The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Women's Chorus
Birthday Bash! - October 14, 2017
by Diane Boule
On a recent Saturday evening, the Sacramento Women’s Chorus (SWC) presented Birthday Bash, a tribute to their 30 years of concert presentations in the Sacramento area. And, indeed, it was obvious from the first moment of entering the venue at The Center at 2300 that something festive was in the air. The volunteers created such a welcoming atmosphere; there were streamers, leis, bead necklaces, and chocolate kisses and other candies on the tables in the lobby. Savory snacks and more candy were on the tables in the concert hall, the tables arranged in cabaret-style seating. Beer and wine were available for sale. Everyone was anticipating the birthday extravaganza.
Dressed casually in V-neck shirts in festive colors, the 90-member choir (once only 28) sang from their hearts. It’s obvious they enjoy what they do and that their director, Robin Ritchie, encourages individual expression. They aren’t choreographed in any way. They sing and act as individuals, but their sound is a cohesive, melded choir. It’s worth mentioning that they sing all their concerts without holding music. This elevates the choristers to another level of professionalism and allows them freedom of expression.
This may be somewhat old news, but I think it bears mentioning again for those who don’t know. Ms. Ritchie has achieved a life-time goal of putting SWC on the choral map. They “are now counted among women’s choruses with a national reputation….” Not only did SWC attend the last GALA (Gay and Lesbian Association) choral event, they were one of three choirs (out of a total of 171) invited to sing in the finale, a great honor and testament to their director and the singers who follow her. Because of this distinction, SWC has been presented with seed money for attendance at the next GALA event in 2020. Also noteworthy is the fact that SWC held fundraisers which allowed almost half of the choir to participate in the 2016 event.
There was one negative aspect of this concert that I’ll mention before noting the many positives, because it affected most of the program, but shouldn’t reflect negatively on the singers. The auditorium where this group sang is cavernous, with poor acoustics, so the choir necessarily sings loud, and the technique of singing in the round didn’t work in this situation. Despite the proximity to the audience, the words were inaudible. It wasn’t because of their lack of diction, because when they moved to the stage and sang, it was obvious that they spend a lot of time working on enunciation. On the stage it might have been helpful to have a choral shell to help the audience hear without wearing out the singers’ voices. The conundrum is that SWC needs a large venue because they have a huge following. (There were an estimated 200+ people in attendance at this concert.) That’s the good news. The bad news is where to find a suitably large, informal venue with good acoustics.
Just a note about the program: with the exception of the opening and closing numbers, all the songs were ones they’d sung at previous concerts, from 1994 to the present, chosen for their uplifting and celebratory mood, while highlighting the choir’s versatility. Some were well-known, others not; some were funny (hilarious, actually), some were serious. Interspersed between numbers were “Happy Birthday” songs chosen by the members of each voice part. These were not the “Happy Birthdays” you’ve sung, believe me. They were unusual and fun. I think I liked the Soprano I entry, “Sound Off Birthday Song,” the best.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The opening number, “Sing”, was performed by the chorus in a huge circle surrounding the audience. It’s a great opening number. Unfortunately, from where I was sitting (quite close to part of the circle), I couldn’t understand the words. They were lost in the poor acoustics and the boisterous accompaniment.
The remainder of the concert was sung from the stage, which allowed the audience to experience their expressiveness and excellent diction. They were expertly accompanied by a jazz combo consisting of bass, alto saxophone, and drums.
“Grand Night for Singing” was all-out loud. The piece that followed also had little variation in dynamics. It was an African-style piece in English and Swahili called “Amani Utupe” (Grant us Peace, Give Us Courage), smoothly accompanied by choristers Lily Andrews on Djembe and Ali Lippman on Timbao. Nice precise drumming! I would have liked to have heard more contrasting dynamics.
The following piece was one of my favorites. Titled “The Small Difference,” it touches on spiritual themes and contemporary issues relevant to all minority communities. It was sung with good intonation and nice dynamics. Loved it!
The jazzy alto sax solo by Chris Allan was the highlight of “Big Dogs, Music, and Wild, Wild Women.” Another fun song; it was a bit hard to understand all the words.
The very humorous “Bittersweet Tango” followed. Excellent enunciation allowed us to appreciate the humor that made this song so entertaining, with lyrics like “Give me chocolate or give me death.”
The solo, “Here’s Where I Stand,” by arranger, Greg Gilpin, was presented by soprano, Amy Browne. I’ve heard Amy sing before, so I know she has a well-trained, strong and sure voice. For whatever reason, her voice came across as strident, despite her good musicality. It may have been a combination of the sound system and the lack of good acoustics.
This concert was not only a birthday celebration, but also a fund-raiser, with money going to aid victims of the recent California infernos. Just another reason to support this group; they do good works. To this end there was a “Heads or Tails” game during intermission which was fun even for the losers and non-participants. The winner received a huge basket of goodies.
After intermission the ladies sang Kirby Shaw’s arrangement of “Celebration.” I think of this piece as SWC’s theme song. It just fits their exuberance and joy of singing, which I love.
The second half of the program was professionally accompanied by pianist, Jane Stave-Viemeister and beautifully signed by an ASL interpreter whose name I didn’t catch, and which wasn’t in the program. The interpreter’s mood matched the songs, which made me aware of the beauty of the ASL language.
The two numbers, “Music in My Mother’s House” and “1000 Grandmothers” were two more of my favorites in this concert. The first was very sensitively sung and made me want to hear more of the choir’s “serious side.” The balance of voices and the beautiful blend were most evident in this and in the lilting folk song, “1000 Grandmothers,” a very moving piece about the power of older women. I would have liked to have heard these songs again.
Another indication of the excellence of this choir was heard in “Seize the Day,” sung a cappella. It was well-tuned and the voices were balanced and light. Pleasantly, I heard no strong vibrato, which tends to make the pitch stray.
“Journey to the Past,” from the musical, Anastasia, was sung by Amy Browne; it had some of the same issues as her first solo.
The final songs before the finale were the popular “Thank You for the Music,” arranged by Jerry Estes, and the lesser-known, “Why We Sing,” by one of my favorite contemporary composers, Greg Gilpin.
The finale was the appropriately named, “Birthday Celebration.” It’s a medley of songs by composers Patty and Mildred Hill, John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. Arranged by Mark Brymer, this was the perfect ending to a really well-programmed concert. And then there was the balloon drop! Congratulations to Sacramento Women’s Chorus for another entertaining evening!!