In this 60th anniversary year of the Santa Barbara Choral Society (SBCS), rehearsals, like much of the music it sings, are sacred. Wednesday night attendance is required of every one of SBCS’s 126 current members, and director Jo Anne Wasserman insists there be no fooling around. Got something to say to your neighbor in the Tenor 2 section? Unless it is about the music, you’d better save it until break, because this is a strict organization with an extraordinarily exciting set of programs scheduled for late 2007 and early 2008. Of course, the members of the society wouldn’t have it any other way. For them, the high degree of musicality achieved by this part-professional, part-community group is a matter of personal pride, and comes only after lots of practice and some truly challenging moments.
Brooks and Kate Firestone are going into their second year of singing with SBCS, and they could not be more enthusiastic. With many of the members either professional singers or multiyear veterans, the Firestones enjoy the excitement of having to practice constantly and study hard to stay with the group. Kate said the hard work and dedication required is “what makes it special. Jo Anne is very precise, and a real musicologist, so what she wants is absolutely the best. She really doesn’t go for ‘almost good.'” Unlike many church choirs, membership in SBCS is by audition only, and, as the city’s oldest performing arts organization, it has a great civic tradition to uphold.
The first big concert of the 2007-08 season will be the Holiday Program on Saturday, December 1, at the First Presbyterian Church. There will be a Bach Magnificat, and another Magnificat by contemporary composer John Rutter-the SBCS sings a wide repertoire-along with a selection of appropriate holiday songs. Rumor has it there is a particularly beautiful and tricky Poulenc motet in the mix. The society will reprise this concert for a Los Angeles audience in Culver City on December 8, and then break until January 2, when rehearsals begin for its annual collaboration with the Santa Barbara Symphony and two historic concerts at the newly restored Granada Theatre.
The Holiday Program will no doubt be lovely, and offers a perfect way to begin the season of music, lights, and charity by donating canned goods to the SBCS food drive. But it is the spring sequence of programs, and its culmination with Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana at the Granada with State Street Ballet on May 31 and June 1, that marks this 60th anniversary year as a potential breakthrough one for the organization. Choreographer William Soleau recently scored a distinct hit with his Carmen, which State Street Ballet performed at the Lobero. With 125 SBCS members, many in full costume and playing supporting roles onstage while the dancers do their thing, Soleau’s Carmina Burana is unquestionably the most ambitious multimedia production of the year, and will be a supreme test not only for both organizations, but for the Granada as well. Some of the music will be familiar to virtually everyone-the “O Fortuna” section has been the soundtrack for things ranging from the Capital One credit card “barbarian” commercials to the opening and closing sequences of the movie Jackass-but the staging and much of Orff’s full score will not.
The cantata was written in 1935 and 1936 and is based on 24 poems drawn from a medieval collection of the same name. True to at least one important aspect of what the SBCS does, this is a work rooted in humanistic, rather than strictly religious, interest in the Latin Middle Ages. It is also an unusual and daring piece of modern music, full of rhythmic surprises and subtle, bar-to-bar shifts in meter that distinguish it from more traditional choral music and give it the intimacy and force of a powerful conversation. Throughout each of the songs-which deal with a wide variety of medieval subjects, and include decidedly secular scenes of drinking, eating, and flirting-the great wheel of Fortune turns behind it all, incarnating the most profound of all the Latin figura. The Soleau/State Street/SBCS Carmina Burana would be considered an ambitious undertaking by any of the world’s most prestigious arts organizations, and the fact that it is happening here and at the new Granada, in the height of its first season, is reason for audiences to rejoice in our own Fortune.
So many things had to come together to make this unprecedented Theatrum Mundi (Orff’s term for the total integration of movement, music, song, and speech in a single work of art) possible that it is hard to know where to start, but for SBCS, this could not have happened without nearly 15 years of extraordinary leadership from Wasserman. The group gave many memorable performances in its illustrious earlier periods, including Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov sung entirely in Russian under Stanley Krebs in the 1960s and a dramatic West Coast premiere in 1970 of Dave Brubeck’s The Light in the Wilderness oratorio that featured three former music directors in one performance-Al Campbell on organ, Michael Livingstone singing the baritone solos, and Krebs conducting. But it is the Wasserman era, which began in 1993, that has resulted in this, the most ambitious season in the 60-year history of the organization.
Under Wasserman, the society has added an extraordinary new facet to its already exacting preparation for and experience of the music that it sings. In summer 2007, the group, more than 60 strong, descended on Italy and Germany for a concert tour that included singing Mass on the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Singing sacred choral music requires an exercise of the imagination in order to bring the music fully to life, and nothing could be more stimulating to this faculty than to perform in the spaces for which it was created. The list of historic venues the group sang in is truly astounding-the Duomo in Florence, Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, the Orvieto Cathedral, and the Singers’ Room in Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, just to name a few.
This intense European experience now lies at the heart of what the group will bring to all its upcoming concerts in California. It is good to know that, when the Granada opens on March 6, the gala performance will ring with the same sound that echoed so recently through some of the world’s greatest sacred spaces.
The Santa Barbara Choral Society performs its Holiday Program at the First Presbyterian Church (21 E. Constance Ave.) on Saturday, December 1, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, December 2, at 3 p.m. For tickets, call 965-6577 or visit sbchoral.org.