The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Children's Chorus
The Art of Song - May 3, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
The Carmichael Seventh-day Adventist Church was the venue for the spring concert of the Sacramento Children’s Chorus (SCC), and the audience nearly filled this very large church, which has been hosting this concert for some 20 years. The proceedings began when the Cantus, Cantoris and Cappella Girls nearly filled the risers at the back of what was, for this afternoon, the concert “stage.” They sang “Without a Song,” making a pleasant ensemble sound, mostly in unison with a descant part. At the conclusion, SCC’s Artistic Director and Conductor Lynn Stevens blew them a kiss, as she did on more than one occasion this afternoon.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
As the first group of singers cleared the risers, Cappella, the high school-age chorus, processed down the aisles of the church, singing without accompaniment the first of two Shaker hymns. What struck me was the maturity of their sound, particularly that of the 8 boys, who included some excellent basses. They were disciplined and serious, and that demeanor carried into the next piece, an “Ave Maria” by Tomas Luis de Victoria. It was more challenging music, still performed a cappella, and demonstrating good balance and refined vocal technique. I felt they sounded as good as any small adult choir. Others must have agreed with me because, as they concluded, I heard spontaneous exclamations from the audience, including an involuntary “beautiful” from someone behind me.
The next selection from Brahms Requiem, usually translated as “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place,” was sung in English. It included the challenge of longer phrases and more expressiveness, and it was a satisfying performance, including those of us in the audience who knew this piece very well. Then came a complete change of pace. Smiles broke out among the singers, and they struck more relaxed postures as they sang, “I Bought Me a Cat.” The song included humorous (but still musical) animal sounds that delighted both the singers and the audience, who responded with extended applause.
The next part of the program was a one of several highlights of the afternoon for me and which was thoroughly entertaining. It began with several parent stagehands covering the church’s organ with the sides and roof of a gingerbread house, decorated with paper gingerbread men, lollipops and other sweets. A glance at the program explained it in a minute: we were to have excerpts from Humperdinck’s opera, Hansel and Gretel. The Cantate and Cantabile choirs were directed by Julie Adams, and as they sang the first segment, “Dance with Me,” Hansel and Gretel (Charles Sander and Audrey Felsted) acted to the music. They were dressed in facsimiles of lederhosen and a dirndl, and I have to say that the two children acted beautifully, mostly as mimes. Up on the risers, the singers were doing their own acting, tapping their feet, twirling, snapping their fingers, turning their heads from side to side or shooting their arms in the air — as the music dictated. It was charming.
The second “act” included the familiar “Evening Prayer” (“Fourteen Angels”). It seemed to me like difficult music for the children, but they carried it off well. And as they sang, Hansel and Gretel were on their knees facing the audience, hands together in an attitude of prayer: it must have tugged on the heartstrings of every parent in the audience.
There was a dramatic mood change when prominent local actress and opera singer, Carrie Hennessey, peeked around the corner at the back of the stage as the witch, and then shrieked and sang as she put all the singers on the risers to sleep, and chased Hansel and Gretel (and Director Julie Adams) off the stage. She was quite a sight with costume, hair and make-up that were wild and indescribable, though I did take note of her purple tennies. She raced down the aisle of the church as if riding her broom, and raced back, with screams that I would have thought an opera singer would try to avoid. After all her cavorting, Hansel and Gretel pushed her into an imaginary oven, the choir awoke and sang, and everyone lived happily ever after. The audience was ecstatic and greeted the end of the “opera” with extended applause and cheers.
After an admittedly hard act to follow, Cantus (5th to 9th graders) performed a set of serious music. I was immediately aware of the pleasing sound they produced, and I noticed, not just their vocal control, but the discipline they expressed as they sang. Clearly they had been well prepared by director Melanie Huber. The Schubert was especially impressive, since it was sung in German. As they performed, I reflected on what a maturing and learning experience this was for these children — and how wonderful it would be if many, many more had this opportunity.
Before going further, I want to note that the set of music performed by Cantus was all accompanied, as was most of the music performed this afternoon. Pianists Helen Mendenhall, David Saul Lee, and Meagan Killpatrick-Milburn played brilliantly in support of the many musical styles performed by the children. Lee and Kilpatrick-Milburn also accompanied on other instruments, sometimes joined by Kari Estrada, Davis Bartoe, and Tim Stephenson. (See the program for details.)
