Going Choral

Bill McMillan moved to the area to take over artistic direction of the Camerata Singers. Here, he enjoys a walk outside the First Presbyterian Church of Monterey.

Once exposed to it, people don’t easily give up on choral music. There is something contemplative and satisfying about singing along: from the simple pleasure of performing together with Beyoncé while driving, to the tradition of modern Danish Christmas singing parties. Bill McMillan, the new artistic director of the Camerata Singers of Monterey County, calls the network of church and community choirs across the U.S. a well kept secret. “In Protestant churches, singing has been a very strong tradition,” he says while sitting in one of the back pews at the First Presbyterian Church of Monterey, one venue where the Camerata Singers perform. “I like to think that music is the strongest art in the church. But there’s more. Choirs are huge in terms of community organizations. Since I moved here, I have learned about at least four other choirs in the area.”

But not all can claim the 40-year tradition that Camerata Singers bring to the table. Highly organized, with a governing board, they meet once a week – these days it is Tuesday nights inside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salinas – and practice for two hours. They usually perform three times per year.

Due to Covid (nothing less friendly to a choir than a respiratory disease) there are currently 25 singers in the choir. They practice in masks, socially distant. At the moment, they have more men than women – a true rarity within today’s choir community. Ages vary from 30 to 70.

“Sopranos are always the most common voices,” McMillan says. “There are always enough sopranos. Male voices are less common. Interestingly, men are typically better-trained singers.”

Most of the members have some previous musical training. But that doesn’t mean a talented amateur shouldn’t audition, McMillan says. He fell for choral music in high school and went through all the stages of musical education – culminating with a PhD in choral conducting from the University of Northern Colorado. That led to over 30 years of teaching music in colleges and high schools.

Currently, McMillan and the choir are preparing a Christmas special – “Christmas with Camerata Singers.” They don’t do Christian music ministries, he explains; this is classical music. The core of the program will be carols and lullabies by contemporary composer Conrad Susa – a collection of works from Spain, Mexico and Latin America.

“Wonderful people, good people,” McMillan says of the Camerata Singers. “So kind. And I attribute that to singing. After all – to use an older term – when was the last time you heard that a choir member went postal?”

CAMERATA SINGERS begin their 40th season with the 2021 Christmas Concert planned for early December. For more, visit camerata-singers.org

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