The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Cantare Chorale of the Sierra Foothills
Luminous Journey - May 7, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
It’s always interesting to experience a choral concert in an unfamiliar church, and St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in El Dorado Hills was one I had not visited before. St. Stephen’s is a long, narrow structure, with minimal embellishment and a fairly small seating capacity that made it feel intimate. I was soon to believe that the acoustics were quite good for a choral concert.
When Cantare Chorale entered from the back of the church, proceeding down the right side aisle — the women in long, black dresses and pearl necklaces, the men in tuxedos — the first thing I noticed was that there were more men than I had seen at their concert in January. It looked like they had had a small victory in the battle waged by nearly every mixed chorus.
As usual, Larry O’Shea was the emcee for the occasion, and he greeted us with words of welcome and some background about Cantare. Throughout the course of the concert, he provided insights into each piece of music, showing a significant amount of research — and occasionally a bit of humor.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
One extraordinary thing about the first half of the concert was that all 5 pieces were performed a cappella, a daring move for a small ensemble. But since she assumed the direction of Cantare less than 2 years ago, Mariia Pechenova has gently urged the group to accept all kinds of new challenges, and many such challenges were evident in this evening’s program.
The first piece, “Aftonen,” by two Swedish composers, was performed in Swedish, and was full of humming. It struck me as difficult to sing, and the beginning was perplexing for me. But it evolved into a gentle, truly beautiful piece of music.
The same was true of “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” It’s a contemplative, wistful song, and this arrangement was delightful. As I listened, I was struck with the lovely sounds of the soprano and alto sections. And the last chord was truly exquisite.
With the next piece, “Vale of Tuoni” sung in Norwegian, I began to understand that the theme of this concert was something like “music of Scandinavia.” Part of this selection felt like a folk song, though it was full of difficult harmonies which nevertheless produced some transcendent moments.
The next piece, “Chimes (5. Ti-Ti-Ri)” was one that I’ve heard this group perform before — twice, actually — and it has provided fun listening every time. O’Shea began talking about the piece with this: “I’m almost at a loss for words.” Of course, he did find words, giving us background on the composer, Valery Gavrilin, and explaining what was happening in this song: men trying to get women’s attention, women flirting, gossiping, etc. — but all with meaningless syllables and no real words at all. The chorus had fun, especially when pretending to “talk” to each other. But the piece was so unusual, that I fear very few in the audience appreciated the humor as much as I did.
Whereas the previous selections had been performed with open scores, “Tell My Ma” was sung from memory, and with great spirit. It was listed as a traditional Irish children’s street song, but it could have passed as a Southern US folk song. Most importantly, the chorus had fun with it, especially evident in the clapping that was part of their singing. As for those of us in the audience, I’d venture to say that there were a lot of toes tapping to the rhythm of the song.
Cantare Chorale hosts some of the best intermissions I’ve experienced. In the past they’ve eventgiven audience members a quiz to consider or some other challenge. They didn’t do that this time, but another tradition held: complimentary drinks and cookies.
The second half of the concert featured the music of Norwegian-born Ola Gjeilo, now a resident of New York City. Gjelo is wildly popular these days, and the music that was about to be presented showed why. (Note the lengthy profile of Gjelo in the program.) The first selection, “Dark Night of the Soul,” was accompanied by Wendy Payton at the piano and by the Millington Strings, a chamber quartet consisting of the traditional 2 violins, viola, and cello. The piece lasted 13 minutes and felt like a whole concert unto itself. The 4 contrasting movements were full of interest with fresh musical ideas at every turn.
The piece had a frenetic beginning, but within moments I was struck by the rich, satisfying sounds of the chorus, piano and strings. I was also impressed with the incidental solos by Carrie Penaloza and the second soprano, though I believe there may have been a replacement for Nicole Canon, who was credited in the program. (I'm sure my friends at Cantare Chorale will clarify this matter presently.) Predictably, Mariia Pechenova’s directing was precise, expressive, and confident.
I was particularly taken with the fourth movement. O’Shea had quoted Gjeilo as saying,” I love the sound of voices humming chords,” and that was particularly appealing to me in this movement. It seemed like there were very few words, or at least long vowels, such that for me the text was lost in the rich, almost trance-inducing sounds. The summary in my notes was simply: “great music.”
“Stone Rose” was a duet for piano and cello performed by two really fine musicians: Wendy Payton and Stephen Millington. The music was clearly that of a contemporary master, full of lovely melodies and accessible to just about any audience.
In introducing “Luminous Night of the Soul,” O’Shea’s quoted Gjeilo’s own commentary on the piece – “lush, warm, symphonic-sounding music.” It began with a cello solo, and later incorporated a lovely piano solo. The lyrics in this composition were more prominent that in “Dark Night of the Soul” (all lyrics are in the printed program), but there was also some of the humming that Gjeilo loves. Apart from that, the chorus effectively brought out the passion and even excitement that built up toward the end.
I had heard these two choral piece by Gjeilo three years ago, performed by a 50-voice chorus, and I wasn’t sure that Cantare Chorale, less than half the size, could pull it off. But they did, and the overwhelming enthusiasm of the audience on this night was proof. In response to our sustained applause, the Chorale gave us a reprise of “Tell My Ma,” and with no lapse in our enthusiasm for the fine music we’d heard this evening, we stomped our feet in time to the music. The concert may have ended with foot stomping, but it was indeed a “luminous journey.”