The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Valley Choral Coalition
SacSings! — The Sacramento Choral Festival - April 23 & 24, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
SacSings! 2016 — The Sacramento Choral Festival took place in the Performing Arts Center of Sacramento City College in 4 concerts, Saturday and Sunday afternoon and evening, April 23 & 24. Twenty choruses performed, 5 in each concert, involving nearly 900 singers. This was the third annual SacSings, and for 7 of the choruses, it was their first time to participate; two choruses were returning from participation at the first SacSings in 2014.
I had an unusual perspective on this event. Aside from being its Executive Director, I served as emcee. So I heard all the performances from a little alcove at the side of the stage. This meant that I didn't get the excellent straight-on view that the audience had. Still, I think I appreciated the extraordinary music — and occasional displays of showmanship — as much as anyone.
I can't comment on every piece performed (I'm writing this from memory several days after the close of SacSings), and you can fill in the details by consulting the Festival program, which you can open in a new window by clicking on this link.
Concert A - Saturday afternoon
1. Sierra Master Chorale. For most of the choruses, their performance at SacSings was a preview of an upcoming concert, and that was the case for the Sierra Master Chorale. Their performances of "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace" by Karl Jenkins were coming up in just 3 weeks in Grass Valley. This is a piece full of drama, and both its intensity and beauty were on full display is this selection of 6 segments from the mass. Director Ken Hardin set the performance in motion by cueing the chorus to march in place on the risers. It was an ominous imitation of the approach of soldiers. The music began with a segment sung in French ("The Armed Man") based on a poem from the 1400s. Then along with 3 sections of the ordinary of the mass were (1) a musical setting of a poem by Rudyard Kipling that ended with the chilling text, "Lord grant us strength to die!" and (2) an excerpt from the Mahàbhàrata set to music and describing the chaos of war. Impressive as it all was, it was easy to imagine how much more impressive it would be with the 30-piece orchestra that would accompany their full concerts.
2. Folsom Lake College Choral Ensembles. This group was a combination of Folsom Lake College's College Chorus and Concert Choir. Their opening number was "Sorida (A Zimbabwe Greeting)" and it was a lively piece with gestures by the chorus in place. "The Rhythm of Life" that followed began with chorus members moving around and interacting with each other, and when they got to singing, there were many more gestures, making for a cute, energetic, visually interesting presentation to which the audience roared their approval. After two well-performed pieces by Randall Thompson, and a harmonica-accompanied setting of "Home on the Range," the group gave a performance of Moses Hogan's arrangement of "Elijah Rock" that just exploded with energy — to the delight of the audience. It seemed like a triumph for this unauditioned college group, performing at SacSings for the first time.
3. Grass Valley Male Voice Choir. Attendees at this concert got a feeling for the tradition and heart of this choir, which is anticipating a trip to the Cornwall International Male Voice Choral Festival in 2017. They began with a stirring performance of Paul Tschesnokoff's lush classic, "Salvation Is Created." After a bouncy rendition of the spiritual, "This Little Light of Mine," there was a moving setting of "Morte Criste," which is a setting of the hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." The Choir closed with an earnest performance of "What Would I Do Without My Music," a piece with which they end every concert, as they will their concert coming up next Saturday. It was a reminder to all how important our music is to us — specifically, the choral music we share with fellow singers and our audiences.
4. Davis Chamber Choir. This 23-member student-run ensemble from the University of California, Davis was another group making its first appearance at SacSings. They began with a neoclassical piece called "Rytmus" that immediately grabbed the attention of the audience. I think the first thing people noticed was the extraordinary power of this small mixed chorus. Then there were the difficult rhythms and harmonies in this sophisticated piece. It was stunning. Equally stunning for its tightly tuned chords and expressive dynamics was Poulenc's "O Magnum Mysterium." They departed from the order of the planned program, but I think the gently rocking "Honeybee" was next. Then came the sophisticated harmonies of Eric Whitacre's "Water Night." If I remember correctly they closed with the pop sounds of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," after which the audience exploded with approval, rising to their feet. (Incidentally, the Davis Chamber Choir has dozens of well-produced videos on YouTube — well worth a look.)
