The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Voices of California
A (K)night to Remember - May 21, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
Is there any chorus that has more fun that the Voices of California? I had seen the advertising for this show: “A (K)night to Remember,” and I knew the theme would be medieval England, so it was no surprise when saw chorus members dressed as knights as I approached the Mesa Verde High School Performing Arts Center. What did surprise me was to hear the sound of clashing swords and see two men — in full armor — dueling on the grass. I later gathered that they were from some local historical reenactment organization. They weren’t part of the show I was about to see, but they were good at their swordplay, and they certainly got the assembling audience ready for what we were about to experience.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Part of each VoCal show is a skit that ties a set of songs together. This afternoon's medieval skit was set up by the disembodied voice of Eric Brickson intoning “Welcome loyal subjects to the Mesa Verde Castle” and giving the usual exit and cell phone information. The story line began with the Court Jester (Tim Jackson) coming out and preparing us (with plenty of jokes and puns) for the forthcoming medieval hijinks. Then the curtain opened with a flourish of trumpets, revealing a scene that was simply dazzling. I wish I had taken a photo so I could remember more of the details, but there was an enormous variety of characters represented on the stage. Most had some sort of armor, but there was a long table at which sat the king and several other nobles. There was Merlin the Magician in a magnificent purple costume. There was an executioner with his axe. There was a friar. There was a guy with his head and arms in stocks. And there was the squire Patsy from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with a contraption on his back that held all kinds of props, including coconut shells, I think. Everyone was in some sort of costume, and I wish they could have stood still for 5 minutes so I could take it all in.
But this was VoCal, so there was no standing still. Their first number was “We’re Knights of the Round Table” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and they had choreography to fit the song. There were also altered words of which I remember the ending that I think rhymed with Spamalot: “And we sing barbershop a lot.” While they were singing, there was all sorts of craziness going on, including a knight pushing a baby carriage with two kids in it — plus a doll on his head and another holding onto one ankle. I guess this walk-on was explained by the lyrics, but I didn’t pick up the explanation. No matter, it was hilarious on its face.
For the second song, “Once Upon a Time,” things quieted down while the narrator told (over humming by the chorus) the story of the beautiful Samantha, who had been imprisoned in a castle. The “castle” was a 15-foot structure at stage-left, and with mention of the damsel, a 15-foot gold braid was thrown over the parapet. At that moment and periodically through the next several songs, rose petals were also launched from the parapet.
At some point there were “knight lights” and then “knightly news” announcing a competition for the hand of Samantha by the White Knight (Gabe Caretto) and the Polka Dot Knight (Rich Brunner). The sights and the evolving story were too much for me to remember or even to record many details. I’m not even sure it made much sense, but it sure was entertaining.
The next number, which I think they would call “It’s Jousting Time” had made-up words that incorporated snatches of different tunes, including “Tonight” from West Side Story. Then began the first of several competitions between the two knights. First, the stage went dark, strobe lights went up, and the knights appeared to joust while the theme from Chariots of Fire played in the background. The White Knight won, but the Polka Dot Knight wasn’t vanquished, so they had another competition, this one involving tongue-twisters, including “Seth the toothless soothsayer.”
Time for another song, so with the knights soloing and the chorus backing them up, they gave us an excellent arrangement of “Agony” from Into the Woods. Although there was a lot of acting in this song — primarily from the two knights — to my ear this was the first example of serious (well, fairly serious) choral singing, bringing out the solid, stirring harmonies which this group is so good at — along with some of the choreography or “choralography” that so often adds a bit of excitement to a VoCal performance.
The competition between the knights wasn’t over, and so we were given a WWF-style set-up to the next bit: a sword fight. The Polka Dot Knight got the worst of it, but that didn’t keep him from participating in the subsequent dance-off, which included Riverdance-type moves. There were special lyrics for the song medley that accompanied all this, but I didn’t recognize any of it until it ended with the music of “I Love a Parade.”
The last song of this set was “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Camelot (see note below), and I have to hand it to those who planned this part of the VoCal show: they found songs that were all consistent with the medieval knight theme. This particular song was the audience’s favorite: a great arrangement, beautifully sung and delivered with heart. It earned the longest applause and lots of cheers.
At this point, 2 sets of 8 knights each filed out through aisles on opposite sides of the theater and the curtain closed. The announcer wrapped things up, reporting that the Jester was the one who eventually married Samantha, and they had four sons — all with different singing voices: a cute segue for the first quartet of the afternoon, Flightline.
These 4 young men have had success in the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Collegiate Quartet competitions, but they are currently the top quartet in the whole Far Western District of the Society. Between shows like this, I forget just how good a barbershop quartet can be. These guys delivered amazingly well-tuned chords and brilliant chord progressions. Singing “What’s It All About Alfie,” they wove a spell that drove the audience wild. And the following song, “Country Roads” was an even bigger crowd-pleaser. As I listened to them singing “The Nearness of You,” I was more analytical. It seemed that each of them, but especially the lead and tenor, had especially good individual voices. I was also impressed with their coordination with each other — cut-offs, crescendo/decrescendo, etc. They were so precise they might have been computer-controlled. When they finished, a lady sitting near me couldn’t restrain herself and said out loud: “That was gorgeous.” It was.
