The power of voice: Fresno Master Chorale bids adieu to season with stirring tribute to Bernstein
Catching up from the weekend:
When I listen to the Fresno Community Chorus, I often think of the raw, primeval, guts-and-all, human power of choral music. Sure, our ingenious brains have made possible the creation of musical instruments of all shapes and styles. Those instruments add immeasurably to our lives. But the voice came first. It remains special in terms of emotional connection.
I was reminded of this at the chorus’ spring concert on Sunday, which featured three of its illustrious ensembles — the Master Chorale, Coro Piccolo and a new group, Quintus — at Shaghoian Hall, along with a fine orchestra, all under the nuanced baton of Anna Hamre. Four pieces by Leonard Bernstein, in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth, were performed. In keeping with that “birthday” theme, several other celebratory pieces by other composers joined the program as well. Here are a few of my thoughts:
Festive air: The opening piece, Henry Purcell’s “Come ye Sons of Art,” had a bright and chipper air, especially the rousing final movement, “See Nature Rejoicing.” Purcell wrote the piece in 1694 in honor of Queen Mary’s birthday. (And what a gift. It certainly lasted a lot longer than a new taffeta gown or a balloon bouquet.) This could have just been an overly mechanical, anachronistic exercise, but Hamre and her singers brought a warmth and spontaneity to the piece that gave it a special zest. As I listened, I could imagine the queen sitting there in a festive tent, colorful pennants fluttering in the breeze, everyone wearing lots of wool (ah, how that must have smelled when it got wet), as she presided over an intimate lunch for, say, a few hundred of her closest friends.
Five guys singing: Quintus is the chorus’ male quintet, featuring Aaron Burdick, Thomas Hayes, Joe Camaquin Vigil, Nick Olsen and Riley Garcia. Their voices blended beautifully on Bernstein’s “One Hand, One Heart” and “Pirate Song.” Still, there was a bit of a tentative feel to their performance, almost a sluggishness to the beat (especially on “One Hand”), as if they need a little more confidence singing together.
A beautiful “Lark”: Bernstein wrote this music for Lillian Hellman’s adaptation of the play by Jean Anouilh dealing with the story of Joan of Arc. Mary Comelli, a member of the chorus, wrote and performed a monologue as Joan tying together the piece’s eight movements. (She has a wonderful voice as a narrator.) What surprised me was how complex and beautiful this piece is. And the Coro Piccolo soloists on Sunday were stunning, from EJ Hinojosa’s piercing tones in “Spring (Shepherd) Song” to indelible moments from Sharon McCammack, Glad Ruiz, Sarah Sherwood and Barbara Allison windmiller. Just gorgeous.
Pure poetry: I loved, loved, loved Dan Forrest’s “Three Noctures,” whose three movements are set to three famous poets. The second, in particular, to Emily Dickinson’s “Lightly stepped a yellow star,” was a visceral moment for me. Much as the Purcell at the beginning of the concert conjured a “world” of Queen Mary, so, too, did this movement, capturing a sense of Dickinson that seemed so real and penetrating that you could almost feel her in the hall with us. While I enjoyed “The Chichester Psalms,” which was the program’s marquee piece, it was “Three Nocturnes” that touched me most deeply. It isn’t often that I march home from a concert and make an immediate note to pursue a composer, but that’s what I’ve done with Forrest. I’ll be listening to him much more in the future.
The Chichester Psalms: In this rousing finale to the concert, Hamre brought everything together with an emotional performance that soared. Clifton Massey, the guest countertenor, was a standout. I don’t have much experience listening to countertenors, and I was surprised how thrilling (and a little disconcerting) it was to hear such a pure, high tone come out of a mature man. It’s an almost eerie sound. And it reminded me, once again, how stirring the human voice can be. There’s a good reason: We all have one of those voices inside of us. No wonder I felt the camaraderie.
Puppy power: And, finally, I couldn’t resist snagging this photo taken by Chris Simmons from the Fresno Master Chorale’s Facebook page, taken at the end-of-season party. It has nothing to do with choral music. But somehow it has everything to do with choral music. Conductor Anna Hamre with a puppy!
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