10 Questions: Interviews with Choral Conductors
Steven Zopfi's "Ten Questions" project asks choral conductors today about their career development and the future of the choral field. Here Grant Gershon, Craig Hella Johnson, and Ragnar Bohlin respond. Click on the questions below to view their answers.
From left: Gershon, Johnson, and Bohlin.
I started out at Chapman College with William Hall as a piano major and choral geek. I really wanted to go to a place that had a strong choral program. Bill was a wonderful presence. I really enjoyed my time singing under him. I have to say that when I was in college and beyond, I really had no aspirations toward being a conductor. I would say my biggest mentor as a conductor was Esa-Pekka Salonen at the LA Philharmonic. I had the good fortune of working with him as a pianist on an opera. Esa-Pekka took me aside and said he thought that I should think about conducting.
He basically took me under his wing. I was his assistant conductor at the LA Opera for three years.I'd say I learned 90% of what I do, in terms of physical gestures of conducting, but more so rehearsal technique, score study,and all the things that go on behind the scenes from Esa-Pekka.
My two college conducting guides—they were very different. One of them was Kenneth Jennings. He was the director of the St. Olaf Choir and a truly extraordinary musician. He had a unique and completely distinctive kind of voice in choral expression, and I felt so grateful to sing for him and learn from him. He really created, with a group of 70 singers, what felt like Art Song recitals with incredibly nuanced expression. Then, Steven Amundson, who is the director of the orchestra at St. Olaf, was a real guide and a beautiful teacher. He helped lay a foundation for conducting and artistry.
I've been really blessed, certainly, to spend time with Helmuth Rilling in Stuttgart. I was there over a year, studying with him, and singing with the Gächinger Kantorei. Marguerite Brooks and Chester Alwes were also important people in my conducting life for sure.
I have to start with my parents. I grew up in a choral conductor family. Both my mother and father conducted choirs when I was young. My father was the conductor of the Lund Student Singers, a young men's choir from 1972 to 1981. My mother started with children and youth choirs when I was very young. I was one of her experimental kids—one of the few participants in the boys' choir that she started in Lund.
At the time, I had no idea I would end up being a choir conductor. Piano and cello were my main interests and then later, organ. Later on, I was very much influenced by Eric Ericson at the Stockholm Conservatory. I sang in the chamber choir there, so he was my main influence during my formative years when I had choir conducting in mind.
What were the most important skills and lessons you learned in your development as a choral conductor?
Conducting, it is such an elusive art form. I am happy to say that the learning process is continuous. I am learning more the older I get. One of the main things that I have learned over time is how to be efficient in every way and learning the valuable lesson that “less is more.” The more you open your ears and your imagination and lead people together, the more you experience shared goals for the music. In the end it involves less overt gestures and less talking. The process becomes very streamlined. As a young conductor, you are so much in your head. I was so concerned with gesture, maybe to the neglect of the bigger picture of how you are getting where you want to go. It is not your favorite gesture that is hugely important.
The essential aspect is how you communicate but it’s streamlining that process and communicating with great focus and less waving your arms all over the map. I think that is my continual lesson.
The learning continues is all I have to say. What I learned over and over again is that this is a listening profession. Above and beyond anything else that we need to do, what we do as conductors is listen.
Over the years, I’ve been learning what listening means. It's an ever-deepening skill and practice. We need to be willing to listen to new things and to hear new things and to hear new levels and not necessarily, initially, always be able to articulate what those things even are, but to listen for music's transmission. Conductors need to listen deeply for the essence of a piece of music, what it's trying to express, where it's vibrating, and really honor that. Above all, I think that is what this craft has meant to me.
I am very happy that I studied piano many years. I found that a very useful tool as a choir conductor is to be able to feel free at the piano. Also, I studied voice for many years. I find that very useful, too, when you work with voices, obviously. Not that there aren't very good colleagues out in the field who do not sing, but I think it is a great strength. I guess I learned a lot from Ericson's sensitivity to tuning and balancing voices and getting a blended sound, and also from his sensitivity to phrasing, general musicality, and shaping of music.
What are your expectations for the singers you work with and how do you hold them accountable for meeting your expectations?
