The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Placer Pops Chorale & Orchestra
A Holiday Homecoming - December 17, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
On this Thursday evening, Placer Pops Chorale lived up to its name, with a concert filled with mostly bright, up-tempo music — the 78-member chorus backed by a 14-piece orchestra. This was their first of 4 performances at Dietrich Theatre on the Sierra College Campus in Rocklin. Last weekend they gave 2 concerts at Harris Center at Folsom Lake College. With all the concerts sold out or nearly sold out, they will have entertained well over 3,000 people in these two weekends. I doubt another chorus in our area can match that statistic.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
By the 7:30 start time, the instrumentalists were in position. The chorus then entered, and Director Lorin Miller took the stage. After briefly acknowledging the audience’s applause, he began the “Celebrate the Season Medley.” It was a high-energy, festive start to the show, featuring excellent solos by Ronda Pearce and Richard Rogers. I want to mention here that all this evening’s soloists were strong singers. Too often, I’ve seen choruses put people in solo roles who really did not have solo-quality voices. Not so with Placer Pops Chorale and certainly not in this evening’s performance.
I do have a reservation about what I heard tonight, though, and I want to get it out of the way before describing what was truly an outstanding concert. In order to achieve a good balance between chorus and orchestra and among the sections of the chorus, it’s necessary to electronically balance the sound. Tonight that resulted in a choral sound that seemed to have a slight artificial echo, such that listening to the chorus — not that far away in the intimate space of Dietrich Theatre — was a bit like listening to a recording of them, minus some of the rich overtones of a live performance. My guess is that this was due to not having quite worked out the right settings in the sound board or not having yet adapted to the difference in the sound amplification requirements between Harris Center and Dietrich Theatre. Also, the average sound level seemed consistently a bit too high to be comfortable. Again, it might have been suitable for the big space of Harris Center; not so much for Dietrich Theatre. That said, these problems hardly interfered with the pleasure of this evening’s concert. The chorus consistently produced quality sectional tones, with good blend among the sections and a good balance with the orchestra.
With no break from the previous piece, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” kept spirits high, with professional-quality solo performances by Joyce Scolnick and Guy Pilgrim. Then, after allowing applause, Miller led the chorus and orchestra in a performance of an unusual setting of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” It was arranged by Joshua Spacht, and it had a rolling beat that the song doesn’t usually get. It reminded me of the style of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra as it built to a grand conclusion.
The next selection was a bit of an innovation for the Chorale. “Mary, Did You Know?” began with a gentle orchestral accompaniment and a duet by Guy Pilgrim and Lyndsay Barham. Barham, incidentally, is not a member of the chorus, but is Executive Director of the Chorale and a choral director and singer (obviously) in her own right. She and Pilgrim brought pop stylings to the pop sound of the arrangement, but they were upstaged by the entrance of a single dancer, Brittney Cody. Later identified as a student at William Jessup University, Cody is an attractive young woman and wore a modest all-white dance outfit. She performed an expressive, graceful routine downstage and in a style that I presume would be called interpretive dance. With eyes occasionally directed upwards, it was easy to assume that she was representing Mary, the mother of Jesus.
At this point in the concert, Miller addressed the audience, ever the genial host, giving credit to those who had performed solos and to Cody. He then introduced the next two selections, including the orchestral “Christmas Traditions,” arranged by Mannheim Steamroller founder, Chip Davis. It was a sensitive piece, sensitively performed, but once again, the audience’s attention was on dancer, Brittney Cody. Her costume had been enhanced by enormous translucent “wings,” extending each arm. And in her dance, quite lovely as before, she made great use of them, extending them and even occasionally flapping. I couldn’t decide whether the performance was more evocative of a butterfly or an angel.
Next up was “Linus and Lucy,” by Vince Guaraldi, easily recognizable from the TV movie, A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was a lively toe-tapper, with no words (except scat). That meant that the blend of the chorus was exposed, and I felt that they came through beautifully with a solid, energetic choral sound, always pushing the beat. There was one section of the song, vocalized on “bah-bah,” where the chords were so complex that they sounded muddy to me: it might have worked better with a smaller ensemble. Then we got another dose of Vince Guaraldi with the dreamy “Christmas Time Is Here,” begun and ended by a mixed quartet, and with the chorus highlighted through most of the piece.
“Happy Holidays” was a return to the up-tempo music that had begun this concert. Five singers were upfront performing this medley on individual microphones in what was, to me anyway, a real demonstration of vocal jazz, with strong backing from the brass section and featured solos by trumpet, alto sax and baritone sax.
The energy didn’t sag with the “Winter Medley,” which began with the chorus singing an arrangement of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” The words in this song come fast, and I was conscious of how good the singers’ articulation was in getting those lyrics out quickly and recognizably. Noreen Barnett and Madeline Thill delivered fine solo performances, and as the music went on to other high-energy tunes, ending with a setting of “Jingle Bells,” it seemed that Miller was the focus of all that energy — or maybe the generator. I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out that he conducted the whole concert on his toes.
