Sierra Master Chorale’s new maestro: A sign of the foothills’ growing arts & culture scene

“There’s a new Who in Whoville”!  I joked to my wife Shannon at the end of Sierra Master Chorale’s engaging Spring concert in Grass Valley this afternoon. Her name is Alison Skinner, and we were we delighted to hear Alison conduct the Chorale and its Orchestra for the first time this afternoon.

We have been regulars at InConcert Sierra and its Sierra Master Chorale for years, and this was one of the most enjoyable concerts in memory, including the remarkable “Fanfare for the Common Man” and entertaining holiday concerts that we’ve seen. And this is just the beginning of Alison’s tenure.

InConcert Sierra and Sierra Master Chorale concerts often are a “one-stop shop” for the “who’s who” of local arts & culture enthusiasts.

Those whom we spoke with this afternoon, including Terry Brown at Music in the Mountains; choir members (who include InConcert Sierra executive Julie Hardin and Christine Newsom, mom of famous singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom); and Peter Mason and Ken Getz, co-founders of Sierra Stages (Ken also is in the choir) all agreed that Alison was a welcome talent.

Alison was appointed Sierra Master Chorale’s director in January. She follows SMC’s founding choral director Ken Hardin, who stepped down after SMC’s Holiday 2018 performances. Ken watched appreciatively from the audience — a change for him — and it’s clear the two have good musical chemistry.

Here in “Whoville” — AKA our Sierra Foothills towns — we have an exceptional pool of musical talent for our size. It’s why our FoodWineArt magazine is thriving. But faced with an aging and declining population, we need to keep it going.

Alison fits the bill. She conducted the Chorale and Orchestra with confidence and enthusiasm this afternoon. “Welcome to the Sierra Master Chorale’s May concert,” she said. “I am thrilled you are here to experience what we have been working on for the past 13 weeks.

“I have received a true Grass Valley welcome. Ken and Julie Hardin have welcomed me into InConcert Sierra with open arms and every single singer have personally joined them.”

Alison grew up in Davis in a musical family. She sang with every conductor she could during her years and graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a BA in vocal performance. She then went on to study with renowned music professor and choral conductor Alan Harler at Temple University in Philadelphia and earned a Master of Music degree in choral conducting.

Alison is the Artistic Director of the Davis Chorale, the Music Director and choir conductor at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis. Aside from conducting choirs, she spends time with her children, hikes, swims and occasionally has time to cook.”

I am glad to see western Nevada County building a bridge with Davis, home of the remarkable Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. As an aside, Music in the Moutains’ Artistic Director Pete Nowlen has been a member of the UC Davis faculty since 1988. That’s another bridge we’re building with Davis.

An arousing program

This afternoon’s concert at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which has wonderful acoustics, was a mix of traditional classical music with a more contemporary program. “It seems so fitting that this program traces the arc of the past year for this choir — our retirement of a lovely, wonderful and talented founding director, Ken Hardin — and our finding the way into a new musical life with someone else,” Skinner said.

The concert began with Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. In his seven-section Requiem, the French composer distilled some of the most beautiful melodies he ever composed.

Requiem showed the strength of the Chorale and the Orchestra, as well as Alison’s conducting. This included solo singing performances from 11-year-old Bren Altenbach; and Kevin Doherty, who hosts a classical music program on Capital Public Radio. Richard Altenbach also showed his talent as a violinist. It was a showcase of our region’s musical talent.

After intermission, a string quartet from the Orchestra performed Seven Scottish Airs, a reminder of the breadth and depth of the InConcert performances. Then the Chorale and Orchestra performed Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms with soloists Kathy Chastain, Analiese Lumbard, Ken Getz (of Sierra Stages) and Steve Nicholson.

In the second half of the program, the Chorale and Orchestra’s performance of Aaron Copland’s “The Promise of Living” was arousing and exceptional.

The concert concluded with a gospel performance “Let Everything that Hath Breath,” again showing the group’s depth.

We were not the only ones who were impressed. Alison, the Orchestra and the Chorale received a standing ovation. The concert is performed again on Tuesday night.

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