Wednesday, Nov 28 2012 05:34 PM

Masterworks Chorale rings in 80th 'Messiah'

BY SUSAN SCAFFIDI Contributing writer

For 80 years, the Bakersfield Masterworks Chorale has been singing George Frederick Handel's oratorio, "Messiah." But instead of celebrating being 80 years old, a rejuvenated Masterworks Chorale will prove it's 80 years young with a performance Saturday.

The Masterworks Chorale starts this season with a new director, more than 30 new singers and new repertoire. CSUB choral director Robert Provencio makes his debut with the choir with this concert, after collaborating with former director Phil Witmer for previous concerts.

One of Provencio's responsibilities since taking over has been to rebuild it. At the end of the last season, the choir's membership had shrunk to under 50 singers. Provencio was hired in part because he could recruit singers from among his numerous former students.

"We've got 85 (singers) on the roster now, and we'll have 75 on the risers for the concert," Provencio said.

Since the summer, Provencio said he has also been working with the choir's board of directors to "professionalize" the choir -- updating office procedures and rehearsal guidelines. The audition process has also been changed. Provencio said it's both more formal, and also more accessible to singers who aren't sure if they'd be a good fit for the choir. Provencio has initiated what he calls "open rehearsals" that allow nonmembers to sit in with the choir and sample how the choir works.

"They can try us on for size, and we can try them on for size," Provencio said of the rehearsals taking place Dec. 4 and 11.

This isn't the first time the choir has undergone fundamental changes.

Leroy Gates started the Masterworks Chorale in 1932 under the auspices of the First Baptist Church, which was located on Truxtun Avenue in what is now known as Old Church Plaza. The choir was originally named the Messiah Chorus and its sole purpose was to perform the oratorio, which it has done since that time without a break.

"Even during the Second World War they did 'Messiah,'" said Philip Dodson, conductor of the choir from 1962 to 1991. "They didn't have many men, but they did do it."

It was just as Dodson became director that the choir gained a new focus and a new name.

"The pastor at the time, Rev. John Lavender, said 'Why don't we change its name and expand its repertoire?'" Dodson said. "That was a glorious time, and a great experience for me."

During those years, the renamed Masterworks Chorale continued to perform "Messiah," but also started performing first at the Harvey Auditorium, then at the Civic Auditorium (now the Rabobank Theater), and then returned to First Baptist Church, now on Olive Drive and known as Olive Drive Church. After Dodson retired, the choir became a separate nonprofit organization and began its partnership with the Bakersfield Symphony, acting as a symphonic chorus and performing a diverse repertoire of opera choruses, cantatas, symphonic Masses and other great choral masterpieces.

"It's one of those things that I had the privilege of being part of in the early stages of its becoming the Masterworks Chorale," Dodson said.

Although he is quick to point out that he serves "at the pleasure of the board," Provencio said that the choir's directors have been enthusiastic in accepting his changes, which point to the future. Another addition to the choir's operations is an artist development program.

"We've got some younger singers at the earliest stages of their career and they're getting to work on some pretty sophisticated solos," Provencio said.

Under the program, selected choristers serve essentially as understudies for the professional soloists. Provencio said this gives these singers experience, and allows the choir to rehearse with the solo parts provided instead of skipping over them.

"It's all part of professionalizing how we do things, and offering more responsibilities to those who are able to take them," Provencio said.

In Saturday's concert, the Masterworks Chorale will perform some of the most famous excerpts from what is known as the "Christmas section" of "Messiah," including the arias "O Thou that Tellest Good Tidings to Zion," "Every Valley Shall Be Exalted" and "Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion," and the great choruses "For Unto Us a Child is Born" and "Halleluiah."

Soloists are soprano Susan Kane, alto Cynthia Jansen, tenor Robert MacNeil and baritone James Martin Schaefer. Featured instrumentalists include Dodson and Meg Wise on organ, and Liz Cervantes and Charlene Sargent on piano.

The choir is also adding to its repertoire with a performance of Randol Alan Bass' "Gloria," and two works made famous by Fred Waring and The Pennsylvanians: "The Nutcracker" and "Twas the Night Before Christmas," both arrangements by Harry Simeone.

The concert will conclude with a Christmas carol sing-along for the audience, choir and orchestra.

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