San Diego Master Chorale Graces the California Festival at The Rady Shell

As part of Sunday’s California Festival Family and Community Day at the Rady Shell, the San Diego Master Chorale under Music Director John K. Russell presented a moving program of contemporary choral music. I was impressed by African-American composer Zanaida Robles’ impassioned arrangement of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem.

John K. Russell [photo courtesy of the performer]

Most choral settings of this National Anthem are satisfied with stirring up a grand patriotic rush, but Robles’ arrangement for choir and piano takes time to illuminate both the suffering and injustice that James Weldon Johnson’s poetry names—‘We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered’—as well as the hope that leads people ‘into the light.’ Russell pulled a deep, resonant sonority from his singers that rose to the nobility of the text and J. Rosamond Johnson’s soaring phrases, while soloist Kaitlin Barron-Lupton added her gleaming soprano and Bryan Verhoye offered a dramatic, textured account of Robles’ bold accompaniment.

Jennifer Lucy Cook’s deftly structured anthem “They Are Mother” frees the praise of the Almighty from the limited vocabulary of patriarchy, following the similar path of British hymn-writer Brian Wren’s popular 1989 text “Bring Many Names.”

“The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’ famous sonnet that welcomes immigrants and is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, inspired Los Angeles-based Filipino composer Saunder Choi. As his short, crisp vocal ostinatos coalesce into a floating sonic cloud, the lowest voices utter dark incantations that depict the plight of the ‘poor, huddled masses.’ Choi changes the mood when the lilting soprano voices lift ‘the lamp beside the golden door.’ The Master Chorale’s disciplined articulation brought this challenging anthem into sharp focus, and Russell’s astute direction gave the work a welcome dramatic drive.

From Jocelyn Hagen’s 2011 liturgical work amass, Russell selected two movements: the hymn “Where All Are Welcome” and the Sanctus, based on the traditional text of the Latin Mass Ordinary. While Hagen’s Sanctus opens with a sustained, pointillist repetition of the word “Sanctus,” her “Osanna” provided welcome contrast with joyful leaping phrases.

Matthew Brown’s arrangement of “True Colors,” the popular song from 1986 associated with vocalist Cyndi Lauper, closed the Master Chorale concert on a decidedly upbeat note.

This concert was presented by the San Diego Master Chorale at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on Sunday, November 5, 2023.

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