The Sacramento Choral Calendar
The Music of Lerner & Loewe - October 29, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
I always look forward eagerly to a Samantics concert because I know it will be thoroughly entertaining — and will introduce me to music I’ve never heard before. Looking around me in the First United Methodist Church on this evening, I got the feeling that there are more and more people who share my feelings about this chorus. Samantics’ following is growing, as evidenced by the almost-full church and the fact that applause from the expectant audience began as the first singer entered and continued until Director Sam Schieber sat down at the piano.
I think what endears Samantics to its fans is the creativity, risk-taking — and especially the humor in every concert. But a full diet of comedy is like a meal with nothing but desserts. So Samantics has to show that they can “play it straight,” as they did with many selections in tonight's concert, starting with “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” a sweet arrangement of a sweet song — sweetly sung — at least until the big finale.
Except for people who are truly public personalities, such as politicians, entertainers, sports stars, etc., we know very little about how multi-dimensional a person may be. From my limited experience with him, I've seen Sam Schieber as, not just a choir director, but as a composer, arranger, brilliant pianist, educator, drama coach, and I'm sure there must be many more roles he can play. But what was on display in this concert — and to some degree in every Samantics concert — was his skill and passion as a researcher. Schieber loves musical theatre, and he especially loves the work of Lerner and Loewe. You can see evidence of that love in the concert program: 10 pages listing all the music written by Lerner and Loewe, or by each of them separately, organized by name of the show, with numerous bits of background information.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
From the enormous body of work of these two men, Schieber assembled a program of 32 songs — most of which you or I have never heard before. And it's not just that the unfamiliar songs were humorous or quirky. Many of them were simply delightful music, with engaging melodies and lyrics, underscoring one of the tragedies of movie musicals and musical theatre: for every song that makes it into the public consciousness, and stays for a generation or two, there are dozens more good songs that are lost — until a group like Samantics revives them.
Throughout this concert, Schieber read from extensive notes, giving background on the careers of both Lerner and Loewe, on the musicals they contributed to, and on the individual song to be presented. So much of this information was simply fascinating, such as the fact that, after some amazing accomplishments as a child prodigy, Loewe's first commercial success was a song by the name of “Kathrin,” which sold one million copies of the sheet music in 1923, when Loewe was just 22 years old. The song was performed in the original German by Madeleine Wieland. Of course, most of us in the audience couldn't understand a word, but from her expressive performance, it was clear that Wieland understood what she was singing about.
We saw a succession of soloists from among the Samantics ensemble on this evening. Nearly all of them performed without music, and when I say “performed,” I mean the song was delivered with personality — and usually in character. Not every Samantics singer is a potential soloist, but those I heard tonight clearly had the talent to be out front.
All these songs I had never heard before made for engaging listening, but I have to mention a few highlights. The first one that comes to mind is “Life of the Party” from the movie by the same name. Eddie Voyce was the soloist in this tremendously funny song, made all the more so by the women of Samantics responding to Eddie in voices that had the accent and nasal quality that we somehow associate with ditzy, New York showgirls. For this, as for most of the songs tonight, I picked up a lot of the lyrics delivered by the chorus, but so many words were swallowed by the acoustics of the First Methodist Church, despite the valiant efforts of the singers to articulate. It would have been so great to have been able to follow printed lyrics. Still, for the humorous songs, you didn't necessarily need to pick up all the words to appreciate the humor.
Among the very unusual selections on the program was a rousing fight song that Lerner wrote when he was a student at Choate Academy. And then there was the hilariously arrogant song, “Lonely Men of Harvard” that Lerner wrote with none other than Leonard Bernstein. Of course, there were many sweet songs (“The Day Before Spring” or “From Me to You” or “Camelot,” for example), but I think we (chorus and audience) had the most fun when the songs were a bit outrageous, such as “The President Jefferson (Luncheon) March” or “Adlai's Gonna Win This Time,” sung to the music of “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
This chorus is full of irrepressible people, who sing with great exuberance whenever they can. And they revel in their opportunities for humor. I get the feeling that most of them couldn't possibly be happy singing in another chorus: they'd find it too confining and far too serious. You don't sing with Samantics unless you have a sense of humor. And with Samantics you get to sing a lot of good (and sometimes bad) music, but mostly you get the opportunity to cut loose and have fun.
Among all the wonderful and often wonderfully outrageous songs in this concert, there was a show-stopper performed by Christine Nicholson. It was “The Money Rings Out Like Freedom” from the musical, Coco. It was the longest piece in the concert, part monologue, and an incredible feat of memorization — performed with great confidence and style — and chutzpah. At one point Nicholson ripped off her long dress to reveal a “little black dress” beneath to emphasize the lyric. It was a tour de force by someone who is obviously a talented actress.
Speaking of outrageous, where else but a Samantics concert would you hear a piece from a musical about Vladimir Nabokov's steamy novel, Lolita (Lolita, My Love is the title of the show). The song (“Charlotte's Letter”) was a two-person dialog about a “wedding” between Humbert Humbert and Lolita's mother, complete with fractured French and dripping with irony.
Next came a serious song (“It's Time for a Love Song”) performed with heart by Orlana Van Zandt. And then the men sang a different take on love in “Economics,” with wonderfully witty lyrics about the “economics” of love. One more example of irony was the duet in “How Could You Believe Me…?” Always looking for an opportunity to deliver the unexpected to those of us in the audience, Schieber had the performers in this duet (Ryan Ritter and Trina Ritter —yes, his wife in real life) enter from the back of the church — in street clothes, instead of concert dress — and arguing. The bickering was delivered in clever lyrics, the essence of which was “How could you believe me when you know I’ve been a liar all my life?” The acting was great, and as the couple argued their way up the aisle of the church from which they had entered, Ritter paused to comment to me, “You want her? She’s all yours!”
Following this battle of the sexes was a highlight among the truly beautiful music presented tonight. It was a trio of Bob Rennicks, Quin Smith and Eddie Voyce singing “One More Walk Around the Garden.” It was a pretty song in an arrangement that highlighted the truly beautiful harmonization of these three men. Then another comical song, “No Man Is Worth It,” well delivered by Natalie Jones, and the audience got what appeared to be the final two rousing songs of the concert, “There’s a Coach Comin’ In” and “Gloria in Excelsius” from Paint Your Wagon. We all rose immediately to our feet in appreciation of this wonderfully entertaining evening that had apparently concluded. But singer Franchesca Sonoyama seemed to have a different idea. She came forward and appeared to briefly argue with Schieber (now standing). He sat back at the piano and accompanied the chorus in a rousing rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night” — a much more fitting ending to the concert, and well worth another standing ovation.
To me, this concert was another masterpiece of wit, creativity — and talent — that Samantics delivers with consistency. It was so unusual that I wish it were possible to see it live again — or in a recording — this time with lyrics to refer to. It was the kind of performance that is so dense with content that you can’t begin to appreciate everything on the first hearing. But putting that little bit of frustration aside, I’ll just be anxiously awaiting the next Samantics concert.