Let Freedom Ring!
Fourth of July debut concert of Bion Cantorum
by Sherry Campbell Bechtold
(Published in part, Florida Weekly Newspaper, June 2014)
Bion Cantorum is a new choral group in Charlotte County, with an unusual name. Bion (pronounced beeyon) is a Japanese word which translates “sweet voice” or “beautiful sound”and was contributed to be part of the group’s name by Francis Wada, Board Member and Director at Large, and a well loved and respected musical figure here in Florida. Cantorum , Latin meaning “singers”, was added by the group’s Artistic Director Roy Engler, also familiar to local audiences as Director of the Suncoast Chorale for many years.
Last year, local businessman and Baritone John Pappa, after his own experiences with outstanding choral organizations, was inspired to start something new right here in Charlotte County: a small Chamber Chorale dedicated to serious music. He knew Roy Engler, who had the skills, musicianship and temperament to get the job done. He knew Angela Navarro, a fine Music Teacher in the Charlotte County Public School System, who had been the accompanist for the Charlotte Chorale. He knew singers who were hungry for a challenge. And, finally, he had been working with the Charlotte Cultural Center for years and felt a cooperative venture was a natural fit.
Bringing it all together with a stellar board of directors, this was a great opportunity to build something special for local audiences and this spring, Bion Cantorum was born!
Here it is the middle of June, the core of the group has been recruited and they are deeply involved in rehearsals for the debut concert, Let Freedom Ring!, on the 4th of July. The program is diverse, with its centerpiece The Testament of Freedom by Randall Thompson. A significant work, this is a setting of four passages from the writings of Thomas Jefferson which lay the emotional groundwork for the Revolution.
Additionally, in the celebratory mood of the holiday, there will be a glorious arrangement of America the Beautiful, a rousing Battle Hymn of the Republic guaranteed to produce spine tingles and goosebumps, a rendition of Dixie that will make you weep, a remarkable Aaron Copland homage to our country’s trademark sense of brotherhood and love of the land and there is so much more! The repertoire expresses Roy’s eclectic taste in music and his skill in putting together a concert that offers old favorites alongside pieces you may have never heard before, but that are destined to become new favorites. “I have a really long list of music I would love to perform”, Roy remarks wistfully.
I asked Roy why he decided to dive in and start something new with Bion Cantorum. He said it was “the promise of being able to work on good music and sing it well”. He was particularly interested in working with a small group – under 30 – for many reasons. He remarked, “You know, most choral music is written for a smaller group. Working with a smaller group, you can do more material, you know the voices you have to work with and what you’re able to do.” The decision to establish standards for singers, and base membership on auditions was also important to him. Whether a singer has an extensive resume or has sung in a church choir, Roy looks for ability to read music, have a good ‘ear’ and a commitment to learning. Less time spent on mechanics, fixing basic issues and learning notes means more time for “making music”.
For serious singers, this is thrilling. Roy’s education and experience are steeped in vocal and choral music and it is a joy to work with a director whose specialty is the human voice. Of course, knowing the instrument and how to create sound is just the beginning – “making music” involves telling a story, drama, pulling at the heartstrings, surprise, intrigue, suspense, the human experience. Drawing that from a musician is what makes an Artistic Director, whether of a Symphony Orchestra or a Chorus, inspire performers and bring audiences to their feet.
After spending time with the singers and Roy, if I had to choose a word to capture the group mentality, I would say “passion”. “I’m here because I want to make beautiful music”. I heard this expressed again and again from the group members. It is this passion for the music. There is no other reason to be here.
Jean Finks, Board Member and Alto, shared with me, “There is something magical when you are part of an ensemble and it approaches an ideal sound. It happens so rarely…sometimes you are part of a group led by somebody charismatic.” She told me she has been singing for a long, long time (pretty much all her life). She admires Roy’s capable direction, and hopes Bion will provide her the opportunity to work on the complex literature she longs for. “I was intrigued by the audition requirements”! The standards do suggest a commitment to taking on some challenges!
Ray Byron, the group’s Treasurer and a Baritone is a man of very few spoken words. As I talked with several others about their own experience and what brought them to Bion Cantorum, he stood on the side line, shaking his head that he had nothing to say. Then, as we were finishing, he came over to me and showed me a quote he likes to think about: “improve your self-esteem with your voice and bring out the emotions of the recipients”. The he added his own personal philosophy, “You know, I don’t always like the music in an upcoming program, but I remind myself that someone in the audience may love it, so I give it my best and hope it will make someone happy. That makes me happy”.
Regina Buckley, who is Executive Director of The Charlotte Symphony and a Soprano told me, “I joined primarily because Roy Engler was going to direct.” Regina is a classically trained singer and, like many others, is partial to directors who have a depth of understanding of vocal production and literature. Regina had sung with Roy in Wada’s final concert when the Symphony performed Beethoven’s 9th. “I was impressed with his style.”
So am I. Roy’s ‘style’ is inspirational. His technical knowledge of vocal production is impressive, but it is his ability to convey the spirit of the music – the text, the harmonic construction, the mood, the composer’s intention – that makes me sit up and take notice. This is more than something one learns in conservatory, this is the gift that builds a loyal group who are there for the same reason he is – to “work on good music and sing it well”.
If rehearsals are an indication, the debut concert should be very exciting. Another gem in Charlotte County’s portfolio of artistic offerings!