The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Children’s Chorus
For the Love of Song - May 7, 2017
by JR Keith
On this Sunday afternoon, I felt like a birthday gift arrived early — I was privileged to witness Lynn Stevens’ final bow as Sacramento Children’s Chorus’ (SCC) Artistic Director. She is retiring from directing the chorus she co-founded 24 years ago. When I left this concert, I felt like I was walking 3 inches off the ground. When a person has heart, mind, and soul fed at a live performance like this — well, that’s a win, win, win for me. But I’ve jumped a bit ahead of myself; please join me as I share what I heard, saw and felt on this moving occasion.
Before I wrote this review, I peeked at SCC’s website, http://www.sacramentochildrenschorus.org, and read their mission statement again: "The Sacramento Children’s Chorus develops skilled, passionate and confident students through exceptional music education and performance experiences." I also learned the breakdown of ages for each choir within SCC — Cantabile (3rd to 6th grades), Cantus (5th to 9th), Cantoris (7th to 10th), and Cappella (11th to college). There is also an 8-week course for 2nd graders in which “Music classes develop listening skills and symbolic thinking, as well as a means of socialization.”
There was lots of hustle and bustle in the Performing Arts Center at Sacramento City College at 3:55 p.m. while I was ushered to my seat. I opened the program to these words:
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Stevens and percussionists entered the stage, a pitch was given and a joyful a cappella song, “Tumekuja Kuimba” (“We Have Come to Sing”) opened the concert. Seated alumni, flanking left and right and toward the back of the audience, began singing. This eastern African inspired tune filled the hall as more and more members of SCC joined in while filing onto the stage. Now the Alumni, Cappella, Cantoris, and Cantus were all singing throughout the concert hall, giving me tears of happy... and this was only the first song. It was as if this chorus had been singing as one their whole life. I was profoundly moved.
For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to follow the program but break down some moments shared by each choir. However, I must point out the thoughtful and sensitive flow of the concert, keeping our attention for nearly 3 hours! Each choir performed two to four songs in each set, with the gap between choirs sometimes filled with piano interludes. For one of these, Salome Ospina performed Bach’s “Prelude in C Major.” I wrote in my notes, “The technique was that of a college student... and then I saw the elementary-age pianist take a bow with those tiny, shockingly brilliant hands!” It was a gorgeous moment. And India Urquhart gave a stunning performance of Chopin’s “Waltz in A Minor” — difficult and marvelous.
Let me begin with my favorite choristers... the little ones. Melanie Huber displayed her phenomenal skills as a conductor, director, and teacher through the sweet, moving, and brilliant performances of her students in the Cantabile and Cantus choirs. Listening to those amazing 3rd to 5th-grade Cantabile singers, I was moved “to infinity and beyond.” They were story tellers, old-soul performers. From the start, their eyes captivated me, and I was impressed by their diction when they delivered Brahms’ “Sandmannchen” (“The Little Sandman”). To get these tykes to focus on their director, sing on pitch, memorize their words, connect with their audience, AND perform — all that represents a huge feat of courage, patience, endurance, and magical skills! And they exuded that magic on that stage. Their cute, accurate, and melodic story-telling skills were on display as they performed Greg Gilpin’s 2-part arrangement of Eugene Field’s poem, “Wynken, Blynken and Nod.” And the delight of the audience was reflected in giggles, “ah’s,” and spontaneous applause both during and after this song. The choir also performed fantastic renditions of the Newfoundland folk song, “A Great Big Sea” and, from the musical, Oliver, “Consider Yourself” — both songs performed to the same level of excellence as the first two pieces. But I’d be remiss not to mention how wrapped up the audience and I were when they delivered Carolyn Jennings’ “A Menagerie of Songs.” We all learned interesting facts about the Bandicoot, Giraffes, Penguin, Sloth, (Aqua Blues) Whale, Rhinoceros, and Panda — especially the Panda because, “A Panda in Uganda (which we know is from China) would cause pandemonium!” The singers’ excitement and energy left the audience elated! I wrote in my notes, “smaller stature, compact nature, but balanced, powerful singers.”
