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SFCM Students Join Forces with the California Symphony

Brandon Bell ’18, Kaitlin Bertschi ’18, Rita Moreno, Esther Tonea ’18, Jimmy Kansau ’04. Courtesy California Symphony

“If a work doesn’t mean something to the performers, what’s the point of performing it?” For soprano Esther Tonea ’18, music is about sharing something deeply personal. In her recent appearance as a soloist with the California Symphony and SFCM Chorus on a concert featuring Mozart’s Requiem and Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum, she was given the opportunity to take on two masterpieces of Western music and share a part of herself with the audience and fellow musicians.

“I was incredibly excited to be a part of this collaboration,” says Tonea. “Getting to prepare and perform the pieces was an unforgettable learning experience.” Tonea joined over 100 musicians and vocalists onstage to perform Mozart’s Requiem—a work of great emotional depth and musical genius left incomplete—and Pärt’s Te Deum, haunting and beautiful music inspired by early Christian chants.

Tales of Mozart feverishly writing his Requiem as his health declined have persisted throughout the centuries. The depiction of the artist writing a requiem for his own life, regardless of how accurate it is, continues to fascinate and inspire. As Tonea notes, music must mean something, and Mozart’s Requiem cannot escape meaning a great deal.

The concert was built on a longstanding professional relationship between Donato Cabrera, music director of the California Symphony, and SFCM faculty member Ragnar Bohlin. The two were colleagues at the San Francisco Symphony when Cabrera was resident conductor and where Bohlin is chorus director.

With the help of SFCM faculty member Eric Choate, Bohlin rehearsed with the students in preparation for the first rehearsal with the orchestra. “Our hope was that the students would get the invaluable experience of singing two masterpieces with a professional orchestra,” says Bohlin.

The soloists were chosen by audition, giving each vocalist a chance to showcase their talent and vie for a chance to perform with the California Symphony. Jimmy Kansau ’04 was elated to be chosen as the tenor soloist. “I have worked with both maestros before and I know what they always deliver: attention to detail which results in stunning performances.” The maestros, chorus members, soloists, and orchestra did not disappoint.

Onstage, the feeling was electric. “Everything went off without a hitch,” says mezzo-soprano Kaitlin Bertschi ’18. “The musicians all performed with such passion. I actually felt the wind blowing past my head from the Maestro’s emphatic conducting as I sat on stage during the ‘Dies Irae.’”

“Once the first notes of the Requiem began,” recalls bass Brandon Bell ’18, “I was immediately reminded of my personal commitment to being present and opening up my soul and my voice for the audience. With that score, you can’t help but allow yourself to become one with the music and one with the ensemble. Ten years from now, it won’t be hard to recall the chills that ran up and down my spine when our voices came together.”

With two successful performances, Bell notes how proud, inspired, and grateful he felt at the culmination of the project. These feelings were echoed by all the soloists who left the stage aglow with Mozart and Pärt’s music.

“The performances were very well received by the full houses in Walnut Creek,” says Bohlin. “What will stick with me was how all students, including some that had never sung in chorus before, rose to the occasion and delivered the music beautifully.”

Tonea agrees. “Everyone has the ability to learn from and grow with one another, furthering the intricacy and meaning of a piece both in rehearsal and performance. Working with the California Symphony and Maestro Cabrera has proven all of this to be true.”

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