Pacific Edge Voices in Berkeley

Singers, being creative types, are not necessarily content to stay in one genre. That is very true of the members of the Pacific Edge Voices, formerly known as the Pacific Mozart Ensemble. These dedicated singers are of an unusually high caliber for a group that sings unpaid, and they apparently do it for love (and a recent SF Chronicle article on this group reminds us that amare, or lover, is the source of the word “amateur”). They are classically trained and perform two serious concerts each year, but they also prepare all year for a program of jazz and pop, all a cappella, and those concerts often sell out.

Before that light-hearted concert of duos, trios, quartets and full ensembles at Berkeley’s Crowden School last Saturday, June 4, Music Director Lynne Morrow greeted a full audience with a moment of gravity.

“My father was a prize fighter. And so I would like to dedicate this concert to Muhammad Ali, who passed away last night.” She described how that was in line with this year’s program. “Our opener is David Bowie and our closer is by Maurice White of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, both of whom passed away this year.”

She turned and began conducting the ensemble of 25 singers. Over the evening, it became apparent that most of the group could be considered professionals, vocally accomplished and of high musicality. And so it was no surprise to find that they had done most of their own arrangements.

David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” opened, and it had palpable zing. Gentle plops of sound came from the basses and then tenors, and then the whole group trickled in, turning short polyps of sound into a smooth waterfall of drops. A makeshift megaphone appeared and alto Lynne Frame intoned the count down to blast-off as the others sang the lyrics. Arranged by composer Jim Hale and Frame, it was tight, theatrical, and polished, and then stopped on a dime.

Seven singers returned for an arrangement of “Woo Woo,” by the T Sisters, and we were able to appreciate their individual strengths. Each entrance was careful and rounded, with two sopranos and two altos on tight harmonies while Don Kelley supplied a punchy and exacting bass line. But in that and other small ensembles, their technical prowess was overshadowed by the sheer joy they brought to these popular songs.

And then came a traditional gem that left the audience sighing. “Shenandoah,” sung by sopranos Renee Oakes and Amelie Mel de Fonteney, and altos Annette Cayot and Peggy Rock, was a complex arrangement by Kenneth Neufeld and got one of the longest applause. Oakes had liquid vowels and a beautifully dry sound, managing to project an up-close “microphone” sound into the auditorium, while the other three wove their voices in subtle layers.

Each song that followed was a different kind of treat: “Na Na Na,” a 70s new-wave song by Blondie, “Stray Cat Strut,” with tenor Rick Hoskins truly strutting and meowing down the stage (with an assist by two more tenors and bass Dale Engle), and “Valse,” a spoken word triumph of timing and jump cuts.

Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts” was as powerful in its message as in its harmonies, and “Girls Chase Boys (Chase Girls)” was as darkly arch, if more upbeat.  Among the soloists there were several stand-outs: Kimberly Keeton, a mezzo with a high range and a warm chocolaty sound, sang Vinx’s “I’d Give My All (For You)” with Lindy Miller-Castro, a bright mezzo with huge pop energy. Tessa Rubin and Rachael Bigelow were also standout sopranos with big warm voices and an ear for styling and Greg Lee was one of the accomplished baritones who sang a lot of “doo doo doo’s” – and also arranged two of the pieces!

In “People,” we heard choice harmonies like the jazz musings of Manhattan Transfer, and in “Perfect World,” Bigelow soloed at the bottom of her range, warm and earthy against a tapestry of energetic sound effects from three other women and three men.

At 24 songs, the concert was very full but still seemed over too soon, perhaps because of the originality of arrangements, enthusiasm and musical diversity. They ended with “September” by Maurice White, with four excellent soloists and the full ensemble reminding us to “…remember the true love we share today,” in the words of the song. And the altos were divine in that number! That sobering message and high enthusiasm produced a heady feeling not unlike some rock concerts.

This concert will be repeated this Thursday, June 9, at 7:30 p.m. in the Green Room above San Francisco’s newly refurbished Herbst Auditorium, 401 Van Ness Ave, S.F., and again on Sunday, June 12 at 2:00 p.m. in the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave.

—Adam Broner

Photo below of Conductor Lynne Morrow (in foreground wearing gold) and members of the Pacific Mozart Ensemble, now the Pacific Edge Voices. On Saturday, Jan. 4 they had their annual Jazz and Pop concert at Berkeley’s Crowden School, and a number of the singers pictured here took part in that concert. Photo courtesy of PEV.

Pacific Mozart Ensemble-Pacific Edge Voices