The Sacramento Choral Calendar
European Masterworks - May 14, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
It’s a pretty impressive record. This concert marked the close of the 20th season of the Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra, and over those 20 years they have performed over 100 concerts, primarily of major classical works, including premieres and many works not performed by any other Sacramento-area chorus during that time.
With orchestra and chorus assembled on stage, the audience was welcomed, as usual, by SCSO Board President, James McCormick — and this time, he had more than usual to announce. After noting the significance of the anniversary season, McCormick first pointed out that this evening’s concert was dedicated to the recently deceased Stan Lunetta, the long-time timpanist for SCSO and many other orchestras. McCormick went on to announce that tonight marked the release of SCSO’s latest CD, Carmina Burana II, a recording of its March 5, 2016 performance of that work and the American Premiere of Jonathan Dove’s “Psalms for Leo.” (See the Sacramento Choral Calendar’s review of that concert at this link. And here’s a link to online information about the CD.)
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Tonight’s concert, titled “European Masterworks,” began with “An Oxford Elegy” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. As usual, the program notes for this concert are excellent, and I recommend that you review them to get further insight into this unusual piece. The notes summarize “An Oxford Elegy” as “a theatrical work of imposing melancholy and hauntingly memorable melodies.” Indeed, the music struck me as brooding from the start, and Director Donald Kendrick’s initial grand gestures in leading orchestra and chorus in this “elegy” almost seemed as if they were summoning up some spirit.
One unusual feature of this composition was that the exposition of the two poems on which it was based was carried for the most part by narrator Phillip Ryder, whose delivery was both eloquent and dramatic — clearly the work of an experienced actor. The lyrics were extracts of two poems by Matthew Arnold: “The Scholar Gypsy” and "Thyrsis.” I’ll confess that I couldn’t grasp the significance of the text of this piece, even after a quick reading in the program. Yet much of the pleasure in hearing the performance was the pleasure of being told a story — completely comprehensible or not — full of rich images inspired by the English countryside. There was musicality, not only in the singing and playing, but in the narration itself.
Consistent with the idea of an “elegy,” I felt that that piece built to a sense of resignation, but without despair. And there was an especially beautiful moment when the chorus repeated the phrase, “Roam on!” continuing with “The light we sought is shining still.”
We in the audience knew that we were in for something quite different in Antonín Dvořák’s “Psalm 149 Cantata” when numerous brass instruments joined the orchestra. Indeed, the piece was more passionate from the start, with Kendrick actually bouncing on his toes as he directed, building the orchestra to a big chorus entrance.
Having sung under directors who have favored either orchestra or chorus, I marvel when I see a director like Donald Kendrick give such equal attention to chorus and orchestra. As I watched, it seemed that he never failed to cue the entrance of a vocal or instrumental section.
In my notes, I wrote the word, ”grand” as I listened, and it only begins to describe what I was hearing. Especially thrilling were the times when the composer gave the chorus a couple of measures of a cappella singing. Then there were moments when first the women, then the men were highlighted, and in those moments I could discern the vocal power, precision of pitch, and good articulation of each section.
The major work on tonight’s program was Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Missa Solemnis in B Flat,” also known as the “Harmoniemesse.” Take a look at the extensive program notes on this piece to get an understanding of the rich variety of musical expression that washed over me as I listened to this piece. I imagine I’ve heard this work before, but I recalled none of the music, so every moment of this performance was a fresh experience for me. And what I heard was a portrait built from an extraordinary variety of musical figures, with enough complexity, variety and interest to hold one’s attention for an hour. Another way of looking at the piece is as a journey with musicians (singers and instrumentalists) serving as the vehicle taking one through constantly changing scenery — all with some kind of inherent beauty, even though that beauty might occasionally be dark, solemn, or even threatening.
I spent a lot of that hour scanning the chorus and thinking about what they were experiencing. It seemed, for a start, that they were taking great pleasure in their singing. All the dedicated work of rehearsal was being expressed in rhythmic precision, accuracy of tone, focused energy, blending with other sounds, and following the changes in emotion of the music. I know from experience that it’s a thrill to master a difficult passage, to experience a variety of musical figures, and revel in the harmonious interplay with other voice parts whether it’s in a well-tuned chord or the weaving of melodic lines in a fugue. Then long after a performance is over, there are the wonderful melodies still swimming in one’s head.
I dwell on what the chorus was experiencing because the essence of what they are doing is communicating — sharing a musical experience with the audience. So in an excellent performance like this, we in the audience were experiencing — to some degree at least — what the chorus (and players) were experiencing.
I don’t mean to diminish the soloists, who of course played a key role in the “Harmoniemesse.” The first note sung by bass Matt Boehler was in fact startling to me. It was an extremely low note, but delivered with a force that resounded throughout the Community Center Theater. I thought to myself, “Here, finally, is a bass with meat on his low notes.” Boehler continued with excellent projection throughout his range, but never overwhelmed the rest of the quartet.
Watching tenor Christopher Bengochea, I thought I perceived something special in his demeanor: a special respect for the excellence of the music he was singing. And he brought his own excellence to his performance, with a consistently pleasing tone throughout his range.
What first struck me about mezzo soprano Malin Fritz was the warm, listenable tone of her singing. But there was more to it. I found her unusually expressive. She was clearly a singer who digs for the emotion and nuance in the words and music in her score.
Soprano Sara Duchnovnay impressed me in a different way. She demonstrated a rich voice, under control when performing by herself and well balanced against the other soloists when singing in a duet or quartet. But what charmed me about her was her smiling as she sang, with the smile broadening as she finished. It added an extra level of delight to what was already a fine performance.
So concluded a special anniversary season for the Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra. And the many pleasures they have provided audiences in this season and the many that preceded it have the organization’s fans looking forward to their year-end Gala on June 11 at the Sacramento Convention Center when they will announce the details of Season 21.
Donald Kendrick - Sara Duchnovnay - Malin Fritz - Christopher Bengochea - Matt Boehler