Voices carry

The Sacramento Choral Society’s new season gets under way with a less-traveled Mozart piece

Don Kendrick, either conducting the Sacramento Choral Society or playing to the cheap seats.

Don Kendrick, either conducting the Sacramento Choral Society or playing to the cheap seats.

Say the word “classical,” and a lot of people think “orchestra.”

But not Don Kendrick. “You know, the choral repertoire is older, and has a longer history and tradition, dating farther back into antiquity than does the orchestral repertoire,” he says. “The beginning was sung music—sung chant, the singing voice—long before there was an orchestra. The repertoire for singing and ensemble singing is much richer and more ancient.

“Zoltán Kodály, the Hungarian composer, talked about singing as being such an important attribute,” Kendrick continues. “He said, ‘It is through singing that we become literate as musicians, and then apply that technique to all the other instruments.’

“In fact, from my office in the music department over at CSU Sacramento, I’m always overhearing the cello teacher down the hall telling his students to ‘sing, sing that phrase.’ ”

Kendrick practices what he preaches. On October 13, he’ll be leading the Sacramento Choral Society—one of several groups he conducts—in a performance of the Great Mass in C Minor by Mozart, a work Kendrick argues is superior in several respects to the composer’s better-known Requiem. “It’s a piece we don’t hear in live performance a lot on the West Coast. But it’s extraordinary, using both an older style of writing (akin to Palestrina) and a newer, more modern Italian operatic style. The choral writing is sumptuous, while the solo work is elaborately operatic, filled with vocal gymnastics and stunning filigree,” Kendrick said.

“They say Mozart wrote this piece for his wedding—he was about to be married to this beautiful girl who was a singer, Constanze. Looking at this stuff that he wrote for her to sing, she must have been a humdinger of a singer. Part of the reason that he wrote this Mass was to appease his father, Leopold, who was unhappy that his boy was getting married to this soprano when he should be concentrating on his career. It’s possible Mozart thought that if he wrote this Mass and showed off his wife’s voice, Leopold might calm down,” Kendrick suggests.

“The Mass wasn’t commissioned, the way most of his works were. It was something that he just really wanted to do.”

The concert will be the beginning of the sixth season for the Sacramento Choral Society, a group that emerged out of the wreckage of the old Sacramento Symphony’s bankruptcy in 1996.“Initially, this group was the Sacramento Symphony Chorus—and I was on staff with the symphony as chorus master and assistant conductor,” Kendrick explains. Kendrick’s duties there included conducting concerts on the “Mocha and Mozart” and “Jeans and Beer” series at the Crest Theatre, in addition to Christmas concerts—less formal, crossover programs that were aimed at diversifying and expanding the orchestra’s core audience.

When accumulated red ink overwhelmed the Sacramento Symphony, a number of members of the Symphony Chorus approached Kendrick with the notion of continuing the choral group in some form. “Many of them had been singing with the group for 10 or 15 years,” he says.

That led to the formation of the nonprofit Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra in 1996, with the mission of presenting the kind of large-scale choral works that the Sacramento Symphony Chorus had done in the past. That included hiring an orchestra to back up the singers. “We went from being the presentees to being the presenters,” Kendrick said.

This year’s offerings sum up Kendrick’s approach in terms of programming. There’s the Mozart Mass in C Minor on October 13, a holiday program on December 1, Brahms’ German Requiem on March 23 and a Broadway program on May 4.

Kendrick and the Choral Society’s board run the organization a little differently than some of the region’s other arts groups. For one thing, Kendrick prefers to hire his instrumentalists locally, whenever possible, calling back people that he worked with at the old Sacramento Symphony or with ad-hoc groups he conducted back in the 1980s. “This is an orchestra we’ve continued to employ,” he says, “local folks—the same people going into the sixth season. We’re providing work for our own classical musicians, not bringing a lot of people in from out of town.”

That goes for vocal soloists as well. “Part of our mission is to provide local artists with opportunities to sing,” Kendrick says. “Katherine Jolly, our soprano for the Mozart, is a 1995 graduate of Davis High School.” (Her father is on the UC Davis faculty, and her mother heads the English department at Sacramento City College.) “Katy used to come across the causeway and sing with my women’s chorus at CSUS. Then she went to Boston University, and then did her master’s at the Cincinnati College Conservatory. This past summer, she was invited to teach on the Tanglewood faculty. Now she’s working as a model and a soprano.

“Katy has a voice that was destined to sing Mozart,” he adds. “She has a sparkle-bright tone. Ever since she was in pigtails and braces as a high-school student, she could sing the high notes off the end of the piano, as easy as pie. She’ll also be singing Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate on the program.”

Other soloists have local connections. Joseph Faith, the tenor, is director of music at First Presbyterian in Roseville. David Newman, the baritone, is on the faculty at UC Davis. Elspeth Franks is more identified with the Bay Area, where she specializes in early music.

It is also a point of pride that the Choral Society runs in the black, rather than the red. (In fact, a copy of July’s report by an independent auditor was part of the press kit for this article.) “We’ve paid our bills, we’re financially and fiscally responsible,” Kendrick says. Kendrick donated his services as conductor for the first few seasons.

Staying out of debt hasn’t been easy, since there are quite a few costs involved with renting the Sacramento Community Center Theater for performances. “It’s a big place to fill, with 2,400 seats,” Kendrick says. “And we’re putting on concerts at inexpensive ticket prices” (between $10 and $25).

Kendrick came to Sacramento by a long and circuitous route. He grew up in Calgary, Alberta. “My father was a pianist, and insisted that my brother and I be exposed to piano and music theory,” he explains. “This started when I was seven. We’d sit on the kitchen floor, and he’d draw whole notes and half notes with chalk on a blackboard.”

Soon, Kendrick became a choirboy and got into vocal music. “I was the youngest boy soprano, then I eventually became the head boy chorister.” That led to training as an organist, and that calling led Kendrick to the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, and then graduate studies at the New England Conservatory in Boston. There he sang in a chorus affiliated with the Boston Symphony, working under a very young conductor named Michael Tilson Thomas, and meeting such big names as Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa.

Kendrick returned to Canada for a university job, “out in the prairies of Saskatchewan,” he says, moving to Toronto in ’74, where he worked with several different groups. He’s also spent some time working in Louisiana and in France, eventually settling in Sacramento, which has pretty much been “home” since 1985. In addition to a job at CSUS, Kendrick works with a variety of church groups.

What’s it like to sing under Kendrick? “He’s incredibly energetic and vivacious—very positive,” says Katherine Jolly. “He’s really a singer’s conductor. He understands the voice, and what is possible and what’s not possible. He grew up as a choirboy—that’s part of it.”

Matt Krejci, who plays flute in the Choral Society’s orchestra (as well as teaching at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, among other commitments), played with Kendrick in the old days of the Sacramento Symphony. “Don has always been one of my favorite musicians in town,” he says. “He puts some wonderful programs together, and it’s always exciting for players of the old symphony to get some extra work playing the Choral Society concerts. They’ve done a remarkable job keeping ‘the body’ going. They fund-raise, and they know how to get grant money. They’re very dedicated because they’ve been able to keep themselves afloat.”