The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sierra Master Chorale & Orchestra
Spring Concert - May 23, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
A concert by the Sierra Master Chorale in the near-acoustically-perfect Grass Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church is something I always look forward to. And I’m sure there were many others who shared my feeling. The random tuning of the large orchestra and the buzzing of conversation gave an air of anticipation as regular patrons and, I’m sure, many first-time audience members took their seats. This Grass Valley/Nevada City area is not a large community, but it is rich in appreciation for the arts, and the Sierra Master Chorale enjoys well-deserved community support.
We were welcomed by Barry Howard, chair of the Chorale’s Coordinating Committee. Among his comments, he made the point that the singers were moved by the music they were about to present — that it raised their spirits. That put me on notice to pay particular attention, to try to recognize how it might have had that effect on them. While Howard was speaking, the Chorale members entered quietly from two aisles, taking their position on the risers behind the orchestra at the front of the church. The women were all in black with corsages. The men were dressed in black shirts and trousers, accented by purple ties.
Artistic Director and Conductor, Ken Hardin, entered to the welcoming applause of the audience, and began the performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Toward the Unknown Region.” With Howard’s words fresh in my mind, I opened my program to the text in order to follow along. Fortunately, there was enough light in the church to allow one to read the program.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The first few phrases from the orchestra set a somber mood, but soon the music seemed to me more pensive. Clearly, the poem was a reflection about death, with all the contrasting feelings that subject evokes in us. The music soared as the chorus sang “No map there, nor guide….” But the soaring seemed to be driven by anxiety. Then with the words “I know it not, O Soul,” I thought I sensed wonder and even hope in the music. As the poet and composer went on to explore this human experience so common to us all, yet shrouded in mystery, I felt I heard in the music many more contrasting emotions: apprehension, resignation, and perhaps even exultation. It all built to the powerful moment in which the music expressed the triumphant thought “Then we burst forth,” building to the climax of “O Joy! O fruit of all!” The final words, “Them to fulfill, O Soul” were performed with simple harmony, and with that beautiful conclusion, I’m sure we all felt we had entered heaven together
At this point, Conductor Hardin spoke to us, admitting that he was out of breath at the end of this “powerful piece of music… one of the most beautiful we’ve performed.” He went on to explain that he had originally planned to program the Brahms Requiem, but then, considering the turmoil in our country, it seemed more appropriate to present a concert of American music, looking for thoughts and emotions that might help to bring us together. Thus the first two pieces were settings of poems by the American poet, Walt Whitman. About the second poem, “Song of Democracy,” Hardin pointed out, it “is as valid and thought-provoking today, as it was when it was written.” At this point Hardin gave us a laugh, noting that the dates of the composer, Howard Hanson, were given in the program as 1770 to 1827. That would have made it difficult for him to compose music for a poem (in its original form titled “An Old Man’s Thought of School”) that Whitman had written in 1874. The correct dates for Howard Hanson are 1896 to 1981; those other dates were for Beethoven.
As this “Song of Democracy” began, I paid close attention to the words. I was disappointed to look around me and see that hardly any one else was doing the same. The music was, of course, from a different era than the first piece on the program, and it certainly made for good listening. Also, the music was such that the words sung by the chorus came through more clearly than they had for the first piece. But I fear that many people may have missed the central idea of the poem: the multigenerational persistence of history. The music was reflective and then frenetic, perhaps to represent the energy of youth. But amid the ups and downs in the music, I hope that most audience members picked up the key themes of the poem. One that stood out to me was the idea that education is far more than language arts and arithmetic: it is steeping young minds in how precious is the gift of democracy, conferred on them by earlier generations. I saw in this poem and music the history of our country, full of both harmony and cacophony.
And what exactly was I hearing from the chorus? A beautiful, unified sound, especially notable when they sang a cappella or with light accompaniment from the orchestra. But more than that, I heard them sing with intense concentration, even passion. And it was clear to me that they had thought about and understood what they were singing.
Intermission for the Sierra Master Chorale is always a special affair. The audience and singers assemble in a nearby fellowship hall for coffee, tea and water — and homemade cookies, all for a small donation. There is ample sitting room at tables, but most stand and mill around, making the most of the opportunity for socializing.
After intermission the Chorale presented four African-American spirituals (see the program). These were arrangements from three famous names associated with this uniquely American art form. The chorus performed each song from memory and without accompaniment. And each performance was full of energy, great harmony and precision, with unified pronunciation, clear articulation, and great artistry. Personally, I’ve heard each of these pieces performed before, some of them many times. But I am confident that I’ve never heard them performed better. Any chorus can obtain these arrangements and present them, but this was a concert-worthy performance.
The last section of tonight’s concert was a performance of all seven parts of Randall Thompson’s Frostiana, poems of Robert Frost set to music. It couldn’t have been more representative of America: an American poet and an American composer. In introducing the music, Hardin suggested that we think of each song as a “postcard from New England.”
I was first exposed to this music when I performed a couple of the pieces in high school — not long after they were composed. Then I experienced some of this music in college and in community choruses over the years. I feel bad about confessing this, but I never liked the music much. But that feeling changed tonight. For the first time, I heard all seven of these pieces performed together. And also for the first time, I heard them with the accompaniment of a full orchestra. Believe me, they present a totally different experience with orchestral, as opposed to piano accompaniment. The orchestration, primarily comprised of strings, was lovely, and it beautifully complemented the singing of the chorus. There was variety in the presentation of each piece: full ensemble, men only, women only. And there was beautiful highlighting of solo instruments in some of the selections: clarinet, flute, harp, etc. It was 30 minutes of lovely music, full of introspection, imagination, exuberance, playfulness and even a bit of melancholy, as it presented a picture of a bygone era in a part of the country we can all relate to. The suite was presented with great artistry — even perhaps as I imagined, performed lovingly.
This wonderful, emotion-filled concert ended with the audience rising in a sustained standing ovation, appreciating a musical organization that is nothing less than a regional treasure.