The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sierra Master Chorale & Orchestra
Spring Concert - May 19, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
It’s been too long since I’ve attended a concert by the Sierra Master Chorale & Orchestra. Everything I’ve seen in the past from this group has been of the highest quality and thoroughly entertaining. That’s what I was looking for this time, and that’s what I got in this mixture of traditional and contemporary music.
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With the orchestra in place, Conductor Ken Hardin entered to welcoming applause, and they began the orchestral introduction to “Come, Ye Sons of Art.” As they played, the chorus filed in and took their places on the risers. Then as they began to sing, I was immediately struck by the fullness and richness of their sound, helped no doubt by the excellent acoustics of the Grass Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church. As the piece progressed, it felt like a feast of Baroque polyphony. That was no less true of the Handel which followed. I don’t recall having heard that piece before, but it was so clearly Handel’s style, and the chorus’s crisp, accurate runs made for delightful listening.
Hardin addressed the audience before proceeding to the excerpt from the Fauré Requiem, something he did throughout the concert, giving interesting background information on the music. In this case, he explained that John Rutter discovered that Fauré had a different concept of the work than that with which it is traditionally performed. The original setting used the lower strings, with the violin only in obligato. Being very familiar with this movement of Fauré's Requiem since college days, I was prepared for something different – and it was exquisite. This authentic performance left me wishing I could hear this group perform the rest of the Requiem in this way.
In his introduction to the Pärt piece, Hardin noted the significance of the "Salve Regina" text for those of the Catholic faith, and he alerted us to the emotional content of the music. Interestingly, Pärt composed it originally for only organ accompaniment. Then in 2011, he wrote a version for orchestra and celeste. At this point Hardin challenged us a bit. He said he doubted that anyone in the audience had heard the piece before and asked for a show of hands of those who had. No hands were raised. Then he added that this would be the only performance of Pärt‘s“Salve Regina” in the US in 2015. How did he know? The music has to be rented, and no other chorus and orchestra were on the rental list.
The orchestral beginning seemed introspective to me, and as the chorus entered, the pace of the music seemed conscientiously deliberate, not rushing through the interesting harmonies. The text, too, was delivered in a very measured way. It seemed to me that most of the choral part was written in whole notes — and tied whole notes, at that. The chorus had to be very alert in its counting, especially when moving by half-steps. It seemed to me that the effect of this was to draw attention to the text, giving the audience time to grasp and weigh the significance of the words. Soft, dark choral sections were punctuated by delicate orchestral interludes featuring interesting musical ideas, and the chorus didn't get to a forte until the latter part of the piece. As it drew to a close, there were dramatic pauses, ending with a whisper from the violins. The mesmeric effect of this music on the audience was finally broken by enthusiastic applause and scattered cheers.
The exuberance provided by the Gloria from Schubert's Mass in B-flat was a stark contrast to the Pärt. Brass and woodwinds returned to join the strings, and the chorus sang with passion, almost with abandon. Clearly, the music was great fun to sing: that much was evident from their faces. And as I scanned those faces, I noticed one woman who never looked down at her music and seemed to have the whole piece memorized. She continued in this way after intermission, such that I concluded that she must be blind. But then she used music for the next-to-last piece, so there went my theory. It was quite a feat of memorization, but come to think of it, it was no more than is required of every blind chorister.
With the conclusion of the Schubert, it was time for intermission, and as has been the case with every SMC concert that I have attended, that meant high-spirited fellowship — with refreshments — in a nearby hall. When the audience reassembled, Ken Hardin set the scene for “Elegischer Gesang." The piece was composed in 1814 by Beethoven as a heartfelt message to a friend whose 24-year-old wife had just died. Once again, I was taken aback by the richness of the strings in the sensitive adagio introduction to the piece. It was sung in German, mournfully beautiful, with flashes of passion. I noticed long pauses in this performance, as I had in the Pärt. It made me wonder whether they were as much the work of Conductor Hardin as of the composers. I've heard it said — and I believe — that the rests in music are as important as the notes and perhaps more so. Certainly, I saw pauses used often in this concert to great dramatic effect.
The text of “Set Me as a Seal” is taken from the Song of Solomon, and it has been used by several other composers. This piece was composed by Richard Nance in 1996 for the wedding of a friend, and it featured a hauntingly beautiful horn accompaniment by Cameron Kopf. From with the lovely melody in the first statement by the sopranos through to the end, this was a delightful introduction to this song for me.
In “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” we saw a new side of the chorus, which is so competent in delivering “serious” music. Their postures relaxed, and helped by the energetic piano work of Nancy McRay, they delivered an inspired, soul-filled performance that was great fun for everyone. Then continuing the fun and giving a further demonstration of their versatility, the chorus performed Jester Hairston’s “Poor Man Lazrus," a cappella and at an amazingly fast tempo, deftly spitting out the words and in complete control of the alternating piano and forte sections.
There was another complete change of mood with “Daemon Irrepit Callidus” (“The Devil Speaks Expertly”). Sinister-sounding as the title implies, it was performed a cappella in Latin. As I heard it unfold, I thought it must be fiendishly difficult to nail the pitches — which they did, along with the amazingly challenging rhythm. To me, this piece, as much as any other, was an exhibition of a virtuoso chorus — and conductor.
The clarinet at the beginning of “Sabbath Prayer” took me right to Anatevka. What stood out here was the simple beauty of the music. The slow tempo allowed one to appreciate the consistent tone in each section of the chorus, all coming together in a marvelous blend. The ethnic sound of this selection from Fiddler on the Roof, was continued in a way by “When You Believe,” which included full orchestration. This was the first time I’d heard this piece, which had an Eastern European sound to me. I guess it’s a tribute to the way it was performed that I was intrigued enough by the song to want to hear it again.
Speaking of hearing again, the last selection on the concert program was the Benedictus movement from Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man, a piece I had heard the Sierra Master Chorale & Orchestra perform 3 years ago. It impressed me so much then that I came back to hear their second performance that year. This work has too many diverse elements to consider the Benedictus representative, except in that it seems to me to be excellently composed. Using the text from the mass, it featured a cello solo with a trumpet echo, and began with lovely melodies in the orchestra — beautifully performed as always. The chorus lulled us with a repetitive phrase, “Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini,” signaling peace after war. Then there was an explosion from two trumpets, bass drum and cymbals that nearly made me jump out of my seat. I should have remembered that from 3 years ago, when it had the same effect on me. This explosion was intended to demonstrate that the threat of war is continuous. The gentle music resumed and when the piece ended, everyone in the audience was quickly on their feet applauding. The only thing that got us sitting again was an energetic reprise of “Poor Man Lazrus.”
In the ten years of its existence, the Sierra Master Chorale has earned great community support, as one can see from the abundance of ads in their concert program, as well as the enthusiasm displayed by their loyal followers at their concerts. I gathered that a number of people who had heard the Sunday concert were here again tonight. And I overheard some people say that friends who had been in attendance on Sunday practically demanded that they come to this Tuesday evening concert. That’s enthusiasm that any chorus might envy.