The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Colla Voce Chamber Singers
Celebration Around the World - December 7, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
I attended the last of four performances of Colla Voce’s holiday season concert, this one at the Pioneer Methodist Church in Auburn. Like every Colla Voce concert, it was totally original, with guest performers that contributed greatly to the audience’s experience.
The concert was billed as a “Celebration Around the World,” but the African theme was especially strong, because of the presence of the guest Fenix Drum and Dance Company. In publicity materials, they were described as follows: “… a performing troupe specializing in dance and drumming from West Africa, the Congo, and the Caribbean. This high-energy, multi-generational group highlights the richness and complexity of dance of the African Diaspora.”
This unusual program began with the “African Processional Jambo rafiki yangu,” a traditional Swahili song of welcome. And we in the audience felt welcomed as the chorus sang this piece while filing down the side aisles from the back of the church, occasionally speaking a greeting. They were accompanied by 3 women dancers from the Fenix Drum and Dance Company, and of course, by drumming and other percussion, as well.
With the chorus in formation at the front of the church, and the 3 dancers between them and the audience, they performed “Bonse Aba” in the original language of Bemba. Of course, it was a bit of a shock to come to the concert in a Christmas frame of mind and have it all start this way, but I, for one, thought it was a great horizon-expanding experience. The 3 women dancers, especially, were excellent, exuding joy and energy, and their complex routines were full of variety and were performed in perfect synchrony with one another. It was unquestionably an exhibition of an art – an art form which, I dare say, few of us in the audience had experienced.
A third African piece followed, performed in both Yoruba and English and a bit more subdued, with the chorus creating an atmosphere of sound rather than producing recognizable chords, while soprano Elizabeth Gillogly delivered an expressive solo. I should mention that all these African pieces were performed by the chorus from memory. Also, this particular concert was signed for the deaf, and with all the foreign languages that were used, it must have presented a major challenge for the signers to know what to “say” when.
The next piece was “Habari Gani – What’s the News?” which is subtitled “A Song to Celebrate Kwanzaa.” While it was being performed, one couldn’t help but notice that words had been added to some of the images being displayed on the screen elevated and to the right behind the performers. Every Colla Voce concert is a multi-media, multi-sensory experience, and to emphasize the different parts of the world evoked by the music, there was a continuous, slide show of appropriate scenes.
There are 7 principles of the Kwanzaa celebration, and as “Habari Gani” was being sung, they were illustrated by the projected images, with accompanying English words. This wasn’t the only acknowledgment of Kwanzaa in the program. After the piece based on three Latvian carols (sung in Latvian and English) – and which included a performance by one of the Fenix dancers (making it a real cross-cultural experience) – we were introduced to Angela James, one of the principals of the Fenix Drum & Dance Co. She reviewed the 7 principles of Kwanzaa, and then, using a song she had written, got the audience on its feet, involving us in clapping and repeating the Kwanzaa principles (in Swahili and English) in a call-and-response format.
At this point, I should draw your attention to the attached concert program (click here to open it in a new window). Something that distinguishes Colla Voce concerts is how extraordinarily informative the printed programs are. If you’ll check this one, you’ll find that the program has the English words to all the songs performed, as well as explanatory text that is often quite detailed. I come to each Colla Voce concert as early as I can in order to read as much of the program as possible so that I’ll have a better understanding of each element of the performance.
After the explanation of Kwanzaa, we weren’t quite ready to leave the African Diaspora yet as the next piece, “Noël Ayisyen,” was sung in Haitian Creole – again with the Fenix dancers. We began to understand the origin of this concert when Artistic Director Janine Dexter explained that as part of her recently-completed master’s degree in choral conducting, she had taken a course on international composers.
We next flew to England for an unusual minor-key arrangement of “What Child Is This?” in which the women hummed while the men sang in unison until the harmonies bloomed toward the end. Then “Three Drovers” started with sheep bells, and it reminded me that, as with the slide show, the dancers, the drummers and other instrumental accompaniment, Dexter never misses an opportunity to create a mood appropriate to the music being performed. “Come, Let Us Worship” was a Russian liturgical piece that featured chant in Russian by chorus member, Marianna Petrovich. Much as I had enjoyed all that went before, I felt that this was the first time the chorus was really turned loose to produce the rich, cultured sound of which it is capable.
After a visit to Native American peoples in “The Huron Carol” that featured a fine solo by Jim McGregor, we returned to England for an unusual arrangement of the “Coventry Carol.” It began with an aleatory section (singers choosing their own timing and note progression), punctuated by a strong solo by Nicole Toppel. This evolved into a lush 4-part section, taken over forcefully when the 10 men of the chorus delivered a big, rich sound for the “Herod, the king” verse.
We then went to another part of the world for the “Iraqi Peace Song.” This was sung by the women of the chorus, with a solo in Arabic by Leah Cole. The chorus, too, began singing in Arabic, but transitioned to English, and I grasped the emotional content of the piece when I heard the lyrics “Peace to the world, peace to my country.” Indeed, this whole concert was a plea, even a prayer, for the peace that comes through understanding and appreciation of different cultures. As the piece ended, the singers subtly hugged the person next to them, and the audience responded with its most enthusiastic applause of the evening.
The program notes identify the “Iraqi Peace Song” as a lullaby, a “celebration of… children,” and so it made an especially appropriate introduction for the Colla Voce Children’s Chorus. The 16 children (ages 5 to 14) came down the aisles in Dickensian dress singing “The Goose Is Getting Fat,” which has the lyric “please to put a penny in an old man’s hat.” And each child held out a hat to audience members as they passed. Fortunately, baggies with a few pennies in them had been deposited on seats throughout the church. It was a charming idea.
One can never know exactly how things will go when children are performing, and often the results can be delightful. The children stood in two rows, the younger ones in front, and on the end of that line was a little girl who couldn’t have been more than 3 years old. She seemed to be too young to be part of the group and tried to sing along with the others and mimic their simple choreography. It was clear that she wasn’t succeeding, but the attempt was as cute as it could be. As for the other children, they performed beautifully, singing everything from memory, including the Zulu words to “Siyahamba.” After “Ring the Bells” the younger children went to sit by the Christmas tree for the next several songs, while the older children sang the more difficult pieces. With lovely accompaniment by cello and piano for “Light a Candle,” the younger children rejoined the group, followed by the adults of the Colla Voce Chamber Singers, everyone speaking Christmas greetings in different languages. For the final piece of this collaboration, “Chanukah Prayer for Children – Ma’oz Tzur,” the children sang in English, the adults in Hebrew.
With the Nigerian carol, “Betelehemu,” we were in a real party mood with the return of the Fenix dancers and drummers. The chorus swayed and clapped to these infectious rhythms, adding elaborate hand gestures. Then the mood changed again with a sweet arrangement that combined the “Little Drummer Boy” with “Peace on Earth,” highlighted by a duet by Don Thomas and Tim Smith. It ended with poignancy in the words, “Can it be?”
With the concert drawing to an end, the chorus encircled the audience, singing “Silent Night.” The children returned, singing as well, some signing. The whole scene was touching enough to bring tears to the eyes of Dexter as she directed – as well as to the eyes of many in the audience. That’s what you get in a Colla Voce concert: a completely fresh, multimedia, diverse experience, thoroughly documented, with contributions by guest artists – and full of heart.
(Footnote from Janine Dexter: "The little 3 year-old that 'sang' with the children's chorus just spontaneously joined that night from the audience. The parents apologized after the concert but they said they didn't have the heart to make her sit down. I told them that they made the perfect decision. I told them that all children are artists until we convince them otherwise as they are growing up."