The slightly older Cantoris choir next took the risers, singing first in Latin with good articulation and excellent handling of long phrases, then in French with surprisingly good pronunciation and with a sensitivity that blossomed into a beautiful final chord. The third piece of their set, a contemporary setting of the “Gloria” by Orban, was more difficult by an order of magnitude. It was filled, as the program states, with “offbeat rhythms, harmonies and musical playfulness.” That this sophisticated music would be described as one of their favorites says a lot about these young singers. Someone near me echoed my thoughts when, as the singing finished and the applause rose, they said simply, “Wow!”
Leading off the second half of the concert were the two youngest choirs. They began with “Dry Bones” (with non-traditional lyrics), and it was terribly cute to see what happened when “dem bones walked around.” The next piece, “Chickery Chick,” a “nonsense song” with silly words, was even more impressive than funny, considering how hard those words must have been to learn.
Then the Cantus choir was up again for a two-song set. I have to say that, listening to the first, “I’ve Got the World on a String,” it felt a little strange to see kids this young repeat the line “I’m in Love.” Not only were the words a bit mature, but it was a jazz arrangement. I was mildly surprised to see how well the choir carried it off, handling a scat section with no problem. The next piece, “Goin’ to Boston,” has an interesting story behind it (see the program). In contrast to the previous selection, it was lively music, cute and funny, enhanced with finger snaps and handclaps.
What followed was, for me, another of the concert’s highlights. It was the first of two songs from Cantoris. Now, I understand that these kids are 7th to 10th graders, but their performance felt like that of a much older group. “Shoo Shoo Baby” was an Andrews Sisters hit from 1943, and it was performed with such engaging style. The success of this piece was set up by soloist Anna Crumley, who displayed a very mature, lovely voice, and sang with disarming style and stage presence. The rest of the choir carried the spirit with a gentle swaying and a styling that really put the song across. When they finished, the audience erupted in cheers and hoots to accompany the applause. What followed was a medley from The Sound of Music, also performed with great animation and featuring many other excellent solo voices.
I have to insert an aside here. The program notes that the Sound of Music medley was arranged by Walter Ehret. That was a pleasant shock for me because he was the high school choir teacher in Scarsdale, New York who started me singing in a chorus (initially against my will) in 1962. He was a kind, ambitious, inspirational man, who told me that he had “written more on the adolescent voice than anyone else” and who influenced many generations of singers. After being out of contact with him for more than 40 years, I had the great good fortune of reconnecting with him toward the end of his long, productive life. Considering how I feel about him now, I can imagine how these children will think years from now about those in the Sacramento Children's Chorus who have nurtured their skill in and love for singing.
The Cappella choir, the oldest group, was next, first giving a sweet rendition of “Love Is Here to Stay” that they really seemed to enjoy and that was full of sweet harmonies. Then came the Big Band sound of “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Aided by saxophone, trumpet and drums, the kids really got into it, actually bouncing as they sang. What a thrill it was to see these young people so enjoy such wonderful music from a bygone era. Director Lynn Stevens had been masterful in leading songs throughout the afternoon, directing with great expressiveness. But this time was different. She was a virtual dynamo, and when it was over, while the audience was cheering and yelling, I heard her say (out of breath), “That’s so fun.”
That’s one of the many virtues of the Sacramento Children’s Chorus. Along with the discipline, hard work, confidence building, and satisfaction in success — the children learn how much fun singing and performing can be. That made the next item on the program all the more poignant. The eight seniors who would be leaving the organization were called out front. Individually they told their names, how long they had sung with SCC, and what would be next for them in their young lives. Each got a flower and a hug from Stevens, not to mention the appreciation and encouragement of the audience. Then Carrie Hennessey came forward, still in character as the witch at first, to give an inspirational talk about what music had meant in her life and how much she admired SCC for demonstrating “the importance of the unamplified human voice.” She followed this with a pitch for donations, especially for the SCC’s scholarship fund.
The last song of the concert involved all the choirs on stage as they sang “Oye la Musica” with a gentle rocking beat. It was almost anticlimactic, but there was more. Julie Adams, director of the Cantate and Cantabile choirs would be leaving the organization after 7 years. Stevens paid her tribute, and then all the singers — plus Stevens and many others — sang “Thanks for the Memories.” Not surprisingly, many tears were shed.
There were a lot of proud parents and grandparents in the audience for this exceptional concert. But there were also many like myself who, without any formal connection to the Sacramento Children’s Chorus, got a glimpse of the excellence that it fosters and of the deep feelings of love and mutual respect that feed its extraordinary spirit.