The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Children's Chorus
A World of Music
by Dick Frantzreb
The moments before the start of the winter concert of the Sacramento Children's Chorus (SCC) were charged with the excitement of anticipation, as staff (new and old), enthusiastic supporters, and families connected with each other. It was a perfect time and a perfect place for a choral concert: St. John's Lutheran Church has excellent acoustics, an intimate performance space — and convenient parking. And on a late Sunday afternoon at the end of February, there is very little else going on to tempt an audience — certainly no choral events. And there was plenty of time after the concert to get home to watch the Olympics closing ceremony.
The concert began with a performance by two of SCC's choirs: Crescendo (7th to 10th graders) and Dolce (11th grade to college freshman). Artistic Director Alexander Grambow greeted us with an explanation that the first piece would “depict a world without music,” and he asked us to refrain from applause until the first set of three pieces was complete. Then he added the remarkable statement that he and the singers were dedicating this concert to “anti-gun violence.”
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
At the start of “The Awakening,” only Crescendo was on stage: 23 young women in black dresses, white belts and pearls and 2 young men in vests and red bow ties. I was struck immediately with the purity of their sound. After a couple of minutes, they were joined by Dolce: 7 young women in black dresses and pearls and 6 young men in tuxedos. The idea of “The Awakening” is that it begins as a dream of a world without music, emphasized by whispering to illustrate the silence of the dream. Then, on “waking,” there is an explosion of joyful sound to celebrate the wonder of music. As I watched this emotional performance, I was conscious of the commitment of these young singers: you could see it in their open mouths and the expression on their faces. And that commitment was moving to the audience, many of whom applauded at the end of the piece, forgetting the request to refrain from applause until the conclusion of the set of music.
The next selection was a lively presentation of “Tręs Cantos Nativos” by Crescendo. The objective of this piece was to evoke the sounds of the rainforest (remember, we're on a journey through “A World of Music”). So to the delight of the audience (and no doubt, the singers themselves), we were treated to many more sounds beyond the singing: bird calls, finger snapping, hand rubbing, foot stomping, hand clapping, thigh patting, inhaling through clenched teeth — and a variety of hand gestures. All of this was coordinated with unaccompanied singing, and I marveled at what a feat of memorization it was.
The set concluded with “Du, du liegst mir im herzen,” a beautifully lyrical German folk song that was accompanied by gentle swaying. Contemplating the great variety (and sophistication) in these first 3 selections, it occurred to me what an outlet for self-expression this experience was for these kids. And what an enriching experience it was for those of us in the audience. I've heard a lot of choral music in recent years, and there were only 4 pieces in this whole program that I'd heard before. It was all so fresh and engaging.
During the next set of music my attention focused more on Alex Grambow. This is his first year as Artistic Director of SCC, but his experience with directing young singers is extensive (see his bio in the attached program). He is a lively, expressive director, and to me, he seemed to have an exceptional connection to his young singers. Certainly, he had prepared them beautifully for the sophisticated music in this program, so tonally and rhythmically challenging. And my experience has been that singers sing to the inspiration they get from their director. Listening to the hauntingly beautiful music of “Cold Wind Blows on the Valley,” it struck me that I had been seeing the evidence of Grambow's inspiration. It was the faces. I believe that you sing with your face, as well as with your voice. And looking over this choir, I saw so many singing faces.
A highlight of this concert was the guest appearance by the Christian Brothers Falcon Honors Chorale, composed of 5 young women in long blue gowns with black tops and 6 young men in tuxedos. To this point in the concert we had been hearing 2-part and 3-part harmony, and with the Christian Brothers basses, we had the first 4-part harmony of the afternoon.
This was another group of committed, versatile singers. After the distinctly classical style of Handel's “Sing With Pleasure,” they performed the lively “Puer Natus Est” — a cappella and with such feeling that I noticed them struggling to keep their hands at their sides. Before their third selection, the young men (and director, Anthony Lien) left the room to a brief piano interlude. When they returned, the singers were sporting big hats and carrying farm implements. And director Lien was wearing coveralls and a straw hat. All this was set-up for the rollicking folk song, “Cindy.” Watching Lien cavort as he directed, I thought, “This must be a fun group to be part of.” Building to a conclusion that had two couples dancing, it all felt like a hoedown — and the audience loved it.
SCC's Crescendo and Dolce next took the stage to perform “The Rhythm of Life.” It's a piece that is great fun for singers and audience alike, with its driving rhythm and machine-gun lyrics, enhanced with finger-snapping and gestures. But the singers were upstaged by the 4-hand piano accompaniment performed by Sophia and Victoria Lucas, sisters of approximately middle-school age. It was difficult and required intense concentration, and they were perfect.
“Count on It” was a novelty piece in which most of the lyrics were numbers. To me, it was another impressive feat of memorization, and then there was an a cappella section in which I noticed excellent intonation on the singers' part.
“Dirait-on” is one of Morten Lauridsen's most famous compositions, and these young people performed it as well as any adult choir I've heard. And their French pronunciation was clear and very accurate.
After Crescendo's performance in French, Dolce took over with Italian in “Ma Bella Bimba,” a folk song that was fun for all. Then they switched language (Japanese) and style to perform “In the Stillness.” Of all the things that these singers learn at the hands of the professionals in SCC: vocal quality, blending, articulation, etc., it seems to me that one of the most subtle is authenticity. As I heard these young people transition between languages and musical styles, I felt that each piece was culturally authentic.
The final song of the set (back to Italian) was Josquin des Prez's “El Grillo” (“The Cricket”), a humorous song from the 16th century that was performed a cappella and with the light-heartedness that it demands.
The concert closed out with all singers (Sacramento Children's Chorus and Christian Brothers Falcon Honors Chorale) on stage performing “Goin' Home.” I'll confess that, with all the lively music we had heard throughout the afternoon, it seemed strange that the concert would conclude with a sentimental song that is essentially about death — and especially strange to be performed by a stage full of young people. Still, it was sensitively performed with beautiful harmonies, capping a concert full of variety and excellence.