The Sacramento Choral Calendar
River City Chorale
Let Us Entertain You! - April 30, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
Every River City Chorale concert that I attend is a pleasure, as I’m sure it is for their faithful audience. Not only do they deliver a diverse program, heavy on “feel-good” music, but their 54-voice ensemble produces an excellent choral sound.
It was that full choral sound that hit me in their first song, “Let Me Entertain You.” I was sitting in the balcony of Northminster Presbyterian Church, a good distance from the chorus who were performing without sound amplification. The church’s acoustics are good, but the well-balanced, tightly tuned sound they produced was primarily the product of good singers, full of energy, disciplined, and well-rehearsed. The diction was good, too, and I was aware of the sharp cut-offs.
In that first piece, there was a section where I was genuinely surprised by the strong singing of the alto section. Then their second number “Love Changes Everything” from Phantom of the Opera, began with a solo by the tenor section that was equally surprising for their quality, unified tone. I hear a lot of tenor sections, and not many could give such a solid start to this beautiful song. Then I heard an equally pleasing tone from the soprano section later in the piece, and I began to understand why this chorus sounds so well-balanced.
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The third selection was the Chorale's typical nod to the classics – or at least a classical sound. It was John Rutter’s “Te Deum,” a much more challenging piece than those that had gone before. In introducing it, Director Richard Morrissey expressed concern that the text would come through, so of course, I was listening for it, and indeed I got most of the words. Another thing I noticed was that people were singing with feeling, even fervor when the music permitted it. My positive impression of the performance was confirmed when, after it ended, Morrissey took the microphone, turned to his singers and said “Choir, you have never sung that more beautifully.” To me, that was a classy gesture; I can’t recall offhand another occasion when a director complimented his chorus in front of the audience in such an overt way. It raised the spirits of both the chorus and the audience.
The next song, by the men of the Chorale, was special for me: “De Animals a-Comin’.” I sang this in college – never mind how long ago – and I never could have imagined hearing it again. When I got home, I looked, and there it was in my Songs of Yale book (no, I graduated from a different college), with the same arrangement by Marshall Bartholomew – that legendary leader of the Yale Glee Club. The men of the River City Chorale performed this piece a cappella with energy and good articulation, and with as much spirit as the college groups in my memory.
The next song was a crowd-pleaser to the many country music fans in the audience. It was the Patsy Cline song, “I Fall to Pieces,” performed by the women of the chorus, after a detailed introduction by Assistant Director, Vera Refnes. She had to direct because Morrissey was accompanying on the string bass along with Stan Muther on guitar. Naturally, the arrangement had some country stylings in this sadly sweet song, and when it concluded the audience cheered.
The next piece, “Nothing Could Be Finer” was a medley of tunes from the 1940s, including “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” “Tuxedo Junction,” and others. In announcing it, Morrissey said that people over 50 would enjoy it. Actually, I can’t imagine anyone not liking this music. The chorus certainly did. They were relaxed and sang with confidence and enthusiasm, accompanied by gestures and finger snaps.
Then in what I believe is an innovation for the River City Chorale, guest artists took the stage. It was the Del Campo High School Madrigal Choir, 29 singers, led by Director Pam Mitchell, who were introduced as the RCC’s “Young Artists Winners.” Their first selection was “Do Not Weep,” a musical setting of the famous poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep.” Nearly everyone finds this text inspirational, and this student group performed it with gentleness and sensitivity – and good blend. Not surprisingly, they got a warm response from the audience.
Their next piece, the spiritual “Plenty Good Room,” was of course more upbeat, but gently so. The young people were relaxed, with finger snapping and swaying, as they produced some delightful harmony. I bet there was a smile on every audience member’s face as they sang, and those smiles turned to cheers when the song ended.
After the intermission, we were treated to two more young singers. The bios are in the concert program, identifying them as the solo winners of the “Young Artists” competition, and they are both very impressive young people. Colin Regan went first, performing “Smile,” demonstrating a lot of potential as a singer, and getting wild cheers (I’m guessing from his supporters in the audience). Shelby Pierce, also a member of the Del Campo Madrigal Choir, was next, performing “On My Own” from Les Misérables. She had a remarkably strong voice and put a lot of passion into that well-loved song. Her bio says she wants to go to a performing arts school. She looked ready for the stage to me, and I could easily see her landing a leading role in any number of musicals.
Continuing the succession of small ensembles (or solos), the next group to perform was the 22-member River City Chamber Choir. They began with a piece called “Hosanna” by August Söderman. Since I had never heard of him, I looked him up after the concert and found he was a 19th-century Swedish composer of the romantic style of music. Despite that, the piece sounded Baroque to me, and I dare say that it was enjoyed by all the classical music aficionados in the audience.
Next was a medley of Burt Bacharach tunes in a cute, lively setting that made for very pleasant listening. As pleasant as it was, the encore that followed, “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” was simply fun. The Chamber Choir members performed it from memory and loosened up, seeming to really enjoy themselves with this jazzy arrangement.
At this point the rest of the River City Chorale returned to the risers to sing “Distant Land,” by John Rutter. Morrissey set up the piece, explaining that Rutter wrote the music with the inspiration in mind of events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the freeing of Nelson Mandela. The music is subtitled “Prayer for Freedom,” and having never heard this song before, I was moved by its inspirational quality, helped by the fine choral sound with which it was performed.
Here’s something I haven’t mentioned yet, but something that I and the rest of the audience had been aware of from the start: the fine piano playing of Theresa Keene. Personally, I was impressed by her versatility in accompanying such different kinds of music, with the style dictated by each. And I think her best came out in Rutter’s “Te Deum,” with crisp, confident playing that couldn't help but be noticed. Although she had a few bows before this point in the concert, Morrissey took this opportunity to acknowledge her verbally, and the audience responded with unusually strong applause and cheers, something most accompanists don’t typically get.
“The Music of M-G-M” was next on the program, a delightful medley with “That’s Entertainment,” “Over the Rainbow,” “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” and 4 more familiar tunes in a mostly bouncy setting – really happy music. Once again in this medley, I was conscious of the quality of the sound produced by the ensemble. It seemed like there must be a lot of smart singers with good voices to create such a result. And for more times than I can count, I was especially impressed at the good sound produced by the tenor section.
The finale to this concert brought the Del Campo Madrigal Choir onto the risers to join the full River City Chorale to perform “From Sea to Shining Sea.” It was a stirring arrangement of all 3 verses of “America the Beautiful,” and when it ended, the audience showed their appreciation with a quick standing ovation. This wasn’t the end, though. For an encore, Richard Morrissey yielded the conductor’s spot to the visiting director, Pam Mitchell, who led the combined chorus in “Side by Side.” I have to say that it was awfully cute to see high school students and people old enough to be their grandparents singing this old, old (1927) tune together, “side by side.”
Every River City Chorale concert I attend shows me something new – at least for them. This time it was 4 musical selections I’d never heard before, a guest chorus and soloists, and Richard Morrissey playing the bass. And with one last glance around at my fellow audience members, I can say with confidence that a good time was had by all.