The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Cantare Chorale of the Sierra Foothills
With Joyful Ring - January 3, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
The calendar said January 3, but it was Christmas again at the Placerville Church of the Nazarene on this Sunday afternoon. The sanctuary was surrounded by garlands and wreaths on the walls, a fully decorated Christmas tree in the corner, and seasonal flower arrangements. On a screen above the performance area, a short video on a continuous loop displayed a fire in a fireplace, with a pine tree branch in the foreground. Nearly all the seats in the room were taken by the time the 19-member Cantare Chorale of the Sierra Foothills entered in silence and assembled in their concert formation. The women wore sparkling red tops with long black skirts; the men, tuxedos with red bowties. Director Mariia Pechenova wore an elegant black dress.
We in the audience were greeted by emcee Larry O'Shea, who would be providing witty commentary and background on the music throughout the afternoon. I found O'Shea a modest, soft-spoken, almost self-deprecating host, whose humor and erudition greatly added to everyone's enjoyment of this concert. Another reason O'Shea's commentary was welcome was that much of the music was unfamiliar, and his explanations aided my appreciation of each selection. That was apparent from the very start with "Bitter for Sweet," an a cappella song about the changing of the seasons. The text, incidentally, was by Christina Rossetti (and is in the accompanying program). If her name sounds familiar, it is because she is also the author of the poem, "In the Bleak Midwinter," which came up later in the concert. As this piece was performed, my first — and lasting — impression of Cantare Chorale was of expressive singing led by expressive directing.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
By contrast, "Throw Open Your Shutters!" began with a burst of spirit. It was a joyful piece — fun, yet performed with great precision. Overall it was such pleasant listening that I was amazed that I'd never heard it before. That amazement carried to yet another song I'd never heard, "I Carry Your Heart with Me," based on a poem by E.E. Cummings, so the title should be more accurately written, "i carry your heart with me." To me, this was a pretty song, even a sentimental one (see the words in the program). But it was surely difficult for the chorus, though they were encouraged by Pechenova's precise and confident directing. One couldn't help but sympathize with the men, of whom there were only 6: 3 tenors and 3 basses. Still, I thought they performed admirably with this music, and I noticed some fine voices among them. The inherent artistry of this composition was enhanced by the violin of Marlene Silva.
Among the next 3 selections, there was yet another that was new to me: "Star of the Morning," based on music by Gabriel Fauré. This was sandwiched between two Russian pieces: "Carol of the Bells" and "The Sleigh." I'm beginning to think that it takes a Russian to really interpret a work by a Russian composer because Pechenova, a fairly recent immigrant, led this chorus in what I think might be the best performance of "Carol of the Bells" I've heard, with great attention to dynamics and nuance.
I can't say that "The Sleigh" was nuanced: it is a fast-paced, driving piece, and you can almost imagine Cossacks dancing frenetically to it. It brought out what felt like a Russian soul in the chorus, and it showed off the virtuosity of accompanist Wendy Payton, as she performed the challenging piano part (and for which she was given a well-earned bow).
Dan Forrest's arrangement of "The First Noel" was next, featuring a lovely supplementary melody at the beginning of the song. Part of my impression was due to the arrangement, but it seemed to me that this song was performed with reverence initially, and eventually with unexpected drama and beauty.
"Ya viene la vieja" was described as a traditional Spanish carol. The chorus delivered this difficult piece a cappella and in Spanish -- and at an incredibly fast tempo, with occasional finger snaps in place of castanets. It was so well done that I have to say it was far too short: I would have loved to hear more.
Of course, I'd heard the next two carols, "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World" many times during the run-up to Christmas. But I'd never heard them like this. For one thing, they were both arranged by local arranger, Shelley Rink (www.shelleyrink.com) who teaches at several campuses in the Los Rios Community College District. In her website, she mentions that she has frequently visited Spain "where she fell in love with all things Spanish." That showed in the rhythms of these two arrangements. "Silent Night" also had a much faster tempo than is traditional. The chorus sang the melody twice without words (on "oo's") before Mary Leonard gave a nice solo performance of the well-loved lyric. I found the whole thing delightful. And I have to say the same for "Joy to the World," though Handel would hardly have recognized his music. There was bongo accompaniment and Spanish rhythms that really brought out the "joy." The audience was especially enthusiastic in its reaction to this arrangement, which gave a modern, yet respectful, take on this familiar tune.
You wouldn't think I would be surprised by another lovely new song as the second half of the concert began, but I was. In fact, I'd say that "The Work of Christmas" went beyond being just exceptionally pretty to being inspirational. The words are on the second page of the accompanying program, but it wasn't only the words that affected me: it was the way the song was delivered. For one thing it was performed a cappella and from memory. And the words were well articulated and expressively delivered. Then half-way through the piece the lights went way down and chorus members held out one hand, palm up. In their palm was what looked like a mini-votive candle. The effect was arresting and emphasized the touching sentiment of the music. I had quite a drive to get to this concert, but it would have been worth the trip to have experienced this one song. The "lighted palm" effect continued for Andrew Lloyd Weber's famous "Pie Jesu," given a lovely performance by soloists Holly Carmichael and Carrie Penaloza and by the chorus.
"Caroling, Caroling," another piece performed a cappella, gave a rhythmic update to Alfred Burt's famous Christmas gift to his family and friends. In a way this song was the epitome of the whole concert: adventurous, modern, and innovative. And not surprisingly, "In the Bleak Midwinter," was an unusual, updated but essentially artistic treatment of the traditional piece with what seemed to me like jazz harmonies.
In case we in the audience hadn't already been persuaded of the versatility of this chorus, "A Song of Santa (Holiday Mash-Up)" left no question. This bouncy tour de force incorporated a lot of musical styles and was performed with energy and spirit to the accompaniment of drums and bass (as well as piano). I wrote down the name of all the Santa songs (12 of them), thinking I might share them with you. But there's no need: if you can think of a song about Santa Claus, be assured it was in this fun medley.
"I'll Be Home for Christmas" was another change in mood: a gentle, traditional and sentimental presentation of this moving song. It was followed by "That Night," one more piece that was new to me and that amounted to a dramatic telling of the Christmas story, building to a sense of triumph, with its accompaniment by violin, drums, bass, and piano. At its conclusion Director Mariia Pechenova spoke to us, thanking us for coming and announcing an encore, the "Hallelujah Chorus" from the Messiah. That is frequently a fine way to end a Christmas concert, but she asked us to sing along, and therein was a problem. For all its familiarity, this is not an easy piece. It's fine for those who've had to memorize it at some time in the past. But for the rest of us, there are tricky entrances for all the voice parts, and it's not always clear how many times you sing "hallelujah" (and when). So without a musical score to follow, this didn’t work as a singalong for me, nor (I think) for the people around me.
Still, this encore couldn’t take away from the pleasure of the concert, especially because Pechenova closed with some heartfelt words. She is a gracious, and I’d venture to say, modest person, and I’m sure none of us had any question of her sincerity when she thanked us for supporting Cantare Chorale with our presence and added that they are proud to be part of their community. Her English is better every time I hear her speak, and what remains of her Russian accent and sentence structure is just charming. Even more than all that, she is a dynamic musician, directing with passion and precision, shaping each note and phrase, mouthing all the words for her singers and bringing an energy and connection to the singers that seems to bring out the best in them. My bet is on this chorus to thrive.