The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Valley Choral Society and Orchestra
Joyful and Triumphant - December 14, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
The mission of the Valley Choral Society (VCS) – as stated in its concert program – is "to bring God's light to the community, performing music composed with the intent to elevate the human soul, and [it] welcomes musicians of all religious faiths." Furthermore, VCS has traditions, and one of them is performing Handel's Messiah (Part I) at Christmastime. Most often those performances are in local LDS (Mormon) churches, though in the past couple of years they have partnered with Capella Antiqua and other local music organizations for a performance at Sacramento's Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. I attended a concert held at the church of the LDS Elk Grove stake in South Sacramento.
The performance (one of two this season, besides that at the Cathedral) was in a large multifunction room that could serve as a basketball court. (In fact, there was a large wreath hanging from a retracted basketball hoop). I would estimate that there were 600-700 folding chairs set up. Although only half of them were used, I got the feeling that this was an annual tradition for many in the audience – a family affair with many children present.
This was a major concert event, featuring a 35-piece orchestra, a 54-member chorus and 4 guest soloists. And keeping with the seriousness of the occasion, there was a formal welcome. The gentleman who spoke was not identified in the program, but I gather that he represented the church, since he addressed us as "brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen." Then there was an invocation and an introduction of "honored guests," two from the church and a Sacramento City Council member. The speaker went on to provide some historical information on the Messiah that really amounted to a tribute to Handel's genius and inspiration. Then each soloist was introduced as they entered to the applause of the audience, until the same honor was accorded to Conductor and Artistic Director, Paul Allen.
With the music about to start, the significance of the Messiah was summed up as "a sacred musical pilgrimage of the heart." That felt like an apt description as the strains of the "Sinfony" (overture) began. It was the full, rich, unhurried sound one would expect, and it announced an authentic presentation of this great work.
Tenor Darron Flagg's singing of "Comfort ye my people" and "Every valley shall be exalted" had both traditional and innovative elements. In true Baroque style, his performance was full of ornamentation, some styles of which I don't believe I've heard before. And his "Comfort ye" startled me by its gentleness. I have become so used to tenors making a strong statement in this first section, but as I thought about it, it struck me that his interpretation was really about "comfort."
The chorus was fairly far from the audience and had a large orchestra between us and them. Consequently, the were miked, and as they sang "And the glory of the Lord," much of their sound reached us through speakers. But the sound that came through was a good sound, especially from the sopranos. It was clear that all the singers were well-rehearsed, confident, and accurate. And most importantly, I thought I could sense respect – even love – for the music they were performing, feelings which I'm sure started with their director and reached us in the audience.
Baritone James Gentry was a little at a disadvantage with his three solos. Personally, I feel that they work better with a heavier bass voice. But he was accurate and gave us a good presentation, especially of the difficult note progressions in "The people that walked in darkness."
Later, in "And He Shall Purify," I noticed the chorus's good articulation in the difficult runs in that piece. Any experienced singer knows that, familiar as it may be, the Messiah is difficult to sing. But despite the challenge, I saw faces as I scanned the chorus – faces that weren't buried in scores struggling to cope with the complex musical line, but faces that sang with confidence and fervor.
After listening to mezzo-soprano Carla Rae Cook for a few minutes, I wrote in my notes, "This lady understands what the Messiah is all about." Her performance was a soulful one, especially in her part of "He shall feed his flock."
Someone else who understood what the Messiah was all about was conductor Paul Allen. Although his directing was not characterized by grand gestures, it was fun to watch him during the chorus, "For unto us a child is born." When it came to the words "wonderful" and "counselor," he punctuated those words for the chorus, raising his arms over his head. That expression of enthusiasm conveyed a lot.
I was especially impressed with the strong, cultured voice of soprano, Cherie Crosby Shoemaker. And as she performed her solos, it seemed to me that she hardly glanced at her score.
The first part of this concert culminated in the Hallelujah Chorus. Though I've sung and listened to this piece countless times throughout my life, I never tire of it. And it was a special thrill to see little children urged by their parents to stand while it was performed, handing that tradition on to yet another generation.
The second half of this concert was a presentation of less formal Christmas music. Most were familiar carols, though in fresh, interesting and appealing arrangements. (Click here to open the program in a new window.) First up was a rousing, uplifting setting of "O Come, All Ye Faithful." The chorus wasn't overshadowed by the full orchestration, and the sopranos really made the finale a grand one.
The next piece was new to most people, "The Hands That First Held Mary's Child." It gives Joseph's perspective on the birth of Jesus, and it is a sensitive, melodic work that is sure to become an audience favorite as the years go on. The harp and cello parts emphasized the beauty of the score.
I thought that the orchestration in "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" was particularly fine – part of an especially sensitive arrangement. And soloist N. Cameron Doyel really gave an expressive performance.
Another appealing new piece was Pepper Choplin's "Heavenly Star." I'll confess, though, that I had trouble making out the unfamiliar words, and I'd love to hear it again, perhaps with the words in front of me.
Next on the program was the well-known, well-loved “Gesu Bambino.” It’s the solo setting of this piece that is so familiar, so it was refreshing to hear it sung as a duet by Carla Rae Cook and Kathy Visher, eventually to be joined by the chorus, and given such an inspiring treatment by all.
“A Highland Carol” was next, sung by the chorus with great spirit and with a rousing snare drum in the accompaniment. It was the perfect stimulant to get the audience participating by singing the first verses of the next two pieces: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” and “Joy to the World.”
“O Holy Night” was presented in a traditional arrangement with beautiful soprano and tenor solos by Cherie Crosby Shoemaker and Darron Flagg. Honestly, it was quite moving. It was followed by an unusual setting of “Angels We have Heard on High” that featured 4 soprano soloists singing the first verse a cappella. It turned into a grand arrangement that highlighted orchestra and chorus, leading to a standing ovation by the audience. In an appropriate close to the evening, there was an encore – “Silent Night” in which the audience got to sing the first verse, with orchestra and chorus completing what was a perfect, traditional Christmas concert.