News & Reviews
They're Playin' Our Song - May 5, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb, Sacramento Choral Calendar <link to this review>
I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to give an adequate description of this event. Like so many recent performances of the Colla Voce Chamber Choir, this concert was a carefully crafted experience, constructed from many different elements. These began with sensitive and expressive singing, supported in a variety of ways by the pianist, violinist and percussionist. The choral arrangements themselves were presented in fresh ways with different combinations of singers (solo to full choir), and different formations and placement of the choir in the church. And then there were the audiovisual elements (about which more presently). The printed program itself was full of artistic touches. And to protect the integrity of this multifaceted experience there was no intermission and very few opportunities for applause.
The concert revolved around stories, and there is something about being human that makes us especially responsive to stories. We pay closer attention to them than we do to exposition. We learn more effectively from them. We remember them longer. They make us laugh, and they make us cry. Another part of being human is responding to music: very often it makes a direct emotional connection with us, bypassing analysis and interpretation. So when you combine stories with music, you engage with the listener at a very profound level. And I believe that’s what happened for most of us who had the great good fortune to experience this concert.
A year ago, Artistic Director Janine Dexter asked audience members (and others) to let her know about songs that have been particularly meaningful to them, along with an explanation of what has made the song special. The responses she received – songs and the stories behind them – became the substance of tonight’s concert. Some stories were printed in the program, some were recounted in audio recordings, many were in videos projected on the wall of the church, and some were presented verbally by members of the choir. In each case, the story intensified the emotional impact of the song.
The program began, as recent ones have, with the first selection (“Sentimental Journey”) begun by a single person, walking down a side aisle of the church. Gradually, voices were added until the whole choir was involved, encircling the audience. The personal story of what this piece meant to someone (I’m thinking it might have been Dexter’s grandmother), came via an audio feed that was summarized in the printed program. Then a piano accompaniment (and a single train whistle!) were added, as the chorus continued to perform an arrangement that was a gentle toe-tapper, true to the 1940s origin of the song.
While all this was happening, two artists began constructing a large abstract painting toward the back of the church’s altar area, but in full sight of the audience. This continued throughout the concert. Dexter had explained in her introductory remarks that they would paint as they were moved by the music, and the canvas would be cut up into souvenirs which would be sold as a fund-raiser.
You can see the range of songs in this concert by clicking here to open a copy of the printed program in another window. I won’t try to summarize the wide variety of stories that unfolded in connection with the songs, but here are a few more examples:
- Choir member Nicole Toppel told of the significance of “When I Fall in Love” to her courtship, marriage and honeymoon, and then she sang the incidental solo when the piece was performed by the ensemble. (The singing itself, as so often was the case in this concert, was so perfect to my ear that it could have been recorded there and then for Colla Voce’s next CD.)
- “How Can I Keep From Singing?” was introduced by a violin solo and video in which the speaker told of hearing this song at the end of a concert on the day that her father died.
- There was the story of the woman who was trying to communicate with her mother who had dementia. It occurred to her to sing the hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” It had an effect, and it wasn’t until the mother had passed on that she found a “just in case” file in which her mother had chosen that as the first hymn to be played at her funeral.
- There was a solo of “Daddy’s Little Girl” in a heart-felt performance by David Mendenhall at the side of the church. He nearly got through the song, but choked on the last few notes, and it soon became apparent why. As he joined the small group of 10 singers at the front of the church for the next piece, there was a brief but significant touch of hands with a young woman in formation with the rest of the group. You guessed it: it was his daughter, Francesca, in her last performance with Colla Voce before going off to college.
Besides the stories above, there were many other points in the concert that were special highlights for me. For example, storyteller Joan Stockbridge, came forward to tell of a man from rural England who, toward the end of a bleak life, reflected that at least “I have had singing.” This led to the song of that title, performed by the choir with a blend that was simply exquisite. This was followed by the familiar “Shenandoah.” Here the “story” was given by one of the chorus members while another sang the melody solo. Eventually, the rest of the ensemble joined in, and I couldn’t help but notice the unspeakably gentle singing by the men that was part of this piece. Throughout this concert, I heard so many good solos that it seemed like any of these people could sing beautifully by themselves.
Another video introduced “Romans 8:38.” To save you looking the verse up, it is the one that begins “What shall separate us from the love of God?” And although not much was made of the fact at the time, this was the “premier performance” of the piece, which had been composed by Colla Voce member, Leah Cole. The performance itself was unusual in that the chorus began (before the end of the video) by whispering the verse. In the singing that followed, I was struck with how animated everyone was, until they all ratcheted down to a whisper at the close.
