Rachel Assi is exactly where she wants to be right now: at a downtown Sarasota coffee shop, sipping a chai latte out of a giant coffee mug, enjoying a rare slow week and preparing for Gloria Musicae’s upcoming Christmas concert.
The Dec. 6 show at St. Boniface Episcopal Church will be Assi’s first concert as chorus manager.
The 25-year-old mezzo-soprano joined the chamber choir in September 2009. A year later, she was promoted to chorus manager, a position that she not only wanted but was perfectly suited.
“When we put out the word that we were looking for a chorus manager, we didn’t expect to get anyone from within the ensemble,” says Gloria Musicae Director Dr. Joseph Holt. “It’s a rather unique thing for a musician to possess the necessary skills to manage the day-to-day operations of an organization. With Rachel, we couldn’t have found a better match.”
In person, Assi comes across as that rare blend of an artist who can just as easily wax poetic about the “bawdiness” of Shakespeare as she can about the implementation of an education outreach program.
A New Jersey native, Assi moved to Sarasota in 2009 after her then-fiancé, Joe Assi, was hired as co-principal hornist for the Sarasota Orchestra.
Some people take years to settle into a new city. Not Assi.
Three months after driving a small U-Haul truck packed with one digital piano and six boxes of sheet music, Assi had married her French horn-playing sweetheart and auditioned for Gloria Musicae.
“Coming from New York, which is a very big place with so many people involved in music, you can’t possibly know them all,” Assi says. “Sarasota is a smaller community and you meet a few people and suddenly you become very involved. You feel like a part of an arts community, rather than someone just thrown into a pot of artists.”
If such a pot exists in Sarasota, one might picture Assi floating to the top. At 5 feet, 11 inches, the brunette singer with pale blue eyes is hard to miss. And her voice, according to Holt, is “rich, golden, expressive and all those things you want from a mezzo-soprano.”
Plus, unlike many performers, Assi, who works part-time as the music director at St. Joseph Catholic School, in Bradenton, is not afraid to lay roots.
As she sips her latte, she mentions local arts leaders by first name, orchestra musicians for whom she babysits and actors she’s befriended whose shows she plans to see.
“I like to have a home, you know?” she asks.
Assi grew up behind her grandmother’s piano.
One of her earliest memories is of her and her grandmother sitting at the piano; her grandmother placing her hands over Assi’s and then moving their fingers together across the keys.
“She was into 1940s big-band music,” Assi says. “I remember feeling like I was actually playing the songs.”
Much of the sheet music Assi has framed in her house once belonged to her grandmother, including “Moon River,” which Assi danced to with her father on her wedding day.
“It’s my absolute favorite,” she says of the song.
The singer has performed with several opera companies, including the St. Petersburg Opera, the New Jersey Opera Theatre and Rutgers Opera at Rutgers University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in music.
Her favorite performance happened on stage at Rutgers her senior year. One of the only undergrads to land a major role in Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene,” Assi was cast as Mrs. Jones, a loathsome busybody and the most despicable character in the opera.
“I sang one of the last lines in the opera,” she says. “It was such a horrible line and the audience started booing. It was great when it happened. It was like, ‘Yesss!’ It was exactly the reaction I was going for. It’s amazing how music can make people react so viscerally.”
On adolescent angst: “I used to play the piano as an outlet for frustration when I was a teenager. I could pound something out and feel better.”
On age labels: “I don’t think something necessarily has to be young or old to be good. It just has to be good.”
On Mozart’s Requiem: “It’s a very powerful piece. With the masterworks, they almost become a soundtrack to people’s lives. People get very emotional.”
On teaching music in the South Bronx: “I had a 13-year-old boy who was a pretty big, intimidating kid that people told me to look out for. It turns out he loved music. He loved ‘Mary Poppins.’ He was a total softie.”
IF YOU GO
Gloria Musicae will perform its annual Christmas concert at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 6, at St. Boniface Episcopal Church, 5615 Midnight Pass Road, on Siesta Key. Tickets are $25 or $15 for students. The program will include “Navidad Nuestra” by late Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez and performances by guest artist Pablo Talamante, tenor soloist with the United States Army Chorus. For more information, call 360-7399 or visit www.gloriamusicae.org.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected].