Raising voices for 50 years with the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra

Berkeley Community Chorus in rehearsal. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
The Berkeley Community Chorus in rehearsal. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

The competition for Berkeley’s most Berkeley organization is stiff, but you’ll be hard pressed to find an institution that embodies the city’s best impulses more fully than the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra. Radically egalitarian, creatively ambitious, and committed to offering free performances, the BCCO brings together some 220 singers, many of whom have little or no musical training.

The choir concludes its milestone 50th season next weekend with performances of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” at Hertz Hall at 8 p.m. on June 3, and 4 p.m. on June 4. A massive undertaking that involves a chamber orchestra and a full orchestra, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, an organ, three conductors, and three vocal soloists (baritone Efrain Solis, tenor Brian Thorsett, and soprano Carrie Hennessey), this production of staging the canonical work is the culmination of more than two years of planning.

Berkeley Community Chorus in rehearsal. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Berkeley Community Chorus in rehearsal with director Ming Luke presiding. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

Britten’s majestic evening-length work interpolates the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead with Wilfred Owen’s World War I-era pacifistic poetry. Something of a sensation after it premiered at the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral on May 30, 1962, “The War Requiem” is a rhythmically complex and harmonically demanding work that choirs and orchestras with far more resources than the BCCO tend to shy away from, but it’s an organization that has rarely ducked a creative challenge.

“It’s a very special organization that truly tries to execute the mission that music is for everybody,” says BCCO Music Director Ming Luke, who also serves as music director of the Merced Symphony and associate conductor of the Berkeley Symphony. “It’s not only that all our concerts are free. There’s no impediment to joining. You might sit next to someone who sang in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus for 20 years or someone who’s never read music in their life.”


There’s no musical impediment to joining and no auditions required, but these days the BCCO has a long wait list brimming with sopranos and altos, a fact directly attributable to Ming’s skillful and charismatic leadership. Only the third person to direct the ensemble in half a century, Luke took over from local legend Arlene Sagan after her 21-year run (1988 to 2011).

Berkeley Community Chorus in rehearsal. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Berkeley Community Chorus in rehearsal. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

“She was the heart and soul during that time, and I think people anticipated it was going to be different,” says bass Christian Fritze, who followed his wife into the BCCO in 2003 and is now president of the board. “Ming immediately established himself as someone with tremendous vigor and musicality, someone who lived this commitment to leading a group where everybody could sing regardless of experience. That’s why we’ve got this tremendous wait list now.”

The choir was created by Eugene Jones in a moment of defiance and optimism as a program in the Berkeley Adult School. A gifted and avid bass who sang with several local opera companies (he also subbed at Berkeley High, teaching music and black history), Jones helped break the color line in the Oakland Fire Department in the late 1940s. In 1966 he started the BCCO with four singers, but quickly attracted a multi-racial cast of some five dozen. By the time he retired and Sagan stepped in the organization was a non-profit with a strong board of directors.

She continued to expand the choir, while hewing to Jones’s vision of a non-auditioned ensemble accessible to anyone willing to throw themselves into the music. So how does someone who can’t read a score tackle a daunting work like “The War Requiem”?

“The choir provides a tremendous amount of resources, recordings where each voice is singled out so that you can listen and learn it like a song,” says Marco Falconi, the ensemble’s newest arrival. “Some members don’t read music. I don’t sight sing. The chorus provides ways for people to get to know the music, and we’re expected to do our homework.”

Watch the chorus at a recent rehearsal:

Many BCCO singers live in Berkeley, but the singular organization draws widely from Oakland, El Cerrito, Richmond and Alameda, with a significant contingent from San Francisco and the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel. With only one part-time staff member, the organization thrives because everyone involved as a board member or vocalist takes on various responsibilities (check out the impressive website devoted to the organization’s 50th anniversary).


Talking to a group of singers during a break in a recent Monday night rehearsal at the First Congregational Church their respect for Luke and devotion to the BCCO was plain to see. Johanna Clark, who joined the choir in 1989, likes to tell the story of discovering the ensemble via a flyer posted on Telegraph Avenue. She’s the longest tenured singer in the BCCO, and sang alongside some members who joined during the chorus’s first decade. Plunging in as a singer and volunteer, she did a stint as board president in the mid-90s, and encapsulated the sentiments of other singers in the group interview when she spoke about the almost ecstatic experience of singing communally with a group of friends.

“It’s an amazing connective experience that’s all kind of mixed up, the bonding that comes socially and the blend that can happen musically,” she says. “I don’t have much musical background and I’m continuing to learn how to blend after all these years, hitting those notes right. It’s an amazing pleasure to sing in this diverse community. So many of us start the rehearsals wiped out from work, and you leave at 10 pm quite uplifted, inspired and wired. Something about it has a kind of spiritual quality.”

Founded by a civil rights activist, sustained by a community of passionate amateurs eager to tackle challenging works, dedicated to welcoming all comers, and committed to offering free performances — the BCCO represents a platonic ideal of Berkeley, except that they’ve been making music on the ground for 50 years.

Berkeley Community Chorus in rehearsal. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Berkeley Community Chorus in rehearsal. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

Recommended gigs: Chora Nova / Carlos Oliveira / Phillip Greenlief

Speaking of Berkeley choruses, the 60-voice Chora Nova celebrates its 10th anniversary 8 p.m. Saturday at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley with a performance of Carl Orff’s monumental “Carmina Burana.” Directed by countertenor and conductor Paul Flight since its launch in 2006, Chora Nova casts a wide net for material, often exploring seldom performed works.

An inspirational force on the Bay Area Brazilian music scene for many years, seven-string guitarist and composer Carlos Oliveira is back in town from Recife, Pernambuco, performing with some of his compatriots. He joins the Berkeley Choro Ensemble at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church Parrish Hall in Albany 8 p.m. Friday, playing his originals and choro standards with flutist Jane Lenoir, clarinetist Harvey Wainapel, Brian Rice on the frame drum pandeiro, Kiko Lazzarotto on the four-string cavaquinho and Ricardo Peixoto on seven-string Brazilian guitar.

A creatively charged double bill Sunday at the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space features a duo with saxophone explorer Phillip Greenlief and percussionist Jordan Glenn followed by the Nathan Clevenger Group. Both sets focus on original music, with the duo playing Greenlief’s Etudes and Clevenger’s septet richly orchestrated compositions. Featuring altoist Kasey Knudsen, Cory Wright on tenor sax, clarinet and flute, Rachel Condry on bass clarinet and clarinet, and drummers Jon Arkin and Jason Levis, the concert serves as s send-off for the band’s bassist Sam Bevan, who’s moving to New York City. An essential member of several stellar ensembles in addition to Clevenger’s group, he’s leaving a gapping void on the Bay Area music scene.


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