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Giving voice to the classics
I Cantori is Savannah's by-audition-only chamber choir
Dr. Robert Harris began I Cantori in Savannah in 1990

When Robert Harris accepted a position in the Armstrong Atlantic State University music department, in 1981, he was already thinking about assembling a first-class chamber choir, from his best students, and the finest singers the community had to offer.

Well, he got busy – academia tends to do that - and I Cantori didn’t make its debut for nine years.

Membership in the 24-voice ensemble is by audition. It’s not easy singing classical vocal music repertoire.

“Basically, when there’s a vacancy we take the best of what’s available,” Harris explains. “There have been times when there have been people who were not, perhaps, as strong as we’d like. The talent pool, to use a current overused phrase, is what it is.”

I Cantori’s Spring Concert takes place May 7 and 8 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and St. Peter’s Episcopal on Skidaway Island. It’s titled Shall We Dance?

“It’s a theme concert,” says Harris, the group’s artistic director and conductor. “Everything in the program has some mention of dance, or is dance rhythm. There won’t be any physical dancing – we’re lucky to musically dance!”

He’s pleased with his 2010 lineup of vocalists. It’s very demanding musical work.

 “There are a number of people who have extensive vocal backgrounds,” he says. “Right now, I’ve got two people that have almost finished their doctorates in music, and a third that has one. A couple of Masters people.

“And there’s hardly an outlet in town for challenging repertoire. You don’t get it in most church choirs. This is something where they’re an important part, individually, of a chamber group – rather than being one of 25 sopranos in a larger group.”

This weekend’s performances include a typically eclectic selection of music, something that Harris prides himself on.

“I’ve always been kind of a repertoire nut, as far as just looking for pieces that everybody else hasn’t done,” he explains. “I don’t know whether I want to avoid comparison, or keep the challenge alive.

“I’ve been at it a long, long time, but I still go to conventions and bring back 20 pounds of music. Just looking for that gem that’s a new piece. I guess it’s a part of my musical DNA to be looking for something that’s a little unusual, to keep the juices flowing for the group, as well as for me.”

 Often, I Cantori commissions new work, and invites the composers to Savannah to observe and comment on the rehearsal process.

“The luxury of being the director,” Harris says. “is that you don’t have to do something you’re tired of.

“This concert has one of the two Brahms Liebeslieder waltzes, and they’re not off the beaten track, but they’re not easy. And especially to have a group that’s vocally capable of the subtlety that Brahms requires … it was just gee, well, we haven’t done Brahms in quite a while. Every once in a while, you need to touch those major bases.”

“Liebeslieder” means “love song,” and Brahms wrote quite a few of them. The I Cantori concert will feature four-handed piano by Timothy McKee, organist and choir director at St. Peter’s, and his wife, Mary Watanabe McKee. Both are graduates of Juilliard and accomplished concert pianists.

“If you don’t have somebody that’s at that level, you shouldn’t attempt it without having the piano,” Harris points out. “Because it’s an integral part of the piece; it’s not just an accompaniment. They’re right in the middle of things.”

Since Harris, like the vocalists, is not paid for his services, I Cantori doesn’t need to raise extra money by doing something like … the occasional pops concert.

This is all about the music, and cash flow doesn’t enter into it.

“Pops is just not us,” Harris says. “A lot of our singers are – to put it politely – more mature. It’s not a style that everybody’s comfortable with. And it’s something that if you’re gonna do it, you have to do it right. Just out and out pops? No, that isn’t us, and it’s just not something that we care to do.

“That’s who we are, and we recognize it, and we hope that people will find that hey, it ain’t so bad after all.”

 I Cantori

When & Where: At 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 7 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 1802 Abercorn St.; At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 8 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 3 Westridge Road (Skidaway Island)

Tickets: $15 adults, $10 students

Contact: (912) 925-7866