The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento State University Choruses
A Procession of Carols - December 2, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
(This review sponsored by Grant Mulligan and ParcelQuest.)
This was a special occasion. Having announced his retirement from teaching at Sacramento State University earlier in the fall, this evening (and tomorrow afternoon) were to mark Donald Kendrick’s final conducting of “A Procession of Carols,” a 33-year tradition which he started. Sacred Heart Church was full when James McCormick welcomed the audience, noting the significance of the event that has involved over 6,000 student performers over the years. McCormick’s final words were to ask us to hold applause until the end of the program. That was difficult because over the nearly two hours of its duration, there was no intermission and MANY excellent performances.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
At this point, the church went dark and we heard chimes and the reading of the poem “Light Looked Down” by Laurence Housman, with the words “Light looked down and beheld darkness….” Then we heard the pure, unified sound of men in the unaccompanied chant, “Angelus ad pastores.” The program lists only 3 names for this piece, but it sounded like many more singers to me, especially since they broke into 2-part singing toward the end.
With hardly a break, we began hearing, behind us, the sound of the women of the University Chorus singing, unaccompanied, “Once in Royal David’s City.” They were soon joined by the men of the Chorus in beautiful 4-part harmony, whereupon they all began a stately procession down the central aisle of the church with a green light stick in one hand and their music scores (words only) in the other — followed by Conductor Kendrick. Soon the organ entered to accompany the piece, and with all the singers on the risers in the front of the church, it came to a grand conclusion under Kendrick’s direction.
The lights came back on and the Chorus proceeded to sing “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” under the direction of Melanie Huber. To my ear, the Chorus produced a beautiful tone, surprisingly mature for a student ensemble (though there were a fair number of older singers in the group), and their singing was exquisitely sensitive and expressive.
The Chorus was accompanied in this piece a variety of instruments which appeared in various combinations throughout the evening. Some were played by student musicians, and some players were apparently non-students. (See page 8 of the program for a list.) As far as the evening’s instrumentalists were concerned, Dr. Ryan Enright was brilliant — as he always is — on both the organ and piano. And Megan Spurlock deserves special mention because she played no fewer than 4 different instruments.
After the joyful Christmas anthem, “On Christmas Night,” there was a reading of another inspirational poem, “The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman. This was followed by what I can only describe as a romantic setting of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It was an extraordinary arrangement by Dan Forrest, which provided more moments of beautiful, balanced harmony. Another highlight of this piece were the obbligato parts from violin and saxophone. Violinist Ardalan Gharachorloo had his greatest moments of brilliance later in the program, but what stood out to me especially in this piece was the amazing virtuosity of Megan Spurlock on the saxophone.
During “Hodie, Christus Natus Est” all I could think about was the discipline, accuracy and attention to detail of Kendrick, both in his conducting and in the well-rehearsed response of the singers. It was an artist modeling artistry for student and non-student singers alike.
“The Snow Lay on the Ground” felt like a journey to me. With percussion (sleigh bells, triangle and xylophone) plus 2 trumpets and the organ accompanying the Chorus in this distinctly modern arrangement, I felt like I was on a sleigh ride.
At this point, there was a trumpet processional as the Women’s Chorus replaced the University Chorus on the risers. Then it was time for audience participation. The words to “Angels We Have Heard on High” were in our programs, and Director Kendrick motioned for us to stand. In a long program without an intermission, it was a good idea to have us stand, and at the appropriate time and under Kendrick’s direction, I think nearly all of us sang. It was tough, though, for us to stay together. The nave of the church was long enough that the speed of sound was a factor (at least so it seemed to me). The runs in the “Gloria” part of the song presented their own challenge.
As I listened to the first three selections from the Women’s Chorus, directed by Ashley Arroyo, I found myself reflecting on what a great musical experience these young women were getting. Then there was a reading of a poem or fable about the nativity from the animal’s perspective, followed by the very listenable “A Christmas Lullaby” that included a beautiful a cappella section. With the energetic “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” the women were finished, and the Men’s Chorus took the risers during another reading.
Accompanied by outstanding playing from violinist Ardalan Gharachorloo, the men gave a strong performance, from memory, of “Brightest and Best.” I remember thinking “This is a solid men’s chorus.” And that’s from someone who has sung in and observed a lot of men’s choruses over the years. The following selection, “’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” was haunting and as well sung as the previous piece. Then “Love Came Down at Christmas,” accompanied by oboe and piano, was full of some especially sweet sounds.
To this point the Men’s Chorus had been directed by David Vanderbout. Now Donald Kendrick returned to the podium to lead them in “A Swingin’ Christmas,” a medley of “Winter Wonderland” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” It was fun music for singers and audience alike, and it appeared that Kendrick enjoyed the piece as much as we all did.
It was time now for another audience singalong, and I have to say that “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” felt a bit more unified than our previous attempt. We needed the release, and I heard a lot of enthusiastic singing around me. During this audience singalong, all the choruses were assembling on the risers at the front of the church, some 110 singers. Without accompaniment except a tambourine giving color, they delivered a rousing performance, by memory, of “Gaudete,” with a crisp delivery and a good blend of their voices.
Now the church went dark again, and the green light sticks came out in the hands of the singers. It made quite an impressive setting for “Silent Night.” The first verse was performed by women alone, the second verse by the full chorus, and the third verse by all in the original German. It was very delicate and beautifully, movingly performed.
At the conclusion of “Silent Night,” Donald Kendrick spoke to the audience, acknowledging special guests, student conductors and the many singers he had led in this event over the years. Not surprisingly, he spoke of his love for this tradition of “A Procession of Carols,” and how he would be in the audience next year and would somehow restrain himself from conducting from his seat.
The concert concluded with the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah, all the chorus members singing, from memory, with great enthusiasm. Those of us in the audience who have experienced public performances of this piece in the past gently initiated our inexperienced fellow audience members to the centuries-old tradition of standing for this much-loved music. No one would have wanted to sit anyway for the lengthy applause that followed.
There were many extraordinary things about this concert and the sense of tradition that it reflected. With the absence of applause, it indeed felt like an artistic “whole,” and clearly it was the kind of concert that would make people want to come back. As the crowd moved slowly to the doors at the back of the church, accompanied by continuing instrumental music (an excellent idea), what struck me most about the experience was the warmth felt and expressed toward Donald Kendrick. It was especially apparent from the long line of people waiting to congratulate him in the foyer. The tradition will continue, but it won’t be the same.