The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera
Mozart Requiem - January 23, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
The Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera (and that is the only name that the organization now uses) is struggling to reestablish itself on the Sacramento cultural scene. Through a professional publicity campaign, community involvement and programming designed for audience appeal, it is making a strong play for audiences and funding. And on this night, their strategy seemed to be working. From my position in the middle of the orchestra section, it seemed that the Sacramento Community Center Theater was nearly full.
Before the performance began, we were greeted by the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera’s Executive Director, Alice Sauro, and her remarks gave a sense of the aspirations of what is still a fledgling organization. In a sign of the times, she expressed her pride that the organization has over 5,000 “likes” on Facebook and urged us to add to that number. And she acknowledged the group of people in the balcony who were “live tweeting” the concert.
(Click here to open key parts of the concert program in a new window.)
The focus of the Sacramento Choral Calendar is, of course, choral music, and I attended this evening’s performance with the thought that I would only comment on the choral part of the event, the Mozart Requiem. As for the first half of the concert, Schubert’s Symphony No. 4, I thought I might simply relax and enjoy the music. But as the program began, I found myself intrigued by James Feddeck, the guest conductor for this evening’s concert. He is a young man whose career is on the ascendancy and who has been performing with numerous symphonies throughout the U.S. and Europe. You can read his impressive bio in the attached pages from concert program.
As one might expect, Feddeck had a take-charge air about him from the first downbeat. Still, much of his directing was very subtle, though it seemed to me that he was generous in giving cues to the sections of the orchestra. And when the music became intense, his moves were sharp and broad, with an abundance of head shaking. What was most interesting to me, though, was his smile. Of course many emotions will play across the faces of orchestra conductors, mostly in response to the changes in the music. But my sense is that they tend to return to a neutral or perhaps even severe expression. From what I could see, Feddeck’s natural expression was a smile, seemingly a smile of satisfaction, and I couldn’t help but wonder what effect, if any, it had on the players.
Besides being an introduction to James Feddeck, this concert was, for me, an introduction to this orchestra and to Schubert’s Symphony No. 4. And as I sat there, I found myself envying people who know the music well enough to have a sense of the symphony as a whole, appreciating and anticipating its progression. It struck me that such a symphony or even one movement within it is a journey, an aesthetic journey of many moods, that is, perhaps, ultimately cathartic. To some extent, I was like a blind man being taken through beautiful scenery that other sighted travelers appreciated more than I. Yet listening to the Schubert symphony was very satisfying, fundamentally because the many instruments coming together in all their complexity of rhythm, expression, and harmony produce “symphony,” a comforting experience in a world of cacophony.
I have one note about audience etiquette. In my lifetime the rule has been that, for a major work with many sections, one refrains from applause until the conclusion. Tonight, a substantial part of the audience applauded after the first movement of the Schubert. Remarkably, Feddeck half-turned to acknowledge this applause — a gracious coping with the interruption to his concentration. This premature applause occurred throughout the evening, though not at the end of each movement of the two major works — in itself an uncomfortable inconsistency.
My first impression of the Sacramento Opera Chorus was not completely positive. Women were in black dresses of different styles; men were in tuxedos and black bowties, but the tuxedos were not all of the same style, so the presentation of the chorus was not uniform. Then when they began to sing the first movement of the Requiem, with a dynamic marking of forte in the score, their sound seemed thin, something I attributed to the fact that their risers were so very far upstage. Eventually, I adjusted to the volume of the choral sound, and as you’ll see, I was very impressed by what I heard.
From the start, I was conscious of a maturity and fullness of the sound produced by the soprano section. The tenors’ sound, too, was controlled and full, especially noticeable on their high notes, suggesting a section with many true tenors. The basses drew my attention with their incisive start of the allegro section of the first movement. Then there was great precision, even an elegance, in the way the altos followed with the 16th-note runs after the bass entrance. Indeed, all the sections mirrored the precision established by the altos, and they were, no doubt, inspired James Feddeck, whose hands vibrated to the rhythm of those 16th notes. Collectively, and of course with the support of the fine (slightly smaller) orchestra, they captured the excitement and growth of the Kyrie section of the first movement, and then the passion of the Dies Irae section that followed.
At first glance, one of the most remarkable things about this chorus is that it is perfectly balanced: 11 people on each voice part. That would not necessarily lead to a perfect balance in the sound they produced, though. In fact, though I felt that the overall balance in the voice parts was excellent, there might have been a little more strength in the alto section. They sang well, mind you, but I believe that a few more of them might have helped, especially in the fugue passages where they seemed very slightly weaker than the other sections.
For all their youth, the soloists in this piece each bear a long list of credits, and they delivered fine performances. It started with the Tuba Mirum of Anthony Reed, who presented a full bass voice with good quality on the lowest notes. Tenor Mason Gates was particularly expressive and gave a consistently powerful performance. Mezzo soprano Nian Wang had a youthful, pleasant tone — not unpleasantly heavy as I have heard in other mezzos. And soprano Toni Marie Palmertree gave a solid, confident performance without overpowering the other singers. In fact, that’s one of my principal observations about the soloists. There are many quartets in the Requiem, and these singers performed well together, with no part dominating. One wouldn’t have expected them to have rehearsed much together, but they certainly had the appearance of having done so. And beyond their ensemble sound, they each were attentive to dynamics and expression, even drama (especially evident in the Recordare section) that made their singing, whether individually or as a quartet — art. As I listened, it was evident that they were feeling something, not just singing notes.
One thing that impressed me about the chorus throughout the piece was their precision. There are series of dotted 8th notes followed by 16th notes in the Rex Tremendae movement that came across with perfect unity and a beautiful symmetry. These effects were not due to coaching by conductor Feddeck — he couldn’t have had enough time with the chorus to achieve this level of perfection, a level that was really evident throughout the piece. Rather, besides the dedication and experience of each singer, the accuracy and artistry they displayed was the product of the excellent preparation provided by Chorus Master Bruce Olstad, whose name was unfortunately omitted from the concert program.
By the time the Lacrimosa was being performed, I was thoroughly charmed by this chorus to the point that it felt to me that they were singing from a love of the music. Of course, some choruses love their music too much, to the point of oversinging. But I never discerned that with this chorus, and it was particularly noticeable in their observance of “fugue etiquette” — one section backing off in volume when another section enters with the fugue statement.
My notes are full of observations about the excellences of this chorus: how limber the basses were in the Hosanna section of the Sanctus movement; the transporting entrances of the tenors in that movement; the beautiful tone of the sopranos and altos when their sections were highlighted. Often I sensed that these people were performing exceptionally as a unit, all feeling the same thing at the same time.
A lot was riding on this performance, both for the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera and for the Sacramento Opera Chorus itself. It was an important opportunity to build reputation, and to my mind, the Chorus delivered. It seemed that they were consistently giving more than the conductor was asking. And conductor Feddeck, soloists, orchestra and chorus produced a concert that would be immensely satisfying to anyone who loves the Mozart Requiem. That was abundantly clear from the enthusiasm of the audience when the piece concluded. There was sustained applause, even cheers, and nearly every person in the theater was on their feet.