The singers of San Benito Oriana Chorale—many of whom have performed with the group for more than three decades—are eager to be back in front of audiences this month for the first time since before the pandemic.
The local nonprofit community choral group has been busy since this summer preparing for their upcoming winter season concerts, which are scheduled for Dec. 14, 16 and 18 at Christ Fellowship Church in Hollister. The program features a variety of holiday pieces—including a selection of “joyful Christmas songs,” Hanukkah songs and some Latin classics, said Oriana Chorale Director Rachel Romina. There will also be songs featuring instrumentalists, and a performance from Handel’s “Messiah.”
The group will perform with its accompanist, Maria Amirkhanian, on piano.
“We have some phenomenal soloists this year,” added Romina, who has directed Oriana Chorale for about nine years. “The music is all the things to put you in the mood for Christmas” and the winter holidays.
“I think audiences are going to enjoy the program,” added Romina, who has studied, sang and performed music professionally and as a child for almost her whole life. “It’s spiritual, upbeat, diverse—a lot of variety.”
Oriana Chorale was founded in the late 1980s by local musician Jeanna Balda. Over the years, the group has attracted and retained a loyal lineup of singers who have spent most of their lives practicing their vocal chops for audiences at their schools, churches and other community stages.
The all-volunteer local chorale—which currently numbers more than 40 singers—is a way for members to continue their craft under expert guidance and relatively low stress, and be part of a tight knit community of artists at the same time.
Lauri Venturini, who is in her 80s, has been singing as a tenor with Oriana Chorale since 1997—performing and rehearsing every year minus the pandemic years.
“Because it’s fun,” Venturini said when asked why she has stayed with Oriana Chorale for so long. “I like to sing and I have a pretty good voice. I can blend in. I can read music. I enjoy music and this is a fun way of doing it.”
Venturini missed singing during the pandemic—even her karaoke hobby was banned under public health restrictions—so she is looking forward to seeing live audiences again next week. She was also happy to see more male singers than usual join Oriana Chorale when the group started gathering again, as men are notoriously lacking in choirs at all levels.
One exception is Court Nichols, 88, who is believed to be the longest tenured member of Oriana Chorale. He started singing with the local group in 1986, which he recalls as the year Oriana was founded.
Nichols said he has sung in church and college choirs “all my life.” Among his singing highlights are four years with a choir in Pennsylvania that sang Broadway classics in front of audiences numbering more than 10,000 people.
Nichols, also a tenor, said he joined Oriana Chorale after reading a notice in the Free Lance decades ago that the group was calling for new singers.
“I went and really liked the music they were doing,” Nichols said. “It was very classical, which I was raised doing.”
Nichols, Venturini and other Oriana singers were quick to praise their director and accompanist for their expertise, which includes the essential ability to keep the group cohesive. Romina performed her first vocal solo at age 5, and later studied music at San Jose State University. She worked for the college as a vocal accompanist for several years, and toured Europe twice.
Amirkhanian is a piano instructor at Gavilan College and has performed and studied all over the world.
Oriana Chorale is “lucky” to have such experts, Venturini said. The chorale’s director and accompanist are the only paid positions in the nonprofit.
Romina also gushed about the talent and dedication of Oriana’s singers.
The group just started gathering again for rehearsals in August for the first time since their winter 2019 concert series, which occurred just before the Covid-19 pandemic led to widespread restrictions on public events. But they quickly gelled together as an ensemble ahead of their upcoming performances.
“I’m really excited about my alto section right now,” Romina said. “This year, in particular, I feel like the musicianship has gone up. These singers work hard for me, so I expect a lot of them. People are reading better, singing better. I’m excited with the growth I’ve seen in the musical ability of the individual singers.”
Oriana Chorale is open to singers of all ages; currently, their youngest singer is 8, Romina said. In the past, Romina has directed a children’s choir for Oriana, but it’s unusual to see such interest in singing among the youth.
Annually before the pandemic, Oriana Chorale would perform both a spring and winter concert series; and they plan to resume that schedule as long as public health will allow it. Normally performing at the San Juan Bautista Mission, the winter venue at Christ Fellowship Church is new to Oriana Chorale.
The San Benito Oriana Chorale invites the community to their holiday concerts at Christ Fellowship Church, 2066 San Benito Street in Hollister. Dates are 7:30pm Dec. 14, 7:30pm Dec. 16 and 3pm Dec. 18. Tickets cost $15 in advance if purchased at Postal Graphics, 1760 Airline Highway; or $20 at the door on the night of each concert.
For more information, visit orianachorale.org.