Singing With Love

Jason Victor Serinus on November 25, 2008
Moments arise when the usual checklist of critical absolutes gets set aside and you just listen and sit back and enjoy. Such was the case at the first of two fall concerts by the San Francisco Bay Area Chamber Choir (SFBACC). In a varied program of 17 short works composed between 1612 and 2007, the love and care that the choir lavished on pieces that, in Director David Stein's words, "express the deep religious sentiments of the composers," created such warmth and good feeling that the essence of each work came through loud and clear, despite some flaws in execution. One major contributing factor to the concert's success was the choice of acoustic. I can only hope that more Bay Area ensembles take advantage of the sonically excellent First Presbyterian Church of Alameda. At my seat in the sixth row, sound was admirably clear and warm, with none of the metallic reverberation and concomitant smudging of articulation and pitch heard in some venues. Only a low-level buzz from overhead side lighting, removed in the second half, and the banging of doors as a father removed a crying infant, intruded on the pleasure. Dr. Harry Carter, former director of choral activities at California State University (formerly known as Cal State Hayward), founded the San Francisco Bay Area Chamber Choir in 1979. When he retired in 2003, David Stein, who formerly directed choral activities at Cal State East Bay and served as the choir's associate conductor, assumed leadership. Since 2003, the choir has augmented its Bay Area schedule with performances in Italy (Padua, Venice, Florence, Lucca, Perugia, Tivoli, and Mass in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City) and France (Vence, Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Carcassonne, LeBugue, Onzain, and Paris). We should all be so lucky. Given the choir's strong association with both the university campus and pedagogy, it draws many of its members from the Bay Area's pool of music instructors and university alumni. The audience in turn often includes a number of current and former professors, teachers, and singers. While most choir members are not professional singers, the love and care they devote to their volunteer efforts in the choir bodes well for the future of music in the Bay Area.

Excellent Programming and Pacing

Stein's choice of material was worth a semester of education. Starting with the English Renaissance (Byrd, Philips, and Dering), he proceeded to the German Lutheran Baroque (Schütz, Schein, and J.S. Bach), Russian Orthodox (Ippolitov-Ivanov, Tchaikovsky, and Gretchaninov), late 20th- and early 21st-century America (Gjeilo, Hawley, Rorem, Kernis' Effortlessly Flows Love, and the premiere of the mixed-choir version of Cal State East Bay Music Department Chair Frank LaRocca's O Eve!), and contemporary (Lauridsen, Whitacre, and Mathias). Stein wisely paced the program with works of alternating tempo. Works were neither extremely fast or jarring, nor so slow as to lull the senses to sleep. With the emphasis entirely on Christian repertoire — Allah, Adonai, Krishna, Goddess, and the great Buddha sowed their seeds elsewhere — the music included eight sustained Alleluias and one prolonged Amen. While each was as lovely as could be, ultimate adventure in repertoire was left to Volti and Chanticleer (among other local choruses). If there's one thing this choir has down pat, it's how to achieve a hallowed sound. Again and again, SFBACC created an ethereal, plangent sound ideal for its chosen repertoire. Nothing was workaday about this performance. Especially gratifying were the reverent sounds of Peter Philips' "Ave Regina" from Cantiones Sacrae; the gorgeous descending Alleluia of William Hawley's O magnum mysterium (O great mystery), with its beautiful soft ending; the gentle balm and lovely hushed tones of Eric Whitacre's Lux aurumque (Glowing light); and the big climax near the end of LaRocca's beautiful O Eve! There are, however, limits to the choir's abilities. While the 11 altos in its largest section have an admirably plush sound, the 10 sopranos can sound a mite thin when singing softly; the latter can also be said for the seven tenors and 10 basses. As such, the choir is most successful in works that call for massed voices. Occasionally, when each unaccompanied section is exposed and equally responsible for a work's success, as in the four-part unaccompanied counterpoint of J.S. Bach's spirited motet for the funeral of the rector of the St. Thomas school, Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (Praise the Lord, all ye nations — according to the translation in the program) from Motet No. VI, passages arise where the music barely holds together. Nor can the choir's bass section in any way approach the deep, grounding profundity of a Russian choir singing Russian Orthodox music. SFBCC's rendition is "Russian light," with all the illumination and healing but none of the rafter shaking. Regardless, 95 percent of the time, the results are so beautiful, and the singers' devotion to their craft is so strong, that it's hard not to smile at the results. Special thanks for the warmth and good cheer shared at the incredible postconcert holiday spread, a spiritual experience all its own with enough chocolate to send everyone who eats the stuff to chocoheaven.

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