Angel City 20th Anniversary Concert featuring Calling All Dawns (Los Angeles, June 2012): Concert Report

Calling All Dawns has been hailed as composer Christopher Tin’s greatest work, and is a very accomplished modern song cycle, touching on such themes as human unity, the commonality of the human experience, and the joy of life throughout the world. By combining elegant musical motifs with a choir driven tour of expression through language, and dividing it into three parts (Day, Night, and Dawn) Tin delivered a fantastic album that deserved all the praise it got, winning several Grammys. Coincidentally, it also became the first video game related piece to win a Grammy, as the album is headlined by the ever-so popular “Baba Yetu,” originally debuting in Civilization IV. “Baba Yetu” has been performed in concert several times, including in Video Games Live, but it is only recently that the whole Calling All Dawns cycle has been performed live, bringing Tin’s masterful work to several locations in the US. On June 1st, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Angel City Chorale’s 20th Anniversary concert, which featured the west coast premiere of Calling All Dawns in Los Angeles. Not only was I treated to a fantastic concert rendition of Tin’s work, but I was also exposed to the amazing Angel City Chorale, and the intense passion the group had for this music.

As we arrived at the beautiful Wilshire Methodist Church, I began wondering how the song cycle would function in such a setting. Calling All Dawns was originally recorded at the world-famous Abbey Road Studios with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and several famous artists and choirs. At first glance, seeing the music performed by a small 24 member ensemble orchestra made me feel a little uneasy. However, as soon as the concert started all my fears were assuaged. Led by founder and conductor, Sue Fink, the 140 member chorale immediately awed the audience and presented the music in an astounding and powerful fashion. It also made me realize that the main strength of Dawnswas never in the orchestra, which although had plenty of impact on the album, is played more as a musical backing to the choir. The choir is the main star of Dawns, and the Angel City Chorale absolutely nailed the intensity and passion of the album, and at times even surpassed it.

The concert began with “Baba Yetu,” and immediately the church echoed and resounded with this beautiful piece of music. It became quite apparent that the natural acoustics of the church gave much more strength to both the orchestra ensemble and the choir. Soloists Frances James and Tommy Lamb demonstrated their prowess, but unfortunately didn’t sound as good as the song demanded, especially on the male vocal side of things. But the choir’s combined singing more than made up for that. As we continued with the Day cycle, we entered possibly the most pivotal song, “Mado Kara Mieru,” a Japanese sung haiku, that forms a miniature version of Calling All Dawns’ life, death, and rebirth themes. By using four different vocalists, which each in turn “grow older,” as the song’s lyrics transition from Spring all the way to Winter, and back to Spring again, “Mado Kara Mieru” artistically reflects the song’s themes and lyrics incredibly well. The Angel City Chorale once again performed sublimely, with the song’s strongest moments being supported by the choir’s almost whisper like singing, which quickly turns into an explosive and proud sounding chant, expressing the song on the same level as the album version.

Continuing on, “Dao Zai Fan Ye,” a short Madarin song, influenced by the mystery and enigma of the classical Dao De Jing text, was never my favorite song on the album, as it is too short and forgettable for my tastes. However, soloists Julie Athas and Carol Shih emulate the song’s sound perfectly, and the added singing from the choir, which was not as the piece originally sounded, breathes new life to “Dao Zai Fan Ye.” The next piece, however, “Se É Pra Vir Que Venha,” absolutely blew me away. Being a Portuguese, rhythm based, piece, the song was always well known for its high energy, signifying a reckless abandon of fear and death (the song’s title literally translates to “Whatever Comes, Let it Come). More astounding than the song’s energy is its performance by soloist Kat Green, who earned a standing ovation from the audience. Her energy and passion were absolutely visible during her grandiose performance, which at times eclipsed the original version (performed by Dulce Pontes). We then ended the Day portion of Dawns with “Rassemblon-Nous,” a French anthem-like song, that captured the revolutionary essence of France almost perfectly, and is the most contemporary song from the album. Truth be told, it may be my favorite song from Dawns, and although the Angel City Chorale doesn’t quite match up to the original’s energy and emotion, it was still enough to move me to tears. The small orchestral ensemble also got to shine in this piece, sounding quite good and stealing the spotlight away from the choir quite a few times.

The Night cycle of Calling All Dawns begins with “Lux Aeterna,” based on the Latin text of the tradition Catholic Communion of the Requiem Mass. The ensemble orchestra is given full reigns on this song, as there are only two lines of singing from soloist, Shalondra Sanford, short as they were, but still beautiful. However, the song was rearranged slightly to give the choir those same lines of singing, which made the piece even more majestic than it originally was. “Lux Aeterna’s” new arrangement stood out as being increasingly beautiful and more awe-inspiring, and was a very smart move from the Chorale’s creative directors. Next up, we were treated to the sorrowful but meditative “Caoineadh,” which was originally sung by Anonymous 4. Here, only soloist Grainne Ward’s voice was heard, but it was as beautiful as the original, capturing the mournful and tragic essence of the song. We immediately transitioned into the ending of Night, with “Hymn do Trójcy Świętej,” a Polish Catholic Hymn that varies musically by moving from darkness to light, in an effort to evoke a sense of morning. Interestingly, for the concert I attended, the choir forewent going with a female vocalist, and instead chose soloist Tom O’Neil for the piece. Although his voice was in the same essential register, it was a nice variation to have a male soloist, and brought a little bit of a change to the atmosphere of the song. As the choir solemnly sung on, the song ended on a lightened note, bringing us to the final cycle, “Dawn.”

