Sacra/Profana’s Tribute to the Songs of Carole King

The world of popular music has changed significantly since Carole King started writing hit songs in the 1950s and broke out as a solo performer with her 1971 Tapestry album. But the desire to honor her has surged in these latter days.

In 2012 she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; a musical based on her life and songs—Beautiful: the Carole King Musical—opened in San Francisco in 2013 and made it to Broadway a year later, and in 2015 she was made a Kennedy Center Honoree.

Juan Carlos Acosta [photo courtesy of Sacra/Profana]

On Friday (January 19) the choral ensemble Sacra/Profana offered its tribute to King with a concert of new arrangements of her music, including all the songs from her iconic Tapestry album. Of the 20 songs on the program, only a few were arranged for the complete ensemble, but they proved to be the strongest contributions.

With deft harmonic support and the occasional gospel swell, DeReau K. Farrar’s arrangement of “Way Over Yonder” deepened that song’s emotional quotient, which the chorus communicated with heartfelt ardor and subtle dynamic shadings. Equally successful was Colin Barkley’s more harmonically daring setting of “Tapestry,” which alternated dense, darker harmonies with contrapuntal forays and an aleatoric section that tested the ensemble’s otherwise impeccable unity. But that challenge—or danger—provided welcome contrast to a program awash in mellifluous melodies.

For sheer invention and wit, Libby Weber’s setting of “Locomotion” in the style of a Renaissance English madrigal easily won top honors. She broke up the text into cheery snippets layered with typical madrigalesque echo effects, allowing Sacra/Profana’s singers gleeful, if mildly indulgent, exaggeration.

Kenneth Martin juxtaposed Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” with King’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” in a stirring program-closing nod to King’s influence on a younger generation of popular singers. Martin’s a cappella arrangement of “I Feel the Earth Move” skillfully translated the familiar piano accompaniment of the original into pulsing choral chords, and, as vocal soloist, Martin captured the wistful angst of “So Far Away” in a doo-wop arrangement he crafted of another King standard.

Associate Artistic Director Juan Carlos Acosta demonstrated admirable versatility, conducting the ensemble with his usual understated precision, but also providing guitar accompaniment to several arrangements and filling in at the last minute for an ailing tenor in a couple of male quartet song arrangements. Most of the Sacra/Profana members did double duty, playing flute or cello or viola or piano in the arrangements that reserved the vocal line to a single soloist or a smaller ensemble.

Kudos to alto Molly Whittaker for her stylish jazz-inflected account of “Smackwater Jack,” as arranged by Barkley, and her touching solo in Acosta’s setting of “You’ve Got a Friend” with cellos and viola.

Sacra/Profana’s programming deserves credit for thinking outside of the predictable choral “box” and drawing a wider audience into the hall—even if some of the King arrangements did not soar, e.g. “It’s Too Late” for strings alone or the lighthearted casting of several songs in barbershop mode. I would save such musical morsels for fundraising soirees after all the guests have imbibed a few glasses of the bubbly.

Sacra/Profana presented “Re-Covering the Music of Carole King” on January 19, 2018, at White Box Live Arts in Liberty Station and on December 20, 2018, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego. The January 19 performance was attended for this review.

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