Music News & Reviews

The sound of women singing

Cricket Handler and Jill Anderson, front row left and second from left, are joint creators and artistic directors of Canzona.
Cricket Handler and Jill Anderson, front row left and second from left, are joint creators and artistic directors of Canzona.

As a teenager, Cricket Handler spent her summers at camp in northern Vermont.

She and her fellow campers would spend eight weeks immersed in music, practicing and performing pieces such as “Three Mountain Ballads,” penned by composer-in-residence Ron Nelson.

“Those kinds of experiences have really inspired me over the years,” the San Luis Obispo woman recalled, while exposing her to the wide world of women’s choral music.

So when Handler and fellow music maven Jill Anderson got the opportunity to form a new vocal ensemble, they modeled it in part after those warm, wonderful summers.

Canzona Women’s Ensemble, which made its debut in February, performs Sunday at St. Timothy’s Catholic Church in Morro Bay. The group will be joined onstage by pianist Janis Johnson and harpist Jennifer Sayre.

“There’s a sense of real camaraderie, almost like sisterhood,” Anderson said. “Women singing together and making music together at a high level is extremely satisfying.”

Local ties

Canzona is the joint creation of artistic directors Anderson and Handler — two women with ties to many of the county’s music institutions.

Anderson, who founded Pacific Repertory Opera (since renamed Opera San Luis Obispo) with Jean Cook, spent 23 years as the company’s artistic director before stepping down in 2008.

Handler served as executive director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony from 1985 to 1994. She spent five years as assistant director of the San Luis Obispo Vocal Arts Ensemble, and has worked with San Luis Obispo High School’s choral program for a quarter century.

Both women have sung with the Cuesta Master Chorale, the Vocal Arts Ensemble and Festival Mozaic choruses.

Despite the wealth of opportunities available locally for female singers, Handler said she’s always dreamed of creating a women’s vocal ensemble.

“There’s just something about that sound that has always appealed to me,” she said.

Anderson, founder of the Los Angeles-based madrigal group Qualche Voce, had also considered forming a small, sophisticated choral group on the Central Coast.

The two women joined forces last spring and created Canzona, an ensemble that features about 20 of the region’s finest female voices.

The group’s ranks include music instructor Judith Dunlore, Cuesta College North County Chorus director Cassandra Tarantino and Cal Poly faculty members Katherine Arthur, Susan Azaret Davies and Meredith Brammeier.

“We wanted women with good voices, good musicianship,” explained Anderson, who teaches voice at Cuesta College.

In particular, she added, the founders were looking for experienced singers who could handle some of choral music’s most challenging pieces. (The group’s name means “song” in Italian.)

Canzona’s Feb. 28 debut concert featured a mix of classical and contemporary works, including Giuseppe Verdi’s “Laudi alla Vergine Maria,” Eric Whitacre’s “Five Hebrew Love Songs” and Leigh Harline’s “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

Sunday’s concert will highlight gems by the likes of Gustav Holst, Francis Poulenc, Maurice Ravel and Robert Schumann, as well as less familiar fare.

The globe-trotting program includes songs in English, French, German, Latin, Russian and Spanish.

“Mata Del Anima Sola,” by Antonio Estévez, recalls the high, solitary plains of Venezuela, while Eleanor Daley’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” transports listeners to the boyhood haunt of Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

Canzona celebrates the California missions with “Al Monte Suspiros” by Mexican baroque composer Francisco Xaxier Ortiz de Alcala. The song was unearthed and edited by Cal Poly music professor Craig Russell.

The concert closes on a whimsical note with American composer Joan Szymko’s “maggie&milly &molly&may,” based on ee cummings’ poem about an afternoon at the beach.

Future plans

As Canzona nears its second concert, its founders are looking toward the future.

Anderson and Handler plan to hold auditions in August; they’d like to see the group’s membership grow to 24 singers.

They’re also preparing for a coming concert season, which will feature shows in November and March. Attending a women’s choral festival in Newfoundland next summer is another possibility.

According to Anderson, creating Canzona has been a fun adventure.

“It’s just a nice, nurturing time to be together and make great music,” she said.

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.