Sierra Master Chorale & Orchestra to be treasured
Special to Prospector
A concert by the Sierra Master Chorale in the near-acoustically-perfect Grass Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church is something I always look forward to. And I’m sure there were many others who shared my feeling.
The random tuning of the large orchestra and the buzzing of conversation gave an air of anticipation as regular patrons and, I’m sure, many first-time audience members took their seats. This Grass Valley/Nevada City area is not a large community, but it is rich in appreciation for the arts, and the Sierra Master Chorale enjoys well-deserved community support.
Barry Howard, chair of the Chorale’s Coordinating Committee, made the point that the singers were moved by the music they were about to present — that it raised their spirits. That put me on notice to pay particular attention, to try to recognize how it might have had that effect on them. While he spoke, Chorale members entered quietly from two aisles, taking their position on the risers behind the orchestra. The women were all in black with corsages. The men were dressed in black shirts and trousers, accented by purple ties.
Artistic Director and Conductor Ken Hardin, was welcomed by applause, and began the performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Toward the Unknown Region.” With Howard’s words fresh in my mind, I opened my program to the text in order to follow along.
The first few phrases from the orchestra set a somber mood, but soon the music seemed more pensive. Clearly, the poem was a reflection about death, with all the contrasting feelings that subject evokes in us. The music soared as the chorus sang “No map there, nor guide….” But the soaring seemed to be driven by anxiety. Then with the words “I know it not, O Soul,” I thought I sensed wonder and even hope in the music. As the poet and composer went on to explore this human experience so common to us all, yet shrouded in mystery, I felt I heard in the music many more contrasting emotions: apprehension, resignation, and perhaps even exultation. It all built to the powerful moment in which the music expressed the triumphant thought “Then we burst forth,” building to the climax of “O Joy! O fruit of all!” The final words, “Them to fulfill, O Soul” were performed with simple harmony, and with that beautiful conclusion, I’m sure we all felt we had entered heaven together
At this point, Conductor Hardin spoke to us, admitting that he was out of breath at the end of this “powerful piece of music… one of the most beautiful we’ve performed.”
As this “Song of Democracy” began, I paid close attention to the words. I was disappointed to look around me and see that hardly any one else was doing the same. The music was, of course, from a different era than the first piece on the program, and it certainly made for good listening. Also, the music was such that the words sung by the chorus came through more clearly than they had for the first piece. But I fear that many people may have missed the central idea of the poem: the multigenerational persistence of history. The music was reflective and then frenetic, perhaps to represent the energy of youth. One them that stood out to me was the idea that education is far more than language arts and arithmetic: it is steeping young minds in how precious is the gift of democracy, conferred on them by earlier generations.
And what exactly was I hearing from the chorus? A beautiful, unified sound, especially notable when they sang a cappella or with light accompaniment from the orchestra. But more than that, I heard them sing with intense concentration, even passion. And it was clear to me that they had thought about and understood what they were singing.
After intermission the Chorale presented four African-American spirituals, arrangements from three famous names associated with this uniquely American art form. The chorus performed each song from memory and without accompaniment. And each performance was full of energy, great harmony and precision, with unified pronunciation, clear articulation, and great artistry. Personally, I’ve heard each of these pieces performed before, some of them many times. But I am confident that I’ve never heard them performed better.
The last section of the concert was a performance of all seven parts of Randall Thompson’s Frostiana, poems of Robert Frost set to music. It couldn’t have been more representative of America: an American poet and an American composer. In introducing the music, Hardin suggested that we think of each song as a “postcard from New England.”
I was first exposed to this music when I performed a couple of the pieces in high school — not long after they were composed. Then I experienced some of this music in college and in community choruses over the years. I feel bad about confessing this, but I never liked the music much. But that feeling changed with the Sierra Master Chorale concert. For the first time, I heard all seven of these pieces performed together. And also for the first time, I heard them with the accompaniment of a full orchestra.
The orchestration, primarily comprised of strings, was lovely, and it beautifully complemented the singing of the chorus. There was variety in the presentation of each piece: full ensemble, men only, women only. And there was beautiful highlighting of solo instruments in some of the selections: clarinet, flute, harp, etc. It was 30 minutes of lovely music, full of introspection, imagination, exuberance, playfulness and even a bit of melancholy, as it presented a picture of a bygone era in a part of the country we can all relate to. The suite was presented with great artistry — even perhaps as I imagined, performed lovingly.
This wonderful, emotion-filled concert ended with the audience rising in a sustained standing ovation, appreciating a musical organization that is nothing less than a regional treasure.
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