The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Choral Coalition
SacSings Sacred - February 10, 2018
by Dick Frantzreb
The Sacramento Valley Choral Coalition organized 3 SacSings choral festivals for community and college choruses in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Mindful of its mission to promote all forms of choral singing throughout the Sacramento region, the idea for a festival of church choirs began to take shape in the fall of 2016. The idea didn't catch on immediately because there was not good information about which churches had choirs. That research was conducted in the summer of 2017, identifying 135 church choirs between Placerville and Woodland and between Nevada City and Elk Grove.
The idea of a church choir festival was proposed to all those churches, and a series of meetings was held among a small group of church choir directors who were particularly interested in the idea. That group evolved into a Steering Committee of 6 directors, plus 3 representatives of the Sacramento Valley Choral Coalition. From the start, the title SacSings Sacred was selected for the event, and it was determined that it should be celebration of multi-part sacred music to which choirs of all faiths would be invited. The Committee selected a target date, and drew up a plan: SacSings Sacred would accommodate 16 choirs who would perform in 2 concerts of 8 choirs each, separated by a lunch among participants, and each concert would close with two pieces in which all the choirs in that concert would perform together. There would be no charge to choirs for participating, nor for audience to attend. Early on Pleasant Grove Community Church in Roseville volunteered to serve as the venue.
A simple online application form was set up, and invitations to apply sent to the 135 churches that had been identified as having choirs, with an application deadline of October 27, 2017. By that deadline 20 choirs had applied and the Steering Committee decided to accept all 20. Subsequently, 2 more choirs applied and were held on a waiting list. By the first week in January, 3 choirs had dropped out, leaving 19 choirs scheduled to participate. They represented 8 Christian denominations, 3 non-denominational Christian churches, plus Jewish and Buddhist choirs.
The Morning Concert
On February 10, the first concert started at 10:00 a.m. featuring choirs from the following churches:
• Pleasant Grove Community Church
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The concert began with a brief welcome by Dick Frantzreb, President of the Sacramento Valley Choral Coalition and Executive Director of SacSings Sacred. This welcome was followed by an invocation by Rev. Scott Oas, Senior Pastor of the Pleasant Grove Community Church. At this point Frantzreb introduced the emcee for the morning: James McCormick, President of the Board of the Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra. Each choir had been given 15 minutes to perform, with a planned concert length of 3 hours and 15 minutes. With several choirs taking less than their allotted time, the actual length of the concert was a bit less than 3 hours.
Each choir was introduced by McCormick, giving a bit of background for both church and choir and an occasional comment on the music to be performed. These introductions were themselves a point of interest to the audience and the other choirs, emphasizing the diversity inherent in the event.
Nearly all the music performed was by contemporary Christian composers and arrangers. Choirs ranged in size from 12 to 42, and all were accompanied by piano exclusively. One exception was the performance by the Florin United Methodist Church, whose only selection was “Come Home” an combination of two other pieces (see the program), arranged by Jim Strathdee, a prominent local composer of sacred music, who was in the audience on this occasion. What was particularly unusual about the performance was that the choir's director, Elena Bennett, played passages on the violin as she directed. Also notable was the recurring phrase, “the ocean refuses no river,” which resonated with the audience in its expression of the spirit of acceptance and inclusion on which SacSings Sacred was based.
The highlight of this morning concert saw members of the 9 choirs — more than 250 people — joining together on the church's spacious platform to perform two pieces jointly. According to plan, the singers weren't grouped with their fellow choir members, but stood in voice parts next to people from different choirs.
The two pieces performed by this combined choir were “How Can I Keep from Singing?” and “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” The former was in an arrangement created especially for SacSings Sacred by Pleasant Grove Community Church Minister of Worship, Wyley Wilkin. “Let There Be Peace on Earth” was in an arrangement by Andrew Hudson, commissioned for an earlier SacSings festival and performed with the special permission of the song's copyright owner. Both pieces were directed by Mariia Pechenova, Artistic Director of Cantare Chorale of the Sierra Foothills and a member of the Board of the Sacramento Valley Choral Coalition. Natalya Amelchenko accompanied.
