The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Placer Pops Chorale
A Holiday Homecoming - December 14, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
For nearly a decade the Placer Pops Chorale (formerly the Sierra Community Chorus) has drawn 3,000 people annually to its Christmas concerts. Although they now perform some of these concerts at Three Stages in Folsom, the concert I attended was at their traditional home of Dietrich Theatre at Sierra College in Rocklin.
As usual, the stage was festively decorated, with a curtain initially hiding the choral risers. Also, though partially blocked by the shell behind the risers, there were lighting effects that changed with each piece: new colors in the color wash and on the scrim, plus a variety of projected images.
This group always performs with an orchestra, which tonight included 13 pieces, and they were the first to perform – an orchestral medley of familiar Christmas tunes. That was followed by the curtain opening to reveal the 60-member chorus – always a dramatic moment – who began to perform “God Bless Us Everyone” (from “A Christmas Carol”). The piece was big and rousing, with brass and energetic drumming backing the chorus.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
I should mention that the instruments and voices were electronically balanced, so beyond a certain point in the audience, more sound was coming from the speakers than from the singers or instrumentalists. To some extent, the reliance on electronic sound reinforcement and balancing is due to the fact that Dietrich Theatre was designed more for dramatic productions than for choral performances, lacking some of the sound management design features of modern theaters, such as wooden shells, ceiling “clouds,” and other such design features. And the net benefit of the electronic processing of the sound is that it is balanced – among the various voice parts and most importantly between the singers and orchestra, which otherwise, especially with its brass and drums, would have dominated the choral sound. Furthermore, as I and my fellow audience members experienced, the resulting sound filled the intimate space of Dietrich Theatre, so that everyone should have been able to hear perfectly.
The second selection, “Bells of Joy,” was just that – a joyful, rousing medley of familiar Christmas songs – a high-energy, quick-tempo production number. After this piece, Director Lorin Miller gave a welcome in his informal style that always builds a rapport with the audience. He spoke to us at several points during the concert, taking the opportunity, not only to comment on what was just performed or what was coming up, but also to inject a little humor – part of his personal touch that always seems to enhance a program like this.
After this welcome, there were two more up-tempo pieces with full orchestration. Of these “Variations on ‘Jingle Bells’” was especially interesting, with many creative settings of the text, and rapid-fire lyrics that the singers took in stride, though memorizing them must have been insanely difficult. Many musical styles were represented, though jazz seemed to win out, but certainly a highlight of the piece was a mock operatic solo by Noreen Barnett that was beautifully done, while providing a nice bit of levity.
The lively mood of the music that had been established from the start took a turn with “The Darkest Midnight in December,” a beautiful, contemplative piece with just piano and flute accompaniment. This was followed by John Rutter’s setting of the “Candlelight Carol” which was melodic and embracing – almost like a lullaby – with a bit more orchestration and a short a cappella section that was just lovely. In this moment, as at other times during the concert, I was struck with the purity of the sound produced by the soprano section.
I should note here that I believe this was one of only two a cappella sections in the concert. The Placer Pops Chorale has a talented cadre of instrumentalists, most of whom it has worked with for many years. The brass players and percussionists in particular got a lot of work in this concert, though there was considerable variety in the instrumentation of accompaniments. Patricia Leftridge was excellent at the piano, and Alice Lenaghan’s flute work was often highlighted.
After a dramatic arrangement of “Sing We Now of Christmas,” Director Miler introduced “a recipe for fruitcake.” The comedic nature of this piece was signaled by the women’s linking of their hands in front of them, in the style of a classical vocal soloist. This audience pleaser had each choral section sing an ingredient of fruitcake (complete with humorous gestures) – first as a solo, then with the addition of each part that had come before. The culmination had 5 sections simultaneously singing their own melody and performing their distinctive actions – and the audience was clearly delighted.
Up next was “Christmas Day,” essentially a duet by Don Roberts and Noreen Barnett, with back-up by the chorus. This was well sung, but more than that, it was “performed,” with subtle acting by Don and Noreen that gave the piece its unique personality. Then we were treated to “A Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), a sentimental favorite in a traditional-sounding arrangement that was as comfortable and relaxing as putting on an old pair of slippers. Finally, the first half of the performance was closed with “A Festive Christmas Celebration” – a big, energetic medley with full orchestra. Thinking about this medley, I believe that this concert probably hit more familiar Christmas melodies than any of the other choral concerts I’ve experienced, whether in a medley or in a fresh setting of a well-known piece.
After intermission, the chorus followed another of their traditions: performing the first two pieces in the aisles surrounding the central section of the audience. Both these pieces, “Pacem Noël” and “Pavane for a Silent Night” were surpassingly beautiful. Because the singers were in sections beyond the reach of microphones, I didn’t get a full sound from tenors, basses and altos. But I had the good fortune of sitting close between the first and second sopranos, and the quality of their tone made up for what I missed from the other parts.
Covering the return of the chorus to the stage was an instrumental “Celtic Christmas Overture,” which included a virtuoso performance on the pennywhistle by Alice Lenaghan. Next, we got a taste of vocal jazz from an 8-woman subset of the chorus. They sang “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” with an overflowing personality that made up for the lack of balance in the microphones. As they sang, I thought how much they sounded like the McGuire Sisters and the other female groups that were so popular in the 1940s and 50s.
A 14-member group then performed “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” They were joyful and animated, and the incidental solos were solid, but it seemed that they were too far back from the stationary microphones to be able to be balanced with the sound of the orchestra. Next, three more singers joined this group for the gentle, melodious “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which featured luscious harmonies. The highpoint of this piece, however, was the surpassingly beautiful solo by Debbie Astle.
Next was another tradition that wasn’t on the printed program. Lorin Miller has had a long career as a professional soloist, and so he performs a solo in nearly every concert of the Placer Pops Chorale, a tradition much anticipated by Lorin’s many fans. On this occasion, he performed “O Holy Night” with a full orchestral accompaniment. But forget all your assumptions about how that piece sounds. The melody and words were of course familiar, but they were set to a steady beat and a very lively orchestral arrangement. And at the end, the saxophonist came out front and wailed an improvised solo. I guarantee you’ve never heard “O Holy Night” like this. Traditionalists might not like it, but I thought it was great.
After having performed the whole concert from memory to this point, the full chorus returned with their music scores to sing “A Choral Fantasy,” which was a rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” in many different styles, most of them driving and rhythmic.
The audience was next treated to “A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas,” a reliable crowd pleaser that this chorus performs every few years. This composition by Craig Courtney gives a musical setting to each added day of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that imitates the style of a familiar, classical composer, starting with Gregorian chant and running through John Philip Sousa. It takes a while for audience members who haven’t heard it before to get the humor, but by about the eighth day, I was hearing laughter from those around me in the audience. When it was over, this piece earned the most enthusiastic applause of the evening.
Just as the version of “O Holy Night” was unlike any setting you’ve heard before, the same could be said of the setting of “Joy to the World” that ended the concert. It began with an a cappella section that had a gospel feel to it, then the style was more like jazz that included a bit of the version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” that was introduced in the movie “Sister Act.” Pretty soon, the chorus was clapping to the beat, and Noël Shusted added solo riffs that injected even more “soul” into the piece. The audience joined in the clapping, and the whole thing felt like a gospel revival meeting. The prolonged applause earned another minute of this rousing music, capping another successful outing by the Placer Pops Chorale, whose concerts have become a Christmastime must-see for so many people.