Leberta Lorál

By Susan Meister

LEBERTA LORÁL is a tall woman whose magisterial presence easily dominates a concert stage, yet her affect bespeaks gentility, even formality. She has a deeper speaking voice than one would associate with a soprano, which indeed she is, and while she exudes confidence, there is no hint of overweening ambition.  She has the voice to justify nearly any aspiration she might conjure, yet she steers away from outlining a detailed strategic plan that might lead her to fame and fortune. She has goals, but they are modest ones for now (“to keep my voice healthy and to sing full time”). The latter might be accomplished in short order: she has just engaged her first agent.

Leberta Lorál, native of Seaside, is a homegrown talent.  She started college at MPC as a music major with a concentration of piano, with the intention of becoming a concert pianist, but the head of the music department at the time suggested she focus on voice instead. “I literally gave up piano that day and changed to voice,” she says. At age 19, that was the beginning of her classical vocal training.

From childhood, Lorál grew up in a church where many of the congregants had studied and read music.  The majority of music sung came from hymnals, although there were cantatas, anthems, and more formal spirituals versus the modern form of Gospel music. This was the limit of the sophistication of the vocal music to which she was exposed, yet not long after her decision to study voice, she won the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. That established her as a classical talent. The Monterey Symphony, I Cantori and the Monterey Choral Society would call her parents’ home to ask if she was available for solo assignments, but even with that encouragement, she soon recognized that she would have to leave home if she was to continue her training. She transferred to Cal Poly Pomona to finish college.

Lorál spread her wings wide when she moved to Los Angeles. She sang in the LA Opera chorus, was a featured soloist with the LA Philharmonic’s summer concert series at the Hollywood Bowl, the Southeast Symphony, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. In 2000 she went to Europe for the role of Serena in Porgy and Bess. In 2010, she decided to move to Europe where she was a soloist in Mahler’s Rückert Lieder in Munich under the baton of Andreas Pascal Heinzmann. Her growing repertoire and her connections were leading to main stage roles when, in 2011, she returned to Seaside for a two week vacation to find her mother ill. For Lorál, there was no hesitation: she would stay to take care of her mother until her death in 2013. She describes the experience as so traumatic that she didn’t sing for two years afterward, and yet she still does not regard her homecoming as an “interruption” in her career. “It was more like just coming back to a place where it all began,” she says, and an opportunity to take care of her mother when she was needed the most.

While not having all the singing opportunities she would like in Monterey County, Lorál has made some notable appearances that have attracted critical acclaim. These include solos with the Camerata Singers, which mounted a concert for the benefit of homeless women in this area and regarded as a major success, not the least of which was for Lorál herself, who was able to demonstrate her mesmerizing talent when she sang Henry Mollicone’s moving Beatitude Mass. She will appear again with Camerata in March 2019 to sing Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem in a concert to benefit the Veterans Transition Center.  She has generously offered her talent to the Monterey County Composers’ Forum, singing local composer Rick Yramategui’s melting “Look at the birds in the field.” She also performs at salon concerts, where audiences can appreciate the range and power of her voice in a small setting, recalling the days when most music was heard in private homes. She has the ability to interpret songs from the Baroque to the contemporary, and in fact collaborates closely with living composers like Richard Thompson, whom she met when she performed his music as a featured soloist in the 20th Annual Conference of the African American Song Alliance. During that conference, he asked her to record roles for his opera “Mask in the Mirror,” based on the work of American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (the CD release is slated for January 2019 by Parma Records on the Naxos label). Composer Frederick Bayani Mabalot has written music dedicated to her.

Described as a “spinto soprano”—that is, a voice that has the power and volume to sustain long lyric phrases and can easily be heard over an orchestra (Leontyne Price was such a soprano), Lorál’s repertoire includes a broad range of pieces from Bach’s Mass in B Minor to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. In all of these pieces, such a voice is artistic bliss.

These days, Lorál is coached by Met Opera mezzo Susanne Mentzer and is building up her repertoire of arias. Would she consider moving to Europe if there were roles available to her? “Absolutely,” she says, “It’s just me now, so there are no longer any barriers.” She marvels at the fact that opportunities in her home area are so few, even for performers as well known as Mentzer. “If you’re local, you’re not considered exotic enough to warrant an invitation.” So if Lorál does get to Europe to develop her career further, the invitations from Monterey and Santa Cruz county musical organizations should come pouring in.

Would she want to make her debut at the Met, and is that even possible now? 

“It’s never too late to make your Metropolitan Opera debut,” she says, pointing out the examples of the great contralto Marian Anderson who made her debut in her late 50s, and Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod, who made his own debut in Puccini’s “Turandot” at the age of 84. Leberta Lorál has a long way to go before she rivals his record, but that path will have begun right here in Seaside.


