The Sacramento Choral Calendar
William Jessup University Choir and Orchestra
Contemporary Christian Music and American Folk Songs - February 22, 2015
by Ang D. Meadows
On this Sunday evening, the William Jessup University Choir and Orchestra gave a free concert at Rolling Hills Church in El Dorado Hills. While the performance was not well attended, it wasn’t for lack of talent on the musicians’ part – more likely it was because the event took place on the same night as the Academy Awards!
As the concert was due to begin, a few concert-goers had puzzled expressions, seeming to wonder if perhaps the student musicians hadn’t realized it was time to start. Rather than waiting backstage, they were sprinkled in small groups amongst the audience throughout the church, chatting in small groups at curtain-time. But suddenly the singers became silent and a clear, sweet female voice rang out. Soon the other singers began to chime in with various tones resulting in a complex, sustained, harmonious chord that absolutely grabbed the audience’s attention.
It was a unique and creative way to start the evening’s program and, once the singers stopped, the orchestra kept the momentum going by playing as the singers streamed onto the stage and took their positions in the risers in V-shaped formations while an unnamed solo tenor sang the lead part. The young women wore red dresses while the men sported grey suits with red pocket squares, lending a sense of unity and color coordination to the carefully rehearsed show.
Because the musicians all hearken from a Christian college, it wasn’t surprising that the group, led by Director Tom Ruscica, a faculty member for over ten years, began the concert by performing a number of contemporary Christian choral pieces. “River of Love” was particularly enchanting, starting with just a solo flute, quiet strings and the piano until the full orchestra joined in and finally the entire chorus. The instruments and voices blended well, and the musicians achieved an impressive dynamic range.
“Hallelujah, Light Has Come” featured a fantastic performance by soloist Amber Johnson whose strong, pure voice soared over the full orchestra and choir as they dipped in and out of minor chords. She then quieted toward the end, finishing with a sweet, clear tone as the piano and strings accompanied her. “Prepare Ye the Way” came next and sounded operatic yet modern with its driving beat, full men’s chorus and syncopated rhythms.
At this point in the concert, Ruscica explained to the audience that they had been rehearsing for their upcoming annual concert gala and fundraiser titled “Best of American Folk” and they wished to perform a few old-time songs – a departure from their usual fare. They began with "Simple Gifts," a popular Shaker song originally composed in 1848 by Joseph Brackett, but arranged by René Clausen from Concordia College. The orchestra sat this tune out while the chorus laid down richly textured a cappella chords, featuring clear unified soprano voices layered with solid dulcet alto tones. The piece ended with subtle, intentionally discordant harmony that was a wonder to achieve and to hear.
“Battle Hymn of the Republic” featured, according to Ruscica, “the strongest men’s group I’ve had the pleasure of working with in some time,” and they didn’t disappoint during the rousing tenor-bass break near the middle. The end of the song, always stirring, brought the audience to its feet for a standing ovation.
But the choir and orchestra still had three more pieces to perform. After “2,000 Years,” the group sang “Let the Nations Be Glad” with a delightful solo by Kaylon Switzer who sang in Zulu over drums that had an African feel until the entire chorus joined in, first in Zulu, then in English.
The final song of the evening, “For Every Mountain,” had the musicians swaying and dancing and had listeners’ toes tapping. It featured an incredible, unnamed male soloist who, with his good looks and outstanding voice, could easily have been a lead singer of any contemporary boy band. He had a lot of fun with the “call and response” nature of the song, answering the choir’s straight vocals with his own accomplished embellishments, much like Christina Aguilera might have sung. By the end, the group sounded like a full-on gospel choir, and the audience members jumped to their feet for the second standing ovation of the evening.