The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Christmas Concert 2017 - December 2, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
(This review sponsored by James McCormick.)
The Wells Chapel at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church is a beautiful venue: unusually high ceiling, circular (or octagonal?) with an abundance of windows, seating up to 200 or more. And I thought the acoustics were excellent: overall a perfect setting for a Christmas concert. This was a special occasion for the ladies of Chanteuses: the first major concert under their new Music Director and Conductor, Judy Britts. I sensed an air of anticipation and I don’t think I was the only one.
The performance began with a ringing of handbells from behind the audience. The ensemble then entered down a central aisle in a two-column procession singing “Veni, Veni Emmanuel.” Once in position, they transitioned without break (so I recall) to “Veni Veni” by J. David Moore. This is described by the composer as “a fantasy on two verses of Veni, Veni Emmanuel.” Performed a cappella, it felt like a major work, with complex rhythms. Director Britts seemed comfortable and animated, very much in control. The singers were intense, reflecting dedicated work on a difficult piece and refinement of technique.
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“Hodie” by Joan Szymko presented a completely different style – or variety of styles – in a very appealing composition. At one point, I was especially aware of the pure unified sound from the first soprano section.
At this point in the program, Britts paused to read a translation of the Russian lyrics of the next piece, a poem by Lermontov. Thereupon the chorus proceeded to perform “The Angel” by Rachmaninoff. It was clearly the culmination of many weeks of hard work, including the pronunciation of the Russian. With the help of the advance reading of the English translation, I found the piece uplifting. But it was the sensitive performance by the singers and director, that conveyed a sense of hopefulness. And all this was aided the stirring piano accompaniment, masterfully played by Jenny Mecham.
“A Spotless Rose” featured a fine solo by Pam Henderson, and in the a cappella performance I was especially intrigued by what I wrote in my notes as the “fluidity” of the composition. “There Is No Rose” that followed was a lovely piece (the first with an English text), highlighted by the accompaniment of flautist, Jamie Jun.
At this point the singers moved to the sides of the chapel for a piano/flute duet by Mecham and Jun. Considering how often one hears vocal soloists and choruses singing “O Holy Night” during the holiday season, it was refreshing to hear this well arranged and well performed version of the Christmas classic in an arrangement by Karen Smith and David Snyder.
I’ve heard enough compositions by Ola Gjeilo in recent years, such that I look forward to the performance of a piece of his that I haven’t heard before. That was the case with “Ave Generosa.” Beginning with another reading by Britts, this piece included a beautiful solo by Melissa Mandeville, and as it concluded I wrote in my notes, “Once again Gjeilo gives proof that contemporary classical music can make for delightful listening.”
Next was a piano solo of an arrangement of “Silent Night” by Mark Hayes. Suffice it to say that for years I’ve been a big fan of Mark Hayes, and now I’m a big fan of Jenny Mecham. In my notes I observed that her expressive playing “makes the piano sing with some of the nuances of the human voice.” You may call that an exaggeration, but that’s how it felt to me at the moment.
As I listened to “Tundra,” I struggled for a word to describe Gjeilo’s music in this piece. “Eerie”? No. “Brooding?” Not necessarily. Then the piano came it, and I thought “powerful” – until the music dwindled to a gentle conclusion. I’m left with “evocative” and “engrossing.”
Everyone is familiar with the traditional carol, “I Saw Three Ships,” but this isn’t the version you’re thinking of. The smiles from the singers gave away what was coming: a joyful, exuberant performance at an extraordinarily quick tempo. As they sang, I noticed that there were two different pronunciations of “Christmas” used sequentially throughout the piece. I thought: “What extraordinary attention to detail! I wonder what I missed in the performance of this song?” It was a bit of a tour de force that brought more smiles from the singers and chuckles from the audience at its conclusion. Director Britts commented: “That was fun! Now for more fun.” And with that, they launched into a high-energy performance of “Ding Dong Merrily on High.” And for all the energy and fun of the piece, what I especially noted was the nice legato lines produced by the singers.
Moses Hogan has given choral singers some great arrangements, and “Glory, Glory to the Newborn King” is certainly one of them. Along with the captivating, rocking beat, what I noticed was the abundance of refined techniques: glissando, sforzando, sharp cut-offs, along with other effects I was only subconsciously aware of. But as the music blended into “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” what stood out was the joy of this music. Some people don’t realize it’s possible to smile while you sing, but that’s what I saw: the smiles on the faces of the singers were evidence of what fun the piece was to sing – almost as fun as it was to listen to.
The concert ended as it began – with inspiration. Britts introduced the final piece by reminding us of our need for peace, and so the chorus concluded by performing, a cappella, “Da Pacem” by Jeff Enns, for which the Latin lyric translates as “Give peace, O Lord, in our time.” When the music stopped, I think the ladies Chanteuses and their director felt a great sense of accomplishment. They were successfully launched in a new direction, and they had given their appreciative audience a distinctive Christmas concert experience.