The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Women's Chorus
Journey On - June 4, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
There was an air of excitement and anticipation in St. Mark's United Methodist Church as this concert was about to begin. It was all due to the Sacramento Women's Chorus's plan to attend the GALA Festival in Denver, July 2-6. So a good part of this concert had a travel theme. Much of the rest was introspective, but it was all positive and upbeat; often upbeat in the musical sense; always emotionally upbeat.
The first selection, "Everlasting Melody," was typical: a soft-rock rhythm with accompaniment from piano, bass and percussion — plus a tuneful, infectious melody. Half-way through, Director Robin Richie turned to the audience with a smile and started clapping to the beat. Of course, we joined her, and pretty soon the chorus did, too.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The next two songs were the first of many that carried the message of "who I am and what I believe and how I want to make the world a better place." Here are some of the words from "I Sing Out": "I sing out peace, I sing out hope... Life gets better, the future's brighter... when I sing out. I sing out joy, I sing out love.... With our voice we can heal the world." And here is how "Why We Sing" begins: "A sound of hope, a sound of peace, a sound that celebrates and speaks what we believe. A sound of love, a sound so strong. It's amazing what is given when we share a song. This is why we sing... Music builds a bridge; it can tear down a wall...."
Does that sound naive and Pollyanna-ish to you? That's not the way it came across. Watching these ladies perform, I scanned their faces and noted their body language, and the earnestness and sincerity that I saw were uplifting and inspiring. There was all that, plus a good choral sound and good diction. By the third song, it struck me that if this were part of a competition, all they put into these songs would win them a prize.
Throughout the concert, SWC President Lily Andrews acted as emcee, welcoming the audience and setting up many of the songs. She also conveyed the chorus's excitement about participating in the GALA festival, and before they started "Why We Sing," she noted that this song, plus the next 5 would be the set they would perform on July 4 in a 2800-seat theater in Denver.
I had heard them perform the next song, "Thirty Second Fa La La," at a Christmas concert in 2013. It was indeed performed in 30 seconds, which means it was very fast and energetic — and a hoot. I questioned why it would be on this program until I heard the changed words: "Gay-La-La." It was as much fun as the first time I heard it.
For "Sisi Sote" conga drums and a shaker were added to the piano accompaniment, and you didn't have to understand the Swahili lyrics to feel the joy in this song. The chorus really loosened up, moving in place and occasionally clapping in time. It was a celebration, and we in the audience felt we were part of it.
The next song was a return to a serious message. It was "Make Them Hear You" from the musical Ragtime. It's a call to fight for social justice. Lily Andrews sang the beginning solo with passion and conviction, and her warmth was echoed by the chorus when they came in.
I can't imagine the Sacramento Women's Chorus having the opportunity to perform at a big event like the GALA Festival without programming the piece that has essentially become their theme song. The song is "A Woman's Voice," and I think I've heard them perform it several times in recent years. Here's how I described the origin of their arrangement of the song in my review of their 4/25/15 concert: “Director Richie ... had noticed the song on [California] Senator Barbara Boxer’s website, was moved by it, and called the Senator’s office to find how she might get permission to arrange it for a women’s chorus. By an extraordinary coincidence, the two lyricists, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, were meeting with Boxer at that moment and agreed to contact the composer, Marvin Hamlisch, to secure his permission — which he gave.” As always, it was sung this evening with great feeling.
The next song, the last of the chorus's GALA set, continued the theme of self-affirmation that was so prominent in this evening’s music. Here are some of the lyrics of "Here's Where I Stand": "Here's where I stand. Here's who I am. Love me, but don't tell me who I have to be." This was sung by Amy Browne, a frequent go-to soloist for this chorus, and she gave a memorable performance. Amy has a fine voice, but beyond that she's a song stylist, and she brought that skill to bear in this song. Toward the end, it was clear that she was struggling with a tickle in her throat, and actually had to cough at one point. But she came back for a strong finish, and the supportive audience gave her an especially warm round of applause, many rising to their feet.
The first half of this concert had seemed pretty serious. There was spirit and a bit of humor, but not the sense of fun that has become characteristic of the Sacramento Women's Chorus. That all changed after intermission. Lily Andrews set the stage, addressing the audience as if we were passengers on a plane, with humorous instructions about our tray tables, oxygen masks, etc. Before she finished, 15 or 20 chorus members, marched in single files down the outside aisles of the church and dressed as stewardesses (not flight attendants) from an earlier day of commercial flying. Especially notable were their red pillbox hats, as they spread throughout the risers and the front of the stage. Then down the center aisle came Director Robin Richie dressed as an airline pilot with appropriate headgear — and sunglasses.
