North County Chorus honors veterans in song

Cuesta College’s North County Chorus starts its recent rehearsals with a simple ritual.

“We’ll ring a bell and read the opening sentence to the Declaration of Independence,” explained Cassandra Tarantino, who directs the Paso Robles-based group. Then the choir members launch into a litany of names of men and women who have served in the U.S. military in armed conflicts, wars and peacetime posts around the world.

In addition to focusing the group, the practice “reminds us right now what we’re doing and why we’re here, and gives us an immediate sense of purpose and patriotism,” Tarantino said.

The North County Chorus will follow the same ritual during Sunday’s concert, Lifting Our Voices in Tribute to Veterans. It’s a preview of next summer’s Freedom Tour, which will include stops in Boston, Philadelphia, Arlington, Va., and Washington, D.C.

Sunday’s program focuses on “songs of praise and peace” by American composers, Tarantino said. They include Gwyneth Walker’s “The Tree of Peace,” which is adapted from the poem “O Brother Man” by John Greenleaf Whittier, and “Choose Something Like a Star” by Randall Thompson, which takes its text from a poem by Robert Frost.

The centerpiece will be “American Mass” by Bakersfield composer Ron Kean, which merges four movements from a typical Catholic mass with four traditional American hymns. Audiences will recognize snippets of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “Let Us Break Bread Together,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Shall We Gather at the River?”

The presence of time-honored melodies “makes music from a modern composer accessible,” Tarantino said. “Even though you’re hearing music you’ve never heard before, folded into it is something familiar.”

“He really knows how to reach your heart,” Tarantino said of Kean, a personal friend she described as “a sounding board and inspiration.”

Also featured during Sunday’s concert will be Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” and the patriotic standard “America the Beautiful.”

According to Tarantino, the Freedom Tour was inspired by the North County Chorus’s 10-day trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland in 2011. (Their visit to the Emerald Isle, originally planned for 2010, was delayed by the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano.)

Tarantino said the choir members so enjoyed learning about Irish history that she started planning a trip that would explore America’s past.

“I thought it would be really wonderful to see our history as Americans,” she said, free of any religious or political affiliations.

Thirty chorus members will perform for audiences across the East Coast, leaving Los Angeles on June 25 and returning home on July 5.

Over the course of the 11-day trip, they’ll tour historic sites such as Arlington National Cemetery, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington National Cathedral and Mount Vernon and Monticello as well as several museums. They’ll also attend a dress rehearsal of the July 4 Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular and perform as part of Fourth of July festivities in Salem, Mass.

But Tarantino said the main focus of the trip will be performing for former service members at veterans hospitals.

“Music heals, and that’s what we’re going to go do,” explained Tarantino, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution whose relatives fought in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and both world wars.

To help fund the trip, which will cost about $30,000 for airfare, hotels, meals and other expenses, the choir is holding rummage sales and offering “Freedom Tour Remembrances” for $20 apiece honoring friends and family members who have served since the Revolutionary War in 1775.

They’ll read the names at the beginning of each concert of the 2013-2014 season, and at major war memorials and landmarks during the Freedom Tour.

“It’s so cool to reach out our hands and say, ‘Thank you for serving our country,’” Tarantino said. “If we can be part of that, that’s a pretty big honor.”


North County Chorus

3 p.m. Sunday

Atascadero Lake Pavilion, 9315 Pismo Ave., Atascadero

$12, $10 students and seniors

546-3195 or www.cuesta.edu

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