The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Women’s Chorus
Today I Live! A Concert in Support of Breast Cancer Awareness - May 13, 2017
by JR Keith
There is a powerhouse of unity, strength, integrity, and love making music here in Sacramento — the Sacramento Women’s Chorus (SWC)! They are in a year-long, 30th Jubilee celebrating their credo, “Opening Hearts and Minds through Harmony.” And on this evening, they brought 82+ vibrant, healthy voices to perform on that stage in the Crest Theatre.
First, thank you, SWC, for waiting to start the concert since so many of us were delayed by all the event traffic that evening. Finally, with the instruments, piano, and risers ready and the theater mostly full of patrons, the stage was set. Applause swelled in the Crest as members of SWC began filing onto their risers. At this point the evening’s emcee was announced: local celebrity, Sacramento native and CBS news star, Tina Macuha. (Learn more about her at this link.) Macuha turned out to be the fine wine paired with this multi-course, musical feast. She is a cancer survivor herself, and has also been affected by cancer many times over as women close to her lost their own battles. She moved the audience with humor, inspired insight, and love... just as the singers did. Judging by the audience’s response to Macuha, I think we all agreed that she, too, is a modern-day hero!
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The audience was full of anticipation as Artistic Director, Robin Richie, began Sara Barelilles and Jack Antonoff’s, “Brave” — arranged by Audrey Snyder. I’m still tingling as I type this, and it started during this opener for the concert. The energy was stupendous. During “Brave,” the front row of singers held up 8 signs, each with a single word: WEAK, LEAVE, QUEER, LOUD, UGLY, STUPID, WEIRD, and NERD. (Later in the concert 6 very different words were held up to invoke the positive feelings we all need for healthy emotions and self-worth.) The audience delighted in the dramatic irony inherent in these signs and began applauding uproariously. These words, which have been used to bully, hurt, and incite fear and hate within communities worldwide, were nullified by the effervescent voices on the stage. They painted that room with a boldness that all could feel, as this chorus full of gorgeous, joyful faces of positivity shined — and the audience reflected that energy right back to them!
These ladies projected a marvelous blend, charisma, and character upon that stage.
Inside the program I found words that augmented each choral selection. For example, the next song, Mac Huff’s arrangement of Andrew Lippa’s “It Gets Better” was explained in these words: The song inspires hope for young people who are bullied and harassed as well as those facing other challenging situations. As this anthem developed, I wrote in my notes “...the two lovely voices that began singing... bright inflection, vulnerability, and sweet bravery” opened this piece up for me emotionally. I only wish these two singers had been named in the program. My notes continued with “the presence and synergy of the voices showed precision with some energized chromatic modulations,” all making me feel their love. I felt so much warmth as an audience member. Thank you, SWC, for sharing that, no matter what’s happening in one’s life, with love, compassion, and loving introspection... anything can get better. That repetitious chanting of “better & better & better & better...” was powerful, strong motivation to any one struggling to survive trauma in their lives.
I loved the swift start of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” This Kirby Shaw arrangement really highlighted the singers’ artistry, with the sinewy decrescendo and slowed tempo that led to more legato, connected phrasing. The lower altos, in particular, were amazing. In my notes I wrote that the soloist had a “clear, ringing bravado with amazing connection with the audience. And the bridge was fantastic — my favorite part — where it goes almost a cappella into a southern gospel, hand-clapping swaying blend of substance.” I “woo-hooed” out loud for this one — Paul Simon’s classic that speaks to the power of friendship and love.
Sacramento Women’s Chorus teamed up with Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (formerly the Breast Cancer Fund) to present this amazing night of song. A spokesperson explained how much more information we actually have in our hands, thanks to science, doctors, and survivors — all enabling research to continue — and she noted that this horrific war affects one out of every 8 women!
After applause for the speaker ended, Stephen Schwartz’s, “For Good” began with a gorgeous soloist! This lovely arrangement by Audrey Snyder didn’t include the duet, as in the musical Wicked. I missed the contrast ever so slightly; however, the 81 chorus members sang it with feeling! The next song, David S. Gaines’ “Dance in the Rain” was, as I noted with a handy new word, “dirgey, haunting and ethereal... another moment where substance and soul are met with vocal excellence.”
Macuha then came to the mic and shared more insight into the trials and tribulations of being a cancer survivor. She asked everyone to raise their hand if they had lost someone they loved to cancer. Then she had ladies in the audience stand up who were cancer survivors. I glanced through the audience and estimated that over 100 women stood up in that auditorium. I was moved to tears when my friend, Sue Ann, rose to her feet next to me. Macuha, brought a bit of levity to this moment when emotions were peaking, making note of how her battle with cancer brought her some new “girls”; bringing in her elbows and glancing down at her chest. Laughter and tears swept through the audience in response. I felt part of something bigger than myself: we were all sharing healing moments thanks to SWC!
