Fresno Master Chorale offers a hearty ‘Hallelujah’

UPDATE Aug. 15: You can watch the archived Facebook Live video here. Scroll to the end of the post for a few of my reactions to the finished piece.

The Fresno Master Chorale can’t perform together in person, of course. But you can’t stop singers from singing.

Anna Hamre, above, is conductor of the Fresno Master Chorale.

Fifty-five members of the ensemble are offering a virtual performance of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” that premieres 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 14, on Facebook. You’ll also be able to watch it afterward there as well.

The community project put together by Chris Simmons and Joshua Leong, singers with the Master Chorale, with editing done by Joshua’s son, James Leong. Those participating are mostly from Master Chorale and Coro Solare.

“This is what they call a “virtual” choir, meaning that people recorded their parts in their own homes while listening through a headset,” music director Anna Hamre said Friday. “It was a gargantuan project, taking many weeks to compile. The choir is very anxious to hear the product today.”


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There were substantial technical requirements in order for singers to participate.

Each one had to have two electronic devices: one (for example an iPhone) to listen to their part and another (computer or iPad) to record themselves. The piece itself was also daunting, Hamre says, because each singer had to function as a soloist, “nailing” his/her part without the support of the rest of the choir.

“Next time, I will choose something easier!” Hamre says.

She adds:

I chose a recording that I thought would be a good model, sending that to Cactus Harris (Dean, San Joaquin Chapter of American Guild of Organists). Cactus generated an organ reduction that imitated the tempos, ritards, pauses, etc. (All keyboard players will tell you how tricky that is.) Then I listened to Cactus’s recording and created a video of my conducting what he was doing. A singer from each section recorded himself/herself (listening to the organ recording) that was shared with singers wishing to participate.

We are very thankful for the many hours put in by Chris, Josh and James …. and please, if you can, express our profound thanks to Cactus!

UPDATE AFTER THE PREMIERE: What a thrilling performance! One of the things I’ve noticed about the raft of virtual performances we’ve seen in past months — Broadway musical cast gatherings, symphony orchestras, theater pieces, big choirs — is how striking it can be to see a large ensemble of people separated into discrete units. Each one has a separate background and perspective in relation to the camera. Yet with all those same-sized Zoom-like squares, there’s also a uniformity to the experience. Even though the participants are physically apart, they’re emotionally in the same place, brought together not just by technology but a shared love of whatever art they’re making.

Confession: I watched the Master Chorale’s “Hallelujah” four times in a row just because I was so delighted with the presentation. I loved scanning the ranks of individual singers, and I swear that even on the fourth viewing, I was seeing people I hadn’t registered before. I loved taking in the backgrounds, body language and facial expressions. Even the clothing choices become part of the visual appeal. Usually when I see a choir sing, the members are all in black. Uniforms bring cohesion to an ensemble. But in this case, the Zoom template creates that cohesion in a different way, and we’re left with an appealing sense of individuality.

Here’s the face that stood out to me most in terms of connecting to the listener. I was drawn to her joy — her Hallelujah-ness, you could say — throughout the piece. Can someone in the choir tell me who it is? (Update: It’s Betty Dunia. Conductor Hamre says, “Yup, she is all about joy.”)

Overall, this “Hallelujah” is moving and inspirational, especially because it’s our “Hallelujah.” Well done, quarantine singers. Well done.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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