People will go through a lot to hear beautiful music.
Each December, the line of people snaking around St. Francis Church grows. People arrive up to 90 minutes before curtain for the annual holiday performance of the Sacramento Master Singers. Many clutch their seat cushions as they chat with friends and friendly strangers waiting to enter the chilly church. They have braved rain, wind, and cold in years past; this year the autumnal weather lingering on into mid-December was a blessing.
Sunday’s matinee performance of “Glory to the Newborn King” once again hosted a near-capacity crowd. People came in groups and alone; multigenerational families crowded into the hard wooden pews. There were annual visitors from Napa and Yuba City and Richmond, and there were first-timers who decided to try something new this year.
The beauty of the old church, huge and ornate—and cold!—arrested their attention before the program began. It is a superlative setting for the Master Singers’ traditional candlelight processional, this year featuring both haunting plainsong and a gorgeous antiphonal double choir “Ave Regina Caelorum” by Elizabethan composer Peter Philips. The pure tones of the bells the choir plays as they assemble is precise and delicate, a fitting complement to the clear interplay of beautiful voices.
As the program progressed, the music advanced through the centuries, and the international flavor embraced by the Master Singers expands. Director Ralph Hughes has searched for music which brings the human experience of Christmas to all who hear it, the season of hope born in the darkness of winter.
By presenting old standards rearranged for interesting meter, audiences are welcomed into new music with ease. Jackson Berkey’s arrangement of “Joy to the World” was delightful.
As is usual for the Master Singers, the women sang two selections, including the audience favorite “Gaudete!”. When the men took the stage, their luscious “The First Noel” exemplified the rich depth of male voices blending in harmonies both haunting and exuberant.
The full choir finished the concert with a solid serving of lovely tunes and a spirited pantomimed “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that brought chuckles from the audience and a thunderous applause.
And in time-honored tradition, the singers circled the hall and signed the words to “Peace, Peace”, which blended beautifully into “Silent Night” sung by the audience.
Hughes coaxes extraordinary performances from his 48 singers, and Hughes showcased several soloists throughout the program, notably sopranos Sara Haugland and Eva Cranstoun. The small size of the chorus fosters a feeling of familiar relationship with the singers; personalities are allowed to shine through the music, as in the interplay between soprano Elizabeth Johnston and alto Michelle Iwase in the beginning measures of “Gaudete!”.
Part of the enduring appeal of the Master Singers is the sense that these are friends bringing this lovely music into our lives. One can imagine inviting these talented singers into one’s home to bring meaning, beauty, and warmth to the holidays.
"Glory to the Newborn King" will be performed agin on Saturday, December 17 at 8:00 pm, Sunday December 18 at 3:00 pm, and Wednesday December 21 at 7:00 pm. All performances will be held at St. Francis Church, 26th and K Strees, Sacramento. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit the Master Singers at www.mastersingers.org or call 916-788-7464.