The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sierra Master Chorale and Orchestra
Stories of the Season - December 19, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
With memories of the delightful Christmas concert I had seen performed by the Sierra Master Chorale & Orchestra 3 years ago, I was really looking forward to tonight's performance in Grass Valley's Seventh-day Adventist Church, with its remarkable acoustics. The festivities began with "Magnificat anima mea" from J.S. Bach's Magnificat. The 34-member orchestra started what felt like a Baroque fanfare with the prominence of the three trumpets, while the chorus began entering with the first notes played by the orchestra. The men were dressed in white shirts (without jackets) and sparkling, red, four-in-hand ties. The women were in dark outfits, with jackets, and large red corsages. When the 70-member ensemble began singing, it was from memory and with a vitality that I haven't often seen among the choruses I've heard perform this season. What also struck me in this piece was how skillfully the chorus handled the Baroque figures.
After “Magnificat anima mea” concluded, Conductor Ken Hardin greeted the audience with his usual affability, and let us know that there was a “fun program” in store for us. Then he spoke about the background of the piece we had just heard before introducing Conor Jamison, who would be the soloist in “Gesu Bambino.” During that song, I was looking for any kind of sound amplification, but I noticed none, even though I was sitting behind a sound board in the balcony that was being tended — presumably for recording. (Hardin did use a mic to address the audience, if I recall correctly.) Soloist Jamison performed his part expressively, and I was instantly impressed with the rich, well-balanced choral sound that filled the church. Though there was a lot for me to hear and think about throughout the duration of the concert, this rich choral sound stood out to me time and again. It stood out to the woman sitting next to me, too: as the music ended, she whispered involuntarily, “So beautiful.”
(Click here to open key pages of the concert program in a new window.)
In introducing the “Huron Carol,” Hardin pointed out the significance of the title of the concert: “Stories of the Season.” In what followed we could expect a history lesson and a travelogue, all in the form of musical “stories.” The “Huron Carol” itself began with the mellow sounds of cellos and double bass that introduced a piece which I found moody, pensive and darkly beautiful. The ensemble singing highlighted the strengths of each voice part, though I was particularly impressed with the altos and basses. When the music stopped, the singer friend sitting next to me said, “That evoked some unusual emotions that I wasn’t expecting.”
The next song, “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy,” couldn’t have been more different from the “Huron Carol.” With this bouncy spiritual, the apparent joy of the chorus could hardly be contained. Yet I was conscious of them performing with great discipline, evidenced by the well-controlled dynamics and sharp cut-offs. I don’t usually get so many audible comments from people in the concerts I attend, but again (different) people on both sides of me commented “I like that” as the music subsided and the applause began.
Next came the only really uncomfortable part of this concert. “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” from Handel’s Messiah was next on the program, and Hardin invited us: “If you know it, sing along.” There were two problems with that. First, it’s not common for people to commit parts of Messiah to memory — except perhaps the Hallelujah chorus. Second, the runs in “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” are really tough, even with a printed score in front of you. So a few of us, tried to sing along as best we could, but the experience was certainly unfulfilling.
Until a couple of weeks ago, I don’t believe I had ever heard Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Christmas Carols.” Tonight, I was getting my second performance of the current concert season. To me, this piece was full of the sophistication, grandeur, and subtlety of Vaughan Williams, enhanced by the sharp, clear directing of Ken Hardin. The composition presents three English folk carols, of which only the last was familiar (“Sussex Carol” or “On Christmas Night All Christians Sing”). Again Conor Jamison gave a strong performance. And of course there were lovely choral sections, including one that was performed a cappella. Time and again, in this piece and others, I was impressed with what seemed to me as the animation of the chorus.
“Bethlehem Rejoices” was a grand composition, with percussion (including chimes), brass, and even piccolo. The choral part was more interesting than melodic, but it was all unmistakably joyful and celebratory. And what a surprise to learn as it concluded that its composer, Mark Vance, is local. Moreover, he was in the audience and came forward after the performance to shake Hardin’s hand and accept the appreciation of the audience.
I’ve been surprised (and pleased) to see how many of this season’s choral concerts have included an acknowledgment of Hanukkah. Among the musical selections celebrating this Jewish holiday, “Everlasting Light” was one of the best I’ve heard, with an inspiring text, performed with enthusiasm and commitment.
When “The Little Drummer Boy” was announced, there was a collective gasp of anticipation from the audience. Mark Hayes’ arrangement featured a rich orchestration, with snare drum throughout and the familiar “rum pum pum” part from the basses. The piece built twice to thrilling highs before trailing off at the end — and giving the audience the satisfying experience they had hoped for.
Intermissions at Sierra Master Chorale concerts seem like intense socializing experiences, conducted in the church’s adjacent social hall and fueled with warm drinks and an abundance of cookies. This intermission was all of that. And after the audience had reassembled in the church, there were thanks to sponsors and advertisers from InConcert Sierra Executive Director, Julie Hardin, and from Sierra Master Chorale President, Barry Howard.
The second half of this concert began with the Overture to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. The chorus entered during this orchestral piece, and it was such a delight to hear this familiar music (since I couldn’t fit in seeing a performance of The Nutcracker this year).
Of all the compositions of John Rutter that I’ve heard over the years, I have never been exposed to any of his “musical fables.” The only one of these that has a Christmas theme, “Brother Heinrich’s Christmas” was next on the program. After an explanation by Hardin and a dreamy orchestral introduction, Robert Rossman began reading the script: “Once upon a time….” It was a long story, interrupted occasionally and briefly by orchestral parts, with even fewer occasional choral parts — until the end. Rossman did a beautiful job with the charming, humorous fable, using different character voices and adding appropriate dramatic effects with his clear speaking voice. The thrust of the story is to tell the origin of the Christmas carol, “In Dulci Jubilo,” which the chorus performed at the end.
Next was a performance of “Joy to the World.” For this fully orchestrated version, we in the audience were invited to sing along on the first and third verses, while the chorus would perform the more complicated second verse, which included a different melody. This was fun — to a point — to the point, that is, when the third verse changed the key without warning, leaving many of us singing what sounded like a lot of wrong notes.
“The Very Best Time of the Year” was another of John Rutter’s compositions. This was a gentle song with sweet, sentimental lyrics.
In introducing the last selection on the program, “Come, Colours Rise,” Hardin confessed, “This one’s for me. I like this piece a lot.” He explained that the song was written for post-Apartheid South Africa (and there is some background in the accompanying pages from the concert program). The composition celebrates Christmas, but also the new culture of South Africa, and it acknowledges that the South African Christmas takes place in summer. It’s bouncy and celebratory, but what stuck out most to me as it was performed was the repeated phrase, “Let truth and freedom reign.”
I think all of us audience members were expecting a more traditional end to the concert, and we got it in the finale and what followed. First, there was “Silent Night” in which we were invited to sing along with the first and third verses as before. Then amid the enthusiastic standing ovation that always follows Sierra Master Chorale & Orchestra concerts, chorus members pulled out funny hats and gave us a fairly elaborate — and clearly heartfelt — arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” On that cheerful note ended a fine performance by singers and players, highlighted by what was, for me, an immensely satisfying choral experience.