The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Children's Chorus
Après le Noёl: Our American Journey - February 8, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
What do you think of when you hear the term "children's chorus"? I've heard some excellent children's choruses, but what I heard Sunday night was something different. For one thing, this concert was not just for parents and family: it was a delightful experience for anyone who appreciates good choral music. The generic title, “Après le Noël,” might have been a little misleading. For some, the French might have signaled esoteric music or at least something like folk music in foreign languages. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bolstered by inspired and heart-warming contributions from adult choir, RSVP (Reconciliation Singers Voices of Peace), this concert was a smorgasbord of accessible, crowd-pleasing music, nearly all of it from American composers of the past 150 years. And it was all expertly performed.
The dress of the choirs was, to me, an indication of excellence that was to come. I watched the 42-member Cantoris choir (7th to 10th grade) enter and take their seats: girls in red tops, black slacks and pearl necklaces; boys in formal shirts with red bowties and black vests and slacks. Then when the 27 members of the Cappella choir (10th grade to college) started the concert singing in procession from the back of St. John's Lutheran Church, I was struck with their dress: young women in black and white gowns and pearl necklaces, young men in formal shirts, black ties and vests. They were dressed to impress, but their sound was the most impressive — a blend and tone easily comparable to a good adult choir.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The first two Shaker hymns established the competence of this choir, and then with "I Bought Me a Cat" it was all fun for singers and audience, with the music punctuated by animal sounds, each drawing laughter from the audience. As I listened, I could discern that these were clearly young voices, which nonetheless projected a mature, controlled sound. Not only could I hear, but I could see the result of good vocal training: open mouths, shoulders that don't rise with breathing, and rapt attention to the director. Indeed, the whole concert was a tribute to the instruction provided by Sacramento Children’s Chorus faculty, including co-founder and director, Lynn Stevens, not to mention her creative programming and inspiring conducting.
In introducing the next piece, Randall Thompson's setting of Robert Frost's poem "Choose Something Like a Star," director Stevens explained that she and the choir had discussed the meaning of the poem, and she urged us in the audience to follow along with the words that had been printed in the program. Watching the singers even more closely after this, I got a strong feeling that they really understood what they were singing — another hallmark of a good choral performance. There was more though. I heard a stunning purity in some of the long-held soprano notes. And I was taken with the richness of the harmony. It was Randall Thompson's concept, of course, but the effect would have been lost without accurate singing, especially noticeable when these young people really nailed some difficult chords, making them ring.
The next set of music came from RSVP. At the opening of the concert, Sacramento Children's Chorus Executive Director, Daphne Quist explained that RSVP is "like family" to them: RSVP's current director, Jennifer Reason, was a former accompanist for the Sacramento Children's Chorus (SCC), and RSVP's founder and past director, Julie Adams, is now the director of two of SCC's other choirs, Cantate and Cantabile. If you're going to adopt a chorus as "family," RSVP is the one to choose. I've heard them perform many times in recent years, and their contributions to this concert were fresh, appealing — and even exciting, as I've come to expect from them.
"900 Miles" was an a cappella toe-tapper with lots of interesting vocal effects. "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" was full of syncopation, illustrating RSVP's characteristic high-quality, refined pop sound, full of fun. And speaking of fun, "Country Dances" was a folk-song tour de force, composed by the recently deceased Ward Swingle, founder of The Swingle Singers. It included riffs on more folk songs than I could count (15? 20?). To me, it was unbelievably complex and sophisticated, delivered with clear enunciation and high spirits. I couldn't stop smiling as they sang, and when they closed with the cute line, "Thanks for listening; that's all," many people in the audience rose to their feet in applause, in recognition of how difficult the song was and how well it had been performed.
The Cantoris choir next took the stage, giving a beautiful a cappella rendition of "How Can I Keep From Singing?" It started with a lovely unison tone, progressing to interlaced melodies that included "Amazing Grace." Then, with piano accompaniment, they performed the much more challenging "I See the Heaven's Glories Shine," by contemporary composer, Andrea Ramsey, with text from a poem by Emily Brontë (printed in the program). To my ear, the piece was full of dissonances, and Cantoris' accurate performance demonstrated their skill and earned them extended applause from the audience. (In my notes I wrote, "These kids are outstanding singers.")
