The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Master Singers
A Master Singers Christmas - December 21, 2017
by Diane Boul
On December 21, 2017, a friend and I went to Harris Center in Folsom, CA to hear Sacramento Master Singers under the direction of Dr. Ralph Hughes. My expectations were high, as they have been one of my favorite Sacramento-area choirs for several years. I need not have been concerned about being disappointed, since they delivered a stellar program once again. This is definitely a group composed of stars, including the conductor, assistant conductor, soloists, choir and accompanist.
I should explain why I praise this group, and why I found this concert, in particular, to be at least one of the best I’ve heard by them. First of all, SMS is always fresh and new. The programming is not only a balance of serious, contemplative songs with lighter, upbeat ones, but it always contains new music and/or new arrangements. Their programs are always informative and educational; I think Dr. Hughes really wants his audience to get everything possible out of these concerts, short of singing in the choir themselves. The printed program always has notes giving a little history or some tidbit about what to expect, as well as the names of the composer, lyricist, arranger, and the lyrics and translations of all the songs. Whether singing new or old repertoire, mostly a cappella and sometimes accompanied, the singers always sound engaged and look like they’re enjoying themselves.
The singers are masters of diction and I, for one, appreciate that so much. In addition to helping the audience hear how the words are expressed by the music, excellent vocal technique also means uniform vowel-formation, leading to the creation of a beautiful blend in the harmonies. More than any other performance I've heard from SMS, this concert produced a number of pieces that were so uniform in sound that each voice part sounded like a single voice. Only the best, most professional choirs can accomplish this. It’s a testament to strong direction and everyone’s dedication. I thought that all of the soloists were well prepared and well matched to the music they were singing.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.) (To be added)
The evening started off in the dark with a flameless candlelight processional with chimes introducing the pieces and acting as vocal cues to the piece that followed. The chimes reminded me of bells in a monastery; the darkness and the candles set the mood for the first several pieces of the program.
“Jerusalem Luminosa” (“Jerusalem, City of Light”), written in 2002, was a lovely dramatic opening number with the message of peace, and like peace-making, became much more complex as time went on. Sung a cappella in Latin, the 15th century text, by Thomas á Kempis, is taken from a much longer poem celebrating Jerusalem. What I first thought would become a canon turned out to be one voice following another voice, the second tagging along, but only occasionally catching up. Despite the rhythmic challenges, the women brought this song alive and, what started in a tranquil state, ended up sounding joyful and hopeful. The sopranos sounded a bit shrill at the end, and I thought they needed a few more singers.
“Noel Nouvelet” (“Christmas Comes Anew”) is one of the most popular carols from the French tradition available to the English-speaking world. This arrangement by Sofia Soderberg (2004) maintains the original haunting, melancholic tone of the minor key, which somehow seems unfitting in this mostly joyous season. However, in the 5th stanza of the original song, the three wise men bring their gifts of gold for kingship, frankincense for divinity, and myrrh for death. So the undertone of sorrow was to remind people that the reason Jesus was born was ultimately to die a sacrificial death. While Ms. Soderberg preserves the sorrowful tone of this song, she infuses it with new rhythmic joyfulness. The polyphony was exciting; the men sang dynamically; the basses were so mellow; great job.
“O Magnum Mysterium,” a responsorial Gregorian chant from the Matins of Christmas, dates from at least the 13th century. It describes the wonderment of the animals as they gaze on Christ, and it was arranged by contemporary composer, René Clausen. I loved this piece mostly because the singers sang as if on one breath; constant singing; no rests. Also, this was sung a cappella, in eight parts, with dissonant harmonies that matched the lyrics. With all the voice parts starting together in unison, their parts diverged and expanded polyphonically to a homophonic forte on the word magnum (great), then gradually moved down to a secretive pianissimo on mysterium.
“And Lo, the Angel of the Lord” was written by Sir James MacMillan (2009). The text is from the well-known Bible verses, Luke 2:9-14, often heard as a recitative, but MacMillan’s setting was expansive, ethereal. It started with a soloist, and then blossomed into seventeen parts within three choirs. I heard many different voices, but I couldn’t decipher seventeen. The three choirs sang in distant circles from each other. It was like there were three voices speaking to each other, but within each circle were multiple voices. It was a cappella and memorized.
“Shepherds, Rejoice!” was arranged by Carol Barnett to text and music that comes from “The Sacred Harp” collection of shape-note songs dating to 18th century America. Ms. Barnett’s words are quoted in the program. This piece was composed around lovely canons, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. I’ll keep looking for a recording of this arrangement.
“Still, Still, Still” is an Austrian Christmas carol that is often sung in German and first appeared in a collection of folk songs in 1865. The English version has different lyrics and was arranged with piano accompaniment by the famous Norman Luboff. The choir sang with excellent diction, so we were able to understand the beautiful words. The piano accompaniment, as played by Ms. Van Rengenmorter, enhanced this lullaby to the Christ Child.
The house lights went up for Morten Lauridsen’s “O Nata Lux,” written in 1997 to a sacred anonymous Latin text from the 10th century. This serene and somewhat eerie setting was sung by SMS with a mellow maturity that sounded like 100 voices. I’ve heard other choirs sing this, but never this well.
