The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Mountain Melody Women's Chorus
A Decade of Song - May 3, 2015
by Diane Boul
As much as I enjoy singing, I enjoy listening to choral music of all kinds by different types of ensembles. For this reason, on May 3rd, 2015, I took the short trek to the Wine Country Sierra Foothills to hear Mountain Melody Women’s Chorus. I’m glad I did! The concert was described as being part of Ayrael Vieux’s (pronounced “aerial view”) 2014 Rose Release Party, “where you can sip wine, hear beautiful music and enjoy the lovely gardens and vineyard.” Quite a bonus!
As I sipped wine and noshed on savory hors d'oeuvres, I eagerly awaited the real reason for my visit—a concert by Mountain Melody Women’s Chorus. It was a casual affair and the ladies were attired, just so, with Mountain Melody T-shirts that unified them. But, casual did not mean undisciplined, amateurish, or too laid back. I was pleasantly surprised as I listened to them warm-up. Despite the less than ideal singing environs—outside, on a porch under the eaves of a house, with just enough room for 23 singers, a keyboard and an accompanist—their sound was inviting. [Really, there was a lot going on there! I applaud the choir for managing to maintain their concentration, sing beautifully, and still have fun, with dogs and children running around, people oohing and aahing about the wine, and others getting up and down to refresh their plates and glasses.] Even though the program was shortened slightly and was minus the flutist of the night before, it was still a very full program with two short intermissions—for “refreshing” reasons.
The program was titled, “A Decade of Song,” a 10th anniversary celebration of the best of Mountain Melody. It was a potpourri of the choir’s favorites, sung in previous concerts from 2007 to the present, with the addition of a few new pieces. The choir was originally formed with seven singers, a director, and an accompanist, and now numbers 23 singers. Their versatility played out in folk songs, jazz favorites and contemporary pieces. There was an international set, a Manhattan Transfer medley, and an original composition. My favorites were two a cappella pieces, “Prayer of the Children” and “Amazing Grace”; the beautifully blended contemporary pieces, “Your Voice is the Wind,” “Rhapsody,” and “Cape Breton Lullaby”; and soprano Lee Davis’s world premier of her composition, “Mokelumne River Song,” a reverent ode to the beautiful roving river.
(Click here to open the printed program in a new window.)
This concert had something enjoyable for everyone. If you like familiar songs, theatrically spiced up with props and choreography, you would have been thoroughly entertained by “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Java Jive,” and “Operator.” How about a Celtic dance tune, as in “Mouth Music” (a difficult piece of verbal gymnastics), or a Columbian folk song, “Maquerúle,” with folk instruments? On the other hand, if melodic, haunting lullabies are more your speed, you would have loved “Cape Breton Lullaby” from Nova Scotia, the vocally well-balanced and a cappella “Prayer of the Children” or “Amazing Grace”, the folk medley “’Cross the Wide Missouri”, or Meredith Wilson’s “Till There Was You”.
The vocal acuity of this choir was evidenced by their obvious attention to details, and showed a cooperative collaboration between director, Julia Shelby, a disciplined choir, and an accomplished accompanist, Marge Biagi-Castro. Ms. Shelby’s leadership and dedication was seen in the well rehearsed group of music lovers that followed her lead and were prepared to delight us. I’m always pleased when choirs memorize their music. While this is not always possible, my impression is that choristers sing with more freedom and expression when their faces are not buried in the music. Case at hand: everyone’s eyes were on the conductor (faces to the audience), so they could be flexible in changing dynamics and tempi, executing clean entries and exits within a piece, and simply starting and ending together. Their expressiveness was then visual as well as auditory.
Starting the concert was the southern folk hymn, “Sun Don’t Set in the Mornin’”, arranged by Jay Althouse (just one of several favorite choral arrangers represented in this concert). A great beginning, the piece was sung delicately, with warm, balanced harmonies, and good dynamics. I was struck by the choir’s ease in singing throughout most of the concert. I would have liked to have heard the pianissimos softer while maintaining the intensity; but in the winery setting, I’m sure they had to make more than a few alterations.
Director Shelby continued the concert, giving just a little background before each piece, which seemed to be appreciated by the audience. Despite the distractions, the audience was attentive, allowing the choir to connect with them most of the time. A few times I thought the chorus could have sung with more passion, as in “Your Voice is the Wind” and “Rhapsody”. The passion was in the lyrics and in their voices; I would have liked to have seen it on their faces. On the other hand, they really drew in the audience with the fun, Columbian folk song, “Maquerúle,” which needed their rhythmic precision. And, the gorgeous “Cape Breton Lullaby” by Kenneth Leslie, arranged by Stuart Calvert, seemed well suited for this chamber choir. For more fun and a little theatrics, MM’s “Java Jive” was spot on.
Generally speaking, this choir exhibited techniques of choral singing that make this genre of music so compelling. Their vowels were well formed, their diction was impeccable, their presentation engaging, and their balanced blend of voices was notable given that the sopranos outnumbered the altos 2:1. Maintaining consistency with each and every song is difficult, but Mountain Melody has obviously been working hard to achieve this goal.
I have to mention the rousing final number, ”Operator,” written in 1954 by William Spivery and arranged by Kirby Shaw. This well-known piece made for an especially dynamic ending featuring soprano soloist, Tari Takara, and tenor saxophonist, Bob Eisenman, Ayrael Vieux’s owner/vintner. The choir was just perfect for this upbeat number. A huge toast goes to Mountain Melody Women’s Chorus and all their talented soloists! See them when you can! You won’t be disappointed.
Overheard in the audience:
“Ten years ago, the choir didn’t even consider that they would be performing, and now they’re singing beautiful concerts completely memorized.”
“………..you should have heard them last night……..” [‘Last night’ being the choir’s concert in the acoustically rich Community Covenant Church in San Andreas.]