At a time when orchestral choral music is becoming an artifact, the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra (SCSO) continues to keep alive the great choral works of classical music. The organization’s “European Masterworks” concert last Saturday night (before a capacity audience at the Community Center Theater) was a challenging and exciting program that was perfectly delivered by the 40-piece professional orchestra and the 130 voices in the chorus under the direction of Donald Kendrick.
The concert opened with a modern work, “Lux in Tenebris,” by the contemporary English composer, James Whitbourn. The work features the tanpura, which is a long-necked string instrument, a solo viola, and a gong (tam-tam) and is intended to be performed with a pair of dancers. On this night those dancers were David Bier and Macy Almendariz. The dancing might have struck some as a distraction from the ethereal quality of the music, which accompanies a choral lyric that emphasizes light shining in darkness. But for others, the dancing undoubtedly enhanced the experience. And while the volume of the tanpura (played by Alicia Patrice) was perhaps somewhat excessive, the solo segments for viola (played by Melinda Rayne) were lovely, as was the chant-like singing of the chorus.
As an opening offering, this modern work was a bold choice, and it is a great credit to Mr. Kendrick that he included it in the program. To keep choral music vibrant, modern works must be added to the repertoire, and with fewer organizations focusing on choral music, having a work such as Mr. Whitbourn’s presented in a professional concert provides the impetus for other orchestras and choruses to perform it.
“Exsultate Jubilate,” which Mozart composed when he was all of 17, is a masterwork for a coloratura soprano. The four-movement work includes two extended a cappella sections for the soloist and ends with the well-known and highly popular “Alleluia” that can (and did) elicit sustained ovations for the soloist. On this night, the soloist was more than adequate to the task. Nikki Einfeld has been widely recognized for the beauty of her voice and for her ability to sing in a wide range of operatic roles. On this night, she exhibited perfect tonality and a wondrous ability to control her voice in the most demanding of those a cappella segments of Mozart’s great opus. Just to have had the opportunity to hear this great singer made the concert worth attending.
SCSO has performed the full score of Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna” frequently over the years of its existence. The five-movement work is a masterpiece for choral harmony, and hearing it performed by a well-rehearsed large chorus never gets old. For this concert, only the last two movements were performed (presumably in the interest of time). Both movements (“Veni, Sancte Spiritus” and “Agnus Dei/Lux Aeterna”) provide wonderful moments of choral magic with harmonies that seemingly develop effortlessly as if divergent musical thoughts had naturally melted together into glorious chords. Composed in 1997, “Lux Aeterna” is another of the modern choral works that need to be performed regularly to establish their rightful place in the choral repertoire. And here, again, SCSO is a leader in promoting the work and building an audience appreciation of it.
Mozart never completed his “Requiem.” He died (of an undetermined illness) at the age of 35 in 1791. The completed score for “Requiem” is dated 1793, so, obviously, someone else finished the work. That someone was most probably one of Mozart’s students. Historians believe it was Franz Xaver Sϋssmayr who used Mozart’s notes to complete a large portion of the work and may have wholly written the “Sanctus,” “Benedictus,” and “Agnus Dei” movements that conclude the work. And, over the years, a number of interpretations of the composition have taken hold.
For the concert on Saturday, Maestro Kendrick made the entire work sound like Mozart, with the choral sections standing out especially in the “Dies Irae,” the “Sanctus” and the “Agnus Dei.” The four soloists also had their moments, especially on the “Domine Jesu” and the “Benedictus.” And Ms. Einfeld again starred in her solo parts (most notably on the closing “Lux Aeterna”). (The other soloists, all excellent, were mezzo Karin Mushegain, tenor Michael Desnoyers, and bass Matt Boehler.) The orchestra’s accompaniment was crisp throughout without ever being overbearing. And, as is his practice, Kendrick conducted the entire work (indeed, the entire program) without a printed score. He is, to understate the point, precise without being flamboyant.
Precision was the mark of the “Requiem,” right down to the closing upbeat from the violins that ends the “Dies Irae.” Hearing it performed so perfectly was all the more impressive when considering the size of the chorus. Mr. Kendrick is a skilled conductor, but he is, most specifically, a choral conductor, and the uniformity of tone and seamlessness of harmonies that he gets from this large chorus in performance after performance is a great credit to his skills as both a musician and a conductor. He understands the choral component of these great works, which is why he engenders the loyalty he gets from his singers, many of whom have been with this chorus for years.
SCSO is now in its 21st year of operations, and, as in past years, it continues to maintain financial viability in the face of reduced governmental support for the arts and in an era when appreciation for classical music is in decline. It may be a sign of the times that fewer symphony orchestras exist and that those that do are offering fewer performances. SCSO is especially unique as a community chorus that has a collective bargaining agreement with a professional symphony orchestra. And it is even more unique in that it operates in the black, year after year, while frequently touring internationally.
Much of the credit for the health and prosperity of the organization is due to James McCormick, the president/executive director of SCSO since its inception. Together, he and Mr. Kendrick have been a winning partnership. They fill a cultural niche for the local community that all too many cities (many considerably larger than Sacramento) do without, and they do it with class and style.
This concert could have been performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, or at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (where SCSO performed a very similar program in 2008), or in any of the great venues in the United States and Europe, or in any of the great cities around the world. Its quality was equal to what any of those sites would want and expect, and, in many instances, are lacking. That Sacramento is the home for this organization is nothing less than a blessing and a gift that should be cherished.
SCSO will close its current season with “Praise and Jubilation” at the Community Center Theater on May 12. The concert will include the Sacramento State Choirs and the Sacramento Children’s Chorus. The program will include the West Coast premiere of Dan Forrest’s Jubilate Deo, Dvořák’s Te Deum, and Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances.” Tickets and information are available by phone (916-808-5181), at the Community Center box office, or online (sacramentochoral.com).