The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Gay Men's Chorus
He! Ha! Ho! A Down-Home Holiday Show - December 6, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
Everyone attending this concert knew that the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus would be putting on a western-themed or “country” show since “down-home” was in the title. But I don’t think we expected Sacramento’s venerable First United Methodist Church to be as completely transformed as it was. There was an enormous (fake) fireplace elevated and at the back of the altar with boots hanging like Christmas stockings. An easy chair was set up in the middle of a “stage” in front of risers that were designed to not look like risers. There was a kitchen table with 2 chairs and a rocking chair and table at “stage right” — and a tall, heavily decorated Christmas tree far to “stage left.” The seven instrumentalists were in Western dress and cowboy hats. And recorded country western music was playing as we in the audience took our seats.
MC and TV personality Rob Stewart (of “Rob on the Road” fame on KVIE) greeted us with a “Hi y’all” and offered words of welcome and introduction. Then several costumed chorus members, who had been seated in the audience, started the show with a brief sketch that included jokes and a little singing. This set up the entrance of the chorus, who proceeded into the church from the back, strutting down the aisles singing “Pearl’s Down-Home Holiday.” It was a bouncy tune that got the audience clapping in time as the chorus took their places on the “risers.” They were all sporting different western outfits: jeans (of course), many with big buckles; mostly plaid shirts; suspenders here and there; and nearly everyone with a cowboy hat. Then for a final touch of realism, many had their thumbs stuck in the waist of their pants or in their pockets.
Stewart had explained that the first part of the show would be dramatized, and the idea of the sketch was that these guys had dropped in to visit Pearl (Martha Kight), to reminisce with her while keeping her company and boosting her spirits, since she was alone for the holidays. There wasn’t much of a plot; just enough to set up each succeeding song, but Kight played her part beautifully and believably.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The second song of the set, “Sleigh Ride,” established the chorus as a solid men’s ensemble with excellent tone and balance, confidently navigating through a section sung as a canon or round. I’ve heard many concerts in this church, enough to convince me that it has very live acoustics, and most of those concerts were performed with minimal sound reinforcement. But I think I can call the sound reinforcement of this concert “aggressive.” Every note or word was clear and in a proper balance, and the contractor, The Right Music, deserves a lot of credit for making that happen.
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” brought another complete change of pace, with four fine incidental solos and an a cappella section that demonstrated a beautiful blend in the chorus. This was followed by a two-person skit – handled delicately and with gentle humor — in which a cowboy confides to Pearl about his “coming out.” Then the 16-member Boy Howdy ensemble performed “A Cowboy Kislev” — a rollicking song about a dredl, full of gags, like the one singer who lifted his cowboy hat so that his “payot” or side locks of hair could fall down. At one point the singers linked arms for an interlude in which they performed choreography reminiscent of an Israeli folk dance. Needless to say, the audience roared its approval.
Throughout this part of the “concert,” there was a lot of interaction with the audience, like getting us to say “howdy” loud enough so that it could be heard in Modesto. But the real audience participation was yet to come. The words to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” were in our programs, and with 2 soloists singing the verses from the aisles of the church, we all joined in the refrain — and it didn’t take much encouragement to get us to do so, judging from the enthusiastic participation of people sitting around me.
The story line turned to Pearl’s being sad at being alone at Christmas time, and after a fine bit of acting, Martha Kight, gave a performance of “Blue Christmas” that not only showed her fine singing voice but brimmed with genuine emotion. “Hard Candy Christmas” was another sad Christmas song that featured many excellent solo voices.
“Lovin’ You Lots and Lots” got the lighting turned from a melancholy blue to a festive red, and the music was once again high-spirited. This piece also got the whole chorus moving, performing their characteristic “choralography” with cowboy-themed choreographed movements. It made quite a show.
Maybe it sounds a little corny to put it in writing, but the theme of this first part of the concert was “love” — and I thought it was handled in a skillful, and even a moving way. The skit before “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” included the line “You can’t choose your relatives, but you can choose your family” — and it got warm applause from the audience. A few minutes after this, when Act 1 was closing, Rob Stewart emphasized that theme of “love” in these words: “You’re in a place of love here. You’re never alone.”
I’d say that the audience on this Sunday afternoon was a very diverse one: gay and straight, old and young (even a fair number of children), conventional and counter-culture (if that dichotomy has meaning anymore) — and the show got them all emotionally involved. That’s what good acting does, both on the part of Martha Kight and the chorus members — not to mention a good script. And the credit for that goes to Neil Treganza, who also served as Coordinating Director for the show, while Artistic Director Steven Johnson worked his magic with music. I should point out that the whole show was signed, and I have to add that the signers were terrific, especially Cameron Eggers, whose grand gestures — essentially waist-up choreography — turned signing into an art form.