Cyril Deaconoff

By Susan Meister

CYRIL DEACONOFF, Russian born and a graduate of the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory where he studied composition and conducting, might have remained in the conservative safehold that still characterizes the country of his birth. Instead, he left Russia to come to the United States where he is now a citizen, and after earning a doctorate in conducting at Indiana University Bloomington, he struck out in new directions, largely based on his thirst for adventure and his decision to develop his career in an innovative hub like the SF Bay Area.

He is a creature of his relatively young age: the prevalence of technology in this corner of the world convinced him that it and music need to be joined in what he calls “a new musical language.” It is a daring bet, given that the average age of choral concerts in most of the country is 60. So far, the bet is turning out well. Deaconoff not only receives much positive press attention but has also received significant awards. His Two Choruses for Children’s Voices, with lyrics by Malkov, received one of the prizes at the Pushkin Composition contest in 1998 and was subsequently performed in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, along with a number of his other works. His String Quartet No. 1 was selected by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra for their concert of contemporary music. In 2011 the West Bay Opera performed his opera, The Last Tycoon, based on the F.Scott Fitzgerald novel, and his choral group, Voices of Silicon Valley, receives steady praise. He has a publisher, Boston-based EC Schirmer, and one day hopes to have enough time to submit his many compositions to other publishers.

The question is, where will he find the time? At the moment, Deaconoff is Artistic Director of Voices of Silicon Valley, Music Director/Organist at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in San Francisco, Music Director at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Belmont, Adjunct Faculty at Monterey Peninsula College and conductor of I Cantori, one of the oldest and most distinguished choruses in this area. To do all of this he has to travel for hours, sometimes in dense traffic, using the time to listen to a large collection of CDs, or to language tapes (he’s learning French). He can rightfully be called part of the “Freeway Philharmonic,” a term used for musicians who go from job to job throughout the Bay Area and beyond, often over long distances. Someone who chooses this life has to be dedicated, passionate and ambitious.

Ambitious is a good descriptor of Deaconoff, who is clearly aware of the challenges of his chosen path and also confident that it’s the right one on which to be. He came to Monterey to conduct I Cantori, a group that is known for its classical, old-world choral tradition, one that has matched the tastes of its audiences for many years, decades actually. Deaconoff is aware that audiences here may not be in synch with his contemporary bent (he doesn’t call it avant-garde), and if they are not, he is just as comfortable with the classical repertoire that singers and audiences here may prefer. But it is his nature to lead, and he is convinced that technology needs to be a part of a new musical language. “My favorite thing is innovative work that challenges people, even baffles them,” he says. One of his pieces calls for the audience to use an app of birdsong on their cell phones to accompany the singers. It was recently on the program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where, incidentally, he collaborates with the Music Technology and Applied Composition program. For some of his performances, he taps into the community of software geniuses who staff Silicon Valley companies. He says, “We need to figure out how to use technology in musical performance. This is our world now.” For his own efforts in this regard he has received positive reviews, most notably for a recent performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Stimmung, a rarely performed piece for voices and microphones by the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, an electronic music pioneer who he regards as an important influence.

Other influencers, he says, are the entire French composition school and Russian stalwarts Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich. His composition Canticles of Love, Despair and Hope, based on the poems of Emily Dickinson and San Juan de la Cruz, will receive its West Coast premiere at the I Cantori concerts on December 8 and 9. In this and in the program overall, it is clear that he has an affection for the Spanish language (he attended a Spanish school while he lived in Moscow). It is also a bridge to an important segment of the Monterey County community. But what really drives the texts for his music are “imagery and spirituality.” One of his compositions, “Lonesome Valley,” was inspired by the vast vista of the Midwestern plains. That seems very far from the use of cellphone accompaniment to a musical performance, but Deaconoff has incorporated all of the classical elements of his training not only as a composer and conductor but also as an organist, so that he can bring different worlds to his audiences. What is distinctive about his perspective is that he is looking a decade down the road, wondering what will have changed in classical music as a result of a society so dependent on technology. What will audiences want then that they disdain now? Only an open and curious mind will be able to detect it well before others. Deaconoff may be that mind.

At this point in his life, Deaconoff says he’d like to have more time to compose and to continue to innovate musically. He maintains that the audience is a collaborator in any performance, and that he hopes that his audiences will be open to new sonic experiences on which he, as a composer, would like to take them. That will be both the beauty and the challenge of seeing Cyril Deaconoff in action at the I Cantori concerts on December 8 and 9.

May the force be with him.