The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra
European Masterworks - May 6, 2017
by Dr. Jeff Nelson
The Sacramento Community Center Theater is a beautifully designed space with wonderful acoustics…a perfect venue for this presentation of Mendelssohn’s Psalm 42 and Rossini’s Stabat Mater (Sad Mother). Had the music not been so compelling, it would have been easy to doze in the very comfortable seating. This concert marked the conclusion of the Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra’s (SCSO) 21st season and was part of their European Masterworks series.
I went early so I could hear Conductor Donald Kendrick’s pre-concert lecture about the program and was surprised to see very few attendees. It was one hour before the concert start and on a Saturday evening so I didn’t think traffic was keeping people from getting there on time. Kendrick read from the program notes with ease, and you can find them in the program (see the link below). Psalm 42 was written in 1837 while Mendelssohn and his new wife, Cécile were on their honeymoon! Kendrick really became transported into the music when he gave his commentary with audio excerpts from the program. This is where you can easily see his profound attachment to the music he performs.
I LOVE a good bargain. As everyone knows, they are becoming harder and harder to come by. I was encouraged to hear Kendrick announce that all students and groups of 6 or more receive a 50% discount on their tickets which ranged from $23-$53. Compare that with the $1,400 price tag for a front row seat at the Hall and Oates tour this year! As I looked around, it was impressive to see young and old alike who had come to hear this concert. If you know of or appreciate a young person who needs to be introduced to or encouraged by great music, please consider an evening with the SCSO. If we don’t try to encourage our young people to listen to music of quality, we will only have ourselves to blame. This is money well spent to ensure a rich cultural future for them!
SCSO Board President James McCormick introduced the concert by dedicating it to Major Lloyd Kenyon, a veteran who passed away this week and who also was Kendrick’s uncle.
Kendrick welcomed concertmistress Cindy Lee and the soprano soloist Marina Harris onstage for a round of applause and we were underway. I’ve always admired the way SCSO has provided supertitles for all their foreign language concerts. The Mendelssohn was in German and the Rossini in Italian and both had supertitles translated into English so you could follow along without distraction from the performance.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The opening alto melody of the Mendelssohn was followed by impressive sensitivity for a chorus of this size, particularly in the pianissimo sections. The phrasing and the balance between chorus and orchestra were excellent. As every conductor knows, a large increase in chorus size allows for a different repertoire but can be limiting in flexibility. I could not discern any limitations in this well-rehearsed large chorus. The SCSO was joined this night by their special guests, the Sacramento State University Chorus. I estimated the total chorus size to be about 185, which was certainly not required for this concert, but it was very enjoyable to hear that kind of choral power in Kendrick’s capable hands. He has a very expressive and yet precise conducting style.
The next two movements had some lovely oboe counterpoint that was simply delicious. The opening oboe lines of the Arie were stunning and soprano soloist Marina Harris’ powerful and lyrical voice was perfectly suited for this piece. Her tone contributed a depth to this work that fit nicely.
The Rezitativ featured the soprano again and the counterpoint between soprano and 3-part women’s chorus had a beautiful flow.
The 4th movement returned to full chorus and was very enjoyable, although it was noticeable that some of the German vowels were not in total agreement.
The 5th movement demonstrated some athletic soprano leaps which were negotiated with ease while the 6th movement gave the quartet of male soloists an exquisite chance at a calming influence against the backdrop of the soprano soloist. The men’s quartet of special guests included Kirk Dougherty (tenor), Malcom MacKenzie (baritone) and the two soloists from the chorus, Chester Pidduck (tenor) and Shawn Spiess (baritone). Although I thoroughly enjoyed the soprano solo, the question and answer form of this section showed a confidence and smoothness in the men’s quartet that made it one of my favorite parts of this concert. It not only demonstrated Mendelssohn’s brilliant writing but gave you the impression that these 4 gentlemen had been singing together for years.
The final movement gave all the performers a chance at a Händel-esque triumphant conclusion with, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from now on until eternity!” This celebratory ending was an excellent finish to the first half of tonight’s concert.
During intermission, I noticed a placard on display in the lobby from Governor Jerry Brown. It was a letter from December 2014 to Kendrick thanking him for 30 years of excellence in service to our Sacramento community. Bravo Dr. Kendrick!
The second half was the wonderful Stabat Mater by Rossini, which was taken from a 13th-century poem and took 10 years for him to write. It centers around the story of the Virgin Mary’s vigil at the crucifixion.
The Introduction opened with a lovely string and woodwind motif and rather quickly moved into a wide variety of dynamics with full choral and quartet accompaniment. For a smaller orchestral ensemble (approximately 46 in number), their excellent dynamic instincts served this format well, particularly with a chorus of this size. The balance was outstanding, although my personal preference would have been for a bit more brass accents with a piece this dramatic.
After the opening broad minor chordal movements, the Aria opened with a jaunty melody which provided stark contrast to the dramatic tenor lines to come. Tenor Kirk Dougherty’s warmth really shone in this movement, particularly in the brief a cappella sections and the athletic cadenza towards the end.
Mezzo-soprano Layna Chianakas and soprano Marina Harris followed with the warm Duet. I must confess I am more familiar with Rossini’s operas than with Stabat Mater. I found it a bit odd that the Duet section was mostly in a major key mode even though the text is, “Who is the person who would not weep seeing the Mother of Christ in such agony?” Still, both women made it a delight to listen to.
The Aria by baritone Malcolm MacKenzie — which moved from major to minor — was an elegant, yet bold treatment of Rossini’s text. I could have listened to him all night.
The lovely duet in the 5th movement between the chorus and MacKenzie was wonderful. The chorus had beautiful and sensitive phrasing and their Latin pronunciation was exceptional.
The 6th movement of the Sancta Mater quartet had Chianakas and MacKenzie paired as one duet and Harris and Dougherty paired as the other. The two duets and the melody wove in and out of each other like a well-orchestrated dance and highlighted again Rossini’s masterful writing.
The woodwinds had again a gorgeous opening in the 7th Cavatina movement which also gave Chianakas a little more upper range room into which she soared effortlessly.
The Inflammatus movement had a dramatic opening with brass and a bold soprano entrance where again, my preference would have been for more brass attack. The French horn provided a delicious background to this section where the soprano obbligato and chorus accompaniment were chilling and beautiful at the same time.
The a cappella quartet in the 9th movement showed just how experienced these wonderful soloists were. Pure delight!
The Finale was a driving, energetic fugue where the tenors handled the counterpoint adeptly and the whole chorus was with Kendrick from beginning to end. I loved the brilliant low strings and woodwind combinations throughout. The entire group comes to a complete stop and Rossini re-inserts the musical ideas from the 1st movement all over again to wrap the whole thing into one complete package.
There was an immediate standing ovation and hollers of appreciation for the chorus. How often do you get a chance to hear a chorus of this size perform major masterworks? Fortunately for us here in Sacramento…several times a year!