5. Sacramento Women's Chorus. Looking forward to a trip to the quadrennial GALA Festival, coming up in July in Denver, the Sacramento Women's Chorus chose a set of music that was almost introspective, including "Why We Sing," "A Woman's Voice," and Here's Where I Stand." A more lively piece was "Jet Set" from the musical "Catch Me If You Can." They had some fine solo performances, but they didn't report the soloists for the Festival Program, so I can't acknowledge them. And, as I remember, two of the songs were signed. Frequent signing of their music is a characteristic of this chorus, and I feel that it can be appreciated even by those without hearing impairment. it adds visual interest — almost like a dance from the waist up.
Each concert ended the same way, with a combined performance of "Let There Be Peace on Earth." I read a script that outlined the origin of the piece and of our exclusive 4-part arrangement, while singers assembled on the risers. It made a very impressive sight, with from 160 to 240 people on the stage, depending on the concert. The performance was directed by Mariia Pechenova, Director of Cantare Chorale of the Sierra Foothills and accompanied on Saturday by Cynthia Cates, President of the Valley Choral Society and on Sunday by Diana Babcock, a member of the Board of the Sacramento Valley Choral Coalition. At the conclusion of the 4-part arrangement, we (yes, that includes me) were joined by the audience who rose to sing the song again, this time in unison.
Closing with "Let There Be Peace on Earth" has become a tradition for SacSings. The owner of the copyright to the song gave us permission last year to create a new arrangement, which was composed by Andrew Hudson, a participant in last year's Festival. The permission included the right to perform the music without royalty, and this year that permission was extended indefinitely — a very gracious gesture for a song that has tight legal controls.
It's hard to imagine a more fitting close to a collaborative concert, and the emotional impact was widely felt, both in the audience and among the singers on the stage.
Concert B - Saturday Evening
1. Woodland Chamber Singers. Sometimes it's hard to be the first group to perform in a multi-group concert: the audience isn't warmed up and needs to be won over. Woodland Chamber Singers accomplished that with the quality of the unified sound produced by this large chorus. Three of their selections were by contemporary composer Dan Forrest, and his writing and moving texts showed off their ability to interpret with great sensitivity, which was especially apparent in "You Are the Music." They concluded with a familiar piece that delighted the audience: "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" from the Disney movie, Cinderella. It was an effective tease for their concert coming up at the end of May titled, "Be Our Guest: The Disney World of Song." I think a lot of people in the audience who had not heard them before were prepared not to expect much from a chorus from Woodland, even though they were announced as having performed at Carnegie Hall in 2014. It must have felt great to director Lenore Turner-Heinson and chorus members to receive the wildly enthusiastic approval of the audience.
2. Mountain Melody Women’s Chorus. I’m sure that most people had no idea what to expect from this small women’s ensemble from “the farthest reaches of Calaveras County.” When my introduction mentioned the fact that 4 of their members had lost their homes in the Butte Fire last fall, there was a collective gasp from the audience. But the question remained whether they could sing. As they got into their lively, cute first number, “Mouth Music,” that question was erased. I remember thinking during the next couple of songs that their collective pitch was remarkably accurate. But it was their vivaciousness that really won over the audience, and it was again on view in “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” Then they followed with Humperdinck’s “Evening Prayer” from the opera, Hansel & Gretel, showing us all how versatile they were. And they left us with a memorable close in “Java Jive,” injecting new life and humor into that well-known number.
3. Reconciliation Singers Voices of Peace (RSVP). Writing this days after these performances without having made any notes is especially frustrating when I remember being especially impressed by a group’s performance, but can’t recall what exactly impressed me. RSVP was the first chorus to eschew the risers for performing downstage, closer to the audience, and I think it created a greater intimacy, and helped people hear them better. Their first several selections demonstrated what a finely tuned instrument these 20 singers can be, with precise harmonies and beautiful music. Then they took a pop turn with a long arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” and the audience went wild. Then after the song, director Jennifer Reason said, “You’re welcome for the earworm.” And we would all have caught that earworm, had they not closed with the beautiful “Flight Song.” It was all enough to earn a standing ovation and cheers, which followed so many of the SacSings performances over these two days.