Another highlight was Eric Whitacre’s “Sleep.” As I listened, I found the dynamic range of this choir to be extraordinary. They produced a fortissimo of surprising power and then a beautiful long diminuendo that didn't end until it was barely audible.
And I can’t fail to mention the last three pieces. After a program full of music that, for all its variety, seemed to generally require intense concentration and serious effort by the choir, Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time,” saw all the singers (and the director) relax into finger-snapping pure fun that brought a smile to everyone performing – and I’ll bet to all of us in the audience. Then there was another touching video about a wedding that celebrated the resurgent spirit of our country after the tragedy of 9/11, accompanied by an especially sensitive arrangement of “You Raise Me Up” that included a verse sung by the audience. This whole experience culminated in a mesmerizing performance of Moses Hogan’s arrangement of “Elijah Rock” – delivered a cappella with a tremendous performance by the bass section and over-the-top energy from the whole choir.
One could look at the program for this concert, and it might seem disconnected and random. Quite the opposite was the effect for me – and I trust for most of the rest of the audience. After the performance was over, one of the singers mentioned to me that Janine Dexter is a quilter. Of course. Quilts are typically made from little scraps of fabric, often unrelated. But when they’re sewn together, one can see a pattern, an idea richly developed – sometimes worthy of being called a work of art. And to my eye and ear, that’s exactly what this concert was: a work of art.
Songs of Light: Yuletide-Hanukkah-Winter Solstice - Dec. 9, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb, Sacramento Choral Calendar <link to this review>
This concert in the small Pioneer Methodist Church in Auburn felt very much like a community holiday celebration. Aptly titled “Songs of Light,” most of the music carried out the theme of light, and there were numerous ways in which light itself was made a part of the program. Even the printed program began with quotations about light.
The community feeling was set up at the start when Artistic Director, Janine Dexter, addressed the audience, informing us that we would be singing as part of the program. With that, she led us in a little vocalization and practicing our part in “O Holy Night” that would come at the end of the concert. Then we heard the first of the flute (Vivian de la Cruz-Stanley) and clarinet (Elizabeth McAllister) that would be playing a part in so many of the coming selections. Their “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker set the holiday mood.
But the mood turned serious when, with the church darkened, tenor Don Thomas circled the audience intoning a Gregorian chant. (Click here to view the entire printed program with titles and composers of the various selections.) When Thomas reached the back of the church, he was joined by David Mendenhall and Craig Wheaton. Each of them proceeded to sing the same musical line, but in a different octave. And Mendenhall, at the lowest range, displayed an amazing basso profondo voice.
That brings up an important point. It is as difficult for a chorus to get a good very low bass, as it is to recruit a very high soprano (with a pleasing sound). But to me, it makes all the difference, providing a depth to big chords and a richness that can be striking. I’ve heard a lot of good choruses – and they can still be good without exceptional strength at the vocal extremes – but there are some pieces, and some moments within a piece where a strong low bass note or a pure, unforced high soprano sound can work musical magic. Colla Voce is fortunate to have good singers at the high and low ends of the vocal register, but the contribution of one or more basses was particularly evident at key points of the program.
The first three pieces were sung from the back of the church in darkness. During this time, a young girl, prettily dressed, systematically lit candles at the front of the church, emphasizing again that “light” was the theme of the concert. The last of those three songs was contemporary composer Morten Lauridsen’s surpassingly beautiful “O Nata Lux.”
The choir then moved to the front of the church as the flute played “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” There was a fair amount of movement by the choir during the program, and it was typically covered by instrumental music or chimes, the latter of which gave a special air of solemnity to the performance.
Next on the program was “Star of Wonder – We Three Kings,” which was very delicately executed, especially on the part of the women. And adding to the impact of the piece was another lighting effect – green moving dots of light on the ceiling of the still darkened church. This piece melted into “O Lux Beata Trinitas,” creating a very different mood with music that was almost chant-like.
An interesting feature of this concert was the closeness of the singers. It’s common for choruses to achieve a certain degree of intimacy with their audience by singing part of their program from the aisles, but this church was so small that Ms. Dexter directed next to the first row of pews, and the choir was only about 6 feet in front of her (and the rest of us). The whole audience surely felt the nearness of the choir, but the effect was dramatic for those of us in the first few rows. It meant that one could occasionally hear individual voices, which is usually not desirable for choral singing. But since that could hardly be avoided, rather than an annoyance, I found it an interesting, unique experience.
