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Daring Berkeley Community Chorus offers hefty free program

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The Berkeley Community Chorus, established in 1966, doesn’t shy away from complex material. (Courtesy Bill Hocker/BCCO)
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Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra, one of some 500 volunteer musical groups in the Bay Area, boasts 230 singers among the country’s 40 million community chorale members.

Yet in three free concerts this weekend at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, it’s offering something that distinguishes it from most of its fellow music enthusiasts: a program both unusual and substantial.

For example, Sergei Prokofiev’s 1939 “Alexander Nevsky” Cantata — the composer’s arrangement from his score for Sergei Eisenstein’s famed film “Alexander Nevsky” celebrating a 13th century Russian hero as the Soviet Union was facing the outbreak of World War II — is a rare concert choice for a chorus whose members haven’t auditioned, and with limited rehearsal time. In performances this weekend, the cantata’s mezzo solo is sung by Emily Skilling.

The program, led by Ming Luke, also includes three parts of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 1915 “All Night Vigil,” a grand a cappella combination of Vespers and Matins from Russian Orthodox Church services, and orchestral excerpts from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Other recent BCCO recent programs led by Luke included complex, large-scale works such as the Dvorák “Stabat Mater,” Requiems by Cherubini and Mozart, Britten’s towering “War Requiem,” Brahms’ “A German Requiem” and Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms.”

Founded in 1966 by Eugene Jones, a path-breaking African American conductor in the Bay Area, the Berkeley chorus functions on voluntary contributions, tuition, donations by the singers themselves, and volunteer help in all aspects of BCCO operation by 85 percent of its members, according to chorus member Janice Murota.

Members’ dedication even extends to families: George Martin and Janelle Noble, their son Gregory and daughter Margaret are all involved in BCCO activities.
Noble, a soprano, and father-and-son basses sing in the BCCO as well as its a cappella chamber chorus.

Margaret, a high school junior, is BCCO’s conducting apprentice, mentored by the music director and working with Ondine Young, the assistant conductor.

“Getting up in front of the chorus is the most thrilling and terrifying experience,” she says. “There’s too much to think about. The hardest part is just remembering everything.”

Her parents have a more relaxed attitude: “One of my favorite things is when the four of us sing together,” Noble says. “On a more practical level, it’s great that one night a week we all have the same schedule.”

Martin says, “Our family motto is ‘Life is a musical.’”

Considering the heft of the programs they sing, it may be even a grand opera.

IF YOU GO

Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra
Where: Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley campus
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 5; 3 p.m. Jan. 6 and 7
Admission: Free; donations welcome
Contact: (510) 433-9599, www.bcco.org/Home

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