The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra
The Music of Downton Abbey - March 18, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
I had parked several blocks from Sacramento’s Community Center Theater, and had started walking in that direction when I saw something strange. Why was that young man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a three-piece suit? Then it struck me. He was on his way to the biggest choral “party” of the season, the Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra’s celebration of “The Music of Downton Abbey.”
As I approached the theater, I noticed more and more people in early Twentieth-Century English attire. I would guess that 20 or 25% of the audience attended in costume, and I’m sure most of them arrived as early as they could — to see and be seen — and to have their pictures taken with life-size cutouts of Downton Abbey characters that SCSO had set up in the lobby of the theater.
The idea of “The Music of Downton Abbey” was to present choral music that people would have heard at public events during the period covered by the Downton Abbey series: 1912 through 1925. The concert itself was the fruit of what must have been an extraordinary degree of research and preparation. And it marked an important collaboration among SCSO, public TV station KVIE, and Capital Public Radio. KVIE has been running a Downton Abbey marathon of rebroadcasts of the series. And Capital Public Radio has helped publicize the concert, along with contributing its Morning Classical Host, Kevin Doherty, as the concert’s baritone soloist.
I had arrived early enough to catch Director Donald Kendrick’s pre-concert talk. He previewed the music on the program with background on the composers and the historical context of the music. It was particularly interesting to get pre-recorded samples of the music, and Kendrick was in such high spirits that he couldn't resist directing and mouthing the lyrics. In fact, I’ve never seen him so enthusiastic and animated during a pre-concert talk. It was no surprise: he was about to preside over what was surely one of the most thoroughly planned, unusual and eagerly anticipated concerts that SCSO has ever staged. In fact it was much more than a concert: it was an event... a party... a joyful celebration of a widely loved cultural phenomenon. (You can experience the substance of Kendrick's pre-concert talk in the video preview of the concert linked at the bottom of this review.)
Click here to open the program in a new window.
The party atmosphere was fed by a number of surprises. For example, the women of the chorus entered wearing white aprons and caps over their black performance dress. The men sported white ties with their tuxedos (though tails plus white vests would have been more authentic, but let’s not quibble). Looking closely, I could see that many members of the orchestra were also in some sort of costume. And pianist/organist, Ryan Enright, cut quite a figure with his bowler hat. Conductor Donald Kendrick created the greatest stir, though, when he entered the stage wearing a top hat and leading a golden Labrador Retriever. (See page 19 of the program for a “bio” of Kira, who played the part of Lord Grantham’s faithful companion, Isis.)
Integral to this performance were the two narrators, Alison Gilbreath and Elizabeth Anne Springett. Both are experienced actresses, and they entered the stage before the music began and took their seats at a small table set with a tea service that had been positioned at stage left. They introduced themselves as relations of the Crawley family, and they spoke as if the events at Downton Abbey had only recently occurred. As the concert proceeded, they set up each musical selection, with comments about the composer and historical context — as well as references to the relevant plot points in the Downton Abbey series. Their acting was so good, that at first I thought they had memorized their script. Soon, however, I realized that they were using a shrouded teleprompter on the floor in front of them.
The music began with the “Downton Abbey Suite,” by Emmy Award-winning composer John Lunn. It was music so familiar — and so evocative — to all fans of the show. But this time we got to hear the full 7 minutes of the composition instead of just the first 30 seconds. As the music began, an image of Highclere Castle (the real name of Downtown Abbey) was projected onto a large screen above the chorus. Then throughout the concert there were other images relevant to the music. And on a screen even higher up, the titles and text of each piece of music were projected.
