By Scott MacClelland
Of the hundreds of singers who populate the dozens of choirs around the Monterey Bay, a small number actually make their living at it. One standout among the latter is John Koza, director of the Camerata Singers of Monterey County, music director at Monterey’s First Presbyterian Church and the man in charge of the Bach Festival Youth Chorus.
While nine members of the Youth Chorus are performing in two large choral numbers in this year’s Saint Matthew Passion, the full group of 24 teenagers will get their big moment when Koza conducts them this Saturday, 4pm, at All Saints Episcopal in Carmel. In keeping with the festival theme, “Bach and the Italians,” Koza opted to title this challenging a cappella program “The Italian Job.” It consists mainly of 16th century motets and madrigals along with bits from the 19th and 20th centuries. “I chose this repertoire very carefully,” he says, explaining that in the past he has aimed too high. “Chromaticism is trouble; we’re not doing Gesualdo.” Koza added that the group will also sing in run-out performances at such locations as Forest Hill Manor and Gateway Center in Pacific Grove, Rancho Cielo in Salinas and Oldemeyer Center in Seaside.
The Youth Chorus made its Bach Festival debut in 2005. They sang the popular Bach cantata Wachet auf with the professional Festival Chorale in 2006. “I prepare them for several days before they have their first rehearsal with Andrew Megill and the Chorale.” Koza declares that very moment is his festival favorite every year. “I tell them, don’t be intimidated; they’re rootin’ for you.”
While Koza’s career in area music didn’t come about by happenstance, there were important moments of serendipity which came primarily through the ideas and suggestions of others. Vahé Aslanian, the late founder of the Camerata Singers, invited Koza to be his assistant, then his replacement when Aslanian retired in 1999. David Gordon of the Bach Festival had put together a high school chorus and then proposed to Koza the idea of a formalized four-part youth chorus. David Wittrock, who sings with Camerata and the Bach Festival Chorus, read an article that inspired the idea of the “short, intense” next-generation Camerata Futures program.
Koza and his wife Susan, both Ohio natives, came to Monterey from Tucson in 1989 when he took up the position of controller for the Doubletree Hotel. After nine years, he quit the hotel business, became a full-time student at Monterey Peninsula College, followed by studies at San Jose State where he concluded a Bachelor’s degree in voice and a Master’s in choral conducting. In 1995, while still a student in San Jose, he secured a position in his new career at Northminster Presbyterian in Salinas.
Meanwhile he began singing in the Bach Festival Chorus in 1993, and has continued with that group in 19 of the last 21 seasons, some in the Festival Chorale. Today, in addition to his choral work, Koza teaches music appreciation, including jazz, at Hartnell College. In developing his Camerata Futures (and for the Bach Youth Chorus) Koza visits regional high schools to make presentations, including a short video, in the hope of inspiring and recruiting more young people to take up song. This season, two from Camerata auditioned and joined the Bach chorus which represents public and private high schools in Monterey, Salinas and Hollister. “Most years all of the students get in because they are qualified,” he adds.
“The Italian Job” will demonstrate just how qualified and, in spite of the loss of state support, how successful are many music and other performing arts education programs in our region.