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The block-long line of music lovers began to form a full hour before the doors of St. Francis of Assisi Church opened, a testament to the popularity of the Sacramento Master Singers’ annual holiday concerts.
The expectant crowd settled into the pews and filled the magnificent sanctuary, ladies in sparkly holiday dresses seated next to young people in jeans and hoodies, all brought together to experience the magic and wonder of beautifully sung seasonal music.
“Peace, Peace: 25 Years of Holiday Music” marks a quarter century of the inspired direction of conductor Ralph Hughes.
Through his tenancy as artistic director, the choir has blossomed in numbers, artistic excellence and popularity. The choral works Hughes selected for this anniversary concert include many of his favorites as well as music particularly dear to the choir and to their faithful audience and supporters.
The program began with the choir’s traditional candlelight processional. The 45 singers surrounded the audience for the haunting Gregorian chant "Puer Natus Est" and an a cappella offering of several antiphonal and Renaissance motets.
The sound was crystalline in purity, each note precisely sung into the beautiful cathedral-like church.
The members of the choir moved into various graceful circles, multilevel stances and complex arrangements featuring soloists (“Christmas Day Is Come”) and an octet (for Jan Sandstrom’s lovely arrangement of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”) before assuming their more traditional banked configuration.
The extraordinary talents of the Master Singers and their director, with accompanist Clifford Shockney, were ably showcased through the eclectic and internationally flavored program.
A great favorite of audiences, the 16th-century Spanish villancinco “Riu’ Riu’ Chiu’” incorporates complicated two-part hand percussion. “Fum, Fum, Fum!” – also from Spain – and the enchanting Peruvian “Festejo De Navidad” brought a sense of global connection to the program.
After intermission, the program opened with an a cappella spiritual, “O Wondrous Star of Bethlehem,” featuring soprano Jenny Guemmer.
Gary Garcia’s “There is No Rose” was followed by two pieces featuring only the women, directed by Tina Harris: a challenging “Ave Maria” by David MacIntyre and a bright and surprising “Variations on Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” arranged by accompanist Clifford Shockney, which drew an enthusiastic ovation. Mezzo soprano Carol McCormick was featured on “Still, Still Night,” a wonderful new arrangement of the beloved carol.
The men then took center stage for a clever and intricate version of “Three Kings” followed by a glorious rendition of Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” featuring a talented trio of Stephen Hill, Andrew Smith and Thomas Voigt and the solo contributions of Chris Goff, David Temme and Kurtis Kroon. The quality of tone and expression in the rich male voices lent a tender poignancy to the simple text.
In counterpoint, “The 12 Days of Christmas???” was a hilarious romp through everyone’s favorite Christmas song – no matter which one that might be.
Exuberant percussion illuminated the Nigerian carol “Betelehemu” and wrapped up the program on a note of energy and joy.
The final song of every Master Singers holiday concert is always “Peace, Peace,” a simple and beautiful wish for peace on Earth. Choir members dispersed around the audience and signed the song as they sang it; the audience was then encouraged to blend voices with the choir to sing “Silent Night.” It was the perfect ending to a lovely, heartfelt concert.
Sacramento Master Singers will sing their holiday concert three more times at St. Francis: on Saturday, Dec. 18 (8 p.m.), Sunday, Dec. 19 (3 p.m.) and Wednesday, Dec. 22 (7 p.m.). The choir will also present a children’s concert, “Jingle All The Way” at St. Francis on Saturday, Dec. 18 (3 p.m.). Tickets are available at their website, mastersingers.org or at 916-788-7464.
Sacramento Master Singers have produced five CDs of their holiday music, as well as “Follow the Sun,” a 1995 recording of world music. The CDs are also available at their website, as are details of the Spring concerts.