From the President (Oct. 11, 2010)

Dear Colleagues,

I am just now finishing up this book by Weston Noble before moving on to another, and I would once again recommend this book to anyone who is interested in this kind of thing. The title is “Creating the Special World” A Collection of Lectures by Weston Noble. It is a GIA Publication and I am sure readily available; indeed, it will probably be at the GIA table at the VMEA Convention in a few weeks at Vergennes Union High School!

Of interest to me this week is the realization that choral music performance and knowledge is not something that is very old in our country. As Noble says in his book in the 10th lecture, “We are members of a very young profession. How young? The roots were just being established when I was born, and that was in 1922. I am defining choral music in this context as “a cappella” singing in the United States.” I was born in 1952, just 30 years after Weston Noble, and many of the choral masters that I have come to know through my reading (and occasionally through personal contact) have taken their places in history. But it was not that long ago that these great “prophets” were living and laying their groundwork, forging a rich legacy that we can learn from and enjoy today. Some of this message to you is taken directly from Weston Noble’s book, but interspersed with my own experience.

In James Jordan’s book “The Musician’s Spirit” Connecting to Others Through Story, Jordan asked us to make a list of teachers that had an influence on us as developing musicians. I followed through on that exercise and found that I came up with some fifty teachers that had an influence on me directly, but many more indirectly through those teachers connections with other musicians. As Jordan says, do not eliminate any of the names that come to mind, because those that you might consider “minor” influences often become “major” influences. And through this process, linked with my reading of this chapter of this book, I have a few thoughts maybe worth mentioning, hoping that it will set your own imaginations on fire and bring a flood of memories and names of individuals that had an impact on you! But of greatest importance is to hear the names (I will put them in bold).

Noble mentions some early large oratorio choruses that existed by the 1850’s, including the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, founded in 1815 (I have heard them!), the Mendelssohn Glee Club in New York founded in 1873, and the Apollo Club in Chicago founded in 1871. One such group that I have some loose connections with are the Bethlehem Bach Choir in Pennsylvania; probably this group is not as old as the aforementioned, but nevertheless has a long history of choral performance in this country. One of the notable choirs and institutions to become known to us all for their a cappella singing was the St. Olaf Choir under the direction of F. Melius Christiansen; I suspect we have all sung or performed any number of his arrangements and original pieces, but more immediate might be our connection with that institution through Anton Armstrong? I am wondering if any of you remember the Westminster Cho ir College/St Olaf Choir “duel” several years ago at an ACDA Convention! Of course the Westminster Choir was under the direction of Joe Flummerfelt than, and now under Joe Miller. Based on last years performance in Philadelphia, the Westminster Choir is now a very different choir under his direction. What a great life we lead to have such wonderful choirs and individuals to compare and model!

John Finlay Williamson was the guru and founder of the Westminster Choir College; my connection with this incredibly influential man was through one of his students, William Mague and his wife Priscilla. He was the director of the conservatory I went to as an undergraduate, and his wife was a superb organist. His stories were wonderful and I felt privileged to have a few classes with him. Of course the choral world of John Finlayson and that of Joseph Flummerfelt were quite different, as were their views of choral sound, and now with Joe Miller at the helm of that great school another era is being ushered in!

But what about Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, not to mention the Fred Waring Glee Club! I have heard some recordings and read much about this man, his methods and ideas and performances. Yet “maybe” one of his most notable accomplishments was to lure an unknown to be the director of his new ensemble; you may know his name? Robert Shaw! But than again, something of great importance was also taking place at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and his name was Howard Swan! I have read much in books of his thoughts and perceptions concerning choral music, and he must have been a man of high personal honesty and integrity. We should also not forget mention of Roger Wagner, a most influential individual that got us all thinking about choral “arrangement” on stage, spacing and memorization and singing an entire program of a cappella music!

Paul Salamunovich was of course influential as the director of the Los Angelas Master Chorale (?), but was also a huge influence in the area of chant. In the 1970’s Robert Shaw really burst upon the scene with his touring choir, The Robert Shaw Chorale. Men’s ensemble’s like the King’s Singers, Chanticleer and Cantus, the Sixteen and others were bringing us choral performances of extraordinary perfection, and Dale Warland, with his Dale Warland Singers, brought us another extraordinary choir, and others like Norman Luboff (The Norman Luboff Choir) and Margaret Hillis (The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus) brought great choirs to the front of the American choral world!

These are just a few of the people that were or have or are operating in this incredible birth of choral music in this country and in other places around the world. If I only mention a few of these names, they would include people like Eric Erickson, Doreen Rao, Helmuth Rilling, James Litton and a host of individuals that have shaped the direction of choral music in this country. I have been fortunate to experience Robert Shaw, Dale Warland, Joe Flummerfelt, Paul Salamunovich, Margaret Hillis, Doreen Rao, Sir David Wilcox and a host of others through Westminster Choirs College summer sessions. Many of us have been to the Berkshire Choral Festival and had similar experiences that have brought us closer to the giants of the past through their own connections or experiences; and we are able to relive those individuals “through” the experience o f these people.

Well, if anything, I hope this has energized you to at least reminisce about your own experiences, but I for one find this whole experience of choral music exciting and personal; and in my own small way I take great pleasure when I am able to bring these experiences to my own students either through story (which is what James Jordan suggests in his book), personal experience, recording and books, or simply through performances of music composed or arranged or edited by some of these great masters of the past.

My apologies for the length of this note, but I thought it might be of some value. Please feel free to respond by bringing up other names and performing ensembles that should be known; I for one would really enjoy the rapport.


Frank Whitcomb

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