What followed was something quite special — even touching. The girls and women of all the choirs (including RSVP) took the stage to perform "Stand in That River," a contemporary song written in folk music style (complete with banjo accompaniment) by Moira Smiley. What made it really endearing, though, were the two mother-daughter duets in the song, performed by Monica and Anna Crumley and Melanie and Maggie Huber. (What was that about RSVP being "family"?) As they sang, those on the risers held hands and swayed to the gentle beat of the lilting music. Then about 2/3 of the way through, the boys and men started singing from their seats and then moved to the stage for a rousing, pre-intermission climax.
RSVP began the second half with a jazz version of "California Dreamin'" that featured new member Noreen Barnett's soulful solo. Then there was Bobby McFerrin's "Baby" with solo by David Saul Lee that was one of the show-stoppers at last summer's SacSings! — Sacramento Choral Festival. Lee has emerged as one of the Sacramento area's most versatile, most visible musicians. I've seen him accompany and perform on many occasions, and on this night alone, he not only sang, but accompanied on piano and trumpet, just two of the instruments he plays. But it was his extraordinary falsetto in this song that drew cheers (especially from the SCC singers) when he finished.
Next the men and boys of all the groups took the stage to perform "Under the Boardwalk." This was a barbershop arrangement, performed with excellent harmony and blend in as mellow a listening experience as one could imagine. The young SCC members seemed to enjoy performing it as much as the men of RSVP, and we all enjoyed listening — including the young women of SCC who I glimpsed signing the words (?) from their seats. When it concluded, there were laughs and smiles from the singers and cheers from the audience.
With "Still I Rise," the girls and women exchanged places with boys and men, and delivered yet another high-energy, show-stopping performance. Aided by outstanding soloists from both SCC and RSVP, the combined choruses performed with great spirit, and spontaneous movement that couldn't be contained. The whole thing had the feel of a gospel revival. In my notes I wrote, "Who would have thought that a children's choir could ROCK!" Toward the end, there was rhythmic clapping by the chorus which was soon imitated by the audience. And when it ended the SCC boys stood up and cheered, as did many in the audience.
Cantoris gave us a change of pace with "America, the Beautiful" in a well-performed, multi-part arrangement that featured a girl's trio. You can check the names of individual performers in the attached program, but I have to single out boy soprano Sarabaesh Srikumar's performance as a highlight of this piece. Then Irving Berlin's "Play for Me a Simple Melody," was next, full of in-place choreography, that the kids seemed to love and that was, indeed, very cute.
Cappella returned for two more songs, starting with Mark Hayes' sophisticated arrangement of George and Ira Gershwin's "Love Is Here to Stay" — performed with accuracy and feeling, as before. Their final number, Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing" was, however, a dramatic departure from everything else in this concert — with no diminution of quality. Backed by 5 instrumentalists, including trumpet, trombone, and drums, the singers really loosened up. But in the resonant church, the brass just overwhelmed their singing. Yet one didn’t have to hear their words or notes: I could see from their faces and body language how much they were feeling (and expressing) that music. They loved what they were singing, and they really sold the song. And those of us who bought it (especially the members of RSVP sitting near me) cheered with the emotion that had been transferred from those on the stage.
Before the final song, Mac Clemmens, spoke to us about giving financial support to the Sacramento Children’s Chorus. He explained that he was a 10-year-old chorus member 21 years ago, and is now the CEO of a multi-million dollar high tech firm. He told how some of the things he learned with SCC — courage, creativity, and hard work — put him on a successful path from an early age. It was easily the best pitch for donations that I’ve heard at any concert, and you can hear an echo of the points he made in this 2-minute video from SCC’s 20th anniversary celebration a couple of years ago.
The culmination of this concert had all singers on stage performing “An Americana Songbook.” It was snatches from a wide variety of familiar songs, woven together, including: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot; He’s Gone Away; Cindy; Shenandoah; Red River Valley; When the Saints Go Marching In; etc. And we in the audience were invited to sing along on that last piece. Needless to say, spirits were sky-high when it was over, and of all the people standing and applauding, I think those with the most enthusiasm were the singers on the stage.
Call it “Après le Noël,” but there was absolutely nothing stuffy about this concert. It was approachable music, excellently performed, and a perfect demonstration of the joy of choral singing.