The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sierra College Chamber Choir & Concert Choir
Winter Choral Concert - December 2, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
There was a little tension in this concert – more than the typical concert – because there had been a recent change in the director. Sarah McQueen-Cunningham had had to withdraw during the semester and Mariia Pechenova greeted us as her replacement, having assumed her position on November 4 – less than a month before this concert. Pechenova immigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia in 2012, is on the faculty of Folsom Lake College and is currently the director of Cantare Chorale in Placerville. She earned a Master of Arts in conducting from St. Petersburg State University and had extensive conducting experience in Russia before coming here. She has performed as a soloist, and serves as a church pianist and organist. So clearly she was eminently qualified to take over the Sierra College choirs – as we were about to see.
From the start, I found this concert particularly interesting because a glance at the program revealed that most of the music was new to me. Also notable was the fact that, three weeks short of Christmas, only a couple of the selections were seasonal – and I found that refreshing.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
First on the program was the 16-voice Chamber Choir. Their first piece, “Oh How Beautiful, This Finely Woven Earth” was performed without a director (Pechenova had withdrawn offstage), but the Chamber Choir, all 16 in one line across the stage, stayed together, performing it from memory (as was the case with most of the music in this concert). It was a lovely song, with contemporary harmonies, and the singers produced a nice blend on what had to be difficult chords. Also, I could make out a lot of good individual voices, in particular an excellent high soprano.
The Schubert (“An Die Sonne”) was competently directed by Brian Brome, a member of the Choir. This piece was the “serious” part of the program, and though the group sang some parts with more confidence than others , I wasn’t persuaded that their hearts were fully in it. Besides, it seemed a bit long for this kind of concert. But then, this is an educational institution, and I would think that part of the mission of the Choir would be to expose students to a variety of musical styles and languages (in this this case, German).
The next piece, “Hymn of Axciom,” was directed from within the Choir by Bailey Walatka, and the arrangement was by prolific jazz arranger Kerry Marsh (recently on the faculty of Sac State). Along with its jazz stylings, it was a gentle piece, performed a cappella. The lyrics were hard to grasp but seemed rather inspirational – certainly they were sung with great feeling. I checked out the song on the Internet when I got home, and I found the poem pretty obscure. It’s to the Choir’s credit that they sold it so well.
One other thing I should note before going further. This evening’s accompanist was David Saul Lee, an immensely talented and versatile musician. In just the past year I’ve seen him accompany the Oakmont High School Choir on piano; play the flute, trumpet and piano in accompanying the Sacramento Children’s Chorus; sing (beautifully) with RSVP; and provide piano accompaniment for the California Music Educators Association Middle School Honors Choir. And I’m sure that’s just a tiny fraction of his public appearances. His playing tonight was outstanding, and considering his experience and talent, his smile of approval after the Choir finished their singing of the “Hymn of Axciom” meant a lot – to me and I hope to the singers.
It wasn’t until the fourth and last song by the Chamber Choir (“Where Is Love”) that Pechenova stood in front of them and directed. She took command and led with confidence and an air of experience that seemed beyond her young age. The Choir embraced this touching song from the musical Oliver! with sensitive soft singing, rising to a climax – without oversinging – and then returned to gentle, delicate ending. As the audience applauded, Pechenova commented, “I think they’re pretty good” – and we thought so, too.
With the short time available to prepare for this concert, Pechenova and the singers had to come up with a creative approach to their scheduled winter concert. The answer was to rely on a segment with small ensembles. (See the program for the names of the individual performers.) Accordingly, the Chamber Choir was followed by a solo of “Love Me Tender” – delivered with good stage presence and a solid pop singing style that featured some bluesy embellishments. Next was “White Winter Hymnal” from a mixed quartet. It sounded to me almost like a modern madrigal: pleasant music, well delivered with an excellent blend among the singers and good articulation.
The duet in “Carol for Advent” was the first seasonal selection, with accompaniment by piano and violin played by Shilla Varasteh, a student at Rocklin High School. She had been recruited at the last minute and was sight-reading her part an hour before the performance. I learned this afterwards and never had a clue while she was playing: to me, she performed flawlessly. The piece itself was charming, incorporating “What Child Is This?” and with good work on the part of all the other performers, though I thought Lee did an especially impressive job on the beautiful piano part.
Next, a mixed octet sang “In the Bleak Midwinter.” I’ve heard many arrangements of this song, and this difficult arrangement with its jazz harmonies now ranks as one of my favorites. Considering how well these young people did with this song – especially in the lovely, long a cappella section in which they held pitch perfectly – I began to have suspicions. I checked when I got home, and sure enough, nearly all 8 had performed in the Sierra College Vocal Jazz Recital on November 6.
“Find the Cost of Freedom,” performed by a trio, made an interesting end to the small ensemble section of the concert. It seemed to me to have a Celtic ring to it, and it was sung with passion. With the clearly articulated words, I realized it was a protest song about war. Then it struck me: two men and a blond woman between them. It was a modern-day Peter, Paul & Mary. (For you young people who might be reading this, go to YouTube and watch Peter, Paul & Mary singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and you’ll see why Wednesday night’s trio took me back 50 years.) It wasn’t until I checked after the concert that I learned that the song, written by Stephen Stills, was introduced in 1970 in response to the Kent State shootings, and recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The Concert Choir came on to perform the last 5 selections in the program. From the look of the 40-member mixed chorus, there were quite a few non-students in the group – a nice thing to see. They began by performing a setting of “Agnus Dei” that was unfamiliar to me. It was a modern-sounding arrangement and sensitively sung, so pleasant that I was sorry it didn’t last longer.
“By the Waters” was yet another song I had not heard, melodic and gentle like so many on this program. In this piece I noticed how good the chorus's balance was, especially when they were singing forte. I was also struck with how highly focused each singer was on the director. Pechenova herself comes off as a modest and ingenuous person, qualities that win over audiences and singers. But as I watched her maintain close eye contact with the chorus in this piece, mouthing the words for them, it was clear that it was her own intensity (and the talent behind it) that was responsible for the rapt attention of her singers.
“Tatkovina” was next. Like the first two pieces performed by the Concert Choir, it was accompanied by piano, but for this song, violinist Shilla Varasteh returned. The lyrics were in an unfamiliar language (I later learned it was Macedonian). And language notwithstanding, the Choir performed the piece from memory – and with confidence. These first three songs were so pleasant, so mellow that I could imagine the singers humming them as they left rehearsal – and long after, I would bet.
The next selection, “Guantanamera,” featured expanded accompaniment with the addition of Brett Cole on bass guitar and Patrick Lema on drums. This piece really rocked (but gently), and with the beat, the chorus really loosened up. They moved to the music and broke out in smiles, and the piece was as much fun for the audience as it was for them.
For the finale of “One World” the Chamber Choir returned to the stage to join the Concert Choir. Later I found this description of the piece on the Internet: “The lyrics were written from the perspective of a child, dreaming of a world where ‘all is right’ and of a world that is ‘a place of harmony, where love abounds, and hope is found, and music rings the whole world round.’ This song is a call to unity and brotherhood and tolerance for all.” That describes the piece well, and the combined choirs delivered its inspirational lyrics with good articulation.
So ended a concert that might have seemed shaky at the start, but that was by every measure a success. The 450-seat Dietrich Theatre seemed about 2/3 filled, and throughout the evening the audience was supportive and enthusiastic. Why wouldn’t we be? We were treated to a concert that was delightful from beginning to end.