Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The San Francisco Girls Chorus Brings the Highlands Spirit to its Holiday Concert

Last night the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) made its annual seasonal visit to Davies Symphony Hall. The stage was filled with not only the SFGC Premiere Ensemble but also the four choirs corresponding to the four levels of the SFGC School. As might be imagined, there was no room for an instrumental ensemble; so accompaniment was provided, for the most part, by Mark Bruce at the organ and Matthew Edward and Susan Blinderman sharing duties at the piano.

Note that qualifier “for the most part.” The title of the program was A Highlands Holiday; and the featured guest artist was bagpiper and composer Matthew Welch, who was joined by three local pipers, Colin Berta, Brian Cooper, and Ken Sutherland. The program featured the world premiere of Welch’s “Salute on the Birth of Rory Mor.” There was also a world premiere of a thorough reworking of “We Three Kings” by Kurt Erickson, as well as a return guest appearance by cellist Joshua Roman.

The Highlands spirit launched the entire evening with a procession of the vocalists down the two aisles on Orchestra level, each led by a piper. (Welch happened to lead down the aisle on which I happened to be sitting.) The two “ground level” pipers were then echoed by two pipers on the two far corners of the Terrace. Were it not for all the Scottish connotations, the Yiddish verb “kvell” would have been the mot juste to capture the impact of this spectacle.

However, the evening was far from all about the Highlands spirit or, for that matter, the usual expectations for Christmas music. The number of familiar carols were vastly outnumbered by unfamiliar compositions, arrangements, and, as was the case with the Erickson premiere, total overhauls. This extensive diversity provided numerous opportunities for each of the five ensembles to show off their skills, often in imaginative combinations. Indeed, “extensive” was the operative adjective of the evening, since the entire program ran for two and one-half hours.

Furthermore, no contribution to this mix tended to crowd out the others. The bagpipes were definitely assertive, but they were never overwhelming. Similarly, there may have been an element of “star power” in Roman’s return; but, in the grand scheme of things, he was just another music-maker at work. (However, it appeared as if part of that work involved making up obligato melodic lines to accompany choral arrangements of three carols. These were definitely not in the original scores; but Roman appeared to be playing from sheet music, rather than improvising.)

All this made for an impressively diverse feast of music, and just as impressive were the skills brought by all levels of the chorus to take on all of that diversity. If there was any downside to the evening, it had more to do with management than with any of the performers. Given the extent to which the concert was a journey of discovery through unfamiliar repertoire, the absence of any useful background information could almost be taken as an affront to any curious listeners in the audience. Welch’s premiere was presented without even a brief verbal introduction to account for either the denotations or connotations of that piece’s title. Indeed, every piece of music presented last night had a story behind it; but curious members of the audience were deprived of those stories, presumably in the interest of keeping the entire program on a single printed sheet (not counting the texts for the sing-along carols).

Those who have been following this site may know that I tend to attach as much significance to the nature of the “concert experience” itself as to the repertoire being performed. There is an inevitable relationship between listener and performer for which I have found the concept of “communion” to be particularly apposite. This goes far beyond the traditional we-make-the-music-and-you-applaud framework into a domain which has more to do with sharing than with transmission. In that domain the failure to provide valuable information that supplements the music-making itself puts the attentive listener at a serious disadvantage and ultimately undermines his/her ability to appreciate the skills of the music-makers. Given the quality of the music that was being made last night, those responsible for the broader setting in which that music was made face the charge of neglecting the better interests of the audience; and that neglect can reflect back unfairly on the performers.

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