“Away in the Manger,” with a 19th century American text, had been arranged by vocal jazz great Phil Mattson. The soloists sang gently with light, lilting cadences, setting the stage for the chorus. I was rather intrigued by this jazz arrangement, so I looked for a recording. I didn’t find one, but I did find that Phil Mattson is still recovering from a traumatic accident suffered two years ago. I wish he could have heard the special treatment given his arrangement by SMS. Despite its storied past, the poem and music is wholly an American product. The original two-stanza form, in English, probably originated among German Lutherans in Pennsylvania about 1885, while the two most common musical settings are by William J. Kirkpatrick (1895). No one knows who wrote the three verses of this song, but it seems that the third verse (prayer-like) was written by someone different from the first two (more like a lullaby).
“Christmas Medley,” arranged by a former SMS accompanist, Linda Dawson, is a medley of “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “Jingle Bells,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” This provided an opportunity for the audience to sing along. You can imagine the din in the Harris Center with all of us singing. (Big smile.)
After singing our hearts out, SMS came back with my favorite presentation of the night, “Huron Carol.” The women started with a breathless sound and great legatos and staccatos. Following this ethereal beginning with dissonant, haunting harmonies from the piano, the carol builds to a grand last verse with soprano descant. The "Huron Carol" is a Christmas hymn, written in 1643 by Jean de Brébeuf, a Christian missionary at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Canada. The song’s original Huron title is “Jesous Ahatonhia” (“Jesus, he is born”); translation of de Brebéuf’s lyrics is by Jesse Edgar Middleton, 1926. The song's melody is a traditional French folk song, "Une Jeune Pucelle" ("A Young Maid").
“Noel,” written to traditional Kituba text, was composed by Todd Smith, who grew up in the African Congo. An African spiritual in a call and response style, this exuberant number was paired with light choreography. It’s a very spirited, uplifting piece. Listening to this, I envisioned a town crier coming into a village, crying “Noel,” then someone answering with another “Noel.” Then they keep going from village to village gathering singers who dance and sing to the next village. Very joyful. Great end to the first half of the program.
The second set started off with women-only singing Bob Chilcott’s, “The Midnight of Your Birth,” set to the poetry of Charles Bennett, a contemporary of the composer. This song has a melody that impresses you as being so simple that you could sing along after one hearing. The lyrics made me wonder if the poet was thinking about the 12 days of Christmas. (See program.) Assistant Conductor, Emily Carbrey, seemed quite comfortable in her role. She deftly led the women through this bouncy, animated melody with lyrics to match. Sweet!
Listed on the program, but not sung, was “Ave Generosa.” One of the singers later told me that they left it out, because they hadn’t perfected it yet. The audience probably wouldn’t have known that it wasn’t perfect, but that’s the kind of choir this is and why they continually have sold-out crowds. They are professionals. We’ll just have to wait.
“Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind,” from a text by William Shakespeare’s As You Like It and music by John Rutter, got a big grateful sigh from me. The lush harmonies and crescendos from the men, and lovely accompaniment by Ms. Rengenmorter, made this song a superb addition to this concert. Gorgeous! Satisfying!
Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night” was given a stunning, jazzy arrangement by Paul Johnson. The choir was sitting/standing/leaning in a casual setting, maybe to represent a cozy family gathering, singing carols around the fireplace. The huge swells in this piece made for a very joyous, rather than somber “Silent Night.”
Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” sung by the 20 men of SMS, featured two choirs and three soloists. Although this has a fairly simple melody, it’s the overlapping of voices and the harmonies that make this such a powerful piece. Sung a cappella, with crescendos and decrescendos that came and went like waves, their legato was as fluid as running water!
The traditional Christmas story of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” written in 1939 by Robert L. May for the Montgomery Ward stores, was put to music by Johnny Marks in 1949. Now we have a new rendition with a jazzy piano accompaniment and choral “hand jive” by A. Hawley Barry. This was funny, light, and different — not at all what I expected.
Still laughing, we went to the drinking song, “Good Ale” written by John Rutter, which seemed to leave the choir slightly inebriated. Why? This hilarious, spirited wassailing song from the 15th century speaks of bypassing the food, “... but bring us in good ale.”
“White Winter Hymnal,” arranged by Alan Billingsley, and using composer/lyricist, Robin Pecknold’s sad story of being bullied, was the biggest surprise of the evening. Using four voices a cappella, body percussion, and the arrangement made popular by Pentatonix, the choir sat or stood, casually trying to make this song look easy to perform. I thought it looked very difficult. It appeared as if the singers were reprimanding themselves for being bullies. I’m sure they bruised themselves in practice. The song was a pleasant sing-songy folk song; the hand/body percussion was choreographed in five parts, like five different voices.
“Rise Up, Shepherd” is a traditional American spiritual arranged by Stacey V. Gibbs. I thought this had a revivalist feel with two tenors and two basses leading the choir in a rousing call and response style; but it was much jazzier than the spiritual most people are familiar with. Nice way to end the program.
Who was Santa? Whoever, it was nice that he/she joined the choir as they sang their theme song, “Peace on Earth/Silent Night.” This ended a perfect evening and certainly contributed to my Merry Christmas. I guarantee that if you hear Sacramento Master Singers, you will hear good music sung well!!! I promise. Now promise me you’ll treat yourself to one of their concerts.