Classics in the Cohan explores 'Nocturnes' and 'The Planets'

SLO Symphony teams with the Canzona Women’s Ensemble for concert

Special to the TribuneMarch 6, 2014 

Should you go hear the Canzona Women’s Ensemble perform with the San Luis Obispo Symphony this Saturday? If you’re interested in leaving behind the mundane realities of your working week and entering a world of sound, color and drama ruled by the impressionistic powers of mythic dream logic, then you’ll want to be at the Cohan Center on Saturday for the Classics in the Cohan concert, featuring Debussy’s “Nocturnes” and Holst’s “The Planets.”

Jill Anderson, who, co-directs Canzona with Cricket Handler, detailed the ensemble’s part in the concert.

“We’ve got 24 singers now,” Anderson said, “and the audience will see us sing the ‘Sirenes’ part of the Debussy onstage.”

In Debussy’s notes on the piece, he spelled out his intentions: “‘Sirenes’ depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.”

“That part of the Debussy is sensual, subtle, and fun to sing,” Anderson said. “There’s no text — we sing only syllables, not words.

“Holst’s ‘The Planets’ is a different kind of challenge, because our section, ‘Neptune,’ stays in the same range the whole time. We have to maintain the dynamics so that we sound soft and floaty and high up.

“For ‘The Planets,’ the composer instructs the singers to be off the stage, invisible and celestial. We’ll be standing behind the curtain, watching Michael Nowak conduct on a TV monitor, and our voices will be amplified, so that at the end, we can fade away into a perfectly heavenly silence.”

After this concert, listeners may want more of the Canzona Women’s Ensemble. The group will present a program of French music March 23 at the Cuesta Cultural and Performing Arts Center.

“We’ll go from the Renaissance to Edith Piaf,” Anderson said.

The group will also perform at the International Choral Festival in Vancouver in 2015.

For conductor Nowak, the Holst is a gripping, alchemical brew of music, mystical astrology, and the shock of history.

“Holst wrote the piece during World War I, when so many musicians and composers died,” he said. “It opens with ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ — and the question is, immediately, what does war sound like? The second movement, ‘Venus, the Bringer of Peace’ — what sound does peace make?

“This is the sort of music that asks you to close your eyes and let the musical cues help you imagine your own realms of color and feeling. It’s that full of ideas. ‘Mercury, the Winged Messenger’ jumps between two keys, like someone who can’t sit still. ‘Saturn, Bringer of Old Age’ is slow and stark, as though Holst were painting the progression of a whole life.

“And the ‘Neptune’ movement, with the off-stage chorus — do you know the story? At the first performance in 1918, he put the chorus in another room near the stage, with the door open, and had a stagehand very, very slowly and quietly close the door as the singers faded out.”

Nowak will be busy this month. Besides conducting this Saturday’s concert, he’ll be conducting a kid-friendly family concert on March 30 at the Cohan Center. The Central Coast Children’s Choir, the Cuesta Chorale, Inga Swearingen, Mark Padgett and others will be giving voice to Broadway favorites from “The Sound of Music,” “West Side Story,” “Mary Poppins” and other beloved shows. (Swearingen is slated to perform “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”)

“This is the way to build the audience,” Nowak insisted. “You don’t dumb down the music by showing some video behind the orchestra. You get people involved.”


Classics in the Cohan — "Out of This World"
San Luis Obispo Symphony, featuring the Canzona Women’s Ensemble
8 p.m. Saturday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$20 to $75
756-4849, or

The Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service