4. Valley Choral Society. Every SacSings concert was full of variety, not just within the set each chorus performed, but among the choruses themselves, including their characteristic type of music and their distinctive style. The Valley Choral Society, with its emphasis on music of faith was thus a change of pace on this evening. They began with an anthem, then to “Libera Me” from the Fauré Requiem, then to what might have been the best choral arrangement of “Amazing Grace” that I’ve ever heard. I haven’t attended the Valley Choral Society concerts as frequently as I have those of other choruses, and I began to ask myself why, especially when I found myself becoming conscious of the extraordinarily pure tone of the soprano section and the overall blend of the chorus. And when they got to the rousing spiritual, “Down to the River to Pray,” I began to rethink my image of this chorus that tends to stick to the classics. And with director Paul Allen’s arrangement of “When The Saints Go Marching In,” I and the audience saw that this group could really rock — and we loved it.
5. Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus. Director Stephen Johnson takes his art about as seriously as anyone I know, and he is capable of laser-like intensity. That’s what I saw when they were about to start their set. But even then I wasn’t prepared for the explosion of sound that began “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana. I think the energy behind this performance blew away everyone in the theater. The next several pieces were more restrained but still excellently performed, and I remember thinking what an outstanding men’s chorus this was. Then came the Boy Howdy ensemble performing “Garbage.” For it, they recruited a young volunteer from the audience, sat him on a chair in their midst and sang a funny song, essentially calling him “garbage,” during which he was a great sport. They closed with a spirited “Don’t Stop Believin’” — full of “choralography — which brought the house down, closing Concert B with the audience again on their feet.
Concert C – Sunday afternoon
1. Davis Chorale. This chorus specializes in classical or what might be called neoclassical music, but their concerts always seem fresh and varied, as did their set this afternoon. They started with Tchaikovsky’s “O Gladsome Light,” a Russian liturgical piece which they sang in Old Church Slavonic — with some pride in their pronunciation, I would say. Then they switched to French in singing the first movement of Morten Lauridsen’s “Nocturnes” — “Sa Nuit d’Été. Despite what it says in the printed program, they proceeded to sing another movement in this suite, "Sure on This Shining Night." Until someone reminded me about the switch days after SacSings, I had forgotten how intensely beautiful this performance was. Then, following the theme of their upcoming concert, “Night to Day,” the Chorale gave a lovely rendition of the folk song “Bright Morning Stars Are Rising.” And I’m sure their soulful performance of the spiritual, “My Lord, What a Mornin’” sealed the deal and made a lot of people resolve to hear these songs again along with the rest of the program at their concert next Saturday night.
2. Sacramento Valley Concert Choir. This chorus is unauditioned and is upfront about the fact that their main activity is performing at retirement facilities and other community venues. One implication of that mission is that their repertoire is mostly familiar, feel-good music, and that’s what they gave the SacSings audience. But it was also well sung and delivered with flair, starting with the lively “This Joint Is Jumpin’.” The medley from The Music Man that followed was just delightful, with the whole women’s section and the whole men’s section singing the two famous duets from that show. Then after an upbeat “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the audience got something quite different: a moving performance of “Stars I Shall Find” that, sung from memory, was beautifully performed.
