Long Beach Camerata Singers to launch big season at even bigger venue

By Richard Guzman, Press-Telegram


LONG BEACH>> When the Long Beach Camerata Singers’ season launches this weekend, the two-night performance will not only be a look back at the choir’s past seasons and a celebration of the 40th year of their Long Beach Bach Festival, it will also mark the start of a significant new chapter for the nearly 50-year-old group.

“Singers’ Choice,” an 18-song concert ranging from baroque motets to opera choruses and romantic art songs chosen by members of the choir, is scheduled for Saturday at the Riviera United Methodist Church in Redondo Beach. The following day, the season opener moves to the Camerata Singers’ new home at the Long Beach City College Auditorium.

With about 900 seats, their new venue is more than double the size of their previous home at the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Long Beach, and the move, Camerata officials say, means the choir can now put on more elaborate concerts and cement a reputation as a professional choir.

“For years we’ve sung in local churches. We just got too big and we don’t fit in the space anymore,” said Robert Istad, artistic director of the choir. “Now with more space, our audience is going to grow. We can increase the level and size of our repertoire.”

The weekend performances will include songs such as Ludwig Van Beethoven’s “Hallelujah,” composer Eric Whitacre’s “Water Night” and “My Lord, What a Mornin” arranged by classical music composer H.T. Burleigh.

As a way to thank the singers for their artistry and dedication to the group, they were given the opportunity to choose the repertoire for the season opener.

“The singers really built this organization,” Istad said.

The four-concert season continues Dec. 21 with a performance of George Frederic Handel’s “Messiah” at the Long Beach City College Auditorium. On March 23, the Camerata singers will team up with the Baroque Symphony Orchestra for Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion.” The concert will be performed with Baroque instruments that would have been used during the composer’s time.

The season closes June 14 with “Camerata Goes Broadway!” featuring solos and chorus numbers from Broadway shows. It will be performed at CSULB’s Gerald R. Daniel Recital Hall.

The Camerata Singers are also the resident chorus of the Long Beach Bach Festival, which is made up of five concerts from Feb. 15 through April 4 at various venues throughout Long Beach. The festival includes performances of Bach’s music from the choir and guest musicians. The choir’s March 23 “St. John Passion” show is being performed as part of the Bach festival.

“The roots of literally everything we listen to today, from bubble gum pop to the wildest art music, all goes back to his innovation,” Istad said, explaining part of the appeal of the long-running Bach festival.

The Camerata Singers’ new venue is a return home of sorts since the group got its start at the school in 1966 when music teacher Frank Allen founded the Vocal Arts Ensemble on the LBCC campus. Later, when funding ran dry for the program the ensemble moved off campus. The group was renamed the Long Beach Camerata Singers in 1995. Allen also founded the Long Beach Bach Festival in 1973.

The group now includes 13 professional singers, although many of the volunteers who make up the rest of the chorus are accomplished artists with degrees in music, Istad noted.

“We have a long standing connection with them for many years,” said Dina Humble, dean of the School of Social Sciences & Arts at LBCC. “We’re getting a great organization onto our campus and it’s an opportunity for not only the community to hear and experience this wonderful music but for our students and faculty as well.”

Istad said the new venue also means they can put on larger shows, like the March 23 “St. John Passion,” which will consist of more than 100 people on stage including the singers and the Baroque orchestra.

“We’ll be able to dream a little bit bigger,” he said.

But there is the reality of having to attract twice as many people to the shows in order to fill more seats.

Jan Hower, president of the Camerata Singers board of directors, said there is definitely more pressure to sell more tickets this season but they don’t expect to sell-out every concert. Still, the move is necessary both due to the need for space and for how the public perceives the group.

“We’re very glad to be in a real performance arts facility. We want to be perceived as a professional choir and not a church choir,” she said.

The board is investing heavily in getting the word out about this season’s shows in order to get more people into the new seats. The organization’s budget is about $160,000 this year. About $15,000 is being allocated towards marketing, which is almost double what the organization spent on marketing last year.

So far, season ticket sales are double what they were at this time last year, with approximately 100 season subscriptions sold.

“Building an audience is a big challenge going forward in the next couple of years,” Hower said. “But I’m really confident about us artistically. We have a great board and now our biggest challenge is getting the word out because we are good.”