Robin McKee Williams
Church of the Wayfarer in Carmel was the acoustically lovely and festively dressed setting for the Hartnell Community Choir December 17 Concert. For small groups this venue has the ability to accent and amplify a special richness of sound. Although not one of the larger groups on the Monterey Peninsula, this group of singers under the direction of Robin McKee Williams is certainly one of the most dedicated in its pursuit of performing great choral repertoire. Ambitious choral works included in the afternoon’s program were Ralph Vaughan Williams Sancta Civitas, and Kim Andre Arnesen’s Requiem.
In addition to the choir, these works were accompanied by the ever consistent talents of Monterey Strings Quartet under the direction of David Dally, violin, and including violinist Laura Burian, violist Arlyn Knapic, cellist Margie Dally and with special guest bassist, Aleksey Klyushnik. Additional instrumentalists were Pamela Scholtz, harp; Kevin Jordan, trumpet; and Greg Bullock, percussion. As a side note, the array of percussion instruments was worthy of at least two percussionists, but Bullock seemed to have no trouble single handedly managing. Of special note is the backhand bass drum roll in the final movement of the Arnesen.
Opening the program was baritone Krassen Karagiozov, accompanied by Marina Thomas, singing “Yeletsky’s Aria from Pique Dame” by Tchaikovsky. The depth, warmth and emotion portrayed left no doubt as to Karagiozov’s talent and skill in communicating to an audience. This set the bar very high for what followed and McKee Williams’s singers more than held their own.
Vaughan Williams said of Sancta Civitas, that it was his favorite choral work of his career written in 1923-25. The opening solo by Kiril Havezov, baritone, was at once angular, dark, but uplifting. Jordan’s trumpet from off stage heralded the musical interplay of the instrumentalists with the singers. Featured soloists included Kiril Havezov, baritone; Arthur Woo, tenor; Jody Lee, soprano; and Cora Frantz, soprano. There might even have been a strain reminiscent of Vaughan Williams Lark Ascending. The strength of the instruments might have seemed to cover the voices, but the balance was nicely maintained throughout. One of the pleasures of listening to this work was the obvious effort and pleasure these singers exhibited.
Arneson’s Requiem was an incredible presentation. Loosely following a Latin Mass Requiem, it also included an English poem by Emily Dickenson, “Not in Vain,” as well as an anonymous 20th century poem, “We Remember Them.” Eight movements featured traditional parts sung in Latin interspersed with the English poems. The movements ran the musical style gamut from gentle to very percussive and driving. The opening “Requiem Aeternam” began gently but morphed into percussive mood for the “Dies Irae.” Mezzo-soprano Veronica Jensen beautifully presented the Emily Dickenson poem before the chorus joined with a lush “Kyrie.” A fluid trumpet line, as well as the tenor bass line, supported this movement leading into the “Lacrimosa.” “Rex Tremendae” opened with a pulsing percussive mood, mighty trumpet phrases, and pulsing voices. Jensen again beautifully soloed in the “Pie Jesu” before a young but already very talented mezzo-soprano, Samantha Scattini, added her solo to the beauty of this movement. The “Sanctus” began with driving percussion with the choir adding their own full vocal drive to the end of the “Hosanna in Excelsis.” The final movement of “We Will Remember Them” had Jensen again leading a gentle solo before tenor and bass and then soprano and alto voices joined to reiterate, “so long as we live they too shall live.” After the vocal “amen” the chimes and strings offered a rhythmic re-qui-em along with a bass drum roll.
To hear a program of works that were unfamiliar and so well performed is a treat at any concert. This was even more special as tackled by a community group of wide age range and background experience. To balance the instrumental power the singers put forth their finest and it showed. This effort is certainly worthy of another presentation, and these singers will be traveling to Ely Cathedrale in England in the summer of 2018 to perform under the direction of Craig Jessup. McKee Williams is to be commended for her continuing dedication to serving up major choral works. As announced, this group is now an independent organization no longer directly associated with Hartnell College.