3. The Vocal Art Ensemble. Every concert that the Vocal Art Ensemble performs has a unifying theme, and their concert planned for early June is titled “Rooted: How Culture Shapes Choral Art.” So sampling that theme, they presented 7 songs that illustrated how different cultures use music to express universal human experiences: faith, duty, love, lust, serenity, death and liberty. That may sound dry and formulaic but the performance we saw was anything but. Each piece demonstrated the versatility of this small ensemble as they performed downstage and nearer the audience. “Dublin Bells” was full of close harmonies, “Svatba” (in Bulgarian) had high energy and complex rhythms, and “Black Is the Color” was delightful, familiar listening. Then came the early Baroque sound of Monteverdi. But what sets the Vocal Art Ensemble apart is the frequent elaborate staging of their songs. One of the previous songs (I can’t remember which) had a lot of movement with men and women in pairs. And “Diu Diu Deng” was performed as if everyone was being jostled in a train car. “Loch Lomond” had the men and women facing away from each other and was sung with a rhythm that was absolutely infectious — surely every audience member’s toes were tapping. “The Battle of Jericho” was an actual battle: men and women facing off and approaching each other menacingly as they sang. Soon they were swinging at each other, and one poor soprano out front was stabbed with an imaginary lance as she wailed plaintively. It was performance art, and the audience loved it.
4. Colla Voce Chamber Singers. This was the SacSings debut of this fine mixed ensemble. I had seen them deliver creative concerts for years, and I knew they would come up with something special for this occasion. Indeed they did. With the soloist singing as she proceeded down the aisle of the theater, many of the other chorus members entered with wine glasses holding different amounts of water. Running a moistened finger around the rim of the glass produced a musical tone determined (so I believe) by the amount of water in the glass. Against the continuo sound produced in this way, the chorus performed the contemplative “Cloudsong.” The next 3 pieces were exquisitely performed, and each led me on a different kind of introspection. “Brainstorm” was very different, with impossibly difficult rhythms and quirky lyrics that had to be very hard to pronounce so rapidly. The final piece was not so much a song as a scene from Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Company. The song was “Getting Married,” except the soloist didn’t want to get married, and her rapid-fire patter to urge the wedding guests to leave was hilarious, and Bethanee Hunnicutt performed it beautifully. Adding to the humor was the chorus acting like a wedding choir and Randy Németh as the hopeful groom who didn’t have a clue. It was a complete tour de force.
5. Voices of California. I understand that Voices of California (or VoCal) was not at full strength on this day, but no one except they could tell. From the moment they started “Great Day,” I think everyone in the audience must have been startled by big sound they made — big but perfectly tuned and perfectly balanced. And the energy they projected, each man feeling the music and acting as if every eye in the theater is on him — captured and held everyone’s attention. The refinement of their sound and presentation was evident throughout their set, but “When It’s Night Time in Dixieland” was a show unto itself. Highly competitive barbershop choruses like this one develop elaborate, exhilarating choreography for their competitions, and this last number showed the audience how exciting a choral performance can be. After the cheers calmed down, I asked the audience how many were seeing VoCal for the first time, and I think about half raised their hands. This, of course, is why so many of these choruses wanted to participate in SacSings: to demonstrate their excellence to new audiences and build a greater following.
Concert D - Sunday evening
1. Chanteuses. It’s pretty impressive when a chorus can begin with a bit of virtuoso singing, and that’s what Chanteuses did with the overture to Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute. After all, it’s an orchestral piece! Their “playing” was crisp, and at Mozart’s fast tempo, and it was all quite impressive. In their next 3 pieces, I recall noticing the purity of the ensemble sound of the first soprano section, and I was similarly impressed by their precisely tuned chords. I paid particular attention to Biebl’s “Ave Maria” — well done, though I will forever prefer the 4-part men’s version, which I have heard and sung so often. The spiritual, “Heaven Bound Train,” brought a high-energy change of pace with some memorable whistle imitations to accompany the sense of movement. Finally I have to ask, Can a big finish be quiet and moving?" Yes. Billy Joel’s “Lullabye” couldn’t have been sweeter, and indeed it felt like a big finish.
2. VOCALe. This is Sacramento City College’s advanced vocal ensemble, and it was both our host chorus and appearing in SacSings for the first time. Their first selection, 3 short pieces by Brahms, constituted a sophisticated beginning that was well sung. More contemporary and no less sophisticated was “All Flesh Is Grass,” and by the time the piece was over, it was clear that this chorus belonged in the company of the other fine choruses in this festival. The American folk song, “Shenandoah” was next in a familiar arrangement that was so soothing for the many choral singers in the audience who had sung it themselves. They ended with a bit of fun, three “new” nursery rhymes, the last of which was “The Fly and the Humble Bee.” I didn’t catch all the lyrics, but I and everyone else enjoyed the joke when, after singing the last note, the singers slammed their books shut, presumably putting an end to both the fly and the bee.
