The first concert of the Ovations 2020 Performing Arts Series presented by the Calaveras County Arts Council features a home-grown band that’s familiar to many Calaveras residents. Cantamos has performed all over the county, playing tunes from all over the world, and the band leads off the 2020 series with a performance at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Bret Harte Theater in Angels Camp.
“We are delighted to have Cantamos as our opening act for Ovations this year,” said Kathy Mazzaferro, the executive director of the arts council. “We love supporting local emerging artists,” she added, and while Cantamos has performed for some time – even appearing at a 2014 Ovations concert – she said the group keeps gaining an appreciative audience.
Cantamos is an act that refuses to be put into genre boxes, preferring to perform a wide assortment of songs from big band, rock, rhythm and blues, folk, pop and even classical music.
“We’re so hard to describe,” said lead singer Michela Macfarlane. “We have an eclectic mix of our favorite songs. In the past we’ve moved from arias to Latin favorites, to contemporary pop songs.”
Macfarlane leads the band around the world music landscape with a cheerful whirlwind of songs, like the Brazilian bossa nova hit “Corcovado” and the German/Yiddish big band romp “Bei Mir Bist Du Shon.” The octet also plays rollicking Aretha Franklin covers and the novelty song “Mambo Italiano,” made famous by the late Rosemary Clooney and later by the late Dean Martin.
Cantamos songs also are not exclusively performed in English. Macfarlane is a musical polyglot who spent a decade singing only baroque music. To expand her repertoire, she added music from jazz, pop, rock, folk, reggae, ska and Latin sources to add appeal. Trained as an opera singer, she has become a more versatile performer, and a Cantamos show can feel a bit like a world tour when songs pass through international borders.
“My favorite thing is to sing in a bunch of different languages – Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese,” Macfarlane said.
Kitschy pop songs like “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” shine when Macfarlane sings them in French. And Cantamos covers a variety of unusual material, like its rendition of Pink Martini’s “Je ne Veux Pas Travailler (Sympatique).”
The eight-piece group includes musicians familiar to Mother Lode audiences. Fred Treece joins Macfarlane on guitars and vocals; Tonja Peterson sings vocals and plays percussion; Ray Price is on drums and percussion; and Ron Schaner plays bass and adds vocals. Then the band mixes things up with a horn section that includes Ras Beeken Dan on saxophone, flute and clarinet; Gunther Huse on trumpet and keyboards; and Matt Albright on trombone.
“It can be tricky to play with a horn section, especially with my vocal range, which is pretty high,” Macfarlane admits. “A lot of times the vocals can get lost. That’s been one of the challenges.”
But with the horns, led by Beeken, the music works.
“It’s so awesome to have that full section that a horn section brings,” Macfarlane said. “There are so many possibilities.”
She said that each musician contributes to the band’s material by bringing in their favorite pieces, and the other members make suggestions as to how the selection might fit into a Cantamos show.
“Each of our songs has a special meaning to at least someone in our group. For example, Ray brought in ‘Corcovado,’ Ron brought in Sara Bareilles’ ‘Love Song’ and Gunther brought in Sting’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Regrets.’ Whatever memory or desire they have connected to it, we then make it our own collective effort, and polish it into a rendition that speaks to all of us.”
“We are presenting our usual eclectic repertoire mix,” Macfarlane said of Sunday’s concert, “but we’re breathing new life into it. Gunther Huse and I will do a Mozart aria from Le Nozze di Figaro, new to our show. Tonja, Fred and I will also be doing a couple new songs with gorgeous harmonies, pieces that you just don’t hear every day.”
“I think one of the most important things we are doing for this show is coming up with fresh arrangements for our songs that harness the talent of all of us on stage in such a way that features as many moments of brilliance as possible.”
Four Ovations shows are included in season tickets priced at $80 for council members, $100 for nonmembers and $40 for ages 18 and under. Season tickets are only available through Sunday’s opening show. Individual show tickets are $25 for adults and $10 for youths. All tickets are sold at calaverasarts.org or call 754-1774.
All of the Ovations shows start at 3 p.m. at the theater at 323 Main St. (Highway 49), Angels Camp. Also in the 2020 lineup are performances from Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands on Feb. 9, the Diamonds on March 15 and the Driftwood Consort on April 5.