IN 1981 members of the volunteer Carmel Bach Festival Chorus saw an opportunity to form their own independent chorus in order to keep singing during the rest of the year. Newly hired by Monterey Peninsula College, Sal Ferrantelli more or less fell into their laps as the ideal music director and conductor and I Cantori di Carmel was born. Ferrantelli came to MPC with a PhD in choral conducting, undergraduate and graduate degrees in music and a long history as an entertainer in his native San Diego. “I could play anything by ear, melody, harmony,” he told me. “And I could sell a song.”
His Italian heritage—he grew up in the Little Italy neighborhood overlooking Lindbergh Field—would suggest the allure of a career in music, especially with a clarinetist father who joined the San Diego Symphony at age 16 and played with them for four or five years. “My father’s father made him put down the clarinet to get a ‘respectable’ job,” Ferrantelli said, meaning joining the family shoe store business.
“The first time I was truly knocked over by choral music I was still in junior high, my last year. I came to a performance by the San Diego High choir. They sang a number of things, but it was a setting by Claude Gillette of The Gate of the Year, that inspirational poem by Minnie Louise Haskins, that did it. It was filled with energy and emotion.”
As Ferrantelli explains, “I was inclined to do nothing else but music, then once I got into high school I was sure. I suppose I could have sold shoes, but that wasn’t in the cards.” The deal was sealed when E. Harrison Maxwell, the choir director at San Diego High asked him to become student assistant conductor. “I did that all through high school, both the choir and the madrigal group. He told me years later that I was the only one that he encouraged to go into leading choirs.” Indeed, Ferrantelli became the only professional musician in his family.
Over the years, I Cantori has performed two annual programs at Carmel Mission, with occasional second performances at other Monterey area churches, and, starting in 1994, several European tours. When they have had sufficient money, they would hire an orchestra and produce major choral masterpieces, such as Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Mass in C Major, Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass and “Theresa” Mass, Handel’s Messiah, Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, JS Bach’s Magnificat, and Verdi’s Te Deum. Other works have included Vivaldi’s Gloria, Bach cantatas, anthems by Handel, Britten’s Te Deum, Jubilate Deo and A Ceremony of Carols, and opera choruses by Verdi. In slimmer seasons they have served up programs of shorter works and greater variety. (This summer, members of I Cantori and Ferrantelli will take this week’s program to Spain and Portugal.)
Ferrantelli entered university at San Diego State where he took a bachelor’s degree and a teaching credential. For his master’s degree in voice he sang Schumann’s Dichterliebe song cycle and lieder by Brahms and Wolf. “But,” he says, “I didn’t have the vocal equipment to go into opera.”
He then pursued his PhD in choral conducting at the famous Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, taking a few years to complete it. While there, he served as an assistant to Dr. Julius Herford, head of the graduate choral faculty, and met his future wife, Carol. They married in 1974 and the first of their three children was born there. The subject of his dissertation was the short masses (missae breves) by Haydn. Describing his “trepidation” in that world he says, “I never felt that musical scholarship was my strong suit. Making music, composing and arranging, I felt secure with that.” To that end, Ferrantelli has written some 20 compositions, almost all for I Cantori, half of which include orchestral accompaniments.
I Cantori’s concert this week includes four Hispanic pieces, some using claves, maracas, conga drum and tambourine. There will also be English and French renaissance pieces, songs and choruses by Brahms, Mendelssohn and Haydn, and the rarely heard choral version of Fauré’s Pavane. Assistant director Susan Mehra will lead a contemporary piece by Joshua Shank.