Why the world loves the Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus

Performing Arts Monterey Bay June 18, 2013

Seven weeks ago I was turned away at Cabrillo College’s Crocker Theater. The place was full to capacity and the event was Ensemble Monterey’s much-anticipated production of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. So this weekend I arrived early at the much smaller Samper hall on campus to attend Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus’ final send off concert before they leave for a grand tour of Italy, Slovenia and Croatia next weekend. Most of the chorus, and many in the audience, had participated in the Britten work. Last Saturday the hall was already packed with folks whose noisy excitement was contagious, and the concert that followed demonstrated why this chorus, under the direction of Cheryl Anderson, has such a stellar reputation both at home and abroad.

Founded in 1961, when Cabrillo College first opened its doors at Watsonville High School, the chorus took its first international tour in 1988, under the musical direction of Anthony Antolini, for its visit to the Soviet Union. Since taking the podium so capably in 1991 Ms Anderson has directed her chorus in tours of Spain, Eastern Europe, Italy, Austria, Germany and Ireland as well as several extensive tours spanning the US.

The concert opened with ten selections of church music spanning five centuries. The choir’s precision, balance and blend of voices were outstanding in these mostly ‘a cappella’ works. Beautiful though these pieces sounded at Samper, how much better suited they will be in the soaring cathedrals and rambling gothic churches of Europe.

I was eager to learn more about the tour, its inspiration, its goals, and perhaps even glean a behind-the-scenes peek at what it takes a choir of seventy, plus an extensive entourage, on a two-week tour half way around the globe. I had hoped for some comments from the director, but in this I was disappointed. Apart from an introduction to the evening from the Dean of Performing, Visual and Applied Arts, and a few comments in passing from Ms Anderson, little was said. Perhaps they presumed that everyone in the audience was familiar with the invitation, received by Ms Anderson in 2010, directly from the chapel master of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, to have the Cabrillo Chorus participate in the Celebration of the Fifth Century of the Cappella Giulia (1513-2013). The Cappella Giulia was founded by Pope Julius ll in 1513 and choirs from many countries will be participating in the celebrations. In this program works of the Italian masters, from Palestrina—who held the very same position himself in the sixteenth century—to Giuseppe Verdi were much in evidence, as well as contributions from the English contemporary composer John Rutter and the prolific Czech composer, Zdenek Lukas. Austria was represented by Bruckner and Mozart, whose Agnus Dei was performed most elegantly by the Cabrillo Youth Choir.

It will, no doubt, be a very moving experience for chorus members to perform in the ancient cities, and even in the very buildings, where these pieces were heard during in the composers’ lifetimes. As one previous tour member said, “It was a life changing experience for everyone who went.” It’s also an opportunity for Europeans to see the best of contemporary American composers’ artistry, and, notable among this group, Robert Lowry’s How Can I Keep From Singing? The piece opens with the men’s chorus and is joined by a wordless descant from the women, all beautifully balanced. A most moving rendition of Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium shows that American composers are capable of writing a motet to a traditional Latin text which can reduce an audience to tears by its sheer beauty. A couple of up-beat selections, one from the musical Purlie and one a setting of the spiritual My God Is a Rock by Ken Berg, continued the American theme. This latter selection formed the finale of the program, inspiring a standing ovation and an “encore” in the true meaning of the word.

Be warned. If you want to hear this chorus, and you know you should—buy your ticket in advance!

© Heather Morris 2013