The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Lenten Choral Mysteries - April 8, 2017
by Dr. Jeff Nelson
Schola Cantorum or “School of Singers” has a busy schedule for Holy Week and has already been preparing for a June concert series in Germany to celebrate its silver anniversary of 25 years of excellence in music. This choir has also released 9 CDs and toured internationally. Every year, Schola Cantorum members volunteer over 8,000 hours in rehearsals, performances and Sunday liturgies.
This wonderful concert was held at Sacred Heart Church in Sacramento and was introduced to the audience as a “Tribute Concert for Our Loved Ones.” It was also “In Memory of Betty Ann Baumgartner,” who was a long-time parishioner and active member of Sacred Heart. We were all invited to close our eyes in remembrance of those we cherish.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The lights went out and when the opening chime bells pealed crisply in the darkness, I knew I was in for a treat. They opened with a piece by the conductor, Dr. Donald Kendrick, based on the penitential Psalm 51. The first 3 pieces were all somber in tone. The choir started the concert in the back of the church in the dark, which is a challenging space from which to have good diction, particularly when there is a 2-second delay in the church from front to back. However, without any visual distraction, the audience could easily hear the superb vowel agreement and resultant pure sound. The musicians used the smaller “Mighty Bright” lights on their music, which added a bilateral glow to the procession as they moved forward on both sides. It is easy to take for granted how seamless the balance was between Ryan Enright, the organist, and the chorus, but it was an exceptional achievement. They made it feel and sound so effortless that you wouldn’t realize they had perfected that balance over years of working in this space. (Kendrick has been the organist and Director of Music at Sacred Heart since 1992, and Enright relocated to Sacramento in 2011.)
The second piece, “Pange Lingua and Procession,” is a 6th-century chant piece of St. Thomas Aquinas, taken from the feast of Corpus Christi (the Last Supper). It’s a tribute to the elements of communion and the opening high notes are meant to represent the opening of heaven’s gates. Although much of this concert would be in Latin, the English translation was fortunately also in the program.
“The Deer’s Cry,” a 5th-century text from St. Patrick, would follow after the lights were turned on and, as good as the diction was in the dark, it got even better when the singers could see the director clearly. This music has a lovely repetition of “Christ with me” and “Christ in me” throughout the piece, which alternated melodic lines between male and female voices. The melodic suspension in the ending left you wanting more of this beautiful work. It also highlighted for me the completeness and depth of the sound of this wonderful men’s section.
The opening soaring soprano line in “O Crux” was wonderful and uplifting, and set the tone for the whole piece. This very beautiful, lyrical music by Mark Jennings has a warm finish that showed how excellent this group was at the ends of phrases. Schola Cantorum’s transitions between English and Latin throughout this concert were flawless.
One of my favorite selections was the a cappella “O Salutaris Hostia” by Ēriks Ešenvalds. The opening with Brooks Rollins and Katie Chaffee was superb, and they kept together even with the long acoustic delay of the reverb in the church. The chorus and soloists also had a perfect balance through the entire dynamic range of this gorgeous piece.
The haunting but beautiful “Soul of Christ” (“Anima Christi”) by Philip Stopford showed a perfect blend between organ and chorus with well supported and exciting softer dynamics.
The final number of this section was the popular a cappella “O Vos Omnes,” by Tomás Luis de Victoria. A nice “comfort food” piece to round out the first part of tonight’s program.
David Weiller was then invited to take over the program as he conducted the University of Nevada Las Vegas Chamber Chorale. This is a group of 20 undergraduate and graduate students consisting of both music and non-music majors. Weiller has an MM from the University of Illinois and conducts many other choral groups including the Las Vegas Master Singers and has been a guest conductor for the Las Vegas Philharmonic and the Nevada Symphony Orchestra.
They opened their portion of the program with a Telemann piece, “Laudate Jehovam omnes gentes,” also accompanied by Enright on the organ. For such a small group, they possessed powerful dynamics. The second selection was the “Kyrie” from the Missa Pange Lingua by Josquin des Prez, and you could tell this powerful conductor had instilled an appreciation for good diction, chordal balance and melodic movement with this ensemble. (I remember many times hearing Weston Noble say, “ALL music MUST dance!”) You could also feel the energy at the ends of phrases and on longer notes.
The ensemble’s last number was a spiritual entitled, “Ain’t Got Time to Die,” by Hal Johnson, and it featured a young male soloist who also gave directing cues to the chorus. I’m sorry his name wasn’t in the program. He had wonderful tone and phrasing but was occasionally overpowered by the chorus who were not used to the very live acoustics in this hall.
It was at this point I realized you might want to bring a seat cushion to future events at Sacred Heart Church!
The next section of the concert was the stunning Requiem by Malcolm Archer. The sweeping organ introduction led to a peaceful choral entrance to the “Introit and Kyrie” and the sopranos’ graceful treatment of it was beautiful and not overdone. What stood out to me throughout this entire concert was Enright’s outstanding selection of reed voicing. At every turn in this concert, his choices were poignant when needed and fully supported the chorus where it was called for.
The “Offertory” section included a wonderful solo by Nathan Halbur. The “Sanctus” was broad and glorious. “Pie Jesu” was a warm and inviting piece which featured Tina Battaglia’s excellent phrasing. Her vocal athletics here showed impeccable technique that you just can’t miss. The “Agnus Dei” opened with a beautiful men’s entrance and included a second solo by Battaglia that showed her effortless vocal range. It seemed like the chorus was being pulled along by Kendrick in this section. The “Libera Me, Domine” had Halbur opening with a wonderful solo that was energizing, and the chorus followed with broad sweeping phrases connected by the organ reeds. “In Paradisum” was the finale of this section and had an ethereal and lovely pulsating melody that flowed like a brook through a meadow.
The closing piece was, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Gilbert Martin. This is a fantastic arrangement of this classic hymn and the chorus went in and out of the key changes very gracefully with the organ providing a big dynamic finish. The end of this piece brought the audience to its feet immediately in a standing ovation.
I must say it’s difficult to hear this group again and again without taking them for granted as I’ve mentioned. They are there every Sunday, and Donald Kendrick is a regular staple of our community, involved in anything that includes the highest quality in the choral arts. When they make it this accessible to us, we might have the tendency to assume they’ll always be there. You don’t have to know Latin or be a Catholic to enjoy this choir. You just have to love great music! Fortunately, this wonderful audience couldn’t have been more appreciative. However, for my money, there should have been a line around the block waiting to get in. The Schola Cantorum, director Kendrick and organist Enright are treasures of our artistic community, and I hope we never take them for granted.
Dr. Jeffrey Nelson as born in Seattle, WA and began studying music at the age of 5. He has sung in chamber, popular and theatrical groups and played in orchestral, jazz, symphonic and marching bands throughout his career. He also toured in Europe with the US Army for four years as a vocalist, instrumentalist and choreographer with the 7th Army Soldiers Chorus based in Heidelberg, Germany. He studied and worked with Fred Sautter and James DePriest (Oregon Symphony) and Dr. Bruce Browne (Portland Symphonic Choir) while studying Brass Performance and Conducting at Portland State University. He also studied with Anthony Plog (LA Philharmonic) and was a studio freelance trumpet and vocal artist in Los Angeles before moving with his wife Jennifer to Northern California. He has held conducting positions for Cantare Chorale, Gold Rush Men's Chorus and has been a guest conductor in D.C., Geneva, Switzerland, and Toronto, Canada with the VA National Medical Musical Group based in Washington, D.C. He currently teaches private instruction in trumpet, voice and guitar in Placerville, CA and is a music director for Church of the Foothills in Cameron Park