The Sacramento Choral Calendar
In Paradisum - April 17, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
I think many of the journalists, freelancers and bloggers I know have a deep-set feeling that they have a book somewhere in them, though that book may never come to fruition. As for the musicians I know, even a few arrangers and composers, I’m not so sure that they see themselves producing a major neoclassical work. But Sam Schieber is different. In the 5 years we've been acquainted, I’ve had only peeks into his life, and those peeks have revealed a choir director, arranger, accompanist and solo pianist, voice and acting coach, musicologist — and I’ve always guessed that there were many more facets to this multi-talented man. But when he told me he was preparing a major classical work — let alone a Requiem — it came as a big surprise. I saw the culmination of that effort in this third of three concerts — and I was enthralled.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
Schieber spoke to the audience before the concert began, asking us to refrain from applause until the end. These remarks were given with his typical wit. (For another example of his sense of humor, see page 2 of the attached program where he gives some background on this piece.) With the 37-member Samantics chorus in place, Schieber introduced, one by one, the 6 guest soloists and then took his usual place at the piano, facing the chorus. Throughout this performance he provided all the accompaniment, giving downbeats, cut-offs and other minimal direction only when needed.
The first movement, “Requiem Aeternam,” followed the traditional Latin text, and it was nothing short of grand music. It’s no critique of Schieber’s fine accompanying, but I only had to listen to a little of this first movement before I wrote in my notes, “Next step: write orchestration.” It was clear to me that this was a piece of music that would be appreciated by a much, much wider audience than the mostly friends, family and fans who filled Sacramento’s First United Methodist Church on this occasion.
The “Kyrie” was next, a soprano solo by guest soloist, Natasha Collier. It was lovely, melodic writing — professionally delivered. The chorus provided back-up, and I watched these people closely as they sang. I’ve observed them in many Samantics concerts over the years, more often than not having fun with music that was humorous or, if not overtly funny, would not be considered “serious.” Now here they were singing something that was completely serious, and I’ve never seen them more committed to a performance.
“Hostias” began with the chorus singing a cappella, and I found myself reflecting at how listenable this sophisticated music was. Then guest soloists Lesley Hamilton and Betty Schneider stood for “Pie Jesu,” a sweet song performed as a duet.
There are texts that are frequently used in Requiem Masses, and I believe that all the traditional ones were in this work. But modern Requiems in particular have explored other elements, and they were abundant in “In Paradisum.” The first was “Psalm 130” (“Out of the depths…”), and it was arresting, beginning with a cacophony of voices that sounded like an airplane engine or perhaps an electric engine warming up — but which shortly resolved into recognizable tonality. In contrast to the music that had gone before, this movement had a distinctly contemporary sound, especially in the accompaniment. To me, it was a fascinating and fresh exposition of the text, with some quiet moments that were truly exquisite. In this section especially, I noticed the good articulation of the chorus. Then as I listened, it occurred to me that this movement could easily stand alone in a concert setting or perhaps even as an anthem performed by a church choir.
Next was the first of 5 poems by 17th-century poet and Anglican priest, George Herbert (see the brief bio on page 2 of the program). This first poem was titled “Life,” and the full text, along with all other texts from “In Paradisum” are in the attached program. “Life” was a solo by Betty Schneider, and like so much of the music I was hearing, it struck me as a pretty song. “Antiphon,” with text also by George Herbert, involved an interplay between chorus and two small ensembles, and as it was being performed, I realized two things: (1) each movement in this piece had its own distinctive musical style and (2) there was great variety in the forms of presentation: solos, small ensembles and chorus in many combinations. It all felt so fresh, and I was about to discover how much “fresher” it would become.
“Sanctus” began with a solo by chorus member Robert Rennicks. As he sang, I reflected that there was so much of this work that I would like to hear again. The text was from Revelation 4 and 5, including these words: “And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them heard I saying, Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus!” Along with “And every creature…” came one of the distinctively Samantics touches in this piece: animal and bird sounds from the chorus for 20 or 30 seconds before resuming singing. It was not a joke. Instead, surprising as it was, this effect struck me as respectful, sincere, and completely appropriate to the text being sung.
I won’t try to comment on each of the remaining movements, but in the appropriately foreboding “Lacrimosa” I nevertheless heard Schieber’s musical theater influence, with easy-to-follow melodies and even a bit of syncopation. In “Agnus Dei,” performed by a women’s quartet, I heard lovely musical lines that seemed to caress the text.
“The 23 Psalm” and “The Lost Sheep” (from Luke 15:3-7) were interesting rewordings of the Biblical originals, both set to contemporary-sounding music, the latter especially playful. Most of the piece was a solo by Kate Campbell until Lisa Snow sings a descant as the found sheep. Then came something bizarre. With the lost sheep found and returned to the flock, the chorus imitated the sound of lambs singing, ending with various sheep vocalizations. Some in the audience might have felt that this was pushing the “Samantics-effect” too far, but not me. This little bit of playfulness accentuated the seriousness of the rest of this major work, perhaps like gargoyles accentuate the beauty of a medieval cathedral.
As “Lux Aeterna” began, its transparent beauty immediately reminded me of the same text in the Fauré Requiem, though the music of the two pieces couldn’t have been more different. What I remember most about it was that it was disappointingly brief for as uplifting and soothing as it was.
“Recordare” had a gentle beat with some jazz harmonies, as had several other sections of this work. Once again, I was thinking how fresh and distinctive each of the 16 out of 20 sections of “In Paradisum” had been. I began to feel that, more than a single work, I had been listening to a multi-faceted concert.
“Libera Me” took the audience to a very different place. Beginning with a powerful solo by local guest artist Maureen Mette, it built to great drama, and, thinking of the “Dies Irae” in the Verdi Requiem, I wrote in my notes: “Verdi has nothing on this.” Honestly, the walls and windows of the church shook until this movement came to an abrupt end.
In great contrast, the final movement, titled “In Paradisum” was ethereal and cathartic. It began with a trio by guest soloist Mark Beams and Samantics members Robert Rennicks and Eddie Voyce. They were presently joined by the chorus and the remaining guest soloists in a conclusion worthy of all that had gone before. And when the music ended, there was a long silence. Schieber told me later that it was the loudest silence that he'd ever heard and that it was a high point of the concert for him because it told him "how wrapped up the audience was with what was going on and [that] they were waiting for whatever came next." So when he realized the reason for the silence, Schieber turned to the audience with a modest “That’s it,” and there was an explosion of pent-up energy as we all rose to our feet to express our approval of all that we had been hearing.
I’ve witnessed music by other local composers, and many of these pieces have been quite fine. But certainly this was the most significant premiere the Sacramento area has seen of a major work by a local composer — in recent years, if not ever. Sam Schieber poured his considerable talent into the writing of something that eminently deserves to be programmed by other choruses and gain wider recognition.
In the concert program, Schieber explains that “In Paradisum” is “in great part” a tribute to his parents. And I’m sure that it takes that kind of inspiration and love to create a major work such as this. But there was a lot more love evident on this afternoon. Schieber had asked his chorus to go way out of their comfort zone in performing a type of music that was unfamiliar to many of them. They stretched to meet its challenge, and in the process, they derived a great sense of accomplishment. And the gratitude they felt was evident in each beaming face. The audience had been on their feet applauding and cheering both the composition and its performance. So the chorus, with their scores still in their hands, did all they could do to show their love for their leader: they stomped their feet.
This concert was repeated on September 17, 2016 with different soloists. Click here to open that program in a new window.