The Sacramento Choral Calendar



Concert Review

UC Davis University Chorus

Spring Concert - June 9, 2017

by JR Keith

This was my family's first time on the UC Davis campus attending a UC Davis University Chorus (UCDUC) concert at the marvelous Mondavi Center — I was excited! Headed to our seats with programs in hand, I was filled with anticipation and a notion that we were about to experience something fantastic; the two concert grand pianos onstage suggested Rachmaninoff might be played!

(Click here to open the program which provides context for the works performed, including original texts and translations.)

First up was W. A. Mozart's Te Deum, K. 141. UCDUC impressed with their remarkable blend, lovely harmony, and strong phrasing. Mozart is one of the first composers to keep mood in mind while writing music. Accordingly, this chorus performed with technical skills interwoven with dramatic flare, and they seemed to me to demonstrate the talent, skill, and determination of a large metropolitan symphonic chorus. Here's what I wrote as I listened: “What a great eye they have on their director — folders held high enough to simply peer over the pages — with crisp, clean cutoffs and unified consonants. The legato phrasing incorporating decrescendos was magnificent — the moments of a tempo (returning to allegro) were stunning. These artistic choices and contrasts of color, clarity, and musical conviction brought forth what I like to think Mozart may have intended.” UCDUC navigated the complexities of Te Deum with deft elegance, bringing forth vibrant swells of emotion. The entrancing bell tones of the sopranos and altos complemented the men magically! I especially appreciated the subtle nuances from allegro to adagio. Considering that this was the first piece of the evening, there were surprisingly few voices that stood out from the blend; that is so often typical of nerves, adrenaline, and “the first song jitters.” Color me intrigued...

During robust applause for the first Mozart piece, an SATB quartet took to the stage for another, the Regina Coeli, K. 276. UCDUC brought forth great momentum as they handed the musical reins to the quartet (see the link to program for a glimpse of their portfolios). Upfront, there were some imbalanced moments as the quartet found their blend. This issue quickly dissolved among these consummate professionals. I wrote in my notes, “The choral stair-stepped echoes of Regina Coeli just before handing over to the first solo were riveting.” Once the quartet settled into their blend, I was hooked — they were matched well. As amazing as the quartet was, mezzo-soprano Sarah Messbauer really stood out for me. But I'm a sucker for a finely-tuned mezzo! There was a brilliant moment where the soprano, mezzo, and baritone sang as a trio, while tenor Lorenzo Ramsey sang a counter-melody that floated on top for a few measures — It was a goosebump experience. And I wasn't the only one affected at this moment; an “ah” and a light gasp of “wow” could be heard from my nearest neighbors. The lovely dance among the “alleluias” between the higher voices and lower voices stood out as a highlight of this piece... and toward the end, I noted, “UCDUC provided a solid, antiphonal structure from which this high-caliber quartet could sing.”

The next performance, Mendelssohn's Hear My Prayer, WoO 15, featured a half-dozen members of the Pacific Boychoir (PB), who elicited a near-simultaneous “awww” from the audience as they came onstage. Patrons of all ages could be heard commenting on how cute these young gentlemen were, though that was quickly rendered irrelevant when they began to sing; they were amazing, absolutely angelic! The conductor beamed with obvious pride at this harmonious marriage between the talented pre-teens and UCDUC. Here are my notes for this performance: “The PB boys' singing was pitch perfect for 99% of the soli moments, which made me squint and scrutinize whether there was actually only one boy singing onstage. My partner and I kept looking at one another in near disbelief every time the boys sang the melody lines of Hear My Prayer. The concert patrons around me let out introspective sighs, adoring murmurs, and soft gasps here and there during this piece; there was even a hushed conversation directly behind me echoing what I was wondering, 'I only hear one voice—is there only one or two singing at a time?' Their inflection, timber and articulation were uniformly tuned with UCDUC, as both ensembles melded tone and matched volume and choral quality beautifully.  These guys added a sublime layer of heart-felt though fiercely accurate professionalism.” The audience roared with applause, cheers, and whistles — a handful of folks even took to their feet at the conclusion of this 11-minute prayer. It was stunning!

