The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento City College, Choral Department
Among the Stars! - December 8, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
This concert was subtitled “An evening of choral music inspired by space, stars, light, and planets,” so I think we audience members were prepared for something out of the ordinary. And that is exactly what we got. Promptly at 7:30, many of the choir members picked up gloves and the kind of bells used by a bell choir. The singers spread themselves out along the side aisles of Sac City College’s Performing Arts Center, as well as along the length of both center aisles. The first piece in the concert, “Stasis,” began, not by ringing the bells, but by rubbing their edges with wooden dowels to make them “sing.” I couldn’t perceive an attempt to create a musical line or a chord or even an entrance or exit by a given player. And a little post-concert research proved that was correct. Among the composer’s detailed instructions for this piece included this: “All performers begin together and proceed independently” and “performers play any note in any order.” After a while, a very subtle hum arose from the singers, and eventually I perceived simultaneous hums on many different pitches. There was a very slow build in volume, and then an equally slow decay in both the humming and the “singing” of the bells. The effect of all this, aided by the disco ball overhead — whose reflections on the walls and floor were evocative of stars — was to leave us in the audience sort of spaced out. That was an appropriate beginning, but we were so nonplussed that we weren’t sure whether applause was appropriate: it would have broken the mood. A few moments later, as he began to address us, Director Daniel Paulson let us know it was OK applaud, so we did, thus breaking an uncomfortable silence.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
After “Stasis,” the singers proceeded to the stage where they took up positions on risers that had been set up in a horseshoe shape. Everyone was dressed in black: pants, jackets and t-shirts reading “Sac City College Choral Music” — all black. I believe this is the first local mixed chorus I’ve seen where there are more men than women. I should have said “choruses” because VOCALe (the 19-member auditioned chorus) was mixed on the risers with #COLLEGECHOIR (the non-auditioned, 31-member chorus that was unusually heavy on basses). The two choruses were generally on different levels of the risers, and as the program proceeded, songs were performed by one chorus, then by the other, then by both. It seemed strange to see people on the risers singing while others standing near them were not. But I liked this arrangement. It avoided a lot of movement, allowed for easy alternation between choruses, and most of all, it didn’t present one chorus as apparently inferior to the other.
The next selection in the program was “Planets, Stars, and Airs of Space.” This was represented as composed by J.S. Bach, which it clearly was, though the title must have been the invention of a later editor or arranger. The music itself, performed by VOCALe and accompanied on the harpsichord by Heather Razo, had the unmistakable charm of a Bach chorale.
There were no notes about the music in the program, though there were texts and translations. So Paulson made up for the lack of notes by giving us background on the pieces in each section of the concert before they were sung. From my experience hearing many concerts of his women’s ensemble, Vox Musica, I’ve come to understand that Daniel Paulson earnestly wants his audiences to have some understanding of the music they’re about to hear. And I’ve never left one of his concerts without the feeling that I have not only experienced, but learned a great deal.
For “Calme de Nuits” (“Stillness of the Night”), Paulson turned to one of the singers who shared his having heard that the night after the recent Paris attacks, the city was eerily quiet — which was the mood conveyed in this piece by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. In light of this coincidence, Paulson explained that they had decided to dedicate this performance to the victims of that attack.
“Sing Me to Heaven” was described by Paulson as a song that has “captured the hearts of many singers and listeners.” You can read the text in the attached program, but I must add that I found the words to this lovely song to be inspirational. It was performed a cappella by both choruses, and it appeared to me that the music inspired Paulson himself. In his directing, he seemed to be cherishing each word, each sound, each emotion.
Paulson is a serious advocate of new music, and accordingly nearly every one of his concerts features one or more premieres. Tonight “Jewel in the Night” was one. Composer Chris Hadfield is a Canadian astronaut, creator of the first original song for the International Space Station. His recording of “Jewel in the Night,” which gives an astronaut's thoughts about the earth below, was transcribed by Heather Razo and converted into an SATB arrangement, which was performed by #COLLEGECHOIR. The arrangement was impressive, as was the elaborate piano part which Razo created for herself.
For the next piece, “Conditor Alme Siderum” (“Creator of the Stars of Night”), we went back to the 17th century courtesy of composer Michael Praetorius — or you might say we went to the 7th century because of the anonymous text. It was performed in Latin and a cappella by VOCALe and, enjoying the music they were making, I wrote in my notes “This is a very competent chamber choir.”
By the time we got to “City Called Heaven,” I was reflecting on the remarkable variety in this concert. Paulson noted that this traditional spiritual is “a sorrow song in the style of surge singing.” According to my quick research, there seem to be different ideas about how to define “surge singing.” All I can conclude is that it is a style characteristic of many African-American spirituals. That said, this arrangement, performed by #COLLEGECHOIR, had a bluesy feel to it, with more dynamic range than most of the previous selections on the program. Soloist Chris Paisley did a very nice job on his part, though he should have been miked. And the poor guy was obviously nervous, playfully pretending to wipe off sweat after he returned to his position on the risers. As for the chorus, though, I bet they really enjoyed singing this soulful music.
In 1990 the Voyager 1 space probe took a famous picture of the earth from billions of miles away. In it, the earth is incredibly tiny. Inspired by this, astronomer Carl Sagan titled his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Many of Sagan’s ideas from this book have become popular, especially the selection that begins: “Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” Ed Rex composed music for Alice Newton’s adaptation of Sagan’s words, and the result was “On That Pale Blue Dot.” Paulson read the lyrics to us (as he had done for several previous selections) — to ensure that we would get the full impact of the music. And then the piece (which seemed to me to be quite difficult, especially for inexperienced singers) was performed a cappella by both choruses.
Then to compensate for the difficulty of the previous piece, #COLLEGECHOIR got to perform the familiar — but appropriate for the theme of this concert — “Fly Me to the Moon.”
The concert concluded with another premiere, a work by Paulson himself. He explained that he had collaborated with Natasha Kimeto 5 years ago to create “Aether.” He says his inspiration was astronauts’ descriptions of the sun, and you can see them in the 20 descriptors in the program. He also noted that astronauts see 16 sunsets and sunrises in each 24-hour period — and that fact, too, is included in this composition. Paulson directed it wearing headphones to fit in a missing part and ensure that the singers would be coordinated with an electronic drone (on a sound track) that was fundamental to this performance. The piece itself had both choruses performing without accompaniment and coordinating with the drone. They sang mostly on single notes to build chords, with rhythm coming from the sound track. It seemed very hard to sing, though the piece had a sense of growth and progression. Obviously, it sounded like what I used to call “experimental” music, and I had to conclude that it was singularly appropriate for the subject of this concert: it embodied the awe of space and a disconnectedness from human experience.
Daniel Paulson never stages a concert that is less than interesting and innovative. And I think his singers were with him on this eclectic journey. As I left the theater and entered the crowded lobby, full of family, friends and well-wishers, I was accosted by many of the singers, thanking me for coming. And what I sensed from them was that they were very proud of the experience they had shared with us.