I’ve always believed very strongly that if you treat people like artists, they’ll respond as artists. Early on in my musical development, I really didn’t imagine myself as conductor because I came of age in the era of the autocratic music director–people in the mold of Toscanini and fearsome tyrants of the podium. I couldn’t imagine myself in that role. I have always loved collaborating, and the expectation of my singers is for them to hold themselves to very high standards and to take responsibility for their vocal health. At the same time, I try treat their musicianship with great respect.
Of course, when you are the conductor on the podium, it isn’t exactly a democracy. But that spirit of collaborating and arriving to the music together is very strong. I think that when musicians sense that they are being treated with artistic respect, my experience is that they respond in kind and take even greater pride in their work.
Initially there's a practical expectation, which is that there's beautiful instrument in place that they have taken care of and developed. I'm interested in hearing evenness from the top of the range to the bottom of the range in terms of treatment of sound execution. A high level of musical preparation is expected. If someone isn't coming with that level of readiness and preparedness, the ensemble itself—the process itself—will vet those singers, and probably encourage stepping back from the ensemble until they are more ready or willing to commit. Because it moves quickly, there are a lot of things that are understood in shorthand with an ensemble that has been working together this long.
I really look for people to come to the best of their ability, to come healthy—I mean emotionally healthy—and mature. There's no end goal of perfection. Everyone is willing to come and be present, be in the room, be awake, and to address what's happening from moment to moment. That kind of awakeness, that kind of aliveness, is what I really look for. That requires that people are willing to work on themselves, so that we can have an environment that is about the musical expression. There needs to be the deep commitment to unity and a deep interest in making music with other human beings and with me. I look for total engagement.
We certainly notice those things in what's happening musically, but also in how the rehearsal process is going. We have conversations when there's a sense that there's an obstacle. Then one of my jobs is to provide the question, and support for how we process that question, so that someone can decide if they want to pursue this further.
It all varies by what group you're in front of. For instance, I recently started a professional chamber choir—Cappella SF. In this group, we expect the singers to come in fully prepared. We send out the material in advance. We have six rehearsals, and then off we go for what often is a quite challenging program, so the expectation there is that everybody comes prepared and has the music down.
That is not the case in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, which I also direct. We have a professional core—thirty-two professional singers and 120 volunteer singers. It's stipulated in the professionals' contract that they're not required to work at home, but that we learn the music during the rehearsal time. I do expect that they have very good voices, obviously, that they can sight-read well, that they have a keen sense of musicianship, and ability to blend, and the ability to control vibrato.
First off, I am in a position now where I only do music that I love, that I absolutely believe in wholeheartedly, and that is a very lucky position to be in. For years, as assisting conductor in various situations—and that’s how you learn the ropes—often times I was assigned music that I had to convince myself had value. I am always cognizant of the group that I am working with and what they will excel at, what will allow them to stretch but not beyond the breaking point. Of course, I am always aware of rehearsal time. You just have to be very practical.
With the Master Chorale, I am interested in having the most interesting balance of new music and more familiar music to open up the ears and the experience of our audience. I am very lucky to be in a situation where the audience has proven again and again that they are willing to go along for the ride. It does bring up the issue of trust with an audience. Maintaining and fostering that trust is hugely important. Once we have decided on a slate of programs, we have to market it in a way so that the concert itself will meet the audience’s expectations. We don’t want to do a bait-and-switch.
Part of what has been a real success with the Master Chorale over the years is growing our audience through familiar and unfamiliar music, and opening up the definition about what a choral concert can be. For the audience to know going in that no matter what the music is, whether they know it or not, or whether they end up liking the music or not, that we performed it at the very highest level of artistic integrity and commitment.
At the top of that list, I need to have an experience with the music speaking authentically. We do a wide variety of music, but I am interested in a piece that's really speaking clearly from a perspective. I'm looking for a connection with the piece. I really need a doorway in. I may admire how a piece is constructed—that could be a doorway, but more often than not, there has to be some sort of more visceral connection to the work. Especially if I need to be a conduit for the piece, I need to be able to find my way into that as a conductor and an interpreter.
I also think a lot about what a given audience in a certain city experiences. If it is a tour or a recording, a local audience or a national audience—or an international audience in the case of a CD--different considerations may go into choosing repertoire. In certain local settings, I think about how the audience that has been with us is developing as listeners and what their foundation is for the music. Is a certain piece something an audience is ready to take in, or might there be repertoire that could precede it in order to prepare those listeners?
