The Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra returned in triumph to their original home at the Community Center Theater on Saturday night with the third concert of their 16th season, “English Grandeur”.
The program was carefully selected by conductor and artistic director Donald Kendrick to showcase the lush and passionate works of two exemplary English composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Sir William Walton. Both men wrote in the lyrical Romantic tradition brought forth into the twentieth century; their work includes operatic, orchestral, and choral music as well as music for the movies.
“A Song of Thanksgiving” (originally Thanksgiving for Victory) for narrator, soprano solo, children’s chorus, mixed chorus, and orchestra was written in 1944 to celebrate the certain victory of the Allies over Germany in World War Two.
In the ambitious work, Vaughn Williams extols the solid English values of service, loyalty, bravery and perseverance through text borrowed from the Biblical books of Isaiah and Daniel, Shakespeare, and Rudyard Kipling. The section written for children’s voices is as clear as any English brook and as haunting as a bombed-out chapel. Though the work is an anthem to peace, it still conveys the anguish of the foregoing years of dreadful devastation and violence.
Also featured in “A Song of Thanksgiving” were narrator Kirk Blackinton, lyric Soprano Carrie Hennessey, and the Sacramento Children’s Chorus under the direction of Lynn Stevens. The full orchestra and massed voices of the combined Choral Society and the Sac State University Chorus lent this selection the power and gravitas of a truly stirring performance.
It is in recognition of this composition, and the Walton choral symphony which ended the evening that the concert was dedicated “to all Displaced Peoples and Occupied Nations” in celebration of our universal desire for freedom.
The second Vaughan Williams selection , “Five Mystical Songs” featured acclaimed bass baritone Clayton Brainerd in the series of songs set to five of the 169 religious and mystical poetry of 17th century Anglican priest George Herbert. Of these, the first, “Easter” makes a clear statement that music is the most effective vehicle for praise, a hypothesis which is surely borne out by Vaughan Williams’ lovely settings of the simple phrases of Herbert’s heartfelt poetry.
To end the first portion of the concert, Kendrick directed the exuberant “Let the People Praise Thee, O God”, the anthem written by William Mathias for the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. The chorus and orchestra truly raised the roof with the enthusiasm and naked Anglican sentiment of this selection, which was also featured in the October “Stained Glass I: Canticles of Praise” concert at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
Following intermission, the audience was enraptured by the amazing “Belshazzar’s Feast”. The 1931 choral symphony by Sir William Walton tells the ancient story of the enslavement and eventual liberation of the Jews in Babylon in the sixth century B.C.
“Belshazzar’s Feast” is a huge, grandiose epic of drama, betrayal, suffering and divine retribution, and eventual triumph. Once again, bass baritone Brainerd contributed the awesome power of his voice to the sweeping saga of an ancient city brought to ruin through the braggadocio of its king, Belshazzar. When Brainerd thundered of the appearance of a disembodied human hand writing upon the king’s wall, “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting”, chills crept up every spine as the arrogant king was declared doomed to death.
The Hollywood theatricality of the composer is clearly evident. Although there were a few shining moments when the massed power of the superb chorus struck the impressive majesty which the audience has come to expect, there was often an overpowering swell of the orchestra in full sound. The brass section excelled in its full glory, the tympani thundered and the furious strings soared with fierce fire, while the hundreds of human voices struggled to be heard and understood.
The totality of the performance was masterful. The audience leapt to a standing ovation as the last dramatic crescendo rent the hall with resounding triumph.
One of the most enjoyable features of an SCSO concert is the occasional pre-concert talk by Director Kendrick, in which he explains the music of the evening’s repertoire. Kendrick is an outstanding conductor of both orchestra and chorus. His vast knowledge and enduring passion for the music, and his expertise in musical circles is renowned. His ability to connect with each member of the audience, as well as with his musicians, makes him such an inspiring presence. His wit and animation are legendary, and his personal charisma is so great that he can easily communicate his passion to the audience.
Kendrick seems to have unlimited energy, and a raw spark of a classic showman comes through in his pre-concert talks. His perfectly timed facial gymnastics alone are priceless. On Saturday night, his inimitable and highly entertaining style and a thorough understanding of the music and the backstory of the evening’s program made his talk a delightful prelude for the performance.
SCSO has been delighting audiences for 16 seasons. Whether performing in Sacramento, at Carnegie Hall, or in China or Prague, this venerable and unique organization always delivers the best in choral and orchestral music. Sacramento is fortunate to have such a cultural treasure.
The final performance in the 2011/2012 season will be the “Stained Glass Concert II, European Traditions” on June 2 at the Fremont Presbyterian Church, and will feature works by Vivaldi, Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Bruckner. Tickets are available at http://sacramentochoral.com , or by calling the SCSO office at (916) 536-9065.