With “Ring in the Holidays” on December 6th, San Gabriel Valley Choral Company hit all the right emotional notes, so essential to the proper cultivation of genuine holiday spirit. Some concerts push all the right buttons.
They had kiddos. And bells. And sing-along carols (with lyrics in the program, which was a nice inclusive touch). There was also atmosphere galore: a deeply appreciative audience, a warm and inviting church, and a general feeling of goodwill. That spirit was initiated with the opening announcements by artistic director Zanaida Robles, who is exceptionally articulate and naturally charismatic. She commands the room with the same ease that commands the choir, with everyone watching and listening to see what she’ll do next.
While this dynamic was evident in the hush of the crowd when she began and the level of choral precision in the performance, it was particularly notable with the arrival of the child performers, a group of students from Monroe Elementary School, just a few blocks away. The line of mini-singers filed in very proper, quietly and with an adorable gravitas. They were clearly the main attraction, as families were in attendance in force, with several video cameras rolling and the regular lifting of phones for a quick snap of the camera. The rather sedate, orderly entrance was no indication of apathy, however, as when Robles said something to the crowd about the kids being “full of energy”, several took that as their cue to start bouncing up and down in glee, to a ripple of giggles and applause from the onlookers. The children’s involvement is part of SGVCC’s new “Kids in Concert” program, part of the outreach activities that make the choir a vibrant and valuable part of the local community.
The concert began with a classic solo by Ben Cortez, singing “Adeste Fideles” with beautiful tone and lyricism. It was immediately clear that the program had been designed so that the audience would either be listening or singing themselves while the children moved from place to place — a nice mechanism that seemed to lend ease to the proceedings, as there was very little waiting around for the next selection. Once the kids were situated, Wayland Rogers’ “Duermete Niño Lindo” put them to work, drawing us in with a sweet blended sound as soprano soloist Kristina Valcarce‘s light voice shimmered, and the adult choir sang gentle harmony in the background. We were hooked.
After singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” all together, we enjoyed a charming rendition of Philip Kern’s “Mary Had a Baby”, followed by David Avshalomov’s “Chanukah Tonight”. As with any community choir, the singers bring a wide range of skills and vocal development, posing a particular challenge for the director. Robles’ strong leadership and precision have honed this group into a well-disciplined ensemble, which was quite evident in the Chanukah song. Avshalomov’s piece is quick and detailed, but here it was beautifully executed, and so much fun.
Changing the mood with Britten’s more contemplative “New Year Carol”, assistant conductor Yasumichi Ichikawa took the reins, temporarily relinquishing his spot as one of the basses in the chorus to lead the choir in Gustav Holst’s “Christmas Day”. He seems to conduct with a musical vision as clear as his movements, and the choir responded well.
After a tutti sing-through of “Deck the Halls”, Robles explained the pairing of the ubiquitous carol with the springtime “Sing We and Chant It” by Thomas Morley. (It’s all in the fa-la-las!) This was followed by “O Nata Lux” by Thomas Tallis, the essential “Carol of the Bells” and then Jeffrey Richard’s “Be Thou My Vision”, featuring handbells played with vigor by several members of the chorus. The first half of the concert wrapped up with Robles’ own “Prepare the Way”, a lyrical piece that is haunting and well-formed. The evocative piano introduction, played expressively by accompanist Penny Pan Ouellette, sets the tone for melodic exploration, and the interwoven choral parts that ensue.
The intermission gave the group’s organizers a chance to raffle off a giant box of See’s truffles (the value deemed “immeasurable” with a smile and chuckles all around), choosing one of the little kids to draw the ticket from the bowl for a nice little moment of community — and no small amount of suspense.
The shorter second half began and ended with more sing-alongs, a delightful “Christmas Medley” from Gregory Parker that covered a lot of holiday ground, and three more choral works that couldn’t be more different from one another: “Noël Nouvelet”, a traditional French carol more than 500 years old; an arrangement of “Let it Snow” that featured a passel of solos from the kids; and another piece by Robles: “Umoja”, a song that expresses the first principle of Kwanzaa, and means unity.
Wrapping up with a mashup of “Peace Peace Peace” and tutti “Silent Night”, I was left with a very personal realization: After years of working as a performer and being so busy that holidays are often a rush rather than a joy, this concert rekindled something of the sheer joy of singing for fun, and of listening to others perform music they love. This concert is just what the doctor ordered, and it was clear that much of the audience felt the same. Thanks, SGVCC. We needed that.