I’ll confess that I was so taken by the multimedia nature of this performance and the celebratory atmosphere that I wasn’t always conscious of the aesthetics of the singing or playing. But there were exceptions. The very first choral selection, “I Was Glad,” had been written by Sir Hubert Parry for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. The grand sound produced by the chorus was simply arresting for me. Perhaps it was my imagination but it seemed that they gave a bit extra, a bit more expression than Kendrick was asking for, in recognition of the history evoked by the music and the special feeling that came from the immersive experience of this concert. Later, when they sang “Crossing the Bar” by Sir Henry Walford Davies, I was thrilled with the rich harmonies produced in the absence of independently moving vocal lines. Interestingly, that piece was a world premiere of this 1903 composition, SCSO having obtained the manuscript from the Royal College of Music. "Crossing the Bar" was followed by Parry’s “My Soul, There Is a Country.” I have to say that, good as the SCSO orchestra is — and was on this occasion — it was such a pleasure to hear this fine chorus sing a cappella. After the intermission, Elgar’s “As Torrents in Summer” was also sung a cappella.
Baritone Kevin Doherty was the featured soloist in 3 of the pieces on the program, beginning with the somber “Nightfall,” which was on the program to recognize the tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic, the point of time that marked the beginning of the Downton Abbey series. Though best known for his day job with Capital Public Radio, Doherty is a trained singer with a cultured voice, and he performed this piece with power and passion — as he did with his subsequent appearances.
There were 3 occasions on which the audience was invited to stand and sing with the chorus. The first was “Jerusalem” (again, by Parry), better known as the hymn, “O Day of Peace That Dimly Shines.” With the whole audience swept up in what we were experiencing, I think that 99% of us stood. And most of us seemed to know the tune well enough to sing the nationalistic words of “Jerusalem” as they were displayed in the screen far above our heads. For Gustav Holst’s “I Vow to Thee My Country,” which preceded the intermission, it seemed once again that nearly the whole audience stood and sang. However, I believe that most of us had a bit of trouble keeping up with the melody. I’ll comment about the third audience participation piece below.
As unfamiliar as so many of the selections in tonight’s program were for me (and probably for the great part of the rest of the audience), they were quality compositions that made for enjoyable listening. And they were so insightfully selected to illustrate the flow of the Downton Abbey story. For example, Sir Edward Elgar’s “The Snow,” beautifully performed by the women and the orchestra, was tied to Matthew’s proposal to Lady Mary in the snow at the end of Season 2. And then Matthew’s death was mourned afresh by all of us with the performing of a “Funeral Anthem,” written in a style so characteristic of its composer, George Frideric Handel. The penultimate selection in tonight’s program was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge.” It began with a brief a cappella solo passage by Kevin Doherty, who was soon joined by the chorus for a long a cappella section. Then the organ and orchestra entered, and the piece achieved growing levels of grandeur and religious fervor. For me, it was the musical peak of the evening.
The climax of this concert was something to behold. Soprano Carrie Hennessey has had many opera and concert performances — especially in the past few years — and I think she must be our busiest local singer. Apart from her demonstrated talent, she clearly loves to have fun when she’s given the opportunity. On this occasion she entered the stage in a period costume, outrageous large hat (I believe it’s called a “peach basket hat”) and a banner over her shoulder that read “Votes for Women.” Oh, and by the way she was waving a full-size Union Jack. With this set-up, the orchestra began to play “Rule, Britannia!” We in the audience rose to our feet, and Hennessey sang the verse of the song, while we all joined in the chorus. Meanwhile, the chorus and most of the audience were waving little Union Jacks, and for a few minutes everyone was British.
It all ended in an explosion of applause and cheers that lasted for minutes, while Conductor Kendrick (along with showing off his Union Jack socks) went around congratulating the principals of the evening, while the chorus and orchestra beamed. I didn’t stay for the post-concert reception and tea in the lobby, but I imagine it took a long, long while for the Community Center to clear, and much longer than that for the high spirits of performers and audience to wane.
Follow this link for all the photos of the concert: https://photomedia.smugmug.com/The-Music-Of-Downton-Abbey/i-xQbrQjF
Follow this link for Donald Kendrick's 26-minute video preview of the concert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zz9z_Ow-7Ug&t=318s