With the choir again at the back of the church, “Lux Aeterna” was performed by the women, as storyteller Joan Stockbridge explained the Procession of St. Lucia, which plays an important part in the observance of Christmas in Scandinavian countries. This evening, the Procession of St. Lucia was enacted during "Lux Aeterna" by 5 young ballet dancers from the Pamelot School of Dance who performed the procession (gracefully, of course) at the front of the church, the lead dancer with a crown of evergreen and (battery-operated) candles on her head. During the next number, Eric Whitacre’s immensely popular “Lux Aurumque,” the dancers performed a very elegant routine, as the choir continued singing from the back of the church.
Upon returning to the front of the church, the choir presented the lovely “Winter Solstice,” and then “Dawn.” The latter was one of my favorites, with delicate, sensitive singing that made me write “wrapped in a warm blanket of sound” in my notes. Nonetheless, this piece also showed the dynamic range of which Colla Voce is capable, and which was on display at numerous points during this concert.
What followed was a high point of the concert, for the whole the audience, including me. “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” began with a flute solo and proceeded to a solo by Michelle Elizabeth which was expressive and joyful and full of soul. Somehow it simply felt comfortable, with a folk or perhaps country sound – not surprising, since it was composed by Dolly Parton. The choir played a fairly minor role, and it was the solo really sold this piece – and “sold” it was, if the audience reaction was any indication.
Of the many Christmas concerts I’ve attended this season, this was the first to acknowledge Hanukkah, and it did so in a big way. Director Dexter first briefly explained the significance of the Menorah, and invited the audience to participate in lighting it and singing what I believe was “Maoz Tzur.” With the whole choir turned respectfully toward the Menorah, several choir members participated in the lighting and singing, and they were joined by a number of audience members. Following the lighting, the choir sang 3 Hanukkah songs, the first two in Hebrew, and the last, lively “Drey, Dreydeleh” (“Spin Dreydl”) in Yiddish. The latter piece started with an authentic Klezmer sound from the clarinet, followed by lusty, excited singing from the choir that brought out smiles all around.
In a complete change of pace, Joan Stockbridge came forward to recount the Mexican legend of the mission assigned to peasant Juan Diego by the Virgin Mary. I’ve seen Stockbridge perform before, and her stories are always well presented and engaging. Next up was the spiritual, “Oh, Jerusalem in the Mornin’,” which really loosened the choir up. You could see each person having fun – even, and maybe especially, Director Dexter, who couldn’t hold back a little yelp when the last emphatic note was sung. “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” also a spiritual, followed, but it was presented very differently: a very showy piece with a distinctively contemporary arrangement.
The last piece on the program was a beautiful, moving, traditional setting of “O Holy Night” that began with a soprano solo by Michelle Elizabeth, eventually joined by tenor, Don Thomas. The solos were exquisite, and it was almost a pity to add the planned parts by the audience, and of course, the choir.The concert closed with the choir surrounding the audience in the darkened church and singing “Peace, Peace” by Rick and Sylvia Powell, with the ceiling once again covered with points of light. Then choir and audience sang “Silent Night” (with a signer at the front of the church), followed by “Auld Lang Syne” that led to an overflowing sense of fellowship as the audience dispersed – though no one seemed in a hurry to do so, still savoring what they had experienced.
NEWS: Auburn Choir Seeks to Improve Music Programs
Music programs in three Auburn schools will benefit from a $7,000 grant from Colla Voce this year. Bowman Charter School, Alta Vista Charter Academy and Skyridge Elementary will all implement the Bravo Music Appreciation Curriculum this year thanks to the grant, according to Janine Dexter, artistic coordinator for Colla Voce. The grant is through a local family that Dexter said wishes to remain anonymous.
"I got tired of hearing about what the state should be providing if they had any money, which they don't. I figure the arts education and early imprinting of our children is our responsibility as a community, so why not take back that responsibility and do something about it rather than expending that energy complaining about what isn't happening," Dexter said.
Songs of the British Isles - May 6, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb, Sacramento Choral Calendar <link to this review>
This remarkable offering by the Colla Voce Chamber Singers at Pioneer Methodist Church in Auburn was more of an experience than a traditional concert. It felt like a tightly constructed quilt of diverse elements that made a supremely artistic whole.