“Hayom Kadosh,” a short Hebraic prelude that references several musical moments from Calling All Dawns, including most notably from “Mado Kara Mieru,” transitions from the sad sounds of Night into the joy and triumph of Dawn. It’s the shortest piece in the concert, but it does its job well to move into Dawn elegantly and memorably. Soloist Stacy Blair Young did a great job giving her voice a nice soft edge, while retaining the feel of the song. It bears mentioning that at this point the Angel City Chorale played through the four Dawn pieces without stopping for applause, making Dawn essentially a 10 minute suite. It was a nice touch to the concert, and assimilated the feel of the album’s presentation quite nicely. We transitioned into “Hamsáfár,” which connects so well with “Hayom Kadosh,” that they seem to be part of the same song. Overall, it bears some resemblance to the roaming vast feel of “Baba Yetu,” and the Angel City Chorale presented this quite beautifully. Carmen Sicherman, the vocalist for the piece, also gave a very stunning and memorable performance.

The penultimate song, “Sukla-Krsne” is perhaps the oddest sounding song of Calling All Dawns, and definitely the most that resembles a dramatic opera. Based on the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, it originally had three soloist singer, two females and one male, which sang counterpoint to each other, forming a somewhat schizophrenic yet balanced melody, moving from a dramatic, almost battle-like sound, to a refreshing and relaxed vocal statement. For this piece, the male’s vocals were left intact, provided by soloist Steve Tateishi, while the rest of the choir sung the female counterpoint sections. Although very memorable, and sometimes stronger than the original, I couldn’t help but notice how slower the tempo sounded, perhaps because of the smaller orchestra. However, as we entered into a final dramatic blast from the choir, it became clear that the choir’s energy completely overrode this little nitpick. The final song of Calling All Dawns, a traditional Maori proverb called “Kia Hora Te Marino,” left me completely floored. Not only was the passion and energy even more evident, but the soloist, Barbara Nicholls, left a huge impression. Taking up the traditionally male led vocals, Ms. Nichol also simultaneously used the traditional Maori sign language in a dance sort of way, in a vivid interpretation of the song. The result was simply an amazing unison of culture and art that the Angel City Chorale captured brilliantly. Adding one more line of singing in place of the orchestra’s notes, the choir brought the song cycle to an amazing and satisfying close, and were immediately met with a standing ovation.

We were then given a short intermission, before the second half of the show, which was completely dedicated to some of Angel City Chorale’s greatest hits. These ranged from traditional styled songs like “You Are the New Day”, “Why Walk When You Can Fly,” and “Ubi Caritas,” to more contemporary works such as “Louisiana 1927,” and “Star Wars – John Williams Is The Man.” With the exception of one song, none of these matched the artistry or human drama of Calling All Dawns, but that did not mean they weren’t fun or such a pleasure to listen to. “There’s a Leak in This Old Building,” a jazzy song featuring an incredible solo performance by Nicole Papincak, easily became one of the most memorable highlights from the entire concert. Ms. Papincak sang her heart out, and there was such energy in that church, that many in the audience began singing and clapping. “Star Wars – John Williams Is the Man,” based on a popular YouTube video, which is in turn an a cappella arrangement of John William’s classic scores with the whole story of Star Wars as lyrics, was another fun song, this time featuring the Men’s ensemble portion of the choir. They had a ton of goofball fun with the piece, with many dressing and acting as their favorite Star Wars characters.

However, pieces such as the hymn based “Why Walk When You Can Fly,” and the Gregorian chant “Ubi Caritas,” truly demonstrated how united this choir was. Before each song, conductor Sue Fink would pause and explain each song’s background and what it meant to them as a choir. They truly are a family, passionate and dedicated to spreading their music throughout the world, and during their travels and performances, they have shared many memories with each other. Their love and fraternity was truly exemplified during the three song finale, where they asked past members of the chorale who were present in the audience to come up and join them. It was truly moving to see them sing such pieces as “On Children,” and “Soon Ah Will Be Done.” But it was the final song, apparently the most requested to be performed by the audience, which truly moved all of us in a spectacular way. “Africa” began with the choir making rain sounds by rubbing their hands and snapping their fingers. A lighting effect was used, and the whole choir would jump on their stands to make the sound of thunder. They essentially made the entire church echo with the sound of a rainstorm, and it was truly something to behold live. The rest of the song was bold, fun, and triumphant, and brought the concert to an amazing close.

The Angel City Chorale’s 20th Anniversary concert was a huge success, and a tremendous display of talent and passion. Although it speaks volumes of how Christopher Tin’s excellent Calling All Dawns can be performed in a live environment, the Angel City Chorale’s strength lies in its unity as a musical family. It is truly wonderful and moving to see this group of talented musicians keep moving forward.  They have absolutely captured the essence of Calling All Dawns, to the point where they sometimes actually sound better than the, already excellent, recording. I am very excited to see where the group goes from here, and await expectantly for their future collaboration with Christopher Tin in his sequel to Dawns, The Drop that Contained the Sea. Look forward to hearing them again real soon!