Cantare Chorale
Cantare Chorale

“Hang on, hang on. You’re still too score-bound,” said conductor David Morales as he stood in front of 100 adult singers at a recent Sunday afternoon rehearsal. Cantare Chorale was practicing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms for the choir’s upcoming 25th-anniversary concerts.

After a few more minutes on the Bernstein, Morales moved on to an arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” and then “Music Down in My Soul,” a gospel song that got the room rocking as the singers clapped and swayed to the music. “Oh yes, I got peace in my soul. Oh yes, I got joy in my heart,” they sang. The room resonated with sound.

Cantare is an intergenerational Oakland-based choral organization that provides learning and performance opportunities for people ages 4 to 80. Morales founded Cantare in 1987 with a group of 26 singers and a vision to employ choral music as a medium for advancing social justice, drawing on its inherent potential to cultivate community.

In 1999, after nine years as minister of music at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church (LOPC), Morales decided he wanted to start a children’s program and a larger adult symphonic choir to tackle major works. “So I started the Chorale. I took the old group, reduced it to 20 [it had grown to 40] so that it would be different from the large group and [could] sing chamber music, and started the kids’ group with one after-school choir in Oakland,” he explained.

Morales’s vision and mission were to build a compassionate community. “That’s the driving force. That’s what we seek to do using music across boundaries that generally divide, be they generations, ethnicities, economics, religious beliefs. And all those things overlap, but that’s what we’re about.”

It’s a mission that each week serves 2,600 underserved children of all ages in eight Oakland schools. Cantare offers classroom music education and eight after-school choirs. And it’s all free. “That’s part of the social justice, equity, opportunity,” said Morales, who gets funding for the program from family foundations, government grants, the schools, and individual donors. In 2005 and 2014, Cantare won Chorus America’s Education and Community Engagement Award.

Karin Kelley joined the Chorale 25 years ago because she had sung with Morales at LOPC, and she jumped at the opportunity to help with the fledging children’s program.  “I knew I wanted to be a part of the Chorale. And right away, as soon as he started the children’s program, I volunteered to help with snacks, music, outreach,” Kelley said. “To me, it set [the Chorale] apart from any other in terms of its mission and impact on future generations.”

Dayana Merino, now a Chorale singer and an Oakland school counselor, joined the children’s choir at Lafayette Elementary School back in 2004, when she was in fifth grade. She’d never sung before. “I was new to the school. After the first rehearsal, I didn’t feel so alone in the school anymore. I realized I really liked to sing. I’ve been singing ever since,” Merino said.

Chorale’s 100 auditioned singers have performed over 800 compositions in 90 diverse concert programs, including more than 20 major choral-orchestral works. The group performs three concerts each season, collaborating with professional instrumentalists from Bay Area orchestras and spotlighting local and nationally acclaimed vocal soloists. Twice a year, the Chorale performs with the kids’ choirs.

Morales said the Chorale is dedicated to diversity in its musical choices, which has made its repertoire eclectic. “This group can sing African American spirituals, gospels. We did a whole concert in nine Asian languages last year from all different countries. And then we are doing Verdi’s Requiem and [Bach’s] B-Minor Mass and Considering Matthew Shepard.”

The theme for Chorale’s 25th-anniversary concerts comes from a song the group will perform, “Homeward Bound.” “For us, home is not simply a location, but a place where there is equity, justice, opportunity, compassion, and love,” Morales said. “We are celebrating 25 years of that journey.”

For tickets and more information on Cantare Chorale’s March 16 and 17 concerts, visit the choir’s website.