Director Rachel Romina and the San Benito Oriana Chorale. Photos by Robert Eliason.
Director Rachel Romina and the San Benito Oriana Chorale. Photos by Robert Eliason.

When Rachel Romina pondered this year’s springtime concert for the San Benito Oriana Chorale, her first thought was of water.

“Water is such a diverse subject for composers and they have been writing about it for centuries,” she said. “There are such a variety of pieces from classical to spiritual to folk and rock. We will be doing amazing songs like ‘Wade in the Water’ and ‘Shenandoah’ and there are some fun ones like Toto’s ‘Africa.’”

The rendition of “Africa” exemplifies the Oriana approach. They begin the classic rock song with soft a capella vocals suggestive of rain, then add body percussion for the beat and rhythm. With “Shenandoah,” singers imitate the sound of the water.

“There is this echo that happens,” Romina said. “The melody line will start and after two notes, another part will echo that melody. The melodies overlap each other and create a cascading effect very much like rippling water.”

Romina has been director of the local singing group for the last five years, but started 10 years earlier as their piano accompanist. Her musical experience goes back to when she was in a children’s choir at age seven. She started piano lessons at age nine, and the instrument provided her entrance to the Chorale.

“I never stopped doing choir and I have done it every year of my life since,” Romina said. “My opera scenes coach at San Jose State asked me to come play for them and I did it for three years, commuting from San Jose. I moved to Hollister and years later when the musical director at the time stepped down, he asked me to take over for him.”

Coming up with a music program for the Chorale begins with a theme. “Sometimes one piece of music directs me to a theme, other times the theme just comes to me,” Romina said. 

Once the theme is decided, Romina listens to records, looks over music scores, and searches online until she has 50 or so pieces to choose from, culling them down to about 15. Typically, the music is a mixture of cultures and eras, and might include Celtic or Welsh traditional tunes, African folk music, Classical compositions, inspirational songs, or more modern selections.

Putting together the right flow of music and hearing it performed is a thrill for Romina.

“I live for the goosebumps and they always happen at the concerts,” she said, “but they also happen here week to week at rehearsal. I feel so uplifted by the people here and I always leave feeling better than when I arrived.”

Scott Flaherty, the Chorale’s vice president, places a high value on Romina’s talents and tastes.  “Rachel is the heartbeat of the group,” he said. “She picks music which challenges us; this year there are four or five a capella tunes, and we will be singing some in Latin. Last year she had us performing five songs in German followed by ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’”

A recent addition to the Oriana family is a children’s choir which will perform this year. The young singers are under the direction of Becky Miser, who also selects the songs.

“This year we are going to be singing about animals,” Miser said. “We will be doing songs like ‘Rockin’ Robin,’ ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight,’ and some Disney favorites like ‘Bare Necessities.’ We will have some solos and just a lot of fun songs.”

Miser said nothing is so enriching as being able to teach children to learn to appreciate music.

“I love to see their faces light up when they learn something new and see their progress year by year,” she said.

There is one performer who will sing in both choirs: Romina’s nine-year-old son Shia. This is his first year as a vocalist with the choir after earning a solo spot last year with a Welsh song, “Suo Gan.” The fellowship of the choir is something he said he appreciates.

“You get to meet new people and sing with everybody,” Shia said. “I like to watch the audience and I like to see them smile.”

San Benito Oriana Chorale continues to sing in 2020 with their spring “Rain” concert and the Youth Choir “Animals” Program. Rehearsals began on Jan. 27; to inquire about joining, write to or visit the Oriana Chorale Facebook page.