A new vision of the music of Queen

Cuesta Master Chorale teams with other local groups for "The Queen Symphony"

slinn@thetribunenews.comMay 7, 2014 

The Cuesta Master Chorale is teaming up with the San Luis Obispo Wind Orchestra and two Cal Poly choirs for a special 30th birthday bash.

The chorale will showcase three decades of music with two concerts May 17 and 18 at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo.

On the program are hits from the Cuesta Master Chorale’s history as well as the Southern California premiere of “The Queen Symphony,” an hourlong, six-movement symphony inspired by British rock band Queen.

Although audience members will recognize many of the band’s most famous melodies, including “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You,” Cuesta Master Chorale conductor Thomas Davies cautions that “The Queen Symphony” isn’t your typical rock medley.

“If you come expecting to hear Queen’s music sounding like Queen performed it, it’s not that at all,” said Davies, who also serves as Cal Poly’s director of choral activities and vocal studies. He described the piece as a dramatic, technically challenging “symphonic treatment” that pays tribute to one of rock’s most celebrated bands.

The ultimate music

When Davies came aboard as director of the Cuesta Master Chorale, he said, the group was in need of focus.

“What I was trying to do was find a niche, something that would be different for this group to do,” recalled Davies, who had just returned from a conducting seminar at the Oregon Bach Festival. Struck by what he heard there, he mused, “‘I really like the combination of voices with instruments. This is the ultimate kind of music.’ ”

Davies decided the chorale would perform major classical works from all eras. 

“These pieces are not easy to sing,” he said. “You’re always trying to lift the technical ability of the group, and that has happened. They just get better and better.”

Davies described the 90-member chorale as “a wonderful collection of people who love to sing and have a variety of skill levels.” Many of the singers belong to local church choirs, while some have professional experience.

“Our singers are proud of what we do and the community should be proud as well,” said Davies, whose wife, pianist Susan Azaret Davies, is celebrating 30 years as chorale accompanist. 

The Cuesta Master Chorale will open each anniversary concert with an assortment of “greatest hits” including selections from two of Davies’ favorite pieces, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Mass in B minor” and Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem.”

“Every time I get a chance to do them, it’s like coming back to a friend,” he said. “You open up the music and you go, ‘Ah, this is great.’ ” 

Other works on the program include movements from Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” and Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” which was featured on the chorale’s first program in 1984.

Intimidating score

In the second half of each concert, about 200 singers and musicians take the stage for “The Queen Symphony” by British composer Tolga Kashif, which premiered in London in 2002.

“When I first got a copy of the score, I was so intimidated that (I said) ‘We’re not going to do that,’ ” recalled William Johnson, musical director of the San Luis Obispo Wind Orchestra. “First of all, it requires 150 singers, and you think, ‘Where am I going to get 150 singers?’ ”

Johnson, who retired as Cal Poly’s director of bands in 2010, brought aboard Davies, who in turn recruited the Cuesta Master Chorale, Polyphonics and The University Singers — about 170 vocalists in all.

In addition, the San Luis Obispo Wind Orchestra will be joined by several soloists: violinist Brynn Albanese, harpist Emily Bean, pianist Katya Gotsdiner-McMahan, organist Paul Woodring and cellists Jeanne Shumway and Barbara Spencer. That brings the number of instrumentalists up to 60.

At the core of “The Queen Symphony” is Queen itself. 

“You strip away the heavy metal and the loud drums and that leaves you with some incredibly beautiful classical-type music by highly trained musicians,” Johnson said, led by a singer with an opera-quality voice. “The level of musicianship is so high, and it’s why the songs have lasted so long.”

“The Queen Symphony” features popular songs such as “We Are the Champions” along with less well-known tunes including “Radio Ga Ga” and “Who Wants to Live Forever?” The latter serves as a musical throughline in the piece. 

“Picture that in a classical style. It’s gloriously beautiful,” said Johnson, who sees the symphony as a requiem for Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, who died of AIDS-related broncho-pneumonia in 1991. 

According to Johnson, “The Queen Symphony” has been performed only once before in California, by the Contra Costa Wind Symphony in Walnut Creek in 2010. That group’s conductor advised him to hold performances in “a very big hall.”

“(The PAC) is one of the great concert halls in the world,” said Johnson, who added an organ part to take advantage of the PAC’s Forbes Pipe Organ. “Those musicians, combined with that incredible acoustical environment in our hall, will make for one of the most glorious sounds you’ve ever heard in your life.” 

Johnson said a significant portion of concert proceeds will benefit Rotary International’s campaign to eradicate polio worldwide. Funds contributed by audiences and local Rotary Club members will be matched two-for-one by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

IF YOU GO

"The Queen Symphony"
8 p.m. May 17 and 3 p.m. May 18
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$14 to $42
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch.com.

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