Notes From The Underground: Twenty-Five Years Singing the Same New Song

Friday April 23, 2004

Friday, April 23—that is to say, tonight—Volti celebrates its 25th anniversary with a concert at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. Once known as the San Francisco Chamber Singers, Volti is one of the few professional vocal ensembles in the Bay Area that regularly presents contemporary repertoire (in fact, I count one other: Chanticleer). 

If you’re gun-shy about new music concerts, this may be the restorative you need. The singers are superb, and director Robert Geary manages to find his way to the warm heart of even the most challenging modern score. With The Left-Coast Ensemble as guest artists, a scheduled premiere of new work by Mark Winges, and selected favorites from the group repertoire, this is a concert I’ve been looking forward to for some time. 

Originally from Rhode Island, Bob Geary came to the West Coast from the University of New Hampshire 30 years ago to study conducting with Howard Swan. As Geary tells the story, the group’s inception in 1979 was more serendipity than sweeping vision. It began as a collaborative effort drawing from some of the better vocal ensembles extant at that time. “And I was the one with conducting experience, so I was enlisted.” 

I asked Geary how he felt about the West Coast as a home for the pioneering programs he has presented every year since then. 

“My personal belief is that new music is a symptom of a healthy culture,” he told me. “If we are only creating situations where audiences are given music from hundreds of years ago, then we keep looking b ackward. I always felt, as far as the West Coast, that there’s a history of experimentation and innovation here.” 

I wondered how the Bay Area has changed, in his view, for this work. 

“In many ways, we’re fortunate,” he told me. “The caliber of singers has risen steadily. And there’s a tremendous affection and loyalty—both from the audience, and within the group. We have some singers that have been with group as long as eight, 10, 12 years. At the same time, we’re chronically under-funded, of course. We have small grants from Irvine, and, thankfully, individual donors. But the California Arts Council has essentially ceased to exist. And the San Francisco Foundation, which was one of our big supporters, stopped funding us when they made cuts during the Re agan years. I have a personal rule-of-thumb, which I know seems cynical, but it’s really true in my experience! That is ‘The better the art, the worse the funding.’” 

Financial hardship is always a big secret in America. Everyone puts on a bold face and t heir best suit, even if the wolves are at the door. Talking to Bob Geary, I was reminded of a family that rented a house down the road from where I grew up. I used to play with their kids, bicycling around, trekking through the woods. Then, one morning, they were just gone. The word around the neighborhood was that, hopelessly behind on rent and bills, they’d packed up and moved in the middle of the night. 

I’ve been thinking about that family lately, and about the way we go to plays, dance performances, and concerts with a certain amount of complacency. We enjoy ourselves, are perhaps even deeply moved. Meanwhile, we assume that the work that went into presenting that program is replicable—that the director and the artists will pull it together one more time, and we’ll be back to visit with them next season. 

Yet we know, we who have been watching the arts in the Bay Area in recent years with a worried eye, that it ain’t necessarily so. 

Volti has, in its 25 years, performed internationally, and has tour ed the states several times. They have made recordings, including a CD on the Innova label. They have on four different occasions been a recipient of ASCAP’s award for Adventurous Programming. I can’t imagine a better way to assist them in well-deserved a nd continued long life than to celebrate, with them, their 25th Anniversary at St. John’s this Friday evening at 2727 College Ave. in Berkeley. Tickets are $25. More information can be had at (415) 771-3352. And if you miss the East Bay concert, Volti wil l be performing at 7 p.m. this Saturday night at the First Unitarian Church in San Francisco, 1187 Franklin at Geary (champagne reception and silent auction to follow that performance). 


Clark Suprynowicz is a composer living in Oakland.›,