3. Cantare Chorale of the Sierra Foothills. What was instantly unusual about this performance was that the singers were accompanied by the Millington String Quartet. Such accompaniment was necessary because Ola Gjeilo’s “Dark Night of the Soul” requires orchestration. The sound of the strings was a welcome addition to what was otherwise an exclusively piano-accompanied or a cappella concert. I should add that Wendy Payton’s piano was brilliant for her part of the accompaniment. Also, I have heard this piece before, but this time I became completely enmeshed in its musical tapestry. I had never heard this chorus perform something like this before: it was a stretch for them, and they passed the test beautifully. Next was the quirky ”Chimes” by Valery Gavrillian in which the chorus produces meaningless lyrics as if conversing with each other. I find it hilarious, but I’m not sure this audience appreciated the humor as much as I did. Then for another complete change of pace, they concluded with “Tell My Ma.” I was billed as “an Irish street song,” but twang and rhythm made it sound like a country tune, and it was fun for all.
4. Doreen Irwin Singers. Having performed John Rutter’s “Requiem” at Carnegie Hall last year, maybe it wasn’t surprising that this chorus began tonight with two selections from his “Magnificat.” The music was performed with confidence and strength, and Stephanie Blackwell’s solo was a highlight. The song is based on Russian folk tunes, bouncy and with a style that felt and sounded decidedly Russian. It was very different from what went before, and showed another side of this versatile chorus. Pushing that versatility envelope a bit farther, they ended with what was described as a “gospel praise song” — “Music Down in My Soul,” arranged by Moses Hogan. After a fairly tame start, it really got rocking. I think we all enjoyed the boisterous spirit of the song because the audience roared with laughter when I came out afterwards commenting, “I had to miss church today, and now I feel much better.”
5. Sacramento Master Singers. In its first appearance at SacSings, everyone had high expectations for this fine chorus, and every bit of those expectations was fulfilled. They began with Eric Whitacre’s setting of e e cummings’ “i thank You God for most this amazing day.” It was directed with the sensitivity characteristic of Ralph Hughes, and the chorus responded with disciplined, precise singing of the difficult score. “Ritmo” (ably conducted by Emily Carbrey) and “El Vito” gave Spanish rhythms to this set of music, enhanced by impossibly complex (at least to me) hand clapping. I have to say that one of my favorite pieces of the weekend was the men of Master Singers performance of “Ain’t Got Time to Die.” They can stand toe-to-toe to any men’s chorus. It all concluded with a show-stopping performance of an arrangement of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” that showed how good this chorus and its director are, bringing the audience once more to their feet.
This SacSings involved new elements: there was a combination finale rehearsal and social activity two weeks before that was optional but attended by a sizeable percentage of the singers. There was also a series of 4 seminars before and between concerts, organized by Daniel Paulson (professor of choral music at Sac City College), and designed to appeal to both singers and audience members. As at previous SacSings festivals, many choruses set up display tables. We even gave special recognition to the 8 audience members who attended (or participated in) all 4 concerts. Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing, and for some, the most vivid memory will be that the rest rooms most convenient to the audience were flooded and unusable for most of the weekend. Then there were the unsung heroes of the weekend: the dedicated volunteers (see "Acknowledgments" on page 20 of the program), plus dozens more who helped back stage, ushered, sold tickets, etc., etc.
Here’s the bottom line. Twenty choruses got 4 months of publicity and exposure to many audience members that had never heard them before. Indeed, participating choruses heard other choruses, often for the first time, and we all felt a growth of mutual appreciation and a sense that we were all part of a choral “community.” Most importantly, audiences were impressed, stimulated, charmed, lulled, amused, and simply delighted, performance after performance — and determined not to miss SacSings 2017.