The experience actually began in the parking lot with two men playing bagpipes. The entertainment continued almost 15 minutes before the scheduled start of the concert with a fiddler (Annie Begin) quieting the house with her playing of Celtic tunes. Then Artistic Director Janine Dexter led the audience in “rehearsing” two songs with which they were to sing along during the program.
The concert itself began with a single woman, walking from the back of the room, in costume and with a basket of flowers, singing (beautifully) “Won’t You Buy My Sweet Blooming Lavender?” Presently she was joined by other flower “sellers” and the rest of the choir humming from the back of the church in four-part harmony.
As the choir moved to the front of the church, we saw that all the women were in what appeared to be 19th-century working class costumes – a couple even wore hats; the men were in black, except one who was sporting a kilt. The songs came in succession – sometimes with brief fiddle, cello or piano music for transition – but with no opportunity for the audience to applaud, and the tension from wanting to do so built explosively.
The first eight pieces were a variety of English, Scottish and Irish folk songs or poetry set to music. The audience was transported to an earlier time and a rural place, through surpassingly beautiful arrangements of simple music – some familiar tunes, some not – sensitively delivered. The blend of the choir was extraordinary, and the soft singing was exquisite.
Helping to set the mood was the projection of British Isle-themed still images and videos. There was no screen, so the images appeared broken on the uneven contours of the front of the church. The effect was impressionistic, which is to say that, fragmented though they were, one still got the message of the images, which were coordinated with the text of the music. One piece in this first set, Ubi Caritas by Paul Mealor, was very different in character from the others, having been commissioned by Prince William for his wedding. This was accompanied by video of a cathedral, and the close-up of the rose window at one point in the piece was electrifying.
A remarkable feature of this program was the variety in its component elements. The choir kept moving, singing from different parts of the church. There were different combinations of singers: seven-member group, 14-member group, men only, women only, and soloists of such quality that they were a delight to listen to (not always the case when a chorus draws on its members). Then there was the storyteller. Joan Stockbridge took the floor twice during the program to deliver delightful Celtic folk tales. And later in the program, three children (age about 6 to about 14, two girls and a boy) danced their way down the aisle and onto the dais at the front of the church, performing first to instrumental accompaniment (fiddle and bodhran) and then to the singing of the choir. They were students from Roseville’s O’Sullivan Academy of Irish Dance, and they were entrancing. They were followed by an adult Irish dancer who also performed beautifully.
There was great variety in the mood of the musical selections, and there was even a delightful a cappella rendition of Lennon & McCartney’s "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, plus their "If I Fell". The program culminated in a stirring, choreographed version of Loch Lomond that had the women sitting next to me in tears on account of their Scottish ancestry. Capping the experience, the choir sang John Rutter’s moving Irish Blessing, while surrounding the audience.
This was an inspired program, crafted from many different elements, and it transported the audience to a different time and place – highlighted throughout by superb singing and sensitive directing. I can’t imagine the program working as well for a much larger venue than the roughly 200-seat Pioneer Methodist Church in Auburn, but there should have been many more than three performances of this wonderful show.
Hats Off To You
Words cannot describe how moved we were by the whole orchestration of the incredible concert. It was very moving. I cried in the beginning and I’m not one to cry very often....
It was amazing what level of energy you have been able to uplift from all the voices, whether it was the storyteller or whether it was the group. It was quite amazing.
Hats off to you... congratulations!
— Andrea Kelly, MFT, Granite Bay
A Musical Event to be Treasured
If you missed Music on The Divide’s Christmas concert on Dec. 19, you passed up a magnificent performance by a premiere musical group, Colla Voce. This mixed group of 25 voices stirred the souls of those attending with their beautiful voices, their vibrant sound and their performance skills. Very few choruses in the nation have the ability to be spread throughout the hall, stand alone and sing in perfect harmony with their ethereal and sublime sounds.
The group was led by Janine Dexter whose background includes conducting, arranging and piano. She held the group tightly under control at all times with her gentle, guiding hands held aloft. She earned her Bachelor of Music degree at University of the Pacific and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Choral Conducting at CSU, Los Angeles.
