The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Voices of California
Comfort & Joy - December 5, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
There are many Christmas traditions embraced by the people of the Sacramento region, but the annual Voices of California (VoCal) Christmas show is one of my traditions — as it is for an increasing number of other people. This year’s show started in a rather subdued way. In front of the closed curtain on the Harris Center stage, a father began reading a story to the young son on his lap. It was rhymed in the style of Dr. Seuss, and although it dealt with the Grinch, it was pretty clear that the story was an original one (from the fertile minds of Tim Martin and Dan Warschauer). After a couple of minutes, you could hear humming behind the curtain, and when it opened, the audience gasped in surprise and delight. All the members of VoCal were dressed in different colorful, whimsical Seuss-inspired outfits. As the father (Eric Brickson) continued reading to his real son, Seth, the skit began. It wasn’t an involved plot: the Grinch was playing anti-Santa Claus to a group of children. But these weren’t just a random group of kids. They were the young (maybe 6 to 10 years old) students of the KM Dance Arts studio, and they were amazing. There were 7 of them, 6 girls and one boy, and as they frolicked with the Grinch, usually teasing him when he wasn’t trying to trick them, they displayed some clever choreography, classy dance moves, and some amazing acrobatics. But more than that, the kids and the Grinch (Von Wallin) were genuinely funny — all good comic actors.
That goes for the chorus, too. These guys rarely stand still while they’re singing, so they were acting and reacting (and singing) while the father-son storytelling proceeded and the kids and Grinch interacted with each other. All their songs were from the Broadway production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas: “Welcome Christmas,” “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and “Trim Up the Tree.” These songs were wonderfully clever, and the chorus had great fun with them. They may have been fun to perform, but I can’t imagine it was fun to memorize lyrics like “Hang Patukaz on the ceiling/Pile Panpumaz on the floor” or “Trim up your pets with Fuzzle-fuzz/And Blither Bloofs and Wazzle Wazz.” The audience’s delight at all this silliness was off the chart, and when it ended with a rousing barbershop chord, people around me couldn’t help commenting how entertaining it all was.
(Click here to open the program in a new window. VoCal doesn't annotate the songs in their program, but they kindly gave me a list of the songs performed by them and their guests. Sorry, though, that I can't give you the composers and arrangers for the extraordinary music I heard.)
It’s become a tradition for VoCal Christmas shows to have a variety of guest performing groups, and the first of these built on the high level of excitement that had been generated by the Seuss sketch. It was the Sacramento area-based instrumental group called Brassy: tuba, trombone, trumpet, French horn, and flugelhorn. Their leader introduced them as a brass quartet, but when a fifth player ran in with a trumpet and not dressed like the others, we in the audience knew that we were in for some kind of hijinks. With all 5 seated, they began a very nice rendition of Pachelbel’s "Canon in D" — nice until the oddball trumpeter started playing “Jolly Old St. Nicholas.” He was rebuked and they started again, but then he came back once more with “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” and somehow they made it work with Pachelbel. Before they were done, they had thrown in “Puff the Magic Dragon” and the Burger King theme song. It was brilliant craziness.
Then, to show they could play something straight, they gave us some wonderful harmonies in an arrangement of “What Child Is This?” Next it was back the zaniness with what they called a Zydeco version of “Jingle Bells” — a real toe-tapper, with some sour chords thrown in. Then came “Blue Christmas” in a Miles Davis arrangement enhanced with a hint of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” They concluded with a mash-up of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from the Messiah and “The Saints Go Marching In.” It was wild and irreverent, and ended in a real jam session with the audience clapping to the beat. We had never heard anything like it, and we were dazzled.
The Franklin High School Vocal Ensemble was next on the program: 29 singers with the girls in long black dresses and the boys in tuxedos. As they entered I couldn't help thinking what a thrill it must be for these kids to be performing at Harris Center. They began with a delicate arrangement of "Carol of the Bells." It was sung a cappella, as was the rest of their set — except the last song. Before they finished, I heard the approving comments of people around me. Next was the Christmas-themed spiritual "No Room, No Room" sung with — what else? — great spirit. As they were singing, I was conscious of the good balance among the sections of the group and the excellent dynamic control, a reflection on the expert direction of Colleen Hogge as much as it was on the responsiveness of the singers.
After "No Room, No Room," Director Hogge commented to the audience "Now you've seen our serious side," suggesting that something different was coming. Indeed, the light-hearted arrangement of "Jingle Bells" that followed was fast-paced, embellished with a bit of humor — and great fun.
The next piece was one I'd never heard before: "White Winter Hymnal." Hogge explained to us that it had been popularized by the blockbuster a cappella quintet, Pentatonix. As I listened to them sing this extraordinarily difficult piece, I got to thinking that you don't dumb things down for high school kids. You make it hard to see what they can do — and you'll almost always be surprised by how well they can rise to any challenge. Their performance of the next piece confirmed that thought. It was "This Christmas" — another song I'd never heard before, and which they delivered effectively in a jazzy, pop style.
The Franklin High School Vocal Ensemble closed with "A Holly Jolly Christmas," full of fun and finger-snapping. And in a way the best part of it occurred when a guy in sunglasses (was it the trumpeter from Brassy?) came out and did the Lindy with Director Hogge for most of the song.
