This means the singers of the Bay Choral Guild (formerly Cantabile Chorale) also have to be industrious students. As they prepare for this December's concerts, called "An Orthodox Christmas," the challenge for these experienced musicians is not necessarily pitches and rhythms, but words. Singers are learning works in Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian and the liturgical language Church Slavonic.
"A good deal of us have sung in Russian before, but it's hard to get your tongue around it," longtime singer Mary Holzer said at a recent rehearsal.
The singers have gathered in a music room at the First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto, their faces upturned toward Dole. His arms rise as he directs, a slender tuning fork in one hand. The Ukrainian carol "A New Joy Is in the Air" flows elegantly, the tones full.
Still, there's some picking apart of vowels to do. Should one syllable sound like "roux" or "ru"? A singer who speaks Russian jumps in to advise her peers.
Later, as the group works on a Romanian song, Dole plays a CD of the piece so the singers can hear the native speakers' pronunciation. In the case of one tricky vowel, he advises his singers, "It's the 'I' with the hat on it, as opposed to the 'E' with the two dots."
The practice seems to pay off; when the group finishes the song, a pleased Dole says: "Do you hear how nice and light and buoyant that is? ... That's going to be charming."
Getting these international details right is clearly important in a concert season titled "The Global Village." That desire for linguistic harmony is also reflected in the group's new name.
The chorus was founded in 1979 as the Baroque Choral Guild, but in 2005 changed its name to Cantabile Chorale. "Baroque" was proving too limited a term for the repertoire, and the chorus had also joined forces with the Cantabile Youth Singers.
This year, with the youth group thriving under artistic director Elena Sharkova, the youth and adult choruses went their separate ways. And Cantabile Chorale became Bay Choral Guild, in part to reclaim its initial "BCG" acronym.
"Now we're blissfully back to our old moniker, doing our own thing," Dole said in an interview before rehearsal.
This 30th-anniversary season continues a time of "retrenching" for BCG, Dole said. It's a different world than when he joined the group as music director in 2000. Like so many arts organizations, the chorus has suffered a loss of funding since the dot-com bust and the Sept. 11 attacks. There are also fewer singers in the group than Dole would like: about 40, when he'd prefer 50 to give the sound "more solidity and oomph."
Still, there's a silver lining. Without so many deep-pocketed supporters with an interest in the chorus' direction, the group is freer to go its own artistic way, Dole said. The concerts planned for next June, for instance, will feature a program of folk songs and other "indigenous works," a new direction for the group.
The chorus' seasoned singers — this is not a group for beginners — are used to singing classic requiems and masses, and that won't end, Dole said. "That's the bulk of the choral repertoire, but there's other great world music out there."
Last year, the group delved into pop music for the first time, including a Beatles song. It has also benefited from Dole's skill as a composer; he has written a few pieces for BCG and is planning a half-hour-long piece with piano for the 2009-2010 season.
Dole, a longtime conductor, composer and singer, has deep Bay Area roots; he grew up in Berkeley and was a founding member of the acclaimed men's vocal ensemble Chanticleer. His current responsibilities also include being music director of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.
The Bay Choral Guild has toured locally and overseas, including singing at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice in 2003. Its first professional recording, "The Seasons of Christmas," was released in 2005.
This year's "An Orthodox Christmas" concert will be performed in Palo Alto, Campbell and San Francisco, with the Palo Alto concert on Dec. 14. Besides the carols from Russia, Romania and Ukraine, the program also features Dmitry Bortniansky's "Sacred Concerto No. 6" and Dobri Hristov's "Cherubic Hymn."
Despite any initial troubles with the words in these pieces, Mary Holzer sounds confident that she and the other singers will be able to do the music justice. The group has sung in many other languages, and there are singers who speak Russian, German and Spanish, she noted.
"This group has really gelled," she said. "It becomes kind of like a family."
What: Bay Choral Guild's "An Orthodox Christmas"
When: Dec. 14, 4:30 p.m.
Where: St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Ave., Palo Alto
Tickets: $25 general, $20 for seniors and $6 for students
Info: http://www.baychoralguild.org or http://www.sanforddole.com
Future: The group's March concerts will be titled "Gallic Flavor: French Choral Music with Organ and Piano"; June's performances will be "A World of Song: Folksongs and Indigenous Choral Works From Around the Globe."
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