More than just safety: Metropolitan Master Chorale sings many shades of ‘Sanctuary’

by Bonnie Schindler, Lister reviewer

In the sanctuary of Hollywood Lutheran Church on Sunday evening, June 5th, the Metropolitan Master Chorale performed under the direction of Glenn Carlos, with an innovative concert entitled “Sanctuary”. The group consisted of 42 local singers, ably accompanied by pianist Erik Belsheim and featured guest artist, saxophonist Sean Holt.

MMC_logoThe evening began with a warm welcome at the door, and with each program, audience members were given a card and invited to answer the question, “What is your personal sanctuary?”

As the choir entered from both sides of the room, they brought with them a distinctly upbeat energy that was palpable. The house lights remained on, further embracing the audience as participants. The group started off with a vibrant, full-bodied rendition of Henry Purcell’s See Nature, Rejoicing featuring soprano soloist Alison Lewis and baritone Michael Bannett. This was followed by a contrasting piece with a pop sensibility. After these introductory selections, Mr. Carlos named the pieces for the audience, the second one being Dream Land by Kevin A. Membley, and welcomed the audience, explaining that the theme of “Sanctuary” had been inspired by the choir members’ answers to the same question we had received at the door. Their responses had not been “exotic visits to seven-wonders-of-the-earth, never to be missed kinds of places” as he had expected, but “in or near their homes, and ultimately, even closer to their hearts.” He then announced that he would read out audience member contributions at intervals throughout the evening and that these responses would determine the order of the fifteen pieces on the program.

The first group of cards he read pointed to a theme of “Sanctuary found in Nature”, and the set featured the lush harmonies and beautiful phrasing of Bring Me the Sunset by veteran choral composer Kenneth Neufeld, followed by Ralph Vaughn Williams’ The Vagabond, in a rousing arrangement by the conductor Carlos, sung robustly by the men of the chorus with diction so clear that every evocative word was intelligible.

The director’s own composition, Sometimes I Cry, a piece that was perhaps tailored especially for this ensemble’s particular strengths, opened the next group, followed by Ysaye M. Barnwell’s soulful setting of the moving text, Wanting Memories, that expresses the composer’s emotions upon discovering a trove of family photos and letters after the death of her parents. The text was poignantly sung by the women of the chorus with a vocal percussion accompaniment by the men, and featured an enthusiastically received solo by choir member Maia.

The next grouping was for those who found Sanctuary in special relationships. One particularly charming a cappella selection, Bagels and Biscuits by Theodore Lucas, was inspired by a choir member describing their version of personal sanctuary as Saturday mornings when the family jumbled together in bed eating bagels and other fun breakfast food while watching TV. The Luckiest, a gorgeous poem sensitively set by Ben Folds with tenor soloist Brian Sears was performed next and the grouping closed with Sid Robinovitch’s Noche de Lluvia. This sexy tango vividly created the mood of a sultry rainy night filled with bittersweet memories. The choir seemed to relish this evocative work, the characteristic warmth of their sound lending itself well to the sensuous music.

Sanctuary found in a more traditionally religious sense was the theme represented by the joyously performed Gloria in Excelsis Deo by John Purifoy and Richard Burchard’s challenging setting of Sitivit Anima Mea.

At this point Mr. Carlos introduced Ti-Ri-Ri by Valery Gavrilin, explaining that it might not be an obvious expression of Sanctuary, but some people are refreshed by a night out dancing and meeting people. This flirty Latin-flavored bonbon was a fun departure from the theme, giving each voice has a distinct character: the tenors portraying the suave ladies’ man, the basses as wing man, the soprano’s loving the attention and the altos being just “over it”. The audience thoroughly enjoyed the suggestive winks and batted eyelashes as the singers let their personalities loose.

Guest artist Sean Holt added his vast experience and multifaceted talent to the ensemble for the final three selections of the concert with an improvised tenor saxophone solo in Ola Gjeilo’s Evening Prayer, and again in Mr. Carlos’s spicy samba arrangement of Whose Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf by Frank Churchill. The additional layer of color added by Mr. Holt’s “voice” brought the concert to a heightened degree of intensity with these two contrasting pieces and prepared the audience for the choir’s final offering, Dan Forrest’s fantastically popular You Are the Music.  This approachable choral hit was the perfect closer with Sean Holt on soprano saxophone elegantly exploring the line usually played by horn. The text evokes the concept of Sanctuary from within or even from music itself, the harmonies and textures accentuated by the choir’s innate breadth of sound and an a cappella solo sung beautifully in tune by soprano Kelci Hahn. This piece was the dessert.

This choir excels at contemporary music with a popular flare. They sing with enthusiastic concentration and an ebullient joy that reaches across the “footlights”. With a warm, quasi-commercial sound this group renders texts clearly and blends beautifully with the unfortunately frequent exception of one very nice soprano voice. Mr. Carlos conducts with energy and clarity and his singers are happy to follow his lead. They all look like they are having the time of their life making music together.

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