Canzona Women’s Ensemble is helping women’s voices be heard.
To mark the start of the ensemble’s fifth season, artistic directors and co-founders Jill Anderson and Cricket Handler brought together two talented local women — composer Meredith Brammeier and poet Bonnie Young — to create a piece that celebrates life on the Central Coast.
“To the God of Light and Shadow” will premiere Sunday as part of Canzona’s “Light & Shadow” concert at Cuesta College’s Cultural and Performing Arts Center. Accompanied by pianist Janis Johnson, Canzona will perform for the first time with clarinet player Caroline Tobin, and with Cal Poly’s PolyPhonics chamber ensemble, directed by Thomas Davies, the university’s director of choral activities and vocal studies.
According to Anderson and Handler, the concert ties into Canzona’s twin missions to explore works written for women’s voices — with a special emphasis on living female composers — and to educate and mentor younger female singers.
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“We want women to know that this is a great thing to do,” Handler said, adding that’s important to “(let) young women know that they are just as important as the boys.”
“You can do high-quality, challenging repertoire. It’s out there.”
Delving into experiences
For the group’s first commission, Anderson and Handler reached out to Brammeier, a Cal Poly associate music professor who also sings in the 24-member ensemble. (Her commissioning fee was underwritten by San Luis Obispo wealth management company R.E. Wacker Associates.)
According to Anderson, the two got the idea after attending the premiere of Brammeier’s “The Passion According to Saint Mark” in April 2012 at San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church.
“Cricket said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get Meredith to write a piece for us?’ ” recalled Anderson, adding that Canzona previously performed Brammeier’s piece “Ocean Country.”
For her text, Brammeier selected “To the God of Light and Shadow” by Young, who served as San Luis Obispo poet laureate in 2011 and 2012.
“The poem really did delve into the depths of emotions and experiences that we have as human beings,” Brammeier said. “It really spoke to me about the way I experience life.”
As an example, she pointed to one moody passage — “Rain heavy and sharp/As pellets of pain/ Of threatened loss/In this land of light” — which Young said was inspired by the death of her daughter-in-law from cancer.
“There were things that were shadows in my life,” Young said.
Other passages in “To the God of Light and Shadow” celebrate the natural beauty of the region — which she describes as a radiant “land of flowers” with “flaming sunsets” and “surging waves.”
“To me, it’s about embracing the beauty of California and everything that comes with living in the Central Coast,” Brammeier said of the poem, noting that she and Young share Midwestern roots.
When selecting a poem to adapt to music, Brammeier said, she looks for “the rhythms behind the words” as well as more practical considerations, such as line lengths.
“I also look, of course, for something that resonates with me … (and) the women singing the piece,” said the composer, who has composed pieces for Cal Poly choirs almost every year since she began teaching at Cal Poly in 2001. She’s currently working on pieces for PolyPhonics and the Central Coast Children’s Choir.
By adding the six-minute, four-part “To the God of Light and Shadow” to its repertoire, Anderson said, Canzona “enriches the whole repertoire for all women’s choral groups.”
Exploring the theme
The reast of Sunday’s program will also explore the “Light & Shadow” theme.
The concert opens with the 14th century piece “Flos Regalis” — “Think of Gregorian chant meets ‘The Sound of Music,’ ” Anderson said — and closes with Gwyneth Walker’s “I Thank You God,” which takes its text from a poem by e.e. cummings.
Other spiritual selections include Bradley Ellingboe’s “That Passeth All Understand,” Eleanor Daley’s “The Cloths of Heaven” and Stephen Paulus’s “Sing Creation’s Music On.”
In addition, Canzona will sing a number of folk songs, including “The Lass From the Low Country” and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” and “Songs of Moonlight” such as Emily Jiang’s “Moon” and Moonlight” and Joan Szymko’s “Wynken, Blynken and Nod.”
Sunday’s concert kicks off a landmark season for the ensemble, which typically performs just two concerts a season.
In March 2014, Canzona will join the San Luis Obispo Symphony to perform Claude Debussy’s “Nocturnes” and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” at the Performing Arts Center, then team up with accordionist Duane Inglish of Café Musique for a Paris-themed concert at San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church.
That April, Canzona will reprise “I Thank You God” with Symphony of the Vines at Mission San Miguel. And in May 2014, the ensemble presents “To the God of Light and Shadow” in Fresno at a collaborative concert with Central Valley women’s chorale Soli Deo Gloria.
In addition, Canzona recently launched a new website with an Art Inspires! grant from The Community Foundation San Luis Obispo County. Handler hopes the move will help the ensemble reach out to bigger audiences.
“The wonderful thing about this ensemble is it fills a niche in the community,” Handler said of Canzona, which debuted in February 2010. “We hope we’re here to stay.”
IF YOU GO
“Light & Shadow”
4 p.m. Sunday
Cultural and Performing Arts Center, Cuesta College
$20, $25 at the door; $10 students
542-0506 or www.canzona women.org
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.