The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Children's Chorus
The Singing Revolution - May 1, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
This annual spring concert of the Sacramento Children’s Chorus (SCC) began with two inspirational messages to the audience that packed the large Carmichael Seventh-day Adventist Church. The first was from Melissa Howell, the church’s Family Life Pastor, who spoke of the “wonder” and “magic” of a child’s voice. Then Artistic Director Lynn Stevens spoke about the SCC’s upcoming tour to the Baltic countries and about the Singing Revolution that played a large part in their liberation from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. She also gave a tribute to SCC alumna Claire Gilbert Marty who recently suffered an untimely death and to whom the concert was dedicated.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window. Note that it features insightful comments on each piece performed.)
The Sacramento Children’s Chorus consists of 6 choirs of which the 4 oldest were represented today. Capella consists of 10th through 12th grade students, and they led off the concert with a performance full of energy and personality. Their first a cappella piece, “Freedom Is Coming/Hamba Vangeli” had a South African style and beat — much of it in the Zulu language — and it was delivered mostly by animated soloists and small ensembles. They put on a real show, and the singers’ enthusiasm raised the spirits and melted the hearts of those of us in the audience.
Next the choir moved to the risers for “Beautiful City.” As they sang, I noticed the excellent tone and blend of these smart, disciplined singers. But their spirit was what made the song. They never stood still, interacted with each other, and even did a little “choralography” toward the end, finishing by holding hands while raising arms over their heads. I should add that conductor Lynn Stevens was, as usual, a dynamo — as energetic and expressive in her directing as these young people were in their singing.
The mood changed drastically with “I Dream a World,” a gentle, introspective piece based on a poem by Langston Hughes that embodied his hope for social and racial harmony. Then the singers repositioned themselves into a semicircle on the altar area, and under the direction of David Saul Lee (about whom more later), they performed “Salseo.” The a cappella piece began with rhythm, singers imitating the playing of instruments. The music settled into a Brazilian beat, full of jazzy chromatic passages. It had to be incredibly difficult to memorize — and sing. But they embraced the challenge and delivered an excellent performance.
Next on the program was the Cantabile choir, the 3rd to 6th graders. Their 3-song set began with a cute song (“Calico Pie”) with “pure nonsense lyrics.” Then they performed “The Symphony of the Night,” a pretty song, accompanied on flute by Cappella member, Erica Leiserowitz. They concluded with a bouncy setting of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “My Shadow,” full of humor, which the children seemed to enjoy.
My enjoyment in this set of music — and I dare say most of the audience was with me on this — was just watching these young singers perform. There was a lot of cuteness, even among the few who were not completely engaged in the performance. But especially endearing were the children who were completely focused and enjoying their singing to the fullest. Also, I was in a position where I could see director Melanie Huber interacting with the children, mouthing the words for them, modeling the expression required by the music, and overflowing with enthusiasm for what she was doing.
Huber then directed the Cantus choir (5th to 9th graders), starting with a 16th-century piece by Lassus, “Musica Dei Donum Optimi.” I’m sure that at some point it was translated for the children: “Music is God’s best gift.” If I heard correctly, this was the first piece by the younger singers to include multiple voicing, including a bit of counterpoint. In it I could see the educational program of SCC, introducing young singers to music of increasing complexity, including classical repertoire.
The next piece by Cantus was special. “Birdsong” was based on a poem written by one of the children in the Terezin concentration camp during World War II. In explaining the origin of the song to the audience, it seemed to me that Huber was moved by the thought of a child’s poem reflecting hope in such oppressive circumstances. All of us in the audience listened more intensely to the sensitive performance that followed.
I was a little confused by what came next. The poem and song by Amy Bernon is titled “If You Ask Me Nicely” in the program, but a little research after the concert found the title, “If I Ask You Nicely.” Before being performed, the poem was read by one of the singers (I think it was the original poem), and when sung, smiles broke out among the children.
The Cantoris choir (7th to 10th graders) was next to take the stage. This was the largest group: 40+ singers, but only 3 boys. Many of these singers will be on SCC’s Baltic tour, and this afternoon’s set of music will be part of their repertoire. It started with “We Are the Stars,” composed by Latvian-born, Imant Raminsh and using an Algonquin Indian text. It was somewhat more sophisticated music than that undertaken by the previous two choirs, incorporating sections of two-part harmony.
