The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Master Singers
Love Heals - March 19, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
Sitting on a hard, wooden pew in Sacramento’s First United Methodist Church, I waited for this much-anticipated concert to begin. As I sat reading the lyrics and inspirational quotations in the program, I was surprised when I found myself tearing up at one point. Which particular thought moved me is immaterial. There was enough inspiration, enough humanity in this concert to move anyone who claims to have a soul. And in the moments leading to this concert, reading the printed program itself was a blessing.
Click here to open the program in a new window.
There were two display screens 8 feet above ground on either side of the altar, and before the concert began, there was a video of an inspirational message by Maya Angelou, speaking the words printed on the inside back cover of the concert program. Click here to hear her speak them.
“Love Heals” began with the chorus circling the audience to perform "Earth Song" by Frank Ticheli. With the singers surrounding us, I think we felt embraced by them, and that feeling was enhanced by the pure tone they produced and the great sensitivity that was in each phrase, even in each note. Because of the formation, I got more soprano than the other voice parts, but that was OK: they were great. And the song ended with a repetition of the word "peace," and the last “peace” was utterly tender.
As the chorus moved to the risers, Artistic Director and Conductor, Dr. Ralph Hughes, welcomed the audience, reading his carefully chosen words from notes. He spoke of the "power of love to heal and unite," setting up a concert program that would apply that power to many social ills and many suffering communities. He further set the stage by leading the chorus in performing the Introit and Kyrie from the Mozart Requiem. As I watched Hughes' expressive directing, so full of nuance, this thought occurred to me: "Who says a director doesn't sing?" A deaf person could watch Ralph Hughes direct and in doing so, experience singing.
The next section of 4 songs was introduced by Hughes as a tribute to the 49 people who were killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last June. He mentioned that his sister lives near Orlando, and in talking with her about the tragedy, he wondered "What could we do?" Answer: "We choose to sing." He went on to comment about each of these songs, expressing his hope that this music might provide "comfort in what can be a dark world." Not surprisingly, Hughes was visibly moved as he spoke (as, I dare say, were all of us listening to him).
In the first of these 4 songs "A Breath of Kindness" Assistant Director, Emily Carbrey led the women of the chorus, accompanied by Marie Ybarra on the flute and, of course, Heidi Van Regenmorter on the piano. Like virtually all the music presented on this afternoon, the lyrics conveyed a lovely sentiment, as you can see for yourself, since all lyrics are reprinted in the attached program.
The next of these 4 songs, "Light in the Hallway" was especially powerful in the way the music brought out the message of the text. (Be sure to check Hughes' comment about it on page 8 of the program, including his suggestion about how to hear it again.) And as if the music wasn't enough, the singing was accompanied by photos of tributes at the scene of the massacre. Then, while the chorus hummed, the names of all 49 victims scrolled slowly on the displays.
During the performance of this piece, I felt I noticed something special about the chorus. They always sing well, with perfect blend and great sensitivity, but on this occasion, considering how emotionally charged this concert was, it seemed to me that they were really singing heart to heart. And as this song came to its soft conclusion, it occurred to me that I had observed something hitherto undocumented in the field of music: the Sacramento Master Singers Pianissimo.
There was a lot that was special about the next piece, "We Cannot Stay Silent" — apart from the fact that it began with powerful playing in the accompaniment and dense fortissimo chords sung by the chorus, in such a contrast to the previous song. The lyric was a poem by SMS member, Elli Johnston, and the music had been composed for this occasion by guest artist, Ken Medema. The piece soon transitioned into a mezzo piano section, but the passion and indignation remained beneath the surface until evolving into hope. It seemed to me that both poet and composer had epitomized the whole point of this concert in this song.
Building on all that had gone before, an emotional peak of the concert occurred with the next song, "Let My Love Be Heard." On page 9 of the program there is a quotation from composer Jake Runestad that explains how this piece, composed and premiered in 2014, came to have a special significance for the choir at California State University Long Beach. One of their singers, Nohemi Gonzalez, was killed in the Bataclan attack in Paris on November 13, 2015. The day after singing at her memorial vigil, the choir addressed their grief by learning and recording this song as a tribute to her. To them, she was the "lost bird" in the lyric who "mounts to heaven and sings." In performing this song the Master Singers might have been thinking about the death of this student, or the victims of the Pulse shooting, or of any young soul lost to senseless violence. The brief lyrics repeat the title, "Let My Love Be Heard," over and over again, and they were performed so movingly this afternoon. Then there was an incredibly long crescendo over rising notes that to me represented the rising flight of the "lost bird." At the pinnacle of the crescendo, it seemed like the song ended in a sigh. We in the audience had been taken on a remarkable emotional journey, and everyone knew it. There was burst of applause as most of us rose to our feet in recognition of an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary piece of music.
Before sitting down to write this review, I had resolved not to comment on every musical selection in this concert, and I'm failing. But I'll honor my intention by simply saying that the setting of the e.e. cummings poem "hope, faith, love, life" was a fascinating musical invention by Eric Whitacre, built around 8 abstract nouns.
I mentioned earlier that Ken Medema was a guest artist at this concert. I was first introduced to him and his music at the SMS concert on May 22, 2016, and I suggest that you check what I said about him in my review of that concert. Briefly, Medema is a performer and composer, 73 years old and blind since birth. Among his many talents is the ability to invigorate, inspire — and charm — an audience, something he accomplished several times on this afternoon. In "How We Love," he was led to the piano and told us in the audience, "You have been singing with your spirit." Now, he said, it was time for us to sing with our voices. He performed the verse of the song and led us in the refrain, one form of which was "All that matters in the end is how we love." I'm sure that just about all of us in the audience sang our part in this moving song. And those words to live by in the refrain resonated with us to the point that the song ended not just in extended, appreciative applause, but in cheers.
"True Colors" completed the first half of the concert, and did so on an upbeat note. The chorus performed the song by memory in what was a jazzy, exciting arrangement accompanied by both drums and piano. There was movement and a lot of smiles on the risers — and in the audience, too.
After intermission, in a special gesture of appreciation for the extraordinary first half of this concert, the audience applauded the entering singers until every one had taken their place on the risers. Before beginning the music, Ralph Hughes spoke to us again, introducing a section of music dedicated to compassion and understanding for the struggles of people of color. In particular, he said that this section of music would be a "tribute to young men of color who have suffered from police violence." Then acknowledging that some in the audience might "bristle at those words," he added that "it [the violence] just has to stop." As he finished speaking, a video of a section of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech was played, part of which included these words: "...something that I must say to my people who stand on the worn threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
In a concert full of peak moments, another one was at hand. It was the premiere of "Black Lives Kyrie." The music had been written by Ken Medema using the text from the Latin mass, "Kyrie eleison," and part of Psalm 137, "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, and we wept for thee, Zion." The performance of this part by guest soloist Mia Watts and the chorus had the feel of the start of a classical requiem. But while they sang, poet Laura Cook (aka immoBme az.i.B.we) read the poem you can find in the printed program. I saw this piece as a contribution to social understanding and reconciliation. And though there were very few black faces in the audience, every head was bowed, following Cook's words. It was a powerful experience, and I'm sure that this piece will be performed in other places and for other appreciative audiences.
The movie Selma is about the events leading up to and including the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama that culminated in violence on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. “Glory” is an impassioned musical selection from that movie. With accompaniment by drum set and piano, the power in the piece built through extraordinary performances by two soloists, then the chorus, and finally a moving, energizing text read by Laura Cook. This was foot-tapping, even blood-pounding music with a rousing message that culminated in another spontaneous standing ovation by the audience,
(Note: I haven't commented about the soloists in this concert in an attempt to keep this review from being unreasonably long. Suffice it to say that Sacramento Master Singers is a chorus full of excellent singers, and those who stood out front on this occasion surely made their fellow singers and their director proud.)
Ken Medema wrote and performed the next song, “So They Say.” Medema seemed to begin on a cynical note, challenging, in his spoken set-up, the idea that “time heals all wounds.” Then with his solo and in the response by the chorus, the song undertook to address the subtleties of healing, reconciliation and forgiveness. Providing food for thought, the piece delivered a powerful message that once again earned cheers from the audience, including a whispered “wow” in the seats behind me.
To me it felt like the remainder of this concert program was just one beautiful song after another. That was certainly true of “The Road Home.” And then the men of the chorus delivered a great arrangement of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that once again elicited cheers from the audience. During the profoundly moving “Sure on This Shining Night,” I wrote in my notes: “Every piece in this concert has some profound emotional content, and I’m sure everyone in the audience has been touched. The singing technique is always there, as perfect as I can imagine, but technique is forgotten in the sharing of emotion that is taking place.”
After a lovely performance, including flute and piano accompaniment, of John Rutter’s “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” we were given “In Paradisum” from the Fauré Requiem. It occurred to me as I listened to these pieces that this is spiritual music: it gives us a peek into the realm of spirit that most of us believe in. And really, while listening to this transcendent music, how could one not believe?
The concert culminated in a fine arrangement by Mack Huff of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” With piano and drum accompaniment and performed from memory, there was a special connection between chorus and audience for the piece, especially after all the heart-felt music they had given us. I paused to think about the lyric “imagine there’s no heaven… and no religion, too.” After a bit of reflection, it occurred to me that the song isn’t anti-religious, but a yearning for a time that will see the end of everything that divides us and causes us to bring pain to each other. This whole concert reflected that hope: that understanding would erase intolerance, that kindness would heal hurt, that love would neutralize hate. It was almost two hours of beautiful music, beautifully performed, but what made the audience stand and cheer, what made them not want to stop applauding was more than the music. It was the feeling that we had reaffirmed, with the help of this marvelous chorus and their director, the best of our humanity.