The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Grass Valley Male Voice Choir
Pop Classics: From Broadway to Hollywood - May 2, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
In the minutes before the start of a choral concert, you can sometimes notice an unusually large number of animated conversations. That’s what I perceived as I waited for the beginning of the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir’s spring concert at the Sierra Presbyterian Church in Nevada City. To me, this buzz suggests an audience full of regulars, family and friends — people who easily converse with one another — and who won’t miss a performance of their favorite choral group.
On this Saturday afternoon, these people received an enthusiastic greeting by the GVMVC’s President, David Loofbourrow, who gave us a bit of the history of the choir, which traces its origin to Cornish miners singing 160 years ago. As Loofbourrow’s announcements were coming to an end, the singers filed into the church and took their place on the risers, an imposing sight in their trademark green blazers.
The first song on the program, “The Sound of Music,” was conducted by Assistant Director, Darrell Crawford. The Grass Valley Male Voice Choir performs with piano accompaniment and sings from musical scores, and as they began, I sensed that these men sang this sentimental favorite with special fervor. I should add that it was a special pleasure to hear again the fine first tenor section, which I recalled from previous concerts I’ve attended.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
At the conclusion of this first piece, Director Eleanor Kenitzer took the stage, and introduced the next piece, giving its history. This was the pattern for the rest of the concert. Not only was this background information interesting, but Kentizer’s folksy humor was a delightful addition to all the music that was to come.
I won’t comment on every piece in the program. Suffice it to say that the concert was full of music from Broadway and Hollywood, plus tunes that this audience (most of them senior citizens I would guess) first heard on the radio in their younger years. As one of those senior citizens, the program was as comfortable and familiar as a favorite pair of slippers. I put my mental feet up and enjoyed one song after another.
That’s not to say that the music was all the same — as you can see from a glance at the program. There were songs as different as “This Nearly Was Mine” from the 1949 musical, South Pacific, “Turn Around, Look at Me” from the 1960s, and “Hallelujah,” popularized in the 2001 movie, Shrek. In a way, presenting music that is very familiar to an audience is a little risky: people will be measuring the performance against their memories. That thought came to me as the choir performed “Embraceable You.” I noticed that the accuracy of their cut-offs and syncopation made it seem like an accurate rendition, helped by the fact that the men really “embraced” the song, many seeming to sing from memory as it built to a sensitive ending.
Throughout the afternoon, I heard nice harmonies and spirited singing, and occasional murmurs of approval from the audience members around me. There were good entrances and a consistent sense of rhythm and timing that was especially noticeable in the mellow rock feel of “Unchained Melody,” as popularized by the Righteous Brothers.
Kenitzer’s humor added spice throughout the afternoon. At one point she commented about the song just completed: “I want to dance…. I grew up Southern Baptist, and you’d never dance in a church [like this]. That’s why I’m Methodist now.” Kenitzer also has a special connection with the singers, and one can see that she really feels the music she directs. After the choir gave a particularly good rendition of “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’” she gave them a big double thumbs-up.
If there’s a common denominator to the music of this concert it would be the potential emotional impact of each song. Even “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” with its unusual falsetto sections (which were well handled) took me back to my favorite Kingston Trio album. I would bet that every person in the audience felt an emotional connection to at least one, and probably most of the songs in the program. For example, they performed “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story, a piece that my wife and I sang as a duet at the rehearsal dinner for our wedding. And at intermission a woman told me how much the two pieces from Les Misérables meant to her, since it was a musical that her deceased husband dearly loved.
With all the familiar music in the concert, I’ll have to admit that my favorite selection was one that I’d never heard before: “The Flower That Shattered the Stone.” It appeared in a 1990 John Denver album and has a sweet sentiment nicely expressed in the choir’s singing: ”As the river runs freely the mountain does rise/Let me touch with my fingers and see with my eyes/In the hearts of the children a pure love still grows/Like a bright star in heaven that lights our way home/Like the flower that shattered the stone.”
Toward the end of the concert, Kenitzer got on her soapbox, decrying the fact that young people aren’t getting music education in the schools and that a whole generation is missing harmony and melody. Instead, they embrace “rap” – which she imitated with a half-hearted attempt at beatboxing – to applause in the audience. She added, as if addressing the younger generation: “Years from now, when you sing love songs to your wife, are you gonna…” and then she imitated headbanging.
Of course this welcome rant was followed by a beautiful rendition of “When I Fall in Love,” with a challenging accompaniment that pianist Karen Driscoll handled with flair, having given solid support to the choir all afternoon.
The closing of this concert was especially full of sentiment. It began with a stirring arrangement (and performance) of “My Heart Will Go On” from the movie, Titanic. Then without pause, the choir sang – a cappella – “Nearer My God to Thee.” It was performed with great sensitivity and had quite an effect on the audience, as evidenced by the extended applause. Then Kenitzer said that she didn’t want the concert to end on a sad note, so she asked everyone to stand and sing “Climb Every Mountain.” For those of us who were a little shaky on the lyrics, Kenitzer mouthed the words, and indeed this unusual close to a concert did give us all an extra lift.
But the concert still wasn’t over. I should have remembered that every concert of the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir ends the same way. The group is steeped in tradition, starting from its Cornish heritage, and one of those traditions is to come down from the risers into the audience to sing “What Would I Do Without My Music.” It was an emotional end to an emotional concert, and it give those loyal supporters who filled the church this afternoon exactly what they had come for.