Bringing holiday joy through song

As the crowd finds its seats in the auditorium, lights dim and an expectant hush falls over the audience. All attention is focused on a rather diminutive woman at the front of the room. With a wave of her hand, Laila Schoenlein unleashes a burst of song from the choir assembled in front of her on stage, setting in motion a joyful noise.

For more than 40 years Schoenlein's steady, guiding hand has kept the Petaluma Chorale in the forefront of Northern California choir groups, delighting audiences with a broad spectrum of musical genres and composers. Though the choir has undergone name changes and formed and re-formed with different configurations over the years, Schoenlein has been the constant force behind it since she was named director in the 1960s.

This season, the co-ed chorale is nearly 50-voices-strong and they will present a very ambitious program with more than 20 different works, all written or arranged by internationally famed composer John Rutter. Director Schoenlein explains, "We have chosen a variety of pieces that showcase the range of his work and highlight the vocal talents of our chorale."

Rutter has been lauded as "…the world's greatest living composer and conductor of choral music," by NBC's "Today Show." In 2011, his composition for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, "This Is The Day," was heard by millions of viewers around the globe who watched the ceremony.

"The singers are excited about this year's program," said Schoenlein, "From John Rutter's timeless &‘Gloria' and &‘Wells Jubilate,' to his arrangements of &‘Go Tell it on the Mountain' and &‘When the Saints Go Marching In,' we're looking forward to offering an expansive collection from this beloved musical icon."

There will be a 10-piece orchestra to accompany the choir assembled from local musicians. Surprisingly, all are from Petaluma or Sonoma County. "We've developed a network over the years and we pay the musicians," Schoenlein notes. "But for the holidays I have to get the word out early or they will all be booked on other events."

One Petaluma musician who got a call was Lucas BeberVanzo. "I had been asked to play flute with the chorale last winter," he said. "And they invited me again this season." At age 18, BeberVanzo is the youngest musician in the band. A graduate of Petaluma High School, he is proficient on several instruments. "I started playing piano when I was about 7 and in the 5th grade I began playing flute."

He then added saxophone, bassoon, xylophone and marimba to his repertoire, and, as he points out, "I play a pretty mean castanet." BeberVanzo will also be singing on some of the numbers. "I love to sing and performing with the choir will help me continue to develop my skills and explore more possibilities," he said.

At the other end of the age spectrum in the chorale is Ron Walters, a lively 81-year-old, affectionately known to locals as "Mr. Petaluma." Walters was an institution on Petaluma's KTOB radio station as its morning man from 1963 to 1996. "Ron has been with the choir, probably through all its history," said Schoenlein. In addition to singing with the chorale, he often acts as the master of ceremonies and creates a comfortable rapport with the audience.

In the upcoming performances, the audience will get an opportunity to try out their own vocal chords in a special sing-a-long portion of the show featuring holiday favorites. As John Rutter has said, "It is wonderful to go to a choral concert, but I think the deepest joy of all is to actually sing."

(Contact Dyann Espinosa at argus@arguscourier.com)