After intermission, the chorus entered with a new look. In the first half of the show the women were wearing sparkly red tops and the men were in white dinner jackets with red bowties. Now the women had changed to sparkly white tops with red corsages, and the men wore tuxedoes with black bowties. The theater itself was gaily decorated along the edge of the stage, and there were changing lighting effects on the scrim behind the chorus, as well as on the chorus itself.
Another orchestral piece began the second half of the concert: “A Celtic Christmas Overture.” Although she was not listed in the program, Alice Lenaghan, has been the Placer Pops Chorale’s go-to person for flute and piccolo, even accompanying them on their trip to Ireland in 2012. Her lively and expert playing of both piccolo (or was it a pennywhistle?) and flute was the highlight of this number.
Traditional music like “The First Noel” always presents a problem for a chorus: how to deliver it in a way that is fresh, without disappointing those who cherish the familiarity of it. This arrangement by Dan Forest met both goals for me. It had many transcendent moments of choral singing while at the same time, it was probably the grandest setting of this melody that one would ever hear. “The Little Drummer Boy” was a similar story. The beloved setting that was so popular before the turn of the century, with the basses imitating a drum sound, has gotten stale. This new arrangement had all the vocal parts singing together throughout, and the freshness came from the orchestration and dynamics.
The accompanying program lists “Midnight Clear” as coming next. It was not performed, however, and there was no announcement about its being skipped. Instead the Eclectics came on, and they performed two songs instead of just one as indicated on the program. The days of the quartet may be fading, with the advent of the super-group Pentatonix, because the Eclectics, like Pentatonix, features 5 singers. On this night, with the theater darkened, the Eclectics began their 2-song set with a “rockapella” version of “Silver Bells.” Indeed, they “rocked,” performing with a good blend and highlighting bass Dave Adams on the kind of bass part that echoed an earlier era. (If you’re old enough, think of Bowser of Sha Na Na.) I could feel the audience responding to this number, but it was just a hint of what was to come. Tenor Guy Pilgrim began the next song speaking, “Baby, I sure am missing you” — and that got immediate laughs from those around me. The song was “Please Come Home for Christmas,” and it was hilarious. In addition to providing some wonderfully funny lyrics, Pilgrim threw in some Elvis Presley moves, and the audience just ate it up, including even the choral director from out of town who happened to be sitting next to me.
The comedy and good a cappella harmonies of the Eclectics were followed by a complete change of pace, an orchestral setting of “Silent Night.” It was beautiful and delicate — almost pensive — as it began with Alice Lenaghan’s flute and Patty Leftridge on the piano. Eventually the strings took over from the flute, and the brass took over from them, but my continuing impression was that it was all simply lovely.
The subsequent performance of “O Holy Night” took a traditional approach. It was the chorus that provided the build in intensity: the orchestral part was understated and beautifully supportive. When it was over, I wrote in my notes that it had been arranged and performed “respectfully” — essentially an acknowledgment of the tradition that has built up around this piece.
In a departure from music that might be called “seasonal,” but certainly in keeping with the spirit of the season and the times, the next selection was “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” It began (and ended) with a heart-felt solo by Terri Ragan Hudson. But what was immediately striking about the presentation was the display of a video on the scrim behind the chorus. The video began with shots of the earth from space, then landscapes from the air, then flowers, and finally people of different races. The beautiful arrangement started with just piano and strings accompanying the soloist, and when the chorus came in, the effect was just stunning. There is only one verse to this much-loved music, so the chorus repeated it, ending with an a cappella section, followed by the soloist, and concluding with piano and strings, as the song had begun. I think it must have been the emotional peak of the concert for most in the audience.
Or maybe not. Every concert I can remember by the Placer Pops Chorale has included a solo by its director, Lorin Miller. For the next piece he began directing the orchestra for what might have been 10 or 15 seconds. Then he stepped off the podium, took up a microphone and began singing “His Love Is All I See.” Again, it was not quite seasonal, in that there was no mention of the birth of Jesus. But in dealing with Jesus’ ministry, it was clearly appropriate. As Miller sang, one could see the gestures and attitude of a music minister. (Miller has the title of Associate/Worship Pastor at Auburn Grace Community Church.) The song was sensitively, even passionately performed, and when it concluded Miller’s sincerity and fine tenor voice earned murmurs of approval from the audience before the applause began.
We in the audience were expecting a big finale to this concert, and we got it in Dan Forest’s unusual arrangement of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” It began with a pulsating beat from the orchestra as the men of the chorus sang the first verse. Then the women started the second verse and were joined by the men mid-way. It built to a big sound from both orchestra and chorus, culminating in an ending that can only be described as “triumphant.”
The concert didn’t end there, however. With accompaniment from just winds and strings, the chorus began performing a lovely song I’d never heard before. I found out later (thanks, Don Roberts) that it is titled: “Celtic Christmas Blessing, with Silent Night, Holy Night” by Keith & Kristyn Getty and arranged by Daniel Semsen. It struck me as a perfect vehicle for this chorus, and it ended with one of the most sensitive performances of “Silent Night” that I have witnessed — sung a cappella and with a beautiful balance and blend that showed this chorus at its best and that will bring most of those 3,000 people back to hear the Placer Pops Chorale & Orchestra next May.