A descendant of flamenco dancers, Edward Cansino has a strong personal interest in promoting Baroque Mexican and Latin American music. For the past 10 years, he and his vocal group I Cantori have struggled to make this long-neglected music better known, while also performing new and modern repertory.
"It's been a long haul, but now we've found a niche," Cansino said in a recent interview.
I Cantori will present a sampling of this repertory at a candlelight Christmas concert at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Orange Coast College. Eight singers will appear with harpist Katie Kirkpatrick and percussionist Timm Boatman in a program of holiday music from the Middle Ages to the present.
"The repertory is a natural for any musician interested in early music," Cansino said. "It's extremely complex and contrapuntal, very chromatic and sophisticated.
"Baroque Mexican and Latin American music developed somewhat like it did in mainland Spain," he explained. "But it became extremely vital rhythmically in a way Spanish music did not--which reflected the influence of the indigenous Indian population.
"The motets we will sing are some of the most detailed rhythmically that we've ever encountered in any music."
Written accounts of the period are sketchy ("It was a time of ferment," Cansino said), but the conductor believes "that the first published works in the world by black composers happened here (in Mexico and Latin America).
"Very little of this music is even recorded, much less performed today.
"But it's a particular interest of mine, given my own Spanish background, our city and the Western hemisphere."
Born into a family of actors and dancers, Cansino, 39, can recall how his grandfather preceded Jose Greco as a famous exponent of Spanish dance outside of Spain. Cansino's aunt is Rita Hayworth.
The young conductor began his musical studies at UCLA but left before completing his degree. (He described himself as "a '60s dropout.") He then worked with conductor Roger Wagner, sang in the Los Angeles Master Chorale and founded I Cantori, together with Jeannine Wagner, the conductor's daughter, in 1975.
"Our purpose has always been to be a first-class, fully professional vocal ensemble specializing in the very detailed early and contemporary vocal music," Cansino said.
"Flexibility is a key requirement because the music is vocally very demanding, and it requires a singer to range through practically the entire history of Western music.
"The members also have to be ensemble singers and solo singers."
Technically, the vocalists have to learn new ways of phrasing and dynamics. But above all, they have to sing without vibrato.
"Many singers just cannot do this because the cultivation of a pleasant vibrato is a major part of standard vocal technique.
"To sing without it pleasingly for long periods of time requires a knack, plus endurance and strength," Cansino said.
The results are worth all the effort, however, because "the music is highly expressive because of all the dynamic details and small phrases."
"But it's been very tough here for this kind of chamber music ensemble," Cansino said.
"We've spent the last 10 years establishing the group as a Southern California entity that's certainly not going to go away."
Cansino admitted, however, that there have been occasional large gaps between local performances.
"Lately, we've been doing chamber concerts, appearances for musicians--and a lot of radio broadcasts along the year," he said. "Last year we sang my 'Child in Time' for National Public Radio and it was broadcast over 40 NPR stations."
(As a composer, Cansino will be represented on Sunday's concert with his 1985 anti-nuclear piece, "...from spiraling ecstatically this. . . . " The title is based on an e. e. cummings' poem.)
The group also appeared at the New Music Festival held last spring at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Co-founder Wagner teaches at the institution in addition to conducting and singing with the ensemble.
According to the director, I Cantori survives mainly through ticket sales, but the ensemble also receives support from the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. The Orange Coast College performance will be partly supported through the California Arts Council Touring Program.
Cansino says that his "great sense of imagination" lets him see relationships between the problems and struggles people had in earlier times and the present.
"I've always been an enemy of 'progress' in the sense of taking mere progression of time for progress," he said.
"Times haven't changed so much. I see relationships between the angular, dissonant music of the Middle Ages and the angular, dissonant music of the 20th Century.
"Things aren't so different now. The (older) music isn't esoteric. It's just music by composers who happened to live a long time ago."