The Sacramento Choral Calendar


Concert Review

Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra

Stained Glass Concert - October 24, 2015

by Dick Frantzreb

A concert by the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra at Fremont Presbyterian Church always seems to me to have a festive air to it.  The crowds that almost fill the large church long before the start of the program are part of that, but this time there was more that made the evening special.  First, there was the West Coast premiere of Fantasy for Organ and Harp by Canadian composer Rachel Laurin.  And then there was the special significance of the concert’s principal work, John Rutter’s Requiem, for this venue.  SCSO Board President, James McCormick explained the connection between the Requiem and the church in his opening remarks, but they are summarized in the following, which I’m quoting from the concert program:

“Through his longstanding friendship with Mel Olson, former Music Director a Fremont Presbyterian Church, John Rutter and his Requiem have had a long and close affiliation with Sacramento.  As early as the 1970s, Mel Olson had been championing Rutter’s music in the United states.  In 1985, Rutter himself conducted 4 of the 7 movements at Fremont Presbyterian Church with the local Davis-based soprano and voice teacher Rachel Kessler as the soloist.  Rutter vividly recalls that he was still writing the Lux Aeterna movement the night before the first performance of the Requiem at Fremont.”

When he got to that point in his introduction, McCormick announced that Kessler was in the audience.  She stood to acknowledge our applause, and SCSO Director, Donald Kendrick, personally presented her with a bouquet of flowers to mark the occasion.

(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)

As harpist Beverly Wesner-Hoehn and organist Ryan Enright began the Fantasy for Organ and Harp, I was surprised how the harp filled the cavernous church and how the organ complemented it.  Fundamentally, it was an interesting blend of the usually percussive sound of the harp and the continuous sound of the organ.  Also, it was more exposure to the harp and the range of sounds of which it is capable than one usually gets.  And to me, it made for delightful listening with long sections of harp solo.  There were frequent glissandos, and I was constantly impressed with the intricacy of Wesner-Hoehn’s performance.  This was clearly virtuoso harp playing, to which Ryan Enright (arguably the finest organist in the Sacramento area) played more of a secondary role.

As for the piece itself, I found it melodic, yet inventive.  If I had a recording of this piece, I would want to listen to it (especially the first movement) again and again.  The composer's comments about her work (see the program) noted that one of the two themes in the composition has a “jazzy” feel, and indeed, toward the end, I thought I picked up a passage that seemed to be inspired by George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

Charles Villiers Stanford's Magnificat in C was performed by the chorus as they stood in the aisles surrounding the audience.  This way of presenting music is always impressive for the intimacy it conveys.  And especially because of the closeness of the singers, the English text came through with perfect clarity.  There are disadvantages, though.  Sitting close to one aisle as I was, I heard mostly alto and tenor, and I naturally picked up a lot of individual voices.  So I must say that I was a little disappointed in the performance because the piece is loaded with beautiful, lush harmonies.  And though it was performed with exquisite sensitivity and spirit, I missed the full effect of the blend of those harmonies, as it built to a grand conclusion.

I should add that Donald Kendrick directed from the front of the church, facing the audience and chorus.  That made this a rare opportunity to see Kendrick ― always fascinating in his intense directing style ― as his singers see him, and to notice his eyes widening triumphantly as the piece concluded.

Accompanied by an organ interlude, the chorus next moved to the risers set up in the front of the church, and at 140+ strong, they made an impressive sight.  Then as they began to perform Stanford's Nunc Dimittis (also in English), they produced an equally impressive sound:  full, controlled and ultimately thrilling, especially during brief a cappella passages.  And I must add that with so many singers now so far way, it was nothing short of remarkable that their articulation came through so clearly, with each word of the text discernible.  As the piece concluded, the final crescendo was a goosebump-producing experience for me, as I imagine it was for many others in the audience.

For an intelligent analysis of the Rutter Requiem, I have to refer you to the program notes written by James McCormick.  As always, they are well-researched and insightful.  All I can say for my experience Saturday night is that, although I've heard this piece on numerous prior occasions, this performance took me on a ride that seemed completely new.  Beginning with a cello solo (by Lena Andaya) and a choral part that seemed almost ghostly, the first movement (“Requiem”) evolved to offer a variety of lovely themes that built to a climax.  Then the next movement (“Out of the Deep”), with its plaintive beginning, displayed the superb quality of the alto section (matching the tenors' especially fine performance in the previous movement).  Then I was struck by the rich sound of the sopranos, and “rich” is not an adjective earned by many soprano sections.  Collectively, the chorus produced a truly mournful sound, at one point displaying such a small pianissimo that it made me wonder whether everyone was truly singing (they were, as far as I could tell).

Soprano soloist, Mary Wilson, had her first opportunity to perform in the “Pie Jesu,” and she was magnificent.  Her singing was confident and effortless, and her high notes were nothing short of superb.

I think it was at this point that I realized that Kendrick was directing from memory.  I guess it took that long because I have seen him direct from memory on many, many occasions.  Still, I couldn't help reflecting, “what kind of man can remember every entrance of every instrument or voice part, every dynamic, every accelerando or ritard, and even every nuance for a major classical work.”  It is clearly a very rare person who can do this kind of thing, and yet without it, Kendrick might have to sacrifice some of the laser-like intensity and focus in his teaching and conducting that achieves such excellent results.

As I listened to the “Sanctus” and “Pie Jesu,” I found myself reflecting on the purity of the sound I was hearing.  This chorus attracts many of the best choral (or even solo) singers in the Sacramento area, and with so many quality voices, I have to imagine that there is no oversinging, which occasionally happens when good singers feel they have to make up for other weak voices in their section.  Whether my theory is accurate or not, the effect of strong ensemble singing was apparent throughout the concert, and never so much as at the end of the “Pie Jesu” when the text “I am the resurrection and the life” came through with perfect clarity in the words and complete transparency in the emotion.

By the time the chorus was performing “The Lord is my shepherd,” beginning as it does with yet another lovely instrumental solo, this time from oboist Ruth Stuart, I found myself rethinking a long-held conclusion.  I used to consider that the Fauré Requiem was the most transcendently beautiful choral piece in the classical choral repertoire.  With this performance, I am no longer so sure.  And as many satisfying melodies as there are in Rutter's Requiem, there is also an abundance of transporting harmonies ― and spirit-stirring emotion.  This whole piece is so eminently listenable.

With final “Lux Aeterna” and the return of soprano Mary Wilson, I felt that we had been on a musical journey comparable to a walk or a drive through the most inspiring scenery one can imagine.  The others in this nearly full church might not have expressed themselves that way, but they clearly felt something profound because, with the decay of the final chord, they all rose without hesitation in a standing ovation.

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