Following was the traditional arrangement of “Shenandoah” by James Erb. It was endearing to see the pleasure that certain children took in singing this familiar song. And nearly all were swaying as they sang, signaling to me that they were really feeling something: not just performing a thoroughly practiced song but consciously making music.
In 1934, Lloyd Stone wrote lyrics to Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia” that have become known as “Song of Peace.” I’ve heard lovely, inspiring choral versions of this music before, but what was performed this afternoon was something quite different. This arrangement by Gary Fry had a strong beat and gave an edgier feel to the lyrics: “This is my song, O God of all the nations, A song of peace for lands afar and mine….” The singers became more excited as the song progressed, especially when a conga drum was added. And there was one girl with glasses, singing her heart out with such joy that I couldn’t stop coming back to her as I scanned the risers. The excitement generated by the singing was followed by an explosion of applause and cheers from the audience as the piece concluded.
After intermission, Cantabile returned to perform “Hand Me Down My Silver Trumpet,” with David Saul Lee providing incidental accompaniment on a silver trumpet. Then they sang “If I Only Had a Brain.” This performance couldn’t have been cuter, filled with animated gestures and a bit of dialog. Naturally the audience loved it. Then in the interlude while choirs changed places, Lee improvised on the piano, as he did on several occasions — this time to the applause of the audience.
Cantus returned to sing “Corner of the Sky,” and once again, the greatest pleasure for me was noticing the kids who really loved to sing. It seemed to be true for the whole choir on the next song, the spiritual “Great Day!” Their faces just lit up as they swayed and enjoyed the high spirits of the song. It clearly inspired the audience, which rewarded them with cheers and extended applause when the song came to a close.
The next two songs were performed by Cantoris. The first was a lively and engaging arrangement of “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Soloists Sophia Breslau and Joseph Dozier started it off, with remarkably poised performances. Then came “I Love a Piano” in a jazzy setting that the singers seemed to love. But the star of this song was dancer, Monique Lonergan, a member of Cantoris. It’s nice to see SCC showcase their singers’ other talents, and in this case the talent was exceptional. Monique danced (in heels) through the whole song in what I think might have been her own choreographed routine. The routine itself was varied and always interesting, as her skill as a dancer was evident. But what astonished me was the extraordinary stage presence she displayed, all by herself downstage in front of what were probably 600 people. Whatever else she does from this point in her young life, she is a successful entertainer.
I had been looking forward to the return of Cappella, the oldest singers, and I wasn’t disappointed. They began with a great, jazzy arrangement of “Here Comes the Sun.” Interestingly, Lynn Stevens didn’t direct the piece; instead people seemed to take their cues from a singer in the front row. And it was effective not to have a director out front. In what was a really difficult arrangement, the choir delivered a beautiful unified sound, performing with confidence — and style.
Then to the accompaniment of a 3-piece combo, they broke out of their tight formation on the risers into informal clusters and gave us the Frank Sinatra standard, “Come Fly With Me.” There were smiles all around and interactions with each other as they sang, and the bottom line is that they really sold the song.
With the concert about to conclude, there was a break from the music. The 10 departing seniors came downstage and stood in a line. One by one, they told how long they had been in the Sacramento Children’s Chorus and what they would be doing next. After each spoke, Lynn Stevens gave them a rose and a hug. Beyond the fact that the audience consisted largely of family members of the singers, SCC strikes me as a family organization. Stevens’ affection for each singer is obvious, as is that of Melanie Huber. But there seems to be a spirit throughout the organization that rivals the caring of family members for one another. That spirit was further evidenced in inspirational remarks by opera singer and all-around performer, Carrie Hennessey, who had been acting as stage manager for the concert and who serves as artistic advisor to the SCC Board (and is the mother of one of the singers).
With all that, it was time for all 4 choirs to join in the finale, “Come in Peace.” For its performance, the children filled the risers and the central aisles of the church. It was an elaborate production, getting singers of different skill levels to be involved in the same song, but it worked — more than that, it was exceptionally moving.
What made it even more moving was that it was presented as a farewell to the multi-talented David Saul Lee, who would be relocating to Southern California to pursue his musical career. First, the audience roared its appreciation for Lee and for the other accompanists: Kamilyn Davis and Meagan Kilpatrick-Milburn. Then, commenting that “This is the show that never ends,” Stevens acknowledged Lee’s 5 years of work with SCC and presented him with a plaque. Only then did the “family” gathering begin to disperse, celebrating another afternoon of mutual appreciation and accomplishment.