Huber’s 5th to 9th-grade choir, Cantus, stunned me. Listening to their performance of Aaron Copland’s “Zion’s Walls,” I wrote in my notes: “Compelling and well beyond their years. It was light and heavy, yet controlled and balanced.” Then when this young choir sang Bach’s “Bist du bei mir,” I was floored. I wrote, “Your beautiful tones and clear German are fantastic.” There were such gorgeous echoes in Amy F. Bernon’s “The Rivers Are Running Again,” and I noted that this chorus, for its age range, “has such warmth with their vowels.” The Irish folk song, “Hi! Ho! The Rattlin’ Bog” was a hit. But I must say, the shining star of Cantus’ performance was “Kusimama” by Jim Papoulis! To me, the K’s were delicate, crisp... together. And honestly, I have heard collegiate choruses that don’t sound this good. Once again, I found that I had written “these kids are talented beyond their years.”
I reached out to Huber and asked if she had any thoughts and memories to share about Lynn Stevens. Huber is more than a contributing supporter, employee, and proud parent of an alum of SCC; she is also a friend to the program and to Stevens.
Lynn Stevens is a powerhouse of personality. Poetic. Loving. Caring. Charismatic. And I could see all of that by the way she conducted upon that stage. From her feet to the tips of her fingers she used her whole body to get her choirs to respond. Then she opened her mouth and oozed confidence, commitment, and musicality. At one point she said “It’s hard to say goodbye to a 44-year career working with children (24 with the Children’s Chorus!), so there will be adjustments, but I look forward to working in choral music throughout the coming years in some capacity!” What luck for Sacramento (or wherever she lands during retirement)!
Stevens’ Cantoris choir (7th to 10th graders) shone as they sang on that stage. “Come Ye Makers of Song,” Ruth Watson Henderson’s music from Henry Purcell’s text — captivated me. I loved the riser-ography that they added to the performance of Zoltan Kodaly’s “Dancing Song!” Kodaly, as in Kodaly Method? SCC uses his system to enable their singers to read rhythms and melodies. While on the risers, the choir basically began as two choruses, broke up into 6, then ended in a frantic, spellbinding, amazing finish. Note to self: “Wow... how did they pull that off!” I can’t recall ever seeing a choir move while singing such a ferociously difficult song, let alone changing positions. (If you don’t believe how difficult this song is, check it out on YouTube.) Cantoris was sensational. When they sang Nick Page’s “She Shall Have Music,” I jotted down how much I appreciated the “light consonants... not feeling spit upon... soothing, not harsh.” Then there was the glorious phrasing of crescendos and decrescendos in “I See the Heaven’s Glories Shine” by Andrea Ramsey, inspired by Emily Brontë’s words! Emily Hancock was the soloist, and she has a lifetime ahead of her to sing almost wherever she wants. Watching and listening to her, I noted “her fragility, control, and strength added a flare of grandiosity, while showing her vulnerability as an artist.” I wrote that she delivered an alluring F, sustained in a luminous chord. I loved it. Back to the whole choir: the “dialect” was gorgeous in “Waltz in A Minor” by Chopin. Then “Stuff ’n Nonsense” arranged by Norman Luboff was simply amazing. The little nuances of Scottish dialect, lively characters, hints of melancholy... bits of south of London persona all came through in the choir’s vocals, harmonies and bright faces! But did you have to make me cry to Mark Hayes’ arrangement of “Singin’ in the Rain,” sung in memory of Debbie Reynolds — a song I’ve loved since I was in the 3rd grade?
Every time Cappella took that stage I was hooked. Bewitched. Infatuated. “Viva La Musica” was a mixed a cappella song that proudly, harmoniously projected “Long Live Music!” For such a small men’s section, the baritones/basses produced “well rounded, rich and deep blends,” according to my notes. The trio of Carly Adamson, Gabby Casentini, and Destiny Elazier blended and dazzled. The solo soared with bell tones and exquisite precision. For the songs, “Gloria” by J.M. Haydn and “Omnia Sol,” by Z. Randall Stroope I sat feeling like I was experiencing the energy of musical theatre. Then in “Stomp Your Foot,” Jeremy Sigl and Gabby Casentini sang solos, once again exuding talent, energy, and skill at a level beyond their years.
