Interrupting the many Santa Claus jingles and Christmas tree odes, Vallejo Choral Society (VCS) offers a reprieve in the form of a more nuanced musical celebration this season.
VCS’s holiday concert, “American Luminaries,” will pay its respects to the artistic giants of American tradition to whom we owe classic carols and hymns like “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Presenting audiences with a program that unites composers, artists and poets from across literary and choral history, the concert both transcends and honors the past.
The program highlight is 20th Century American Black composer Margaret Bonds’ “Ballad of the Brown King” which weaves in text from Langston Hughes in its exploration of the Nativity. The composition was written in honor of African King Balthazar, depicted throughout art as one of the biblical magi.
Continuing this theme of literary history, the other centerpiece to the program is Randall Thompson’s “Frostiana: Seven Country Songs” which includes poetry by Robert Frost set as a suite of choral art songs.
The names, “Frost” and “Hughes,” might have audiences trying to remember their last literature class, which was certainly true for VCS’s new Artistic Director, Julia Morris. While drafting the program list for her first season at VCS, Morris drew inspiration from a Choral Literature class she took while earning her M.Mus. in Choral Conducting at University of Michigan.
Morris earmarked Thompson’s piece for “how beautifully he lets the poetry breathe in Frostiana.” As for “The Ballad of the Brown King” Morris was intrigued by the piece as a musical exploration of many Black American music idioms, including spiritual melodies and call-and-response textures, gospel, jazz, blues, and calypso.
“You can tell how much pride and joy there is in the piece. Hopefully it jumps off the page and that joy translates to listeners,” Morris said.
Morris noted how important it was to choose pieces she found exciting. Admitting that she’s always felt “more timid about poetry” than prose, she said “every time I open a piece that is set to any kind of poetry, which is most of choral literature, it makes sense to me.” Poetry in music undergoes a series of interpretations, the first of which is evident in the way they chose to set the music, she added.
Interpretation also occurs through the actual performing, or conducting as the case may be for Morris. “Things like tempo can change the mood of the movement,” Morris explained. A decision as minute as when vocalists should take their breath affects the nuance of the movement by either interrupting or continuing a thought.
The life of these pieces is an ongoing one that reveals new facets in the hands of each composer. On honing her vision for the program, Morris quoted her mentor. “You have to have a strong artistic idea,” she said. “You should never be standing in front of an ensemble unless you know what you’re asking for.”
And yet the choir runs on collaboration more often than not, Morris offered. You push each other to ensure you’re achieving the artistic goal which is to do well by the music, to do justice to the music and the text.”
Now in its 106th season, the Symphonic Choir boasts 50 singers among its ranks, and will be joined by five professional guest vocalists.
Rehearsals started on Sep. 13, and have continued weekly every Wednesday. Two additional Sunday rehearsals allowed for a makeup day and separate rehearsal for the only tenor/bass or soprano/alto movements, which both programs have.
While the ensemble includes a handful of students, the majority of members represent interested those wishing to sing and participate in the atmosphere at VCS. The un-auditioned choir welcomes anyone interested in singing, a fact which was integral in Morris deciding to apply for the position. Recalling her own love for choir, Morris voiced her excitement that these pieces are accessible to anyone wishing to perform them.
Performance is really only one aspect of the choir, Morris said. The weekly rehearsal offer members a robust opportunity to dive deep into the texts and work through the compositional process. The energy is always magnetic during Wednesday rehearsals.
“They’re the highlight of my week each week,” Morris said. “I have an emotional high for the rest of the week after Wednesday rehearsal.”
The next cycle of rehearsal starts in Jan. 3, open to anyone who wishes to join, regardless of singing experience.
IF YOU GO:
What: Vallejo Choral Society’s holiday concert, “American Luminaries”
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 2; 3 p.m. Dec. 3
Where: Community Congregational Church, 1305 W 2nd St., Benicia (Dec. 2);
Springbrook Masonic Temple, 101 Temple Way, Vallejo (Dec. 3)
Tickets: $35 in advance, $40 at door, FREE for students.