“I know it’s a battle we will stand and win. Our freedom voices never die.” These were the final, gripping lyrics of “Sisters You Keep Me Fighting,” by Patty Huntington in an arrangement by Diana Porter. This song spotlighted the rights (philosophical, psychological, spiritual and physical) that our mothers, wives, sisters, and girlfriends have been fighting for all their lives. Continuing the powerful imagery, Jessi Alexander and Jon Mabe’s “The Climb” was stunning, featuring Amy Browne as a spectacular soloist.
The next song, “I Lived,” had this lyric: “...I owned every second that this world could give... I did it all!” I wish I had brought a box of Kleenex because I was constantly moved by this emotionally rich concert. Then there was SWC’s intricate and graceful performance of Jay Althouse’s arrangement of Bublé’s, “Hold On.” And there was no let-up in the intense feelings as SWC performed Roger Emerson’s arrangement of “Fight Song” — another Rachel Platten anthem celebrating human power. The audience was having a lot of fun with this one, as SWC really turned up the energy and excitement! To me, these ladies were projecting the vibrancy of a large symphonic chorus! I was sitting in the lap of harmonizing matriarchs... muses of love, light, and healing.
The two songs before intermission featured guest star, Cris Williamson — recording artist, songwriter, mother of independent labels, and legendary LGBT majesty — along with her All-Star Band — Teresa Trull, Barbara Higbie, and Shelley Doty, performing songs from her CD, The Changer and the Changed.
At the break, I overheard dozens of folks sharing what they had experienced thus far from the concert, and their comments boiled down to: “This is the best I’ve ever heard from the Sacramento Women’s Chorus!”
The final hour-plus of the show was like no other concert experience I’ve had. Williamson is uniquely talented, with the voice of an angelic siren! Her messages of love, relationship challenges, hope, and healing were all as applicable today as when she began sharing her music 40 years ago. William Ruhlmann of AllMusic observed:
Williamson’s All-Star Band, a diverse group of consummate professionals, helped usher in a transcendent experience for the entire audience. Paraphrasing the comments of many that I spoke with after the concert, “we were brought to our knees with gratefulness, and up to our feet a little more healed and excited to be alive.” World-renowned artist and producer, Teresa Trull, brought charisma, harmony, and life to the stage. Bammy-winning and Grammy-nominated Barbara Higbie was “a band of instruments all on her own” with fascinating energy. Shelley Doty did things with her guitar that I just don’t have words for except these: “bringing percussion, stringed synthesis, and musical organization beyond my experience.” All three combined to create a harmonious sanctuary of seamless instrumental perfection, providing Williamson with an ideal foundation upon which to sing as the “angelic muse she has become.” Watching and listening to Williamson I furiously wrote down my impressions: She had an uncanny ability to “seem like she could bend sound... she would yodel and augment or flatten notes to create new harmonics... soothing to the soul, healing deep hidden wounds... and create moments of vocal vibrations, almost like a cry, primal — feral — invoking feelings both familiar and altogether new, profound... spectacular... that thing that ignites one’s soul, bringing a smile from ear to ear, changes of heart and mind... noises that churned my soul and enlightened my spirit... dispelling gloom and despair... like that of a prism... refracting and splitting light into a kaleidoscope of various colors.” Beyond all that, Williamson brought a peacefulness wrapped in an enigmatic desire (as it seemed to me) to “open up her audience to love... life... and the humility we need as human beings to appreciate both those things.” And I found her “refreshingly hopeful and affirming goals despite decades of exposure to the frustrations of a frequently oppositional society and industry; altogether fresh, real... tangible humanity.” I continued writing, “...she [Williamson] had the brilliance and grace of Karen Carpenter, the grit of Bonnie Raitt, the worshipful spirit of Sandi Patti and Ella Fitzgerald, and the combined bravado of Gretchen Phillips, Billie Holiday, Madonna, and Johnny Cash... all bundled mystically into this fiery, unique musical personality that is singularly Cris Williamson!”
There were times during the second segment of the concert where audience voices sang right along with Williamson and the band. I even caught myself harmonizing at some points. Williamson left us with these words: “Now is the time to stay together. Check in with one another in our community and hold accountable those not protecting the children of our future. Become supporters of the crusade to march in and take back our future. As he tweets and tweets and tweets away—I’ll take a real bird any day! Thank you for loving me all this time... illumine me Spirit Divine.’” And with that, the chorus flanked the audience and sang along with Williamson the final song of the night, “Song of the Soul,” arranged by Lori Surrency.
I think... I hope... that I understand this concert’s reason for being. Perhaps its mantra could be summarized like this: “It is not the destination where the music leads us; it is the recognition of the zany, lovely, amazing musical journey that keeps us singing... united!”
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.