The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Vox Musica and The Choral Project
Voices of Hope - April 23, 2017
by Dr. Jeff Nelson
The Beatnik studios in downtown Sacramento is a simple, loft-style open space in a very unassuming brick building. It has one concrete wall and floor, and the remaining 3 walls are brick. It has a vaulted ceiling going down one-half of the ceiling along the entire length of the hall. This makes for a very live acoustic space that is broken up by Edison-style string lighting. There was an approximate 1.5 second reverb delay from front to back. It is Vox Musica’s home studio, and is a very challenging space to use wisely. It adds another element of complexity to any concert programming. Check-in for the concert was done at the door electronically, which eliminated the need for a paper ticket…an excellent idea!
Fortunately, Conductors Daniel Paulson (Vox Musica) and Daniel Hughes (The Choral Project) are both masters at programming enlightening concerts that maximize each chorus’s strengths. We’ve had the privilege of having Vox Musica (VM) and Daniel Paulson in our community since 2006, and they have added a much-needed dimension to our large choral arts community. It was wonderful to see this exceptional collaboration between VM and The Choral Project (CP) from San Jose. The last time I saw The Choral Project was at the ACDA convention in Tucson in 2010. I must confess, it has been too long! Director Hughes’ efficiency and honesty on the podium are beautiful to witness and his sensitivity in adjusting the balance to changing acoustic nuances in the space are inspiring for any conductor and/or singer. Both Hughes and Paulson have strong choral pedigrees, as you can see from the program. I have always enjoyed VM’s concerts in the past, but I really looked forward to this concert with CP, which added a strong men’s section and a large ensemble from which they could springboard to a broadened repertoire. I was not disappointed.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
As CP took the stage with Hughes at the helm, the enthusiastic and diverse crowd gave them a long, rousing applause before we ever heard a note. (That’s when I knew this was a loyal and educated audience!) To our surprise, VM opened the concert from the back of the room with the moving “Spiritus Sanctus Vivificans,” which was the first of three Prayers section pieces. Despite the fact that much of the diction was lost due to the distance to the audience and the inherent acoustics, it was beautifully done.
This was followed by “Avoonan dbishmaya,” a transcendent setting of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, which was composed for Chanticleer by Illyas Iliya. The haunting men’s sostenuto provided a rich platform for the crisp and clear tone from the male soloist and was interspersed with enchanting women’s entrances.
Hughes then deliberately held the last note so that Paulson could take the podium and continue with “Lo yisa goy” without any interruption. The smoothness in the transition made for an increased intensity for this last prayer selection. This is what I mean about brilliant programming…it’s not only what’s on the program, it’s also in how you deliver it. This simple movement kept the audience engaged while conductors changed position AND set up the perfect continuity for the next piece. Paige Kelly’s simple and pleasant solo (in English) was beautiful and really made the most of the 1.5 second delay in this hall. The women’s background unison parts were well done and the tuning was excellent.
The next Strife section started with Hughes engaging great diction (in Spanish) from his 45-member group, with swarming background figures in “Noche Oscura del Aima.” They negotiated the changing tonalities and rhythmic phrasing with ease.
One thing you don’t notice in the program is who is singing each piece. They presented VM singing a particular number and then added the CP voices to the ensemble and then, just as quickly, had VM exit and do antiphonal singing in the back of the room or surrounding the audience. I believe this omission in the program was intentional to give the audience the total experience of both groups as one contributing whole. It was very effective. It was difficult to tell when one group was beginning and the other starting or ending.
Without a pause, the program proceeded directly into one of my favorite pieces of the evening, “I Want to Sing.” It was a lovely and inviting piece led by the warm and luscious vibrato of soloist, Summer C. Latimer. It was easy to forget how extremely difficult this perfect balance of women’s voices should be — because the VM ensemble performed it so well.
The Loss section began when Hughes conducted “Libera me,” which had a big dynamic range with vocally athletic phrasing. The bigger volume portions were powerful but not overdone, and it ended with VM in the back of the hall providing the angelic feather-bed landing to this music.
Another favorite for me was “And So I Go On,” which had an overlapping statement-and-response theme and finished with a broad and beautiful chordal palette. CP’s vocal discipline really shone in the sparse restatement of the main theme in the middle of this selection. Then VM joined, enveloping the audience in broad 2nd and 9th chord finishes like a waterfall of gorgeous sounds.
VM then opened the Light section with the short but brilliant “Ljusfälten” in Swedish…a challenge in and of itself. You can tell that Paulson has no fear when it comes to repertoire!
“Lux Aeterna” had a rich and moving chordal structure. The men’s section provided a broad vocal platform for the lightness of the women’s voices, which was like icing on the cake. I did not expect to hear something that had this kind of depth of composition from a composer so young. I will be on the lookout now for other pieces by Brian Schmidt!
The CP then sang a wonderful traditional Tamil song, “Ödi, ödi.” Hughes’ brother Marc accompanied them on the congas, as did Matt Halverson on the djembe. This fun song had the men singing an arpeggiated and rhythmic background to the women’s folk melody. Thematically they then switched places to close out this portion in celebration.
Hughes then turned to the Struggle section of the program with his own composition, “Refugees.” His inspiration came from the exclusively online poet, Brian Bilston. VM and CP combined to begin with spirited and rhythmic accents, which were very effective. There was an alternating call-and-response theme throughout that rose higher and higher to a fever pitch which was only broken by a beautiful and singular subito soprano solo. I’m not certain whether it was intentional, but she was occasionally overwhelmed by the volume of the chorus. The chorus also maintained excellent unison in this composition. I loved the final unresolved but beautiful chord finish. The audience did, too, and gave Hughes a standing ovation for this world premiere.
The final section of Hope came from Caldwell and Ivory’s “Hope for Resolution.” This celebration of global diversity had a lovely sweeping melody by the chorus, accompanied by a floating flute counter-melody played by one of the chorus members, but I’m sorry to say her name was not in the program. There were various monologues throughout, calling the community to unity.
It is here where I make my plea to Beatnik Studios! Next time please have a piano other than the ancient and beat up Hardman baby grand in your studio. Frankly, it was difficult to imagine how this wonderful concert could finish with such an instrument. It couldn’t sound good or hold a tune, even for an artist as accomplished as Hughes. I could tell he had difficulty controlling the volume as well, and it overwhelmed some of the monologues. Both of these artistic groups deserve a better instrument, and we’re fortunate it was only used once.
The final chorus of this concert ended with VM providing the counter-melody to CP’s main theme, with swaying on the risers and Marc Hughes’ consistent celebration on the congas. This was an exceptional evening provided by two outstanding groups, and I hope to see more collaborations like this in the future. If only we could convince Daniel Hughes to move The Choral Project to Sacramento! Guess I’ll just have to keep dreaming for now…
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