The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sierra Master Chorale
Spring Concert - May 19, 2013
by Dr. Robert M. Johnson
I attended the second of two scheduled concerts by the Sierra Master Chorale (SMC) and Orchestra up in Grass Valley on Sunday afternoon, May 19. Having never heard the ensemble before, I was completely unprepared for the poise and professionalism of both choir and orchestra under the leadership of Conductor, Ken Hardin. The foothills seem to be salted with musical gold.
Performed in the beautiful and comfortable Seventh-day Adventist Church located in the evergreens just outside Grass Valley on Hwy. 174, the setting was ideal for an afternoon of excellent music excellently presented. It was an adventurous and challenging program of two sets by USC professor Morten Lauridsen and the Mozart Requiem.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
Lauridsen’s musical language has been embraced by audiences worldwide. His works do not challenge an audience so much as seduce them with lush accessible harmonies, basically homophonic structures, and inspired texts.
Lauridsen’s original three nocturnes were commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association and premiered at its 2005 National Conference in Los Angeles by the Donald Brinegar Singers with the composer at the piano. I remember not being taken with them at that performance although they’re very easy to listen to. The SMC performance made me reconsider: the choir’s excellent intonation, sensitive lines, and attention to dynamic contrasts lifted the declamation of the simplistic harmonies out of the banal. Lauridsen took the risk of setting Agee’s “Sure on This Shining Night.” It’s a lovely setting of the text, and although it really can’t compete with Samuel Barber’s, this was the highlight of this set.
The concluding nocturne, a somewhat stiff setting of Rilke’s “Voici le Soir,” was composed in 2008 as a kind of coda to the existing works. Toon Vandevorst played beautifully through a very chromatic piano accompaniment.
The one encouragement I’d offer to SMC is to attend much more closely to the French and Spanish diction. I’m probably just a stickler, but the inappropriate diphthongs and the plosive American “t” kept me from full enjoyment of the texts.
Much ink has been expended discussing Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. Premiered in 1997 by the Los Angeles Master Chorale (a transcendent performance that caused the audience to go wild), it is a 25-minute suite of five movements for chorus and orchestra set to Latin texts about light. It is as much a modern requiem as the Brahms is a 19th Century one, but liberated of much angst and guilt.
The SMC performs with an orchestra at all their concerts. When you have an instrumental ensemble that plays this well, this is a great decision. The playing was top-notch all afternoon regardless of the genre.
SMC brought great finesse and style to these pieces. The chant-like melodies were beautifully shaped through their contrapuntal working out. The audience was taken up by the thrilling dynamic contrast and energy. The simple, chordal nature of “O Nata Lux” had just a little problem due to inaccuracies in the very exposed, and perhaps under-supported, soprano line.
The toe-tapping 6/8 meter of the “Veni, Sancte Spiritus” was an exciting contrast to the previous movements. The choir was given their head with some full dramatic singing here, and simply grasped the audience in their sound. The concluding movement, moving between subdued chant-like added note chords and big dramatic sound blocks was wonderfully paced. The polyphonic weaving of the lines was particularly well shaped. Tenors, keep your head level and your jaw down in those big lines! The final “Alleluia” delivered all that was asked of it at both the compositional and performance levels.
The Lux Aeterna is not particularly difficult as 20th Century music goes, but to craft a performance as stylistically appropriate and dramatically paced as the one SMC provided is no small feat. Sierra Master Chorale brings to their repertoire style, drama, and most importantly, heart.
After intermission, it was obvious from the first chords that the Mozart Requiem was meat and potatoes for this fine choir and orchestra. I was a little disconcerted with the idea of omitting the vocal soloists (it seemed a little like “Highlights from Hamlet”) but it was great fun hearing all the choruses.
After all the atmospheric music by Morton Lauridsen, the rigor of the “Kyrie” fugue was like an aural salve. The fioratura was deadly accurate and exciting, certainly helped by such a nice venue. The high strings were just super in the “Dies irae” while the choir was driving the tempo forward. At this point, the lack of the vocal quartet really showed. How do we do the Mozart Requiem without the bass’ “Tuba mirum”?
The choir’s “Rex! rex! rex! rex tremendae” was just perfect: open vowel, trilled “r,” and dynamic energy. Sorry to have to remind the tenors again, but keep heads level and jaws loose! The “Domine Jesu” section provided the choir with their biggest vocal challenge of the afternoon. The sopranos found several moments beyond their vocal grasp, but quickly recovered to finish with a flourish.
The traditional Requiem text always poses a real challenge for a composer: it does not provide a “big” ending. Lauridsen ended the first half of the program with an “Alleluia” in his “modern” requiem. Mozart did his level best to end with a rouser using a text that does not easily lend itself to the treatment. SMC was nuanced and graceful as they navigated these tricky waters. The final fugue was a ripper!
This chorus and orchestra are so fine that I felt myself musically shorted by this “nip and tuck” Requiem. The pairing of the Lux Aeterna and the Requiem was wonderfully revealing. I would have been even more that satisfied without the Nocturnes and the entire Mozart.
The whole InConcert Sierra organization is to be profoundly congratulated for bringing such fine performing ensembles to the community. I will be making my way up the hill for every performance SMC takes up.
Robert M. Johnson, artistic director of Capella Antiqua, is a native of Fairbanks, Alaska. He graduated from the University of the Pacific, Conservatory of Music with a B.Mu. in music education, and holds M.Mu. and D.M.A. degrees in choral music from Arizona State University. Dr. Johnson has held university faculty positions as far afield as South Korea and Puerto Rico, as well as teaching positions in California. He has lectured and performed actively, including the Carmel Bach Festival and the Oregon Bach Festival. His researches into Colonial Mexican music have been performed by choirs throughout the United States, and have made their way onto to a two-CD set entitled A Choir of Angels. He is also the chief scribe and editor of all the music presented by Capella Antiqua.