The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Woodland Chamber Singers
Season of Light - December 1, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
(This review sponsored by David Hance.)
It had been almost 2 years since I’d heard the Woodland Chamber Singers perform, and I remembered them as a very accomplished group. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at tonight’s performance. But surprised I was when they began to sing “Villagers All,” the first selection on the program. The sanctuary of the Woodland Presbyterian Church was not unusually large, and those 45 singers filled it with a big, deep, pleasing sound. This piece was performed a cappella and from memory, as were about half the selections in this concert. Most importantly, this happy song was delivered with great enthusiasm.
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As the chorus proceeded to sing “Season of Light,” I was struck by their beautiful blend and balance, plus some of the best articulation I’ve heard from a group of this size. Still performing a cappella, they continued to surprise me with their excellent vocal control in the soft parts of this song.
The more choral concerts I hear, the more I feel that a key skill of every good artistic director is effective programming, and I saw that demonstrated tonight. Half of the selections were compositions I’d never heard before — but would gladly hear again. Even the familiar tunes had fresh settings. There was variety in presentation: men only, women only, small ensemble, a cappella and accompanied, serious and humorous, soothing and rousing. With every song there was a fresh experience for the audience.
I guess I really began to appreciate the variety in programming when the men gave a rollicking, masculine presentation of “Gloucestershire Wassail,” full of energy as they tackled difficult harmonies. I took particular note of director Lenore Heinson during this piece, and I could see how she was the spark that elicited the enthusiasm and energy I was observing in the singers.
The fourth unfamiliar song in a row on the program, “Carol of Winter Peace,” got me thinking. Mastering unfamiliar music like this is such an enriching experience for each singer. More than that, as I scanned the open mouths and expressive faces, it occurred to me that performing in a chorus like this gives each singer the opportunity to be an artist, expressing something profound within themselves, under the guidance of a perceptive, experienced director.
Both this “Carol of Winter Peace” and the preceding “Season of Light” also had the special quality of carrying an inspirational message, so in tune with the season. That laid the groundwork for an emotional release in the most rousing version of “Deck the Halls” that I’ve ever heard. Everyone on the risers put down their music scores, loosened up, and just had fun, clapping to the beat of the music as they sang. The intensity built, and it got to where the song really rocked. In my notes I wrote: “Every chorus should get the opportunity to sing this song!”
It was during “Deck the Halls” that I noticed something I don’t recall having seen in other choral concerts. Accompanist Lori Jarvey was singing along as she played. This seemed all the more surprising because her playing throughout this concert was so accomplished, full of confidence and style. But singing as she played (which I noticed in other pieces, as well) says something special about an accompanist: that they’re really part of the group, committed and sharing the spirit of each piece in a very personal way.
“December Rose” was a very different experience, a lovely new tune to the words of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” And a highlight of this performance was a flute obbligato by guest artist Steve McWilliams, a last-minute stand-in for the violinist originally scheduled. “Obbligato” means “not to be omitted” and indeed his performance was a great enhancement to this piece.
Next was a livelier-than-usual “Jingle Bells,” full of interesting and challenging key changes. Then the women of the chorus presented “The Hands That First Held Mary’s Child” (again accompanied by flute and piano). I watched these ladies closely as they sang, and what I saw in (almost) every face was an earnest effort to communicate the strong feelings of the music.
At this point, the 25-member ensemble that bears the formal name of this group (“Woodland Chamber Singers”) came down front. As they performed the difficult rhythms of “Caroling, Caroling” with great accuracy and energy — from memory and with good blend — it occurred to me that they indeed sounded like a hand-picked group. Their next piece, “Midnight Clear,” was a new take on “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” There was a new melody that used the comforting, familiar words of this carol (plus a rarely performed verse), giving a completely new and contemporary musical experience, sprinkled with jazz harmonies. As they sang, I was conscious of their excellent vocal control.
“Carols of the Night” was a combination of “O Holy Night” and “Silent Night,” performed by the full chorus. Actually, it was the full chorus plus the audience because we were invited to sing along with “Silent Night.” The chorus’s singing at the beginning of “O Holy Night” was simply ethereal, until it grew into a full, rich sound. It was a lovely arrangement, and when we got the opportunity, many of us in the audience sang along. Even though I was sitting in the back of the church, I could tell others were singing because they were holding up their music — and director Heinson acknowledged their efforts with an appreciative smile.
“Ogo ni fun Oluwa” was something else. Several chorus members went to “stage left” to take up about 4 African percussion instruments. Then the chorus started singing (in the Yoruba language) this song that translates as “Glory to God in the Highest.” Have you ever seen an African choir performing a lively song while standing still? No, you haven’t. And in this performance tonight, there wasn’t a singer who wasn’t moving, completely enjoying the experience, and adding a bit of “choralography” as they sang. The joy of this song radiated from the chorus to the audience, and many of us clapped along with them.
At this point, chorus president Ruth Miller announced the final piece of music, “Auld Lang Syne,” and reiterated the theme of the concert: “Peace and Light.” It was a good arrangement of this traditional song, full of close harmonies, emphasized in the unaccompanied beginning. Soon it struck me that this arrangement was a perfect demonstration of the quality of this group. Then another thought came to mind. Woodland Chamber Singers is really the only community chorus in the city of Woodland. And it may sound corny to you, but a fine organization like this is a jewel in the crown of this city of just 59,000 souls – a community treasure.
I have to say that, good as it was, “Auld Lang Syne” didn’t feel like a proper finale to this concert — and it wasn’t. They had an encore: a rousing version of “Deck the Hall.” It was performed from memory, with hand clapping and great joy and energy, and for a while the Woodland Presbyterian Church really rocked. And needless to say, when the bows were over and the applause had died down, everyone, singers and audience alike, left that concert in high spirits.