Without a doubt, Argentina's tango is one of the sexiest dances on the planet. So it may seem strange to see the dance performed in a church to a Latin mass. But not to Joseph Caulkins, maestro of Sarasota's Key Chorale symphonic chorus.
To Caulkins, the seemingly contradictory themes of sensuality and sacred mesh nicely in Martín Palmeri's "Misatango," a Latin Mass that marks the start of Key Chorale's 2023-24 season.
"There's been dancing in religions for centuries," points out Caulkins, who has been artistic director of Key Chorale for 16 years.
On Sept. 23, Key Chorale joins bandoneonist Ben Bogart and pianist Winnie Cheung (known in the tango world as Ben & Winnie) along with four traditional tango dancers in a performance at Church of the Palms.
This isn't the first time Key Chorale has tried its luck with tango in Sarasota. Back in 2018, the symphonic chorus of more than 100 singers collaborated with Sarasota Ballet's Studio Company to present "Misatango" at the Sarasota Opera House.
The show was a great success, Caulkins said. He expects the same enthusiastic response from the audience this time around, especially since Billboard 100 artists Ben & Winnie are in the show. (The last time, Ben performed but not Winnie.)
Based in Bloomington, IN, Ben & Winnie define their mission ("to change the world") in the hashtag #OneTangoAtATime. Ben is a bandoneonist who holds a degree from Berklee College of Music and a certificate from the Orquesta Escuela de Tango Emilio Balcarce. Composer and pianist Winnie, a native of Hong Kong, holds degrees from the University of Chicago and Rochester's Eastman School of Music.
For those who don't follow tango, Ben is a master of the instrument neophytes might mistakenly call an accordion. A type of concertina popular in Argentina and Uruguay, the bandoneon was named after a 19th century German instrument dealer named Heinrich Band. It was originally used for religious music, unlike other types of concertinas found in folk music.
If you consider tango and religion to be an unlikely combo, just wait until you hear about Key Chorale's upcoming event that brings together Bach and beer. Still, it must be noted that both are among Germany's most enduring exports.
Like its hops-infused inspiration, Key Chorale's first-ever "Bachtoberfest" will take place in October, at the Church of the Redeemer. There will be four concerts from Oct. 13-15, including one featuring period instruments, topped off by a "biergarten" experience catered by Calusa Brewing and Sarasota Catering.
The wide-ranging Bachtoberfest program will showcase the Key Chorale Chamber Singers, soprano Mary Wilson, trumpeter Aaron Romm and the chamber orchestra. There will even be traditional German music from Bill Milner's Oompah Band in the beer garden.
Tickets range in price from $15 to $200 for a three-day pass. This being fun-loving Sarasota, there are sure to be a few Bach-style wigs and frock coats in the crowd, maybe even on Caulkins himself, if a video on Key Chorale's website is any indication.
"It's a fun program," Caulkins says. "It's something we've never done before. It's been a jigaw puzzle to put it all together."
No one can say Caulkins doesn't like a challenge. When he's not creating innovative programming and conducting, the maestro likes to climb mountains. Caulkins has conquered hundreds of peaks throughout the US, Canada, France, Switzerland and Italy including Mount Rainier, Grand Teton, Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.
But what Caulkins likes to do most of all is collaborate with Sarasota's many cultural organizations. It's been his hallmark since arriving in Florida in August 2007 from Illinois, where he was artistic director and conductor of the Bach Chamber Choir in Rockford and directed the St. Procopius Chamber Orchestra and Choirs at Benedictine University in Lisle.
The many co-stars that Caulkins personally and Key Chorale collectively have worked with include professional orchestras, singers, dancers, high school students, circus artists and people living with Parkinson’s.
Caulkins is particularly devoted to nurturing the talents of young artists. Toward that end, the Key Chorale Chamber Singers and Booker High VPA Choir will come together on Nov. 18 with Artist Series Concerts for a program featuring violin virtuoso Alexander Markov.
On Feb. 20, the Booker, Riverview and Sarasota high school choirs will perform separately and alongside Key Chorale in "Tomorrow's Voices Today High School Choral Festival."
Sarasota's heritage as the winter outpost of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and the current home of the Circus Arts Conservatory has given Caulkins plenty of opportunities to team up with circus artists during his tenure at Key Chorale.
This season marks the 13th time that Key Chorale's has worked with Circus Arts Conservatory in the "Cirque des Voix," or Circus of Voices. On March 22-23, a new show will once again meld circus and musical arts.
As a guest conductor, Key Chorale Maestro Caulkins has led The Venice Symphony, Space Coast Pops, The Sarasota Ballet and The Southwest Florida Symphony, where he was also associate conductor and director of choruses from 2001-10.
Caulkins' collaboration with The Venice Symphony continues in its 50th season, first when Key Chorale appears with the symphony on Feb. 23-24 with "Disney's Maestro, A Tribute to Alan Menken" and again on April 23-24 with "The Crown Jewel Finale."
In 2019, Caulkins was recognized for his tireless artistic efforts when he won the Arts Leadership Award for Artistic Achievement from the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County.
One of Caulkins's newest collaborators is Glenn Priest, who joined Key Chorale as principal accompanist in May. Priest took the position after retiring as worship director and chapel organist of Fairhaven, a megachurch in Dayton, OH, where he served for 20 years.
Priest took over from Nancy Yost Olson, who retired after 14 years in the post.
Correction: The article has been updated to correct the spelling of Glenn Priest.
Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.