The performance of these two pieces was an emotional experience for many, both singers and iaudience members. First, there was the fact that it was such a large choir with people from different churches standing shoulder to shoulder. Then it was hard not to be moved by the messages conveyed by the two songs. After words of thanks by emcee McCormick and a benediction by Pastor Oas, the concert was over.
The Afternoon Concert
It's hard to say how many of the choir and audience members from the morning concert stayed for the afternoon concert — 10 to 20% might be a good guess. That number is no surprise, since the afternoon concert would run another 3-1/2 hours and wasn't scheduled to start for another 2 hours. During that time, nearly 200 of the participating singers, from both morning and afternoon concerts, joined for a provided lunch in what was billed as an informal “Choir Fellowship Hour.”
The afternoon concert featured choirs from the following churches:
• Buddhist Church of Sacramento Betsuin
With what was clearly a more diverse group of choirs than performed in the morning concert, this session drew a somewhat larger audience. The program was introduced again by Dick Frantzreb, followed by an invocation by Rev. Alan Jones, Senior Pastor of St. Mark's United Methodist Church. Then Frantzreb introduced the concert's emcee, Rev. Kevin Tarsa of the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains in Grass Valley.
The format was like that of the morning's concert, with interesting background information provided for each choir by emcee Tarsa. The music, however, was quite different from that of the morning concert. It began with the Buddhist choir performing “Gaman” from the Broadway musical Allegiance, which dealt with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The word “gaman” is a Japanese term meaning “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity,” and the performance of this piece by the robed choir was a moving experience for the audience. The following piece, “Nembutsu,” was especially significant in giving an insight into Buddhist religious practice.
The performance by the choir of St. Stephen the First Martyr Catholic Church was also distinctive in that it was the only performance of the day that was completely unaccompanied, beginning with a chant and with each musical selection performed in Latin. Also notable about this choir was the fact that it had a substantial number of members who were children.
The performance of Congregation B'nai Israel was all in Hebrew (with English translations given in the program). One could not help but notice the appropriateness of their first selection from Psalm 133 with the text “How good and how pleasant it is for everyone to live together as one.” Their last selection, “Sim Shalom,” with text “from the morning liturgy” felt like a sharing of a faith tradition, which was one of the fundamental purposes of SacSings Sacred.
It's interesting to note that Congregation B'nai Israel and Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church are a microcosm of interfaith cooperation: two people sang in both choirs, they had the same accompanist, and they have given joint concerts in the past. The music performed by the Annunciation Greek Orthodox choir was distinctly representative of the practice of their faith — and performed in Greek.
The final performance was by the Oasis Chamber Choir, which describes itself as “a professional-caliber ensemble made up of young Christians who are passionate about praising God though music.” The group is close to Sacramento’s Russian community, and on this occasion there were about 20 singers. Their program consisted of contemporary Christian music, rather than selections in Russian or from Russian composers, and this auditioned group gave what was arguably the most polished performance of the day.
The highlight of the afternoon concert — like the morning concert — came with all the choirs joining on the platform to perform “How Can I Keep from Singing?” and “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” When these pieces concluded, signaling the close of SacSings Sacred, the audience rose to their feet in a standing ovation. And it wasn’t just the audience who felt they had witnessed something special. The day had begun with a surge of enthusiasm for this event, and that enthusiasm never really ended. Choirs were excited to perform for a large audience, to be able to hear one another, and to be part of something new and significant. Audience members appreciated the variety in all the performances, the inspiration of the music (even when they might not have understood the words), and the sense of unity that is so precious and so needed in our society at this point in time.
Immediately there were calls for another SacSings Sacred next year. And with over 100 more choirs in the Sacramento region — why not?
Dick Frantzreb is the President of the Sacramento Valley Choral Coalition and was the Executive Director of SacSings Sacred.