For a quarter of a century, John Ferreira had been the music director of Church of the Palms in Sarasota. He had heard nothing but great things about AMICCO, the Anna Maria Island Concert Chorus and Orchestra.
"I had never seen them," he said. "I was always doing something when they were doing something. But I had always heard how good they were, not just from musicians but from people who had been to their concerts."
In March of this year, Ferreira told his bosses at Church of the Palms that he would be retiring in October. A few weeks later he got a call from the people at AMICCO asking if he might consider becoming director their chorus, starting in November.
"They asked if I would be able to fit it into my schedule," Ferreira said. "I told them there wasn't going to any schedule to fit it into, because I was going to be retiring."
Ferreira is now AMICCO's official chorus master, and he's found that the chorus more than lives up to its reputation.
"Oh, absolutely," he said. "They're one of the finest choruses on the west coast of Florida."
Ferreira led the chorus during AMICCO's Symphony on the Sand, the annual outdoor concert event at Coquina Beach Park, on Nov. 9, a special event that mixed popular music and light classics.
On Dec. 15, he'll lead the chorus in one of its regular concerts, as AMICCO starts its season with a holiday concert at CrossePointe Fellowship Church in Holmes Beach.
Members of the chorus say Ferreira has brought a new energy to the group.
"He's a powerful addition to AMICCO," said Megan Schmidt, a soprano soloist who's a member of AMICCO and a frequent performer for opera companies around west central Florida. "He keeps the singers' spirits up. He makes the rehearsals feel less like work. They end up being fun because he's so supportive."
Besides Ferreira's debut, this year's holiday concert also bring another change
"We're starting our season with the holiday concert," said Maestro Alfred Gershfeld, who has been the AMICCO's conductor and artistic director for 21 years, almost since its founding. "We have always started with a concert in November, just a regular concert, and then the Christmas concert. This year we are starting with the Christmas concert."
Looking ahead, Gershfeld said, the group plans to begin its season in December every year. There will still be four concerts in every season, one each month from December through March.
Both AMICCO's orchestra and chorus mix seasoned professional musicians with amateurs, mostly serious music students who are there to perform with the professionals and to learn from them.
People who are familiar with the group's work say that experts may be able to hear the difference between AMICCO and a fully professional orchestra and chorus, but that to most classical music lovers the quality is similar.
For this year's holiday concert, AMICCO will perform excerpts from he Christmas portion of Handel's "Messiah," perhaps the most well-known of all classical Christmas music.
Also on the program is Haydn's "Concerto in E-flat," a piece that's very familiar to most music aficionados.
AMICCO holds a Young Solo Artists Competition for student musicians every year, and the winner performs with the orchestra.
This year's winner is Raine Sagramsingh. She'll be the trumpet soloist on the Haydn concerto.
The concert also includes an obscure work called "Historia der Geburt Jesu Christ (Nativity)" by Heinrich Schutz.
"I do not think people will know this work, and to be truthful it is the first time I have ever conducted it," Gershfeld said. "It is the first time we have performed it, any of us."
Schutz was a 17th-century composer who was one of the most famous composers of his era. Although he's not well-known now, he's still significant as one of the great innovators of the early Baroque period.
"It's an important discovery for us," Gershfeld said of the Schutz wok. "We're trying to educate our audience as well as ourselves. We will grow together."
The concert is scheduled for 2 p.m. Dec. 15 at CrossPointe Fellowhip Church, 8605 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach. Tickets for one concert are $25, and season tickets are available through Dec. 15 for $80. Call 941-896-3899 or go to www.amicco.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.