Sal Ferrantelli

By Scott MacClellandSal.

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.

I cantori in mission

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.


Michel Singher

By Scott MacClellandc_susanhillyard_150525.011_33

WHEN HE DIDN’T GET THE SUPPORT a motivated young musician needs, Paris-born Michel Singher changed his life’s direction. At Harvard, instead of music he majored in history and literature. Fleeing France after the Nazi invasion the family immigrated to the US. The son of successful Metropolitan Opera baritone Martial Singher and grandson of famous German conductor Fritz Busch, the younger Singher, as a teen, played piano to accompany his father and joined him at the Aspen and Marlboro music festivals. That was when he was discouraged from seeking a professional career in music.

But the calling remained strong and, with scholarships in hand, he “caught up some on his conservatory training.” He attended the Hochschule für Musik in Stuttgart, then Indiana University where he earned a Master’s degree with “High Honors” in Instrumental Conducting.

After a long career as a professional conductor, much of it on the West Coast and in the SF Bay Area, he and his artist wife, Elizabeth Kaminski, retired to Felton in 2005. After a hiatus from actively doing what he loved to do, he decided to establish Espressivo, “a small intense orchestra.” He told me, “It was not to make a point, but rather to make good music with a number of players between chamber music and chamber orchestra, with a dozen or so musicians.” Espressivo’s two concerts so far in this inaugural season have demonstrated a very high level of professionalism.

Their program this Thursday at the Colligan Theater in Santa Cruz will test that standard to an even higher level. It includes a staged version of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat and opens with Schoenberg’s early Pierrot Lunaire, a “melodrama” which calls for solo “Sprechstimme,” a cross between singing and speaking, whose roots grew out of his earlier cabaret songs.

Why these two works by major 20th century masters who displayed little admiration for one another? “They were composed about five years apart, bracketing World War I,” Singher says. That war has inspired many centennial recollections; this is one of them. The Schoenberg came first. “It was fin de siècle, decadent, expressionistic,” he says, adding “It was the solar plexus of the mind at the start of the 20th century.” With Pierrot Lunaire (in moonlight), “Perhaps lunar plexus,” he jokes. Then there’s “the understated, cubist L’Histoire, about a soldier returning from the war.”

These two works illustrate the profound impact the war had on 20th century music, divergent influences that would be felt well into the 1960s and up to the emergence of minimalism.

Singher began his fulltime professional career in music in 1966, at the Hamburg State Opera where he was rehearsal pianist and assistant conductor. Over a 12-year period he conducted many orchestras and in opera houses in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium, numbering hundreds of performances. During summers, he acquired additional experience as assistant to Maurice Abravanel at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. Once repatriated to the US permanently, in his late 30s, he joined the faculty of the University of Washington, then the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. In both positions, in addition to teaching conducting, he was music director of the symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra, and opera. Highlights of his Oberlin years included the inception and organization of an all-encompassing, multi-media Alban Berg Festival (1985) in collaboration with Oberlin College and the Oberlin Museum. He took the Oberlin Orchestra to Lincoln Center for a Beethoven Society concert, and several of his concerts were broadcast on NPR’s Performance Today series.

In the ‘70s, Singher became music director of the Mid-Columbia Symphony in eastern Washington State and repeatedly conducted both the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the Spokane Symphony. His career with opera companies has included Anchorage, Boise, Buffalo, Denver, Grand Rapids, Juneau, Tallahassee, Tucson/Phoenix, and at the Music Academy of the West. He has conducted several productions for West Bay Opera, and earlier this season prepared that company’s Rigoletto. He enlisted Daniel Helfgot as his partner running the opera program at San Jose State between 2005 and 2010. In 2006 he conducted two performances of La traviata at Opera San Jose.

While Stravinsky’s L’Histoire “goes down pretty easy nowadays,” the Schoenberg will challenge his musicians. Only concertmaster Roy Malan and clarinetist Peter Josheff have previously performed the work. Meanwhile, Singher gave two Osher Lifelong Learning lectures on Pierrot at Peace United Church recently. “They were completely into it,” he says of the enrollees. “It became as clear as a Schubert song or a Bach passion oratorio.”

Singher has already announced Espressivo’s next program, in October, including Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Janáček’s Concertino featuring pianist John Orlando, and Schubert’s Octet for Winds and Strings. For March 2017, he’s eyeing Yankee composers.

Photo by Susan Hillyard