A volcano can’t stop this choir

Cuesta College’s North County Chorus thought it had prepared for every eventuality when planning a trip to Ireland this spring: snow, rain, lost luggage.

“ ‘Volcano’ really wasn’t on my radar of possibilities,” choir director Cassandra Tarantino said.

When volcanic ash grounded planes across Europe, however, the choir was forced to cancel a tour of Ireland and Northern Ireland two years in the planning.

“It was a massive emotional blow,” Tarantino said. “This choir has worked so hard to put together this beautiful music that it’s very important ... it’s heard.”

The choir will perform music prepared for the tour in a concert Sunday in Atascadero.

Dream trip planned

Tarantino said the group had been planning a trip to the Emerald Isle since spring 2008.

They raised $30,000 and mapped out a 10-day touring schedule that included stops in Dublin, Belfast and County Sligo, childhood stomping grounds of poet William Butler Yeats, whose work was the inspiration for one of the choir’s pieces.

The North County singers planned to perform at St. John’s Anglican Cathedral in Sligo and St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh. They’d also planned to spend two days participating in the Bangor International Choral Festival in Northern Ireland.

What the choir didn’t bargain on, Tarantino said, was an active volcano.

Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted April 14, melting ice and sending smoke and steam billowing into the sky. As hundreds of people fled rising floodwaters, a cloud of volcanic ash forced authorities to declare much of northern Europe a no-fly zone and cancel countless flights.

The six-day ordeal left thousands of travelers stranded on either side of the Atlantic.

Turned back

Tarantino and her North County Chorus members boarded a plane in San Francisco at 11:15 a.m. April 16, hoping to arrive in Ireland on April 17.

“We got as far as Philadelphia,” Tarantino said.

In fact, their US Airways flight to Dublin was pulling away from the tarmac when the call came to return.

As the plane taxied back to the terminal, “I turned to my husband … and said, ‘Would this be the best time to call the emergency phone number for the touring company?’ ” Tarantino recalled. “He said, ‘Yes.’ ”

As Tarantino explained the situation to Casterbridge Tours, a British company that specializes in concert and church tours, the stalwart singers scrambled to find hotel rooms for 39 people in the already cramped city.

The chorus spent the night at the Hyatt at The Bellevue before heading back to the Philadelphia International Airport the next day.

“By this time, I realized there was no possible way we could get overseas,” Tarantino said, despite hours spent negotiating with tour and airport officials. She told the North County Chorus the tour was canceled.

“That was a pretty heartbreaking moment,” she said, her voice choked with emotion.

Still, Tarantino said, choir members made the best of the situation — using their already scheduled vacation time to visit relatives on the East Coast, explore Disneyland and the Napa Valley or catch rays in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico.

“The choir handled it amazingly well,” said Tarantino, who flew back to California the night of April 17. “They’re just the most patient, giving, loving people I’ve had the pleasure to work with.”

That’s why the choir director is currently planning another trip to Ireland next year — using the choir’s fully reimbursed funds.

“The most important thing is that my choir is safe,” Tarantino said. “We’re home. We’re not stuck in Europe. We’re not at the bottom of the ocean because of volcanic ash.”

Hear the music

When it was founded five years ago, the North County Chorus had just eight singers. Today, the coed choir boasts 45 members — a mix of college students and community members.

This Sunday, the North County Chorus will perform American gospel songs, Irish folk tunes and more at Atascadero Methodist Church.

The program will mark the international debut of two works by Bakersfield-based composer Ron Kean: “The Yeats Song Cycle,” based on the poet’s work, and “The American Mass,” which combines traditional American folk songs and hymns with a formal Latin mass.

“It’s actually a whole project exploring the roots of Irish music,” Tarantino explained.