The Sacramento Choral Calendar
From Heaven on High - December 20, 2015
by Winslow Rogers
Schola Cantorum’s Sunday-afternoon carol service was one of the most intense and moving Christmas concerts I can remember. They carried out their goal of Christian ministry through music with a concert that had emotional impact even for non-believers. Their wide appeal was obvious from the large and enthusiastic audience at the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Catholic) Church in Sacramento. I am told that the Saturday evening performance was just as popular.
Sacred Heart is a large Romanesque church building with high ceilings that seats about 600 people. As choral singers know, this acoustic environment produces a beautiful reverberant sound, but one that must be carefully controlled in order for the lyrics and the harmonies to be clear.
Schola Cantorum knows this space intimately. They are the church choir at Sacred Heart and sing at the 11:00 a.m. mass every Sunday. Because they sing together so often they are a close-knit ensemble that produces a seamless balanced sound. The group is made up of experienced singers who enjoy the challenge provided by the amount and quality of their repertoire.
The choir is directed by its founder Dr. Donald Kendrick, distinguished Music Director of the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra, and Director of Choral Activities at Sacramento State University. In our region his 30-voice Schola Cantorum is just as outstanding among smaller groups as the Sacramento Choral Society is among larger groups. The printed program summarizes Schola’s many accomplishments over 24 years, including tours, broadcasts, recordings, and by-invitation performances before both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The concert of more than an hour and a half consisted of twenty-five songs and carols sung without applause, without soloists, and without a break, followed by an organ finale. You can see the list of songs in the program, along with complete texts and translations. James McCormick, speaking for the group at the beginning, asked us to hold our applause until after the last carol, since music is best created “on a canvas of silence.” I knew from this remark that I was in for something special.
The two words that kept occurring to me during the concert were "serene" and "radiant." The numbers were deliberately chosen to be for ensemble only — no solos, not even short ones, not even where I most expected one, on “O Holy Night.” The silence between numbers and the lack of solo voices helped me tune out some of the normal distractions of a choral concert and connect intimately with the music.
This is a masterful a cappella choir, and I thought that their most memorable a cappella pieces were “The Shepherd’s Carol,” arranged by Bob Chilcott, and Stephen Caracciolo’s “There is No Rose.” Their singing was often enhanced by the accompaniment of flute, harp, and organ. Kendrick had modified the arrangements to make good use of this ensemble. They created beautiful effects without ever taking center stage. The flutist was Cathie Apple, the harpist Beverly Wesner-Hoehn, and the organist was Ryan Enright.
With so many songs, I can give only an overview and note some highlights. There was no “big number.” Each piece told a part of the Christmas story in its own way. There were different moods among the pieces, and different musical styles, but I was more aware of continuities between the pieces than differences. The songs seemed to me like separate panels of a large stained-glass window.
The concert began in darkness, with a 13th century plainsong sung from the back of the sanctuary. The women sang, then the men, and then it became more complex with the men and women singing together and the organ joining in. They walked down the aisle singing “Once in Royal David’s City,” and formed into antiphonal groups at the front of the sanctuary on the two sides of the aisle for “Hodie, Christus Natus Est.” After this number the lights came up and the choir, dressed in formal black, moved up into the chancel.
Most of the titles were familiar, as you can see by the program, but their musical vocabularies were rich and complex. The group sang arrangements by many well-known modern choral composers. There were also original compositions, including selections from Dale Warland’s “Nativity Suite.” “Angels Tell the Christmas Story,” a lovely original carol written and arranged by Matthew Archer, had a sprightly asymmetrical rhythm, with alternating 6/8 and 4/8 measures (as if Bernstein had written “I like to be in A-mer-i”).
The less familiar songs were in the first half of the program, and as the concert proceeded the songs got more familiar to me. The musical textures continued to be unusual. My notes on the later songs often noted “simple structure with a variety of textures.” “Silent Night,” one of the last songs, sounded new in Matthew Culloton’s arrangement. The song did not simply get softer and fade away, but it rose to a full-voiced climax in the last verse before its quiet ending.
The program was interspersed with sing-alongs and readings from Scripture that were effective changes of pace. The sing-alongs gave us chances to stand up, stretch our limbs and our voices, and have the brief experience of singing under Donald Kendrick in this wonderful space. We sang more verses of these songs than in ordinary holiday sing-alongs, and it sounded to me as if there were many experienced singers in the audience. The conclusion of “O Come All You Faithful” was so powerful that a woman in front of me thrust her arms into the air on the last note in silent celebration. I certainly understood how she felt.
The three brief Biblical readings also enhanced the program. They gave three perspectives on the Christmas story: Mary being told that she would bear God’s child, the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, and the overarching meaning of Christ’s birth (“the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”). You didn’t have to be a practicing Christian to find this narrative powerful and moving. I was struck by the intimacy of the readings, especially the Annunciation, when the innocent young Mary is overwhelmed by the strange message the Angel brings her. The readers were choir members John McIntyre, Megan Scroggins, and Steven Strömgren.
When the last carol ended (“We Wish You a Merry Christmas”) there was a tumultuous response by the audience after our long silence. Organist Ryan Enright launched into the well-known Widor “Toccata,” and I started reaching for my jacket and hat. Kendrick was passing down the aisle during the choir recessional, however, and he motioned to us to stay in our seats and appreciate the performance. Indeed, this was no afterthought but a breathtaking performance by Enright. It earned another ovation from the enthusiastic crowd. As we walked out into the foyer we were in a lively crowd of people talking and buying CDs, and the singers were handing out peppermint candies, a nice touch after this intense and beautiful experience.
I am grateful to have had the chance to experience this performance, so musically and spiritually powerful. Schola Cantorum provides a serene and radiant Christmas message, as I said, one that is unique in this era of showmanship and commercialization.
Winslow Rogers is retired from a career as university professor, academic administrator, and guest artist series producer. He sings in choral groups in Nevada County, and welcomes the chance to review for the Sacramento Choral Calendar. It enables him to enjoy choral groups large and small, classical and popular, local and world-renowned.