PERFORMING ARTS : Heavenly Mix of Old, New Worlds : 'A Choir of Angels,' I Cantori's first CD, takes listeners on a journey through L.A.'s eclectic musical past.

Stuart Cohn is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Christmas is a great time for choral music, but I Cantori's debut CD "A Choir of Angels" (Civic Classics) is not exactly a Christmas album--despite its title. Instead, it's a disc that attempts to answer the question: What is the classical music of L.A.? And it shows how this region, broadly speaking, has been a crossroads of culture since, oh, 1610 or so.

Formed in 1975, I Cantori (Latin for "the singers") is a veteran performing group whose repertory is eclectic, to say the least. They're led by Edward Cansino, 48, composer, music professor at Occidental College, nephew of Rita Hayworth and low-key fellow who is something of an expert on music composed in the New World during the Renaissance and the Baroque periods. But this is also a man whose next writing project is an opera called "Talk Show," based on a real-life murder that occurred in the wake of a perceived insult made during the taping of TV's "Jenny Jones."

The 12-member I Cantori does a little of everything. They've performed the earliest-known chant opera, Hildegard of Bingen's 12th century "Ordo Virtutum." They've done a fully staged version of Henry Purcell's masque "Timon of Athens." They've assayed, at the Sacramento Festival of New American Music, avant-gardist Joan LaBarbara's work with all its gurgles, belches and glottal clicks. Last summer, they went multimedia, collaborating with an orchestra to perform Richard Einhorn's new score for Carl Theodor Dreyer's classic film "The Passion of Joan of Arc." They will be on tour with the film starting next fall.

But for now there's the debut CD, its 11 pieces--nine choral and two instrumental--culled from four years' worth of concerts at the L.A. City Hall Rotunda.

"The City Hall concerts were a smorgasbord of all the cultures that come and live here," says Cansino over coffee at Occidental's student union. "We made a tremendous effort to do music by every possible ethnic group from all sorts of periods. We did Pacific Rim concerts representing all groups, including aborigines from Australia. We can do that because the population is here to supply the music, the performers and sometimes there are specialists here we can call upon."

Soprano Diane Thomas has other recollections of these shows. "We had to deal with elevators and their bells in that wonderful acoustic. You could hear a crying child from two floors down like it was just next door."

The CD gives us an unusual portrait of New World early music, composed in what is now Mexico and Peru, music that could have only been created after the Spanish invaders mixed it up with the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas, who had their own sophisticated musical cultures.

By 1600, the monks who came over to Christianize the Indians had taught them church polyphony and were themselves introduced to new languages, rhythms and musical instruments, which also influenced Spanish composers. Intriguing combinations took place and the results can be heard on "A Choir of Angels."

For instance, an Aztec Indian who used the Spanish name Don Hernando Franco, wrote a setting for a Latin text "Sancta Maria e." And the Portuguese composer Gaspar Fernandes settled in Mexico and set the Aztec words "Xicochi xicochi conetzintle," (Beautiful beautiful, answer me) to European-style music.

This sound and culture crisscross has captured Cansino's imagination since he began his professional life.

"Twenty years ago, when I was beginning the group, I was just leaving UCLA, where I'd been to school" he says (Cansino studied conducting at UCLA, but didn't get a degree). "There was a scholar there named Robert Stevenson, one of the foremost researchers into this area, who had found lots of this music and began to publish old handwritten manuscripts. They were there in the UCLA music library, and that's how I came upon them.

"I was interested in music that hadn't been done by everybody else, especially this music, because it was from the Western Hemisphere, from periods that everyone was familiar with. And I was real fascinated by the cultural element. By the conquistadores and the Indians and the mix of languages and cultures and all of that. Here we had this whole body of unusual music that nobody had done."

The hybrid music has earned I Cantori good reviews for entertainment value as well as performance quality. It carries it own special demands, says Cansino's wife, Gina DiMassa, soprano and costume designer for I Cantori. "It's difficult to do the rhythm with the right emphasis. It's spare, and you need real vocal control to be clean and articulated." Plus, she says, singing in the Aztec language Nahuatl is weird. "It's not a standard language that we learned in college!"

Six of the CD's tracks were composed in 17th century Latin America. The rest--all by 20th century Los Angeles composers--show off the group's aforementioned versatility, introducing local jazz pianist William Kennerly's first choral piece and giving the music of John Cage (born here) and Igor Stravinsky (lived here) an overt Southern California context.

It's that mix that attracts musicians like Amy Knoles, percussionist for the new music group California EAR Unit and occasional I Cantori collaborator. "They do stuff no one else does," she says, praising Cansino's "fearlessness" as a conductor. "On one piece he had me scratching [a] Martin Luther King [speech] on turntables."

The music of I Cantori inspired Richard Lyons to start Civic Group Records in the hopes of expanding the group's following beyond its core concert-going fans. A Cal State L.A. music instructor, and former film and TV composer ("Dance Fever" was his big hit), he was introduced to I Cantori by Knoles in 1994. Lyons, who produced the CD, has so far invested about $100,000 in his label--"I'm doing it on a wing and prayer and credit cards!"--and has scored independent distribution around the country. Locally, "A Choir of Angels," out for about five weeks, is available at Tower, Virgin , Blockbuster and bookstores from Borders to the Bodhi Tree.

Lyons, 41, has also produced a music video for the I Cantori release, consisting mostly of time-lapse desert photography set to the Peruvian hymn "Hanacpachap Cussicuinin" (Lady of the Flowers). Written by an unknown composer, sung in the Incan language Quechan and dating from 1610, it was the first polyphony printed in the New World, according to scholars. The video is getting play on Classic Arts Showcase, the so-called "classical MTV" channel, and tracks of the CD are getting local airplay on classical stations KKGO-FM and KUSC-FM, and on National Public Radio outlets KCRW-FM and KPCC-FM, among others.

"I don't think there's been a record like this [before], a real L.A. classical record," Lyons says.

"It's what we've always done," Cansino says, "present music of every sort. This record is dominated by Latin American early music, but it's all happened here. Everyone has come here at one time or another."

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