Camerata Singers at First Presbyterian in Monterey

Music Director John Koza

Out of a gloomy misty afternoon came a warm wealth of emotion as presented by The Camerata Singers program of Dona nobis pacem at First Presbyterian of Monterey. Without an exact admission fee, audience members were encouraged to donate as all proceeds will go to the Veterans Transition Center. Under the artistic and conducting direction of John Koza, these singers continue to evoke the best in their programing. This is also the program that features high school singers as part of the Camerata Futures. For the 19thyear, young singers have had an opportunity to be side by side with seasoned Camerata singers as partners and mentors.

The first half included arrangements of familiar texts by outstanding choral arrangers. We think we know My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, but the impeccable arrangement by Mack Wilberg inspired new layers of appreciation. With tenors and basses beginning with the subtle and confident organ underpinning as played by Tiffany Bedner, clarity of ensemble was immediately heard. The sopranos and altos were equally adept in matching clarity of vocal blend. With the full chorus, this clarity was continued to the depth of new meaning for these time worn lyrics. The John McCrae text, Flanders Fields, is poignant to begin with, but with the choral setting by Paul A. Aitken, this was also taken to new levels of emotion. Tenors and basses lent a background ostinato as sopranos and altos portrayed the imagery. If you are not familiar with this text, look it up and imagine an exquisite vocal version. 

As with My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, everyone knows America The Beautiful. However, Katherine Lee Bates text is given even more gravitas with Buryl Red’s arrangement. The next super high point was Alice Parker’s arrangement of the Irish folk song, Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye. Parker, so often mentioned in conjunction with Robert Shaw, has been a force in choral arrangements for close to 70 years. Her infectious demeanor and no nonsense confidence in music as therapy, as well as enjoyment by both the listener and performer, go without saying. Having the privilege of working with her on two occasions is certainly a musical as well spiritual highpoint. Paired with this was Felix Mendelssohn’s Verleigh uns Frieden. This text by Martin Luther requests that peace be mercifully granted during our life on earth. This was a fitting inclusion for a program describing the rigors and terrors of war as well as celebrating the brave who have fought so valiantly.

Rounding out this first half of musical jewels was Lloyd Larson’s arrangement of A Tribute to the Armed Services. In musically honoring Army, Marines, Coast Guard, Navy, and Air Force with the familiar melodies, audience members of these groups stood as their theme was played so they could be recognized for their service.

Then as if the first half was not filled with choral gems, it was the “warm-up” for the Ralph Vaughan Williams Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace). This 1936 work included texts by Walt Whitman, John Bright, plus biblical adaptations. In addition to Bedner’s fine accompanying, was an outstanding string and percussion ensemble. This was led by Nicola Samra, concertmaster; with Chandra Allen, Laura Burian, Laurel Thomsen, violins; Arlyn Knapic, viola; Chris Healy, cello; Plamen Velikov, bass; Neal Goggans, timpani; and Elizabeth Hall, Stuart Langsam, and Divesh Karamchandani, percussion.

Within the six movements, a continued invocation of Dona nobis pacem was most beautifully sung with exquisite clarity by Leberta Loral. This actually opened the work before the insidious tentacles of impending discord leading to war were heard by percussive cello and bass motifs, and before the text of Beat! Beat! Drums! Blow! Bugles! Blow! Whitman’s text in the third part was sung by Bob Bogardus, which so exactly evoked Reconciliation. The reconciliation, however, was between the self and the enemy – both dead. Again, the poignancy was heart rending with Bogardus’ interpretation. And again, Loral inserted a Dona nobis pacem. Part four description of Dirge for Two Veterans was a visual and visceral portrayal of a son and father. How could any listener not “see” this with the chorus so clearly evoking these images. Bogardus continued with the Bright text describing the angel of death with another Dona nobis pacem overlay from Loral. The last section used biblical adaptations that began with Bogardus vibrant baritone invoking strength and peace. The full chorus continued to the end with many bible verses so clearly noting faith for all nations to be able to gather together in peace. A final Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men from the chorus was beautifully capped with one final and glorious Dona nobis pacem from Loral ending with a hushed stillness. 

This was an afternoon of palpable emotion evoking images felt throughout the audience. Listening to comments afterwards verified how touching this repertoire and especially the Vaughan Williams was. So, once again, Koza and his singers have presented a program of thought provoking repertoire especially relevant in the current times. Congratulations on superb programming and execution of the repertoire by all forces! For more Camerata music, mark May 10thand 11thfor Wrapped in Song.  This will be another chance to savor the efforts of this well honed group under Koza’s direction.

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