I look for music that can make a connection and feel timely to current audiences. At the same time, I feel very committed to bringing music from the choral canon forward to many modern day audiences who don't have any connection with it whatsoever. I feel a deep devotion to that repertoire which so many of us love and which has so much value.
This may be a silly answer, but it needs to be good music. I always choose music that appeals to me, and I like music from all genres. It could be anything from Medieval to Contemporary, from anywhere in the world. It could be jazz, pop, or anything. All styles, as long as it's good music that appeals to me. If it's an arrangement, it should be well-arranged for choir. If it's an original composition, the composer must have a good sense of the choral instrument as a medium, and be able to write well for voices.
As an audience member, I love concerts that have a lot of contrast to them and that surprise me in some way. I often find myself doing what seems to be “yin and yang” programming. My very first concert with the Master Chorale was a program where we opened with Spem in alium. Then, the second piece on the first half was the Bruckner Te Deum, and after intermission we did Philip Glass’ Itaipu. Those are three pieces that would seem on paper to be very different, and might stare at each other with mutual incomprehension. It’s true, sonically they are very different, but sometimes they intertwine and there are a lot of connections. All three of those pieces are built on a slow harmonic motion and very clear areas of tonality. Each was monumental in its own way. The Bruckner and Philip Glass pieces especially are very similar.
I usually start with a legal pad and a pencil, and I'll either start with an idea or I'll start with a central piece. If there's a piece that feels like it wants to be the main entrée, I'll put that down and break down things that might surround it. If it's a piece that's significant, I might ask myself the question, "In what context will this best be presented and heard?"
For example, in Austin we did a program called "Bach Plus." It started out as me wanting to do a Bach motet program. This to me is pure joy. But I felt that even though there might have been a certain part of the audience who would share that joy of Bach motet after Bach motet, there would be many people who would be helped by a different approach. I used four of the motets as anchors and then I did pieces that contrasted or in some way contextualized those motets. Even though the main centerpiece was those Bach motets, the program ended up being far richer for many listeners because there was context that helped vary the texture and the sound palette.
I think about listeners who have been with us for a while, in some cases many years, and I also try to think of that first-time listener, who has never even been to a choral concert, and this will be our chance to connect with them. I want to meet that person and know what that person's experiencing because I'm so far from that. How do we design a program that can somehow appeal to that new listener and that seasoned listener?
Choral music has such a power to speak in timely ways and in meaningful ways in this challenged modern world, so relevant current events sometimes come into play. I really take every single program as if it were the only one I had ever done. It makes it a lot harder work, I think. But I try and look at it really freshly whenever possible just because that keeps me on the cutting edge.
That's a work in progress for me. I keep trying to come up with new ideas. I'll just give you a few examples, because I don't have a straight answer to that.
Sometimes I have a theme that is text-oriented. One concept that I've done a few times is going from darkness to light, starting with texts like “De profundis” and then moving on to far more light music. Last fall, I did the opposite. I went from light to darkness, because I was so tired of the opposite concept. We called it “Autumn Light” and we tried to draw the analogy from moving into autumn and going into the dark side of the Earth. We started out with Bach's Singet dem Herrn and ended with a couple of movements from Schnittke's Psalms of Repentance. In between, we had everything from Lidholm’s De Profundis to Arvo Pärt’s seven Magnificat Antiphons.
This fall, we will have another thematic program with an environmental connection. We are going to collaborate with our local branch of Food and Water Watch. They're going to read texts in between our singing that have to do with the environment and what we do to it today, and we're going to sing music with texts that speak of the beauty of nature. .
There can also be more of a simple organization in principle of going from old music to new music. I'm trying to avoid that obvious way of organizing music, but sometimes it just makes sense. I try to vary the principles. Sometimes we have a program that is oriented to French music, or Russian music, or Baltic music, or American music. I try to reinvent, to come up with new concepts all the time.
We are about to launch an initiative next season that we are calling “Hidden Handel,” where we are going to be exploring several of the lesser known oratorios, one per season over five years, starting with Alexander’s Feast and then Saul the following season. In each of these presentations, we will be collaborating with a stage director or a video artist or have some other kind of extra musical element. All of these oratorios are basically operas in all but name. We are looking at opening up the concert experience with everything that we do now while being very careful that it is organic. I feel strongly that music that we present be vivid and flexible and fluent, and the way we present concerts should reflect that.
As much as possible, we are trying to get away from phalanxes