The Sacramento Choral Calendar
RSVP (Reconciliation Singers Voices of Peace
Stories - November 20, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
RSVP is one of the choruses whose concerts I never want to miss. And with “Stories,” they gave me exactly what I enjoy most about them: fresh, varied music, usually with a jazz feel, and delivered with professional polish, whether it be finely tuned chords or crisply delivered lyrics with complex rhythms.
After an introduction by Keir MacMillan, an RSVP alumnus, the chorus performed “The Night Is Young,” accompanied by guitar and bodhrán. With the chorus gently swaying, this mellow piece felt like a folk song. It was so pleasant that I got to wondering why I hadn’t heard it before.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
With the conclusion of the first song, artistic director Jennifer Reason spoke to the audience, explaining that the concert would be a “celebration of the written word,” hence the title, “Stories.” She also reminded us that every RSVP concert series benefits some charity or community organization, and not coincidentally, the present series was a benefit for 916 Ink (www.916ink.org). This is an organization that promotes youth literacy by encouraging young people to write, with innovative writing instruction and the possibility of getting their writing published.
The whole concert seemed to have a bit more emphasis on the jazz stylings that have been the mainstay of RSVP’s repertoire (or at least so it has seemed to me). That was certainly true of “Icarus,” which gave an interesting interpretation and retelling of the Icarus myth, with an enjoyable musical arrangement. Then, in introducing “Penny Lane,” Reason joked that we were welcome to sing along with the familiar Beatles tune. In fact, as they sang I could hear someone near me humming. It was a great contemporary, upbeat arrangement of the song, and the piece was accompanied by a muted trumpet and some understated beatboxing. It was also accompanied by especially broad smiles from the singers — and from the audience, too, I would guess.
After “Penny Lane,” the executive director of 916 Ink, Katie McCleary, introduced two students who read poems they had written and which had been published by 916 Ink. And appropriately, the next 3 songs in the concert were all based on poems. Before each song was performed, though, a chorus member read the poem. (By the way, the order of the first two was switched from that indicated in the program.)
“Bright Is the Ring of Words” was sung a cappella, which emphasized its lovely harmonies. There was a lot of independent movement in the voice parts in this peaceful song that was performed with great feeling — so much so that it inspired the mother sitting in front of me to put her arm around her 8-year-old son.
Besides “Penny Lane,” the next piece, “Sure on This Shining Night” by Morten Lauridsen, was the only piece I had heard before — but never more beautifully rendered than in this performance. For the only time during the concert, the chorus held music while Reason accompanied on the piano. I would call this a neo-classical piece that required a much different approach than all the other selections on the program. It began with remarkably gentle phrases from the men using their head voices. From that point on I stopped analyzing the music and just enjoyed it — until I was conscious of the intense purity of the soprano sound that was so central to the effect of the piece.
To this point, we in the audience had been lulled into expecting a certain kind of sound from these singers, so we were surprised when, in introducing “Uncertainty of a Poet,” Reason warned us that “not everything is beautiful.” She wondered aloud why they were even performing the following song and that it was OK if we didn’t like it because she hated it. What? Then with finger snapping, they began to sing the following lines: “I am a poet. I am very fond of bananas. I am bananas. I am very fond of a poet.” The lines went on in odd combinations of these words, and it seemed like the lively music was in 8 parts (or more). With the trickiness of the lyrics and an extraordinary quirkiness in the rhythms, it seemed impossible to memorize — but that's how it was performed. And moments after the song began, we in the audience realized we had been played: no one could hate this song — it was far too much fun.
Each of the four concerts in this series featured a local author, sharing some of their work. On this night it was Michael Spurgeon, novelist and faculty member at American River College. He read a passage from a novel he was working on, titled The Province of Man, and though my mindset was for choral music, I found his reading quite engaging. Then 916 Ink executive director, Katie McCleary, was introduced formally by RSVP member and charity coordinator, Karen Percy. McCleary spoke with great enthusiasm about the work of her organization, and I’m sure she inspired all of us in the audience to put something in the donation envelopes that accompanied our programs. This the genius of RSVP. Their concerts are free, and all the donations they receive go directly to the guest beneficiary organization. (Check the accompanying program for a list of the 28 charitable organizations that RSVP has featured over the years.)
The first two songs in the final set of four were so very mellow, as was so much of this concert. “Land of Pure Imagination” (from the movie Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) was sung a cappella, one more offering in the easy jazz style that fits RSVP so well. Then “She Sings” was performed by the women of the chorus, with piano and mandolin accompaniment. The lyrics to this song were so interesting that I tried to find them on the Web afterwards. No luck — apparently they’re under copyright.
“Say What You Need to Say” was a song with a beat — emphasized by an accompanying bongo drum. It almost had a rock feel to it and was full of soul. More than that, it was infectious music, and got a lot of us in the audience clapping to the beat. There were many other candidates in tonight’s program, but this song for sure should be on RSVP’s next CD. I almost missed the fact, but the piece was arranged by Jodi Serrano, a member of the group. Successful as this was, I'll be looking for more arrangements from her.
Each of the songs in this concert made for pleasant (or fun) listening, and each had a distinctive character. The last song, “Words,” was arguably the most distinctive. Its style was definitely jazz, and it began with words or phrases delivered sotto voce from different members of the group. Four of the singers were on mic giving what came across as beatboxing effects. The lyric itself was interesting and intriguing and clearly articulated as the sotto voce insertions continued throughout the song.
When it was all over and I was making my way out of the church and down the street, I overheard one couple after another commenting on how much they enjoyed the concert. All I could think of was that an RSVP concert is never long enough. They always leave me wanting more of that wonderful singing. Maybe that’s why I have all their CDs.