When Cappella sang Brigadoon’s “Almost Like Being in Love,” it struck me that we were all in the presence of fabulous artistry though song, dedication, hard work... and love. Their last song of the night, “Route 66” was, to me, their crowning achievement. This difficult gem of music was delivered with meticulous attention to bright harmonies, lovely tones, and fun!
The Alumni choir had over 60 former students — all having been taught by Stevens — that sounded as if they had never been apart from one another. They came from near and far to sing at this concert, possibly for the last time under Steven’s direction. Their blend, chords, timing, control, and countenance were that of a high-caliber, touring show choir! And most of these folks hadn’t seen one another in years. Their performance of Marc Hafso’s “Down in the River to Pray,” was soul food to me. I thought that the emotion in the audience and on stage would make any conductor fall apart, but Stevens kept her focus. And frowns turned upside down as SCC’s signature song was celebrated in SCC fashion — Jackson Berkey’s “Sacramento Sis Joe.” From the program, I learned that this song “celebrates Sacramento, the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad, and the California Gold Rush of 1849.” The song combines ’Sis Joe,” a song about a locomotive by that name and Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races,” a song of the Gold Rush. The enjoyment of the song was written on the face of every singer.
At this point in the program, Cappella joined the Alumni to sing Mac Huff’s arrangement of “What I Did for Love.” Then there was an original song, “Little Tree” written by Stevens’ son, arranged by her husband for SATB and performed by the Alumni — a special gift to Stevens from the singers. All the choirs joined for the final number, “How Can I Keep From Singing?” It had been arranged by Gwyneth Walker and dedicated to all Sacramento Children’s Chorus singers—past, present, and future.
Beyond the performers and SCC staff who are acknowledged in the program, I’d like to point out some of the other people that made this such an extraordinary experience for me and the rest of the audience. For a start, I appreciated how well the Will Call people handled this sold out concert with such grace and meticulous proficiency. I was also impressed by the caring demeanor of the 25+ volunteers who served as ushers, program providers, Q&A personnel, etc. Then there were the VIP seat organizers, the program tech-writers, and those who had such a marvelous eye to detail for the SCC patrons. And I don’t want to forget the performers I haven’t yet mentioned: the accomplished accompanists, pianists, percussionists, violinist, penny whistler, hollowed pipe and bicycle horn player, cow bell player, and the students who danced and choreographed (Monique Lonergan and Tyler Casey). They all deserve special recognition.
I reached out to Stevens for a copy of that amazing speech she wrote and lovingly shared with the audience at the end of the concert... full of gratitude and memories shared — and I want to share it with you. (Click here to open Lynn Stevens’ remarks in a new window.)
Lynn Stevens’ legacy will live for a very long time because she mentored, coached, and trained talented individuals from generations X, Y, and Z! But for now, let her go off, sip some adult libations by the pool, perhaps at a beach off Puerto Vallarta, or Portland, Maine! For the Alumni that cried up there, singing for what may have felt like the last time under Stevens’ direction, I do hope they recognize that some of her best stuff is yet to come... because those Alumni are still singing and the Sacramento Children’s Chorus is strong and healthy. Make a point of attending their next concert in the fall, and you’ll see a continuation of the excellence I witnessed on this remarkable afternoon.
JR Keith has worn a variety of hats: director, soloist, small and large ensemble member, tenor/baritone, and event planner of choruses from Texas to California, such as FBC Frisco, TX; CCCC Jazz Choir; DBU Chorus; several mission/worship teams; Sanctuary 101; Collin County Community Choir; Turtle Creek Chorale; Dallas Symphony Chorus; Amador Choraliers; and the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus.