The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Master Singers
Sing a New Song - May 22, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
If there were ever a choral concert that could be called “historic,” this was it. And there are many reasons for its meriting that term. The fundamental reason is that it was the Sacramento Master Singers’ last concert in their season marking the 30th anniversary of Dr. Ralph Hughes’ tenure as Artistic Director. Another reason is that this concert, appropriately titled “Sing a New Song,” saw the premiere of three new commissioned choral works — about which much more in a moment.
The beginning of the concert was not particularly remarkable. The chorus entered quietly down the side aisles of Sacramento’s First United Methodist Church. I was surprised how slow the audience was to welcome them with applause. Of course, there was no hesitancy when Ralph Hughes entered.
The first piece in the program was “Canticum Novum” by contemporary Swiss composer, Ivo Antognini. The chorus sang from open scores, and I found the music full of energy, variety and interest — a highly listenable launch for the afternoon’s concert. At the conclusion of the piece, Hughes spoke to the audience, commenting that the Master Singers’ Board had commissioned three of the pieces we were to hear and that both composers and poets were in the audience. Actually, the poet for the first commissioned piece was not in the audience, having died in 1904. But the composer of “The Larger Prayer,” Jared Alexander Pierce was, along with his wife. Hughes spoke in detail about their connection to Sacramento and their 2-year stint as members of Master Singers. Then he elaborated on Jared Pierce’s activities as a composer, pianist and teacher.
The first thing that struck me about “The Larger Prayer” was the lovely piano accompaniment, beautifully played by Heidi Van Regenmorter. Then I was swept up in the inspiring text, which I was able to follow in the printed program. The music was remarkable, worthy of the moving poem that it brought to life, and it was all sung and directed with feeling. Scanning the faces of the chorus members as they performed, I believed that they truly “got” the profound message that had been so well put to music. I was taken aback at what an intense emotional experience it proved to be for me — and it was only the first of many that the afternoon had in store. With the swelling applause at the conclusion of the piece, Hughes recognized Pierce, who stood and graciously applauded those who had performed his work.
(Be sure to check the program notes and texts for each piece of music in this concert. You can open the program in a new window by clicking here.)
“My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” was an arrangement of the traditional spiritual by Carol Barnett, commissioned by the Dale Warland Singers in 1991. To me, the arrangement perfectly captured the “spirit” of African-American spirituals, and it reminded me of the wonderful arrangements recorded by the Robert Shaw Chorale in the 1950s and 1960s. This was interesting, exciting a cappella music with a bit of syncopation tossed in, and the chorus gave a stunning performance that built to what felt like a fortissimo final chord — only to be followed by an explosion of sound that wowed the audience.
At this point, Hughes spoke to the audience again with a very personable recounting of his connection with Christian music superstar composer Larry Shackley, whose song, “Finale” was next on the program. Shackley wasn’t in the audience, but poet Gilda Taffet was. I don’t think we realized what we were in for until Hughes joined Van Regenmorter for the 4-hand accompaniment and the chorus began to sing. And what they treated us to was a hoot. Take a look at the lyrics in the program, and you’ll see a poem with a puzzling title that one could hardly imagine being put to music. But Shackley gave it a brilliant, jazzy setting that really seemed to fit the text. It was a humorous take on Sacramento and the pull it had on a native trying to put the city behind them. The chorus (without a director) gave it the light-hearted treatment it required, and we all had a good time with this delightful, quirky piece.
At this point, all the Master Singers left the risers, except one who explained the Asya Pleskach Scholarship award (see page 5 of the program). Of the numerous winners (some of whom had been featured in last night’s concert), we were to have a performance by Davis Mahoney, first-place winner in the 14- to 16-year-old category. I didn’t get the title of the classical piece he performed with piano accompaniment, but he impressed all of us with his fine voice and stage presence. His cultured sound was evidence of serious vocal training, to which he added real drama. After the applause for this excellent young vocalist subsided, Hughes returned to the podium and said: “I’m wondering what you were doing at age 15?”
He went on to give us a bit of insight into what he was doing at that age: living in Germany where his military father was stationed. They didn’t have television, so he spent hours at the piano, in particular with a collection of inspirational songs by composer Ken Medema entitled, Treasures. Hughes went on to explain how he had asked Medema to compose music for the triptych (3-song set) that was upcoming on the afternoon’s program.
Presently Medema himself (blind since birth) was led to the piano, and Hughes noted that Medema would play and sing several “snippets” from Treasures, adding what a thrill it was to have the hero of his young life present on such an occasion. At this point Medema took over, regaling us with several of those snippets. Medema was clearly a seasoned entertainer and had many comments to add, including how he discovered the Master Singers from a YouTube video of their performance of one of his compositions, "I Will Sing Hallelujah." The emotion of that discovery caused him to contact them and eventually led to his composing a new song cycle for the Master Singers this season. Through all of this, Hughes was standing at “stage left,” while Medema spoke and sang from the piano at “stage right.” Hughes was clearly savoring the moment, and I’ve never seen him laugh so heartily.
Next Medema announced that he would perform “I Will Sing Hallelujah.” Accompanying himself, he displayed a remarkably good voice for his 72 years. For those of us unfamiliar with the piece, the text was striking with this refrain: “The music never ends till strangers turn to friends. And where we go, the world will know, the music never ends.” Medema sang the verses with gusto, hammered the piano in the interludes, and urged us to sing the oft-repeated refrain, which both the chorus and many in the audience did. Medema’s energy was extraordinary and the effect was electric. When he finished, I heard “wow” from several around me, and heavy breathing that was probably accompanied by a few tears. You should have been there: I certainly was glad I was. As Medema was escorted from the stage, Hughes observed: “I hope when you’re in your 50s your hero shows up.”
So much more was coming. Ken Medema is an extraordinarily prolific and talented composer. If you explore the scope of his work on the Internet, as I did later, you will be astounded. No surprise then that he was able to put 3 very different, complex poems to music, as he did in the triptych, “Where the Rivers Meet” that was about to be performed by the Master Singers. All the poems were about Sacramento, and the poets had been introduced earlier.
First was “Look to Where the Rivers Meet” by Master Singers soprano Elli Johnston. It was remarkably evocative of what we all have experienced of Sacramento and fundamentally a tribute to the city. Predictably, the music fit the text perfectly.
“The Concert” by James DenBoer painted a picture of a classical concert at the Crocker Museum interrupted by the roaring of motorcycles — a bizarre but credible portrayal of two contrasting cultures in our community. Take a look at the poem in the program, and you’ll be amazed, as I was, that anyone could put words and images like this to music. The chorus was very animated as they sang this piece, but it was accompanist Heidi Van Regenmorter who was on fire. Medema’s writing was merciless, and Van Rogenmorter was playing with an intensity and speed that reminded me of sections of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” There was a lot of musicality, of course, but there were also chords that could only be played with one’s fist: after all we were talking about Harley-Davidson motorcycles!
“Sacramento” by Sally Worthing was a complete change of mood, another tribute to Sacramento, a loving portrait built on images familiar to those of us who live here. I thought, as the triptych concluded that this Sacramento theme was particularly appropriate in this celebration of Ralph Hughes’ anniversary since, though raised in the South, he has spent such a large portion of his career here.
All of us in the audience felt that we had been treated to a complete concert, but we took the opportunity of the intermission to stretch our legs and share our enthusiasm for what we had just heard. When we returned to our seats, we saw a 24-piece string orchestra assembling at the front of the church. Outgoing Master Singers Board President William Zinn started the second half of the concert by reading a proclamation by the Sacramento City Council honoring Ralph Hughes’ anniversary and recognizing his many contributions to the Sacramento cultural scene. As Zinn read the proclamation, I watched the beaming faces of the singers assembled on the risers. It seemed clear that their pride in their leader went beyond respect to genuine affection.
The first piece in the second half of the concert was as thought-provoking as it was musically interesting. “From Heaven Distilled a Clemency” was music by 38-year-old British composer, Tarik O’Regan. It’s movement 3 from a triptych, using texts from 4 widely different sources that “explore the cycle of life and the ways in which humans understand death.” The opening by the strings seemed almost frenetic to me, and the whole piece had an intensity about it, relieved only by a brief string interlude. Yet I found the music an effective vehicle for the texts, and strangely, I took a feeling of joy from the performance.
This concert was a multi-course meal, and appetizing as were the first courses, Ola Gjeilo’s “Sunrise Mass” was clearly the main course. I had heard the Master Singers perform the area premiere of this piece 2 years ago, and it was a magical experience. On this afternoon, I was eagerly anticipating a repetition of that magic, and I wasn’t disappointed.
“Sunrise Mass” uses the text of the ordinary of the mass, but its sections have different titles. What is traditionally called “Kyrie Eleison” was titled “The Spheres.” This section, the beginning of which was a beautiful layering of voices and chord progressions — completely ethereal. Then there was an explosion of sound for the “kyrie eleison” text.
The “Gloria” of the traditional mass was titled “Sunrise,” but for me, the sun had already risen. As I listened, the thought that came to me was that this was a soul-nourishing modern masterpiece, the kind of music you would want to listen to again and again. (And on the Master Singers' forthcoming CD of this concert, you can.)
“Credo” became “The City,” and in the flowing choral sound and distinctive melodies, I heard all the best of what I like of the music of Vaughan Williams. The chorus produced such a unified sound, well blended and balanced. It was accurate, disciplined and smart singing, and good as these people are, I thought it must be a thrill to perform this piece of music with harmonies and musical lines that are so fulfilling.
“Identity & The Ground” was the “Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei” part of the mass. As in the first movement, it began with a layering of voices and surpassingly beautiful melodies. The “Dona Nobis Pacem” section began with just the voices, presently joined by a solo violin. It was exquisite. I asked myself: “Has any old master produced a more moving ‘Dona Nobis’?” For me, this was 30 minutes of choral bliss, and I’m convinced this piece will be performed hundreds of years from now.
When Hughes turned to accept the applause of the audience, his face was wet. “Sweat or tears?” I thought to myself. I happened to be sitting behind his mother and sister, so I asked them what they thought. “A little of both,” his mother answered. Meanwhile the audience members were standing and would not stop applauding and cheering.
I can’t imagine the depth of emotions Ralph Hughes — and his singers — were going through. Even I felt drained from the magnificent event I had just witnessed.