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Sacra/Profana unafraid to step out of the 'box'

In just four years, the eclectic vocal ensemble Sacra/Profana has already created a buzz in the San Diego performing arts scene. Artistic Director Krishan Oberoi talks about the group's mission and its plans for the future.

Q: What niche did you think needed filling in the San Diego performing arts community when you formed Sacra/Profana in 2009?

A: Sacra/Profana was founded not just in response to a perceived niche in the local performing arts community, but also in response to a broader opportunity in the current arts climate of the U.S. I looked around and saw that most ensembles were doing the same things, both in terms of repertoire and presentation.

I've always been interested in modern composers. Modern music has always resonated powerfully with me, so I continually seek opportunities to explore and promote this adventurous repertoire. Nowadays, many performing arts organizations are afraid to step outside the box, which is understandable; traditional repertoire is usually so familiar as to only require limited rehearsal, and also has the considerable benefit of a guaranteed audience.

So why take on extremely difficult music that may or may not attract an audience? Thankfully, I've found that the most challenging music is often the most rewarding from an audience perspective. I make a point of addressing the audience, and I always try to explain a little about what it is we're doing, and give them some context and an idea of what the composer was trying to accomplish. I think this helps enormously, and people are generally open to hearing new sounds and textures once they understand why a composer has structured the musical elements in a certain way.

The other thing about Sacra/Profana is that we're really fun. I think it's important that our highbrow aspirations in performing such complex music are balanced by a somewhat lowbrow presentation. We use humor quite a bit and try to make the concert-going experience very inviting. We try to engage the audience in such a way that they feel comfortable following us into unfamiliar terrain, as it were.

This ties into our penchant for performing pop arrangements. That's only about 10 percent of our repertoire, but it's an important part, because performing a song by Prince or Maroon 5 or another band that we enjoy is a way to ensure that the vibe of the group stays fresh and vibrant; it's also a way of releasing tension, etc., which can really build up when we're absorbed in some complicated, engrossing piece of modern repertoire.

Q: What can audiences expect to hear at one of your concerts?

A: In terms of the actual repertoire, every concert is different. I realize that everybody says that, but with us it's particularly true. I liken us to a theatrical troupe; this month we may be doing "Oklahoma," next month it'll be "Waiting for Godot," followed by "Molière," "Pirates of Penzance," then an extemely dark and bizarre interpretation of "The Taming of the Shrew."

In all seriousness, I do think of us more like a repertory theater that is constantly presenting different shows with the same cast. We're constantly switching styles, but treating everything we do with the highest artistic respect, and always thinking very carefully about which projects we want to undertake. Our goal is to present every concert at a very human level, and to build sufficient trust with our audience to the point where they expect that whatever we do is going to offer them something interesting and enriching.

Q: Why are collaborations with other performing arts organizations important to Sacra/Profana?

A: Collaboration has been the single most important factor that's helped us achieve rapid growth these past few years. Our collaborators have introduced us to repertoire we might not have otherwise performed, they've helped us fund our performances, and they've put us in touch with new audiences. They've stretched our artistic boundaries to do things that may have been outside our comfort zone. And obviously, for a scrappy group like ours, being onstage with the San Diego Symphony is a lot of fun and an incredibly rewarding experience. I think collaboration is the future of the arts. In fact, one of our most interesting upcoming projects is a collaboration with artist Margaret Noble. That will happen in September, and it requires us to sing while flying kites.

Q: What are some of your plans?

A: On Feb. 17, we're presenting a portion of “Lamentations of Jeremiah” by the Austrian composer Ernst Krenek, who lived in Palm Springs during the later part of his life, until his passing in 1991. While living in Austria, Krenek was personally singled out by Joseph Goebbels as a “degenerate” composer, and he emigrated to the states during World War II. The “Lamentations” is an astonishing piece for a cappella choir, written in response to the collapse of Krenek's homeland under the Nazis. Despite the fact that it was written 70 years ago, it has only been performed two or three times in this country, owing to its extreme difficulty. I've been obsessed with it since one of my professors showed me the score in grad school, and when I met Krenek's widow, Gladys, we decided that Sacra/Profana should undertake the West Coast premiere of this important work. The Austrian government has a center outside Vienna devoted to Krenek's work, and I visited there last summer in preparation for this upcoming concert, so it's pretty exciting now that it's happening.

We're also hoping to release our second CD in 2013. That's sooner than we planned, but we now have the opportunity to do world premiere recordings of two major works by prominent American composers. I don't want to say too much more about it, because a lot of details are up in the air at this point, but we're hoping to make that happen this year.

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Sal 10:07pm January 28, 2013

I had the pleasure of seeing these guys last year, and they are awesome! Keep up the good work!