By Kate Rix
For most singers in a chorus, there are occasional magic moments when the music being made is bigger than the sum of the individual singers. Professor Marika Kuzma, choral director at Berkeley, had one of those moments three years ago, while conducting the University Chorus in Handel’s Messiah.
“Something supernatural took place,” says Kuzma. “It sounds so corny, but towards the end of the Hallelujah Chorus, I felt this volt just shoot through the stage and concert hall. And it wasn’t just the power of D major. The harpsichordist came up to me afterwards with tears in her eyes and asked ‘did you feel what happened there?’ and so did several of the singers.”
Housed within Berkeley’s Department of Music in Morrison and Hertz halls, the University Chorus as well as the more intimate Chamber Chorus offer unique opportunities for both music and non-music students to study and sing a rigorous repertoire of choral music.
“When you sing with a group, you create something fantastic and no one person expects to take credit for it,” Kuzma says. “We know it’s a group achievement and feel the glow of success together. There are very few situations in life quite like it.”
While the graduate music program at Cal is world renowned in its Music History, Composition and Ethnomusicology specializations, the undergraduate music program at Berkeley’s Department of Music is unique in its balance. Undergraduates are not made to choose between studying music theory or history and performance. They can do both, which makes for especially well-rounded musicians.
“A student coming out of a conservatory can make beautiful sounds,” Kuzma says. “But we cultivate our student talent by exposing them to history, rhetoric, dramaturgy, theory and the cultural contexts of music in addition to music practice. Our students can make music as well as understand it deeply and intellectually. In the larger scheme of things, this can prepare them even better for a life in music.” The undergrad music program at Cal boasts alums in various careers as soloists, ensemble musicians, and conductors as well as composers and music historians.
Every semester, Kuzma—who is on sabbatical this year—or guest director Matthew Oltman hold auditions for the two choral ensembles. Auditions are open to all students, faculty, staff and community members. This semester, the two choruses will sing music from the British Isles, inspired by last spring’s royal wedding.
In October the Chamber Chorus sang excerpts from Henry Purcell’s Dioclesian and King Arthur at the Berkeley Art Museum. Both pieces are dramatic semi-operas and featured serious music, alongside light-hearted staging of battles and animal sacrifice.
In November the University Chorus performed a program called Hail, Britannia! including a range of British choral masterworks from the Renaissance era to the 20th Century.
It wasn’t be the first time the choruses have focused on music from the British Isles.
“My favorite moment in University Chorus was singing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem,” says Miriam Anderson, who graduated last year with a double degree in Music and Peace and Conflict Studies. The Chorus was joined by the U.C. Alumni Chorus in 2009 to perform this monumental work for the first time on the Berkeley campus. “We were in Zellerbach with a huge orchestra and professional soloists, and it was an extremely moving experience. Whenever everyone in the chorus is really focused and emotionally invested in the music, magic happens and everyone can feel it.”
Anderson continues to sing in the Chorus. She says that as a student singing was crucial to her studies—forcing her to think on her feet. She plans to study conducting in graduate school.
But students with no plans to study music are welcome in the choruses as well. Members this year include graduate and undergraduate students in math, German, psychology and law. During a recent rehearsal, one of the tenors had to leave early to prepare a legal brief.
“The students in the choruses are expected to work hard and perform at a high level, but they do it because they love it,” says guest director Matthew Oltman. “I have worked with college choirs where membership was a requirement. That can be a mixed blessing. At Berkeley, regardless of what the members are majoring in, they want music to be a part of their lives and choose to take part.”
For more information about the University Chorus, the Chamber Chorus and upcoming events, visit www.music.Berkeley.edu.