After a brief intermission, a pair of pianists took their seats at the keyboards of interlocked pianos for a Sergei Rachmaninoff favorite, The Bells, op. 35 (inspired by the words of Edgar Allen Poe's vivid poem, “The Bells”). Guest pianist Andrei Bumann and UCDUC accompanist and teaching assistant Jeremiah Trujillo both brought tremendous strength, skill, talent, and artistry to their matching instruments. It was exciting to observe the differences between the two pianists with respect to style, hand position, posture and energy as they played in perfect sync — as one person with 4 hands. To facilitate discussion of this work, I have included the titles and key of each movement, copied directly from

1. Allegro ma non tanto: "The Silver Sleigh Bells" in A-flat major
2. Lento: "The Mellow Wedding Bells" in D major
3. Presto: "The Loud Alarm Bells" in F minor
4. Lento lugubre: "The Mournful Iron Bells" in C-sharp minor

In the 1st movement, tenor soloist Jonathan Nadel had excellent pitch and gave an energetic performance. His voice was warm and inviting with innate full-voice and falsetto precision and power — perfectly matched to a movement of this nature. Soprano soloist Liisa Davila added her finely-tuned, gorgeous instrument to the 2nd movement with a broad spectrum of rich lower harmonics — “one of those angelic voices I could listen to all day,” noted my partner — and I agreed. During the first two movements of The Bells, the chorus had been providing an outstanding choral foundation for the solo artists, with kinetic ebbing and flowing of Rachmaninoff's melodies and harmonies between the chorus and soloists. By the 3rd movement, the chorus was tuning, blending, and harmonizing at their best — what better time to share their talent sans soloists for “The Loud Alarm Bells” movement? The audience ate it up! This intense section warns “...And so fierce is their dismay / And the terror they portray,” and almost catches one off-guard.  I wrote, “the dissonance and lengthy, turbulent phrasing emphasized disdain by means of discord and fearsome texture through consonants — it's what this Presto called for — the chorus had our attention.” Ending on an even higher note, the mournful 4th movement wooed us with the help of exhilarating baritone, Kevin Doherty. Throughout this dramatic movement, I heard comments like “he's great” and “what a voice” murmured around me. I was thrilled when this 40-minute work concluded... because I was exhausted... emotionally. I think Rachmaninoff would have been extremely proud of the pianists, chorus, and soloists that director Kevin Fox had called to action, making The Bells the jewel of the evening that it was.

I sat and simply smiled from ear to ear as I listened to the final selection of the evening, Josef Rhenberger's Festchor, JWV 49. I took no notes as this lively number took me to a happy place. Instead of writing and anlyzing, I reflected on the important work of this chorus, the UC Davis Choral program, and staff, faculty and department heads in promoting interest in classical choral music in our region by delivering high-quality concerts. Confirming my enthusiasm, I overheard many patrons voicing their positive remarks and accolades as we exited the hall; we all greatly appreciated the dedication of the musicians that made this concert a success.

Director Kevin Fox was guest conducting for UCDUC's program director, Jeffrey Thomas. Fox comported himself with outstanding showmanship, directing UCDUC through what I think was some of the most difficult and interesting music I've known any classically-trained chorus to tackle — what an evening! Your audience on this eve seemed to agree with us, “Well done, Mr. Fox.”

JR Keith has worn a variety of hats: director, soloist, small and large ensemble member, tenor/baritone, and event planner of choruses from Texas to California, such as FBC Frisco, TX; CCCC Jazz Choir; DBU Chorus; several mission/worship teams; Sanctuary 101; Collin County Community Choir; Turtle Creek Chorale; Dallas Symphony Chorus; Amador Choraliers; and the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus.

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