based on the nicely balanced programming of Ms. Shelby. This was a nice personal touch.
“Beautiful December” brought tears to my eyes, with the beautiful lyrics and lovely blend of harmonies. There were a few pitch issues and the sopranos probably need to open up on the higher notes and maintain better breath control. (Note that there were no flutists in this day’s concert.)
“In the Bleak Midwinter" is a difficult song to keep in tune, especially when sung a cappella. The choristers did not sound completely in control, especially when backing up the soloist, alto Marta Johnson. The key change, however, was smooth and the dynamics were good. In stark emotional contrast was “O Sing Out, Be Joyful,” sung with strong dynamics and good articulation; some of the singers were quite animated, befitting the lyrics.
The two Spanish carols sung by this choir, “A La Nanita Nana” and “Chiquirriquitin,” are favorites for different reasons. The first piece is a lovely hushed lullaby. Despite the difficulty in maintaining a pianissimo in a high register, the sopranos managed to stay in good balance with the smaller number of altos. The second song was very spirited, making you want to dance. The tongue-twisting words were effective in pleasing the crowd.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: Sometimes the most simple sounding songs have the ability to move us the most, especially when they’re delivered with beautiful round tones and excellent diction from a sincerely dedicated choir like this one, with a very mellow solo from Jennifer Robinson.
“Seal Lullaby” has been one of my favorites since the first time I sang it. This choir did it justice; it gave me shivers up my spine. It’s interesting how this song, though not a Christmas carol, seems so appropriate for the season.
“A Joyful Night” is one of the best holiday medleys I’ve heard. It meshes an original song, with a gospel beat, to “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World.” The choir was animated and blended nicely, while sopranos Tari Takara and Liz Armstrong gave us a balanced duet as a send-off to intermission. So glad there was a second half! The traditional carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” started off the second half. This particularly nice arrangement was very suitable to this all-women’s choir, and they performed it beautifully.
“Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas” — How many times can you say this very fast without sounding like a steam train? Seriously, this choir has been well taught to leave most of the ‘s’ sounds at the train station. Loved it!!
“Hymn to the Theotokos” was one of my favorites of the afternoon. I’d never before heard this Byzantine hymn to Mary, the Mother of God. Sung a cappella, the choir created a sound that was ethereal, mysterious and reverent.
The Sara Teasdale poem, “Stars I Shall Find,” was given a beautiful arrangement by Victor C. Johnson and a heartfelt delivery by the choir. “Evening Prayer,” a well-known favorite by Engelbert Humperdinck, was a beautifully sung dedication to a recently deceased community member.
I so appreciated the expression applied to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” It’s a song everyone knows well, but the choir appeared as if this were the first time they were singing these words. Delightful!
Larry Shackley is a well-known arranger who incorporated the “Nutcracker Suite” with the traditional English carol, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” It’s a rousing rendition of an old favorite, fun for the choir and challenging for the pianists, as the accompaniment is for four hands (two of which were those of Judy Bigelow, guest pianist; the other two were those of their excellent regular accompanist, Marge Biagi-Castro). Everyone loved this. There were smiles all around.
The lovely “A Blessing” had sharp consonants and good cut-offs, and led nicely into the last piece on the program, a rip-roarin’ Mark Hayes arrangement of “This Little Light of Mine.” The expression of this piece was not lost on us and was a perfect closing song. But if we thought this was the end, it wasn’t. Someone requested that the choir reprise “Evening Prayer.” They did, we enjoyed it just as much as we had the first time they sang it. Then for an encore, MMWC perked us up with “Java Jive.” I’ve heard them sing this before; and, despite the absence of several singers this season, it was as good as, or better, than before. Ladies, you really sold it!! Brave!