The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Colla Voce Chamber Singers
Mystery, Magic & Mirth - April 28, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
Colla Voce Chamber Singers performs regularly at Grace Lutheran Church in Grass Valley and now at the State Theatre in Auburn. But I love hearing them in the intimate space of Pioneer Methodist Church in Auburn, so appropriate for a chamber choir. And that’s where I was on this Thursday night, waiting for the first performance of their spring concert series to begin. As I waited, I admired the festive touch of battery-powered votive lights completely surrounding the perimeter of the church, spaced about a foot apart.
Without any singers visible in the front of the church, the concert began with Aimee Bellanca singing the solo part of “Cloudsong.” I was sitting at the extreme left of one of the first few rows of the church pews, but I couldn’t see her when I turned around. Instead, I saw members of the chorus proceeding down the left aisle, most of them carrying wine goblets containing different amounts of water. They proceeded to rub a moistened finger around the lip of the goblet, producing a distinct musical tone: this was the “accompaniment” for the singing that began presently. The chorus stopped just to my left, giving me the strange feeling of sitting between a chorus and their director while they performed. It was sweet music with modern harmonies, and for me, it was a demonstration of how good a cappella singing can be. I was just 6 feet from the nearest of the 27 chorus members, and yet I couldn’t distinguish any individual voices, except that of Aimee. It was simply magical.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Director Janine Dexter doesn’t like too much interruption from applause, so she went right into “Stars” – so seamlessly, that it wasn’t until the third piece, Morten Lauridsen’s “Prayer” that I realized I’d been listening to “Stars.” Apart from the skillful segue, it was a testament to good programming: presenting two pieces that created a single mood. That mood didn’t change with “Prayer,” as the chorus proceeded to a formation at the front of the church. I think there was a comforting, or perhaps even mystical feeling from these first 3 pieces, each so well performed.
Then the mood changed. Bach’s “Come Sweet Death” is beautiful music, especially in this English-language arrangement. But there was more to this than the beauty of the music. After a first verse sung in formation, the singers began the second verse raising their arms as if in supplication. Then their gestures – all while singing – became individual, each one looking in a different direction with gestures that seemed plaintive, even mourning. Each one seemed to be having an individual experience while they sang, and I would love to have known what Dexter told them to think about. Whatever it was, the effect was riveting. As if to emphasize the individuality of what they were feeling, the singing moved to an extended aleatory section, meaning that each singer sang spontaneously their own words and notes and note values, abandoning all harmony. Dexter was seated through all this, and the miracle of it – to me – was that somehow they all converged on the same final pitch to end the piece. I’ve seen enough Colla Voce concerts to realize that Janine Dexter likes to create an experience, rather than a concert. And what I heard to this point was, indeed, an experience.
Finally, we were allowed to applaud. The lights went up, and we were ready for a different experience. “Magic to Do” from Pippin had a happy, Broadway sound, accompanied by piano and percussion. The singers loosened up and moved around as they sang, obviously enjoying the music.
As a preface to “Brainstorm” we were read the text (some of which was in the program), while two notes were alternately played on the piano, preparing us for the tension of what would follow. The thought behind it was to express the excitement that can come from a flood of creative ideas, and both music and text of this piece were appropriately frenetic. At the speed it was performed, it required (and got) great attention to articulation, and must have required intense concentration. Not surprisingly, this was the first piece performed while reading from printed scores.
Colla Voce concerts are typically multimedia events, and before the next two pieces, Dexter explained that they had collaborated with photographer/film maker, Jason Phipps, for what we were about to see. She explained a little about his art, but a brief explanation couldn’t prepare us for what was in store. As the chorus began singing Morten Lauridsen’s classic “O Magnum Mysterium,” the lights went down and an image was projected on a small screen above, behind and to the right of the singers. It was a ribbon structure, computer-generated, that began rotating slowly on the screen. Over the course of the performance, the orientation, movement and color of the ribbon changed; it morphed into more complex but related structures; then back to simplicity again. It was as mesmerizing as the music, which was, of course, beautifully performed. I thought about what it might mean, and although I’m sure everyone had their own interpretation, I imagined that the video plus the music was symbolic of the innate perfection and beauty of creation. When the song ended, someone behind me let out an involuntary “Wow!” – just what I was thinking.
“Entreat Me Not to Leave You,” the Biblical words of Ruth set to music by Dan Forrest, matched the beautiful harmonies of “O Magnum Mysterium.” But the images portrayed on the screen were quite different. There was a succession of scenes from nature, mostly at night, but at the same time they had surreal touches of added color and distortion. I guess I could appreciate this second video as art, but for me it was disquieting, at odds with the exquisite music, exquisitely sung.
Our journey then proceeded to a completely different place. The men of the chorus sang “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” a piece that dates back to 1977, an era that, for me, will always be the pinnacle of pop music. These men performed without accompaniment, loosened up and added a little acting, and the whole thing was pure fun. So was the Crosby, Stills & Nash tune, “Helplessly Hoping” from 1969. This was sung by a sextet – 4 men and 2 women – who came out with sashes wrapped around their heads to evoke the Hippie era. I love many styles and eras of music, but for those of us of a certain age, the music in this set was a pure delight.
“This Sweet and Merry Month of May,” a 15th-century song by William Byrd, was next, but it was the only piece in the concert that was a bit of a disappointment to me in that the sextet who performed it did not seem to be quite in sync with each other.
“The Laughing Song,” performed by the whole chorus, piano and flute was a bit of fun, with periodic laughing on pitch and many lyrics consisting of complicated combinations of “hee” and “hah.” Like “Brainstorm” earlier, it required intense concentration to learn and perform the piece.
Continuing the theme of “mirth” was Eric Whitacre’s setting of 3 humorous poems by Ogden Nash. This section really was funny, and the chorus got the audience laughing with their exaggerated singing and a sight gag or two.
Among this concert’s many highlights was “Getting Married Today” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. What the chorus was doing was essentially presenting a scene from the musical. Emily Smith was the wedding soloist, the chorus was the church choir, Randy Németh was the groom, and Bethanee Hunnicutt was the reluctant bride. When it came to her part, pacing nervously around the floor, she launched into a rapid-fire patter, urging the wedding guests to leave because she’s “not getting married today. But don’t tell Paul.” Everyone acted their part, but Hunnicutt was especially effective, and the delivery of her patter was masterful.
The last piece on the program was the William Tell Overture (disguised in French in the program for a bit of fun). But wait! Isn’t this an orchestral piece? Indeed it is, and so the chorus began by tuning up their “instruments.” They proceeded to perform this piece entirely on meaningless words (“ba-da-dum, ba-da-dum, ba-da-dum-dee-dum”) in an arrangement that seemed complex enough to be orchestral. Then they added tdifferent kinds of actions. For example, at various points most of the singers were pretending they were riding horses, while other swung lassos over their heads. It was a well-sung spectacle, and I loved it, as I’m sure did everyone else in the audience.
We thought the concert was over at this point, since the chorus members moved from the front of the church down the aisles. But it was just the set-up for an encore. This final song was “Magical Kingdom” and featured the lyric “once upon a time.” I guessed it was about the Walt Disney theme parks, but the music was by Englishman John Rutter. No matter, it was a gentle send-off for a grateful audience. And once again, Colla Voce Chamber Singers had given me a memorable “experience.”