After intermission, we were treated to something unusual. Voices of California had sponsored one of the 17 choruses that participated in the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Youth Chorus Festival in Reno this past January. The VoCal group, “Open the Doors,” consisting of 14 high school and college-age singers were now on stage, and they gave us two numbers: “The Moment I Saw Your Eyes” and “Hooked on a Feeling.” They were directed by VoCal’s Music/Artistic Director, Gabe Caretto, and they performed with the same vitality (including a bit of choralography) that makes VoCal such a pleasure to hear — and watch.
Up next was the second quartet of the day, Realtime. This was a quartet that had been the Society’s International Quartet Champion in 2005 and had only recently come together to perform again. On this afternoon, they showed that championship form in their 6-song set. Right off the bat, I was impressed by the scat singing — something I haven’t often head from a barbershop quartet — in their first number, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Then a couple of songs later, they performed “Loch Lomond.” It was beautiful from the start, especially the accents in the tenor part. Then the baritone and bass took over with a rhythmic pulse that got everyone’s toes tapping and turned this traditional song into something really special. There was a murmur in the audience when it closed, followed by extended applause and cheers. It wasn’t the only time they really connected with the audience. One of the highlights of their performance was the final chord of each of their songs. Each ending was a demonstration of how exciting barbershop harmony can be.
When the Voices of California returned to the stage, they were in their normal concert dress, and they began with “It’s Gonna Be a Great Day.” I’m convinced these men can’t stand still while they’re singing — but why would they want to? The constant movement on the risers is evidence of singing from the heart: if you’re really feeling the music, your feeling can’t be limited to your voice. It has to be expressed with your whole body. And as I scanned the faces on the risers, every one said: “I’m having a great time. Aren’t you?” Yes, we were.
The promise for the show was that we’d hear music from “the Great American Song Book.” And the next number, “That’s Life,” helped fulfill that promise. But it was the following song that created a stir. It was “Hallelujah” written by Leonard Cohen and featured in the movie Shrek. This afternoon it was introduced by VoCal spokesperson, Larry Womac, and its staging involved small groups of singers coming slowly forward to deliver a verse, then returning to the chorus. It’s a song with music that can be energizing or reflective or even inspirational. But the lyrics are puzzling, and I guess people see in them what they want to see. Still, it was clear that this was a favorite song of many in the audience.
Next came, “When It’s Night Time Down in Dixieland.” The performance of this piece was pure VoCal, and you can actually see how they do it. They performed this piece during their visit to Harmony University in Nashville last summer, and there’s a video of the performance on YouTube at this address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7x4lf4Evpms. You’re welcome.
The finale of this show was one of the most unusual and moving that I’ve witnessed. It started with Canadian and US flags being positioned on opposite sides of the stage. Why Canada? Several of the members of the Realtime quartet are from Vancouver, British Columbia. Then, with the two quartets joining the chorus, we got a closing number that will be impossible to forget. It was a combination of “The Star Spangled Banner,” “O Canada,” and “Ode to Joy” from the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. After the chorus intoned the words “America” and “O Canada,” the Realtime quartet sang to the tune of “Ode to Joy,” these words: “In the Western Hemisphere two peoples living side by side.” Then Flightline continued, “Each a nation stong, filled with determination and with pride.” I didn’t note the rest of the lyrics, but you see where this was going. It was full of words of US-Canadian cooperation and brotherhood, eventually combining the music and lyrics of both anthems. It was enough to bring tears to the eyes of anyone who values the special relationship between our two countries. And needless to say, this afternoon’s audience went crazy when the song concluded, especially one man who couldn’t stop yelling “Hooray!”
Once again, the men of the Voices of California delivered a wildly entertaining, musically satisfying show. The first act represented an extraordinary effort in staging, choreography, writing (both narration/dialog and lyrics), costumes, props — and singing. It was so well done — down to the tiniest detail — that it was a pity there were only two performances. Although I wouldn’t wish them to have to stay in those hot costumes too long, it would be great if they could find some other way to display that extraordinary creativity again: maybe a gig at the Shriner’s Children’s Hospital or “Christmas in Camelot” for their next show or a YouTube video.
As I left the Mesa Verde Performing Arts Center, the chorus was out on the lawn greeting friends and family. I think I shook hands with half of them, congratulating them on another great show. As I walked away, the thought came to me: “Is it right for grown men to have this much fun?” You bet it is. Especially when they share it with those of us who so appreciate their dedication to their craft.
Note: After writing and publishing this review, I learned that there's a YouTube video of VoCal performing "If Ever I Would Leave You." This is the performance that helped them win the Society's NorCal East Division Championship on April 2, 2016 — for the seventh time in a row. Here's a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pWn-oh2RyY&feature=youtu.be. Watch it and you'll see why the audience (and I) were so impressed by this song.