No act is hard to follow for Artistic License, the quartet that Voices of California counts as its own. They began with a transcendently beautiful performance of "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." Then they gave us a jazzy, creative setting of "We Three Kings." It was so inventive, so varied, with solos for each of the "kings," that when it ended, it felt like we had been treated to a full a cappella show.
Next, quartet member Rich Brunner gave a moving introduction to "Joseph's Lullaby," getting murmurs of anticipation from those around me. The song itself was equally moving, with a key solo by Gabe Caretto. In two seconds of silence before the final chord, there was one audible "wow" uttered near me. It was the only one, but that person said what we were all feeling.
Artistic License finished with a Santa Claus medley: "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" and "Up on the Housetop." The medley was full of wonderful barbershop harmonies and stylings. The people on either side of me had never heard the Voices of California, let alone Artistic License before: they were simply in awe.
After intermission, the 13-member women's ensemble, Vox Musica, took the stage with their director, Daniel Paulson. They began with an exquisite setting of "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" (in the original German). There were moments in the piece that would have sounded cacophonous to most, but that's Vox Musica. They seem to specialize in pushing the limits of what one would expect, and this arrangement had an abundance of complex, crossing musical lines.
Their next selection was "Chester Carol," which I understand dates to the 15th century. To me, it was one more demonstration of the precision and control of this elite group of women singers. The same was really true of the next piece, "Exultation on Light" by Brent Chancellor. With a little Internet searching, I discovered that this must have been a particularly moving moment for Vox Musica, or at least for its director, Daniel Paulson. Why? Vox Musica is celebrating their tenth season this year, and this piece was commissioned for their first season in 2006. In his website, the composer comments: "This music celebrates the glorious and divine light of the world. It should be performed with excitement and motion — loudly and jubilantly." And that's exactly how Vox Musica performed it for us.
The women closed with "Love Came Down at Christmas." It began with a beautiful solo section, blossoming into equally beautiful close harmonies from the rest of the singers. Then there was what sounded to me like an aleatory section (in which individual singers have a choice of when and/or what to sing). I found it almost trance-inducing, and it's a good bet that no one in the audience had heard anything like it before.
To begin the final segment of the show, the Voices of California (now dressed more conservatively) formed a single line across the stage and into the box seat areas on either side of the stage. In this formation, they gave a rousing rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." Then while moving to the risers on the stage, they sang "Do You Hear What I Hear?" This arrangement built to a full choral sound that was so exciting that when it finished, there was not only enthusiastic applause from the audience, but many cheers. VoCal continued to delight the audience with the Beach Boys' tune, "Little Saint Nick," complete with on-riser choreography in which every singer sported sunglasses.
The next piece, "Believe," from the now classic Christmas movie, The Polar Express, was preceded by a narration. I don't know who to credit for the brilliant writing, but it was read with equal brilliance by Larry Womac. Moments into the song, you could feel that something special was happening. Watching each man immersed in the emotion of this moving song, I didn't see individuals so much as a living organism — each singer connected with each other singer, all moving together, feeling the same thing at the same time. And when they turned loose on a loud chord, it was simply thrilling. But so was their soft singing. I've commented all along about the unusual number of spontaneous expressions from the audience, but I've never heard so many as I did at the conclusion of this piece.
After this sentimental high, it was time for some fun. A couple of conga drums were set up at stage left, along with 5 people sporting hand-held percussion instruments. At stage right, Bruce Sellnow spoke to the audience, explaining that VoCal has its traditions, and it was now time for one: "Ring de Bells." With that, the bald Sellnow put on a Jamaican wig à la Bob Marley (long black locks), and we were off on a wild ride with over-the-top enthusiasm and a strong Caribbean beat. Sellnow sang the verses as a solo, and then he was joined by the Three Wise Men (costumed to the hilt) for the raucous refrain. These "Wise Men" were none other than 3/4 of Artistic License, and the other 1/4 of Artistic License, VoCal Director Gabe Caretto, ran over from leading the chorus to join them on each refrain. The high spirits overflowed the stage into the audience, and it felt like the best party you ever attended.
So how do you come up with an effective finale after that? First, Caretto thanked us for coming and thanked the other performers. Then, with the 5 members of Brassy having returned to the stage, Caretto turned control over to Assistant Director Ron Black, who began "Silent Night." One of the Franklin High School singers came out to sing the first verse in German. Then Brassy took over for the second verse, and people around me began humming and singing. Then Artistic License came out to sing "Neath the Silent Stars a Town Is Sleeping" (arranged by Jason Dyer to be performed along with a verse of "Silent Night" as an "overlay"). Then the whole Franklin High School Vocal Ensemble and the KM Dance Arts dancers entered to join the rest of the performers for the third verse. By this time, just about everyone in the audience was singing along, culminating in an elegant ending by the 5 members of Brassy.
I've seen the Voices of California's Christmas shows in 2013, 2014 and now 2015. The singing has always been great, but the shows themselves have gotten better and better. I don't know how they could match, let alone exceed this year's show, but you'd better believe I'll be in the audience in 2016 to see them try.