The program began with a group of rather unfamiliar Christmas selections that were haunting and intriguing, which included the “Huron Carol” written by Father Jean de Brefeuf who lived from 1593-1649. The audience also heard two world premiere performances- “Winter Bells” and “Winter Sleep” written by Brian and June Steckler. The group boasts the inclusion of a storyteller, Joan Stockbridge, who told the mythical story of the “Raven and the Whale.” She held the audience’s attention throughout with the storyline and her manner of storytelling.
This was followed by “Blow, Blow Thou Wind Winter Wind” in which the audience was asked to affect a whooshing sound like the wind. Parenthetically, outside the IOOF Hall, the wind, thunder and lightning struck at just the appropriate moment to everyone’s astonishment. One of the major works sung was by Benjamin Britten. “A Ceremony of Carols” was written while he was sailing across the Atlantic in 1942 in the midst of a German U-boat pack. It was written originally for a boy’s chorus in three parts in Middle English words, “Wolcum Yole!” or “Welcome Yule.” This work was accompanied by the excellent talents of harpist Candice LiVolsi. There were 11 movements, all sung with precision and flair.
After the intermission the chorus sang more familiar carols including “Past Three O’ Clock,” “O Tannenbaum,” John Rutter’s “Angel’s Carol,” “The Wild Geese,” and “Winter Calling.” Then came the return of storyteller, Joan Stockbridge who continued along with the myth “The Raven Steals the Light.”The final selections included USC Professor Morten Lauridsen’s “Sure on This Shining Night” to the more familiar “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and finally the immortal “White Christmas” of Irving Berlin.
In addition to the fabulous harpist, Candice LiVolsi, the audience was treated to the outstanding flute playing of Vivian de la Cruz-Stanley, and pianist Angela Roland whose flawless playing was delightful for all to hear.In summary, we could not have had a more polished and sensitive chorus to bring the “Christmas Spirit” to Georgetown on a wintry Sunday afternoon.
— Town Crier - Georgetown Divide / Concert Review , January 2011
Reflection on Two Choral Concerts
The second concert of last weekend was by Colla Voce, a premier singing ensemble from Auburn. Oh my, it was sublime, one of the best choral concerts I’ve ever heard. Two dozen voices conducted by Janine Dexter singing exquisitely with some accompaniment (piano, clarinet, flute, and fun percussion). Some playful pieces, some classics, some upbeat and some more somber; one by Rutter brought to mind the word “swishy” and one by a young Joshua Shank, atonal and stunning; I thought of leaves falling to the earth, appropriate because the name of the piece was “Autumn.”
The singers moved around, too, which made for eye interest: in a circle; the group split in half, calling and responding across the room from each other, in normal choir formation.
A rousing organ solo by Grace Lutheran Church organist got the blood pounding. That organ, hand built and in a room that was acoustically perfect for it, has one lovely feature that is perfect for the holidays: a stop that causes tinkling bells that are either delicate or a little more robust. Very nice indeed.
This ensemble sings mostly a capella, something only the best can do well. The deep men’s voices are especially luscious. They all are excellent singers, confident and attuned to Dexter. Yet another, surprise: No intermission. I LOVED that. Uninterrupted music means the mood isn’t broken.
Colla Voce plans to come back to Grace Lutheran on Ridge Road in Grass Valley May 9. Don’t miss it.
— Posted by Pam Jung on theunion.com
December 18, 2008 ....choral groups to watch
I just got to your recording of “Autumn” (finally!) and I LOVE it.…How do you get such a wonderful sound out of such a small ensemble? “Autumn” is not an easy piece by any means and the wind chimes added something perfect to the entire experience. They make the audience think immediately about what they’ve heard. It’s so much easier for them to do that with something else sounding other than silence at the end of the piece.
— "joshua-shank" (Joshua Shank, composer) December 29, 2008
Thank you so very much for making it possible for Karen and me to attend your concert Sat. evening. By now you have received the onrush of well deserved lauds, but I am compelled to send ours too. You and your choir captured our souls with the music you presented. I appreciate and still marvel at the artistry and sensitivity that you instilled so deeply in the singers. Your personality and love of music shone through the program and bubbled forth in your impromptu comments to the audience. Though you dressed as the artist, it was also apparent that the genius for organization, support and the business of art reside in you, too. I admire your total achievement. Auburn is very blessed to have you living and creating in its community.
Though Karen and I didn’t come forth to meet you personally after your concert, I came to know you and appreciate your skill and spirit by attending your concert.
Richard Geisler, Town Crier, Grass Valley/Nevada City, May 12, 2008