In a time when many Americans can't be bothered to learn five words in a foreign language, it's nice to meet kids who know the difference between classical and vernacular Latin.
In a recent rehearsal of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," the most advanced students from the Palo Alto group Cantabile Youth Singers found singing in street Latin a snap. But even the younger kids spend plenty of time on lyrics from other languages -- as well as learning to sight-read and hold difficult harmonies.
Rehearsals are often accompanied by classes in musicianship. Ears, not just voices, are carefully trained.
"They're always reaching. They will try any genre, any language," artistic director Elena Sharkova said of her singers. "Even the 6-year-olds sing in three languages."
With such demanding expectations, singers can find it challenging to balance chorus with school and other activities -- especially the more seasoned vocalists. The group contains four choral levels with singers ranging in age from 6 to 18. But this is Palo Alto, where multi-tasking is expected. "Somehow it always works out," 16-year-old soprano Laura Wise said.
And the performing opportunities can make it all worthwhile. The young singers often get the chance to sing with adult musical groups and in grand venues.
Chatting before rehearsal, Laura ticks off some recent highlights: singing with Opera San Jose and West Bay Opera, and performing at Carnegie Hall in 2005. Her eyes grow big at the last one. "It was overwhelming. When you think about everyone who's gone before you..."
These days, the two highest levels of the Cantabile Youth Singers, the Ensemble and Vocalise choirs, are gearing up for another gala concert. From Nov. 15 through Nov. 18, they'll perform "Carmina Burana" together with Symphony Silicon Valley and the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale. Ballet San Jose will also take part in the performances, held at the Center for the Performing Arts in San Jose.
The Youth Singers sang "Carmina Burana" about two-and-a-half years ago, so some of the current singers have experience with the music. But at this evening's rehearsal, many are seeing it for the first time as Sharkova passes around pages printed with several movements of the piece.
Rehearsals are held in a rustic room with a wooden cathedral ceiling at Foothills Congregational Church in Los Altos, and the young singers sit in a semi-circle around Sharkova. Their attention is quiet and focused.
Sharkova translates lines of the Latin music, reading it out loud so the students can hear the correct pronunciation. "This is not the Latin we're used to," she says, explaining that Latin vulgaris has a Germanic accent. For instance, "virginale" has a hard G.
Her singers repeat after her, and many take out small recorders so they can practice later. "The high-tech choir," Sharkova says proudly.
These serious singers, though, break into giggles when Sharkova describes one "Carmina Burana" movement. It's about love, and the chorus members will all be like cupids in the show, but she promises they won't have to wear wings and diapers. Monks' robes will do just fine.
Pianist Jeffrey Jones has been sitting at the ready, and soon he's accompanying the students as they sing, "Oh, oh, oh, totus floreo" ("I am bursting out all over"). Considering many of them have never seen the music before, their pitches and rhythm are impressive.
The focus on musical training is what attracted Sharkova to Cantabile in the first place. A native of Russia, she was a professional singer and choral department chair at a St. Petersburg conservatory. But, she said, there weren't good conducting opportunities for women in Russia, so she came to the United States in 1993.
Sharkova taught at Western Michigan University and then was the director of choral activities at San Jose State University for eight years. When Cantabile Youth Singers founder Signe Boyer retired in 2003, Sharkova became artistic director. She's also instructor for the Ensemble and Vocalise levels. In addition, she freelances as a guest conductor and directs the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale.
Sharkova was already an admirer of Boyer's before joining Cantabile.
"I knew her artistic standards were very high, and the administrative support (for the organization) was solid," she said. "There was definitely a history of great music education."
Sharkova works to carry on that tradition by choosing sophisticated pieces like "Carmina Burana," that have several movements and encourage the singers to think about the stories and themes behind the music.
Boyer founded Cantabile Youth Singers in 1994. The group now holds annual winter and spring concerts, as well as touring and holding other performances. It's the sister organization to the Cantabile Chorale, a 40-member auditioned adult chorus that is in its 29th season. Cantabile Youth Singers currently has 109 members. Rehearsals are weekly, and singers are also expected to practice the music on their own.
Besides appreciating the seriousness of the group, Sharkova also enjoys its friendliness. No divas here, she says: The more seasoned singers are quick to help the newer ones.
Dana Fenson, a 17-year-old who has been with Cantabile for 10 years, agrees.
"I love to sing, and the energy in the choir is so positive. I've made so many friends," she said.
Another focus of the group is movement. Sharkova and the other Youth Singer instructors, Shane Troll and Darva Campbell, often incorporate movement into the choral pieces. This can range from sign language to dance steps.
"People think of choir kids all looking the same, like caviar, not moving except to walk on stage, but that is past," Sharkova said.
Instead, she tries to reflect the music of other traditions, such as African and Latin American, where music and movement flow into one another.
Of course, using movement isn't always feasible; kids wouldn't dance to Mozart's "Requiem." But for Christmas music, the singers can enter in a procession with candles. Story-telling music can be acted out like a play. And in "Carmina Burana," the singers will be in two semicircles, moving within the circles.
Some pieces of music that Sharkova chooses are off the beaten path. For one, the singers are working on "TJAK!" by Stephen Hatfield, which is based on a Balinese monkey chant. It tells the story of a prince being saved by monkeys, and for part of the piece the singers sit on the floor and chant.
Sharkova enjoys taking her chorus in new directions, and plans to continue introducing listeners to unusual music. Part of the fun of working with young people, she says, is that they're willing to sing any kind of music.
"There's so much available," she said. "You just have to be brave."
What: The Cantabile Youth Singers perform with Symphony Silicon Valley, the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale and Ballet San Jose in Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana."
Where: San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose.
When: Nov. 15 through Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 18 at 1:30 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $25-$82.
Info: For tickets, go to Ballet San Jose's Web site at http://www.balletsanjose.org.
The Cantabile Youth Singers will also perform at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Cathedral Basilica of San Jose at 80 S. Market St., singing David Brunner's "Earth Songs" and other works. The Cantabile Chorale has a Palo Alto concert at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2 at St. Mark's Episcopal Church at 600 Colorado Ave. The program features holiday music by Renaissance composers, Cantabile artistic director Sanford Dole, and others. Go to http://www.cantabile.org .