The first number after intermission was “Text Me Merry Christmas.” It was an elaborate, clever number starting with solid singing (and acting) by soloists Dalton McNeely and Austin Othman, spirited performing by the Boy Howdy ensemble, and a grand entrance by the rest of the chorus, during which they came down the aisles of the church — most armed with cell phones — interacting with the audience and occasionally taking selfies with them.
For this second half of the concert the chorus were all dressed in dark pants and long-sleeve white shirts with bolo ties and red vests. They took a sentimental turn with the next song, “Sending You a Little Christmas.” It had an uplifting message, which featured fine solo work by Kay Hight and Heather Mercer.
Hilarity reigned again in the next song, “Christmas Angles,” during which half of the Boy Howdy troupe sang variations on “I hate Christmas,” while the other half countered with “Christmas is my favorite time of year.” It was another song by Eric Lane Barnes (who composed the earlier “A Cowboy Kislev”) — a prolific and clever composer whose work is widely used by gay choruses. This song involved a lot of horsing around, a lot of props — and it was genuinely funny.
Now it was time for a Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus tradition: the “Silver Bells” Mad Lib. To start it off, the audience were asked to call out parts of speech. (“Give me a noun,” Give me a color,” “Give me an adjective,” “Give me the name of a holiday,” etc.) Then Patrick Van, who plays this role year after year and who had been sequestered offstage, came out to sing “Silver Bells” with the new words inserted at key points. This interlude in the concert was fun for everyone and generated a lot of laughs.
The next piece was special. “Hallelujah, I Believe” was written by Jim Brickman and Victoria Shaw, first published earlier this year, and featured on Brickman’s new Christmas album. It is also being featured in his tour, which brought him to Sacramento on November 28. He needed backup singers for this song, so who got the nod? The Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus — and Vox Musica (to provide the women’s parts), along with some members of the Sacramento City College choruses. You can actually see and hear these groups performing another song with Brickman — “Sending You a Little Christmas” — at this link. As for “Hallelujah, I Believe,” it featured familiar sounding words and music with a gentle, rocking beat and nice solo work by Joe Engle, Kay Hight, and Heather Mercer. My personal opinion is that it’s destined to become a Christmas classic.
“A New Year’s Carol” was another truly lovely song with an uplifting sentiment. It was commissioned and premiered just a year ago by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Composed by immensely popular neo-classical composer Ola Gjeilo, this was unlike any of his other work that I have been exposed to, and it may well be another song destined to become a holiday classic. You can read the story behind the piece at this link — and see the lyrics written by Charles Anthony Silvestri. As for this afternoon’s performance, it was artful and moving, with a good articulation of the words. And versatile accompanist Kay Hight performed the challenging piano part with impressive skill.
Next was a solo of “Behold the Star” with Lorenzo Ramsey. He continued the run of excellent soloists, capturing the audience’s attention with his imposing presence and a good voice that he occasionally turned loose to reveal considerable power.
Another piece by Gjeilo followed. “Ubi Caritas” was, of course, in Latin with text and translation in the concert program. Gjeilo reports that this short a cappella piece, composed in 1999, was one of his first choral compositions, inspired by Duruflé’s setting of the text. The chorus’s performance of it was simply magnificent, giving life to the great sensitivity embodied in the music. And if one read the translation while it was being sung, one could see how well it carried on the concert’s theme of “love.”
There was an extraordinary variety of musical styles in this very entertaining concert. But one thing was consistent: the quality of the choral sound produced. Listening to “Ubi Caritas,” I wrote in my notes that it “…left no doubt (as if there had been any) that this is a top-quality men’s chorus.”
“Silent Night” was yet another emotional experience for many in the audience. With lighting subdued, the organ and violin played the tune. Then the audience was invited to sing with the chorus. Then the music stopped, and the chorus performed the text of the song in American Sign Language. It was truly a “silent night” for a few moments, and at the end the lights went all the way down to emphasize the effect. The concert could have ended there, but this chorus is too effervescent for that. They gave a stirring rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” followed by a well-earned standing ovation.
Director Steven Johnson is developing a reputation for encores that keep the fun going. So, instead of letting us go our various ways when the applause began to subside, we got a lively performance of “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” replete with choralography. The audience did its part by clapping to the beat, and the chorus, still singing, proceeded down the aisles the same way they had entered. But they didn’t leave. Instead, they lingered after the singing and applause stopped to interact with audience members. But that was only after the last thematic words that came over the PA system: “Happy holidays you all!” Indeed.