The song "Jet Set" began with a solo by Jena Cooreman, as the rest of the chorus came down the aisles of the church dressed in what I would have to call "street clothes." Most of them were carrying some type of soft-side luggage which they handed to the "stewardesses," who arranged them in the front of the stage. The singing was full of spirit, and it was clear that we were in for travel.
Cooreman performed the next song, "Come Fly With Me," as well, and as I listened I was increasingly impressed with both her eminently listenable voice and her styling and stage presence. The thought crossed my mind that she could be a successful nightclub singer.
"Live Out Loud" was a return to the theme of self-affirmation in which a key line was "I don't want to go along with the crowd... I want to live out loud." It struck me how often the first person pronoun "I" had appeared in the songs to this point.
The next song was another bit of fun. The lights went down and all the chorus members put on scarves or hats, as if they were going for a ride in a convertible. Bassist Casey Lipka brought her stand-up bass out front, and we got the best arrangement (and performance) of "Route 66" I've ever heard. Everyone was bouncing to the beat set by the bass, and during a bridge in the song, most of the singers put on sunglasses. They seemed to have the most fun yet on this song — heck, we all had fun.
Lily Andrews reminded us that travel need not just be lateral, and this was the set-up for "Defying Gravity." I'll confess that this is my favorite song from my favorite musical, but this arrangement lacked the frenetic intensity of the version of the song that appears in Wicked. Soloist Anna Murphy gave a yeoman performance, but I felt sorry for her: the arrangement didn't give her much to work with.
For the next song, Andrews asked everyone to look out the left side of the plane, and the chorus all leaned to their right (our left). This bit of humor was in contrast to the seriousness of the "Famine Song" that followed. It was about the Sudanese women coping with the famine of the 1980s, and it was darkly beautiful. In a minor key and with minimal piano accompaniment, the chorus produced exquisite harmonies, bringing out the pathos and passion in what was essentially a very sombre song.
"Wayfaring Stranger" began with a beautiful unison sound from the chorus. With violin accompaniment by Mary Blanchette added to the piano, I found it a very soulful, interesting arrangement, that built to a passionate peak before a quiet ending. Having mentioned the violin and (earlier) the bass, I don't want to overlook the other instrumentalists: Chris Allan on alto saxophone, Tim Metz on drums, and James Richie on conga drums. They all added richness to the pieces in which they were featured. Then there is accompanist, Kamilyn Davis. Her versatility and sense of style make her one of the best accompanists I've observed, on top of the fact that she is a remarkably accomplished musician, director, and performer.
I also want to note Kristina Towner, who signed a number of the songs in this evening's program ("Why We Sing," "A Woman's Voice," and "Wayfaring Stranger"). To me, signing is "dancing from the waist up," and I often find it fascinating to watch. Towner is clearly an expert practitioner of this art.
"Life in a Northern Town" is a pop song from the 1980s. It's ostensibly (and subtly) about unemployment and urban decay, but it has a gentle beat and a happy, African-style refrain ("Ah hey ma ma ma"). I'm not sure what to think about it, but I — and I believe the rest of the audience — really liked it.
“Corner of the Sky” from the Stephen Schwartz’ musical, Pippin, was one more song about self-affirmation: “I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free. Got to find my corner of the sky.” The highlight of the piece was a return solo performance by Amy Browne. She has a powerful voice, but also great control, and at the end of this song she hit a sustained high note that simply wowed the audience.
The other major theme of this concert, social harmony, got a reprise in the happy, optimistic “One World,” which featured lyrics like these: “So many people, so little time. I wish they could all be a friend of mine. So many places I want to see. I wish we could all live in harmony.” Then with the combo rocking out with a strong beat, the travel theme came back strong with “I’m Outta Here.” You could see the chorus was really into the music, moving freely (except for some staged “choralography” moves) and singing their hearts out.
The title of this concert was “Journey On,” and on the surface it spoke to the Sacramento Women’s Chorus’s forthcoming trip to participate in the GALA Festival next month. But it was also about the individual’s journey to finding and freely expressing themselves — something everyone can relate to. And at the end of this concert, as full of heart as it was of humor and spirit, there was no question that the audience appreciated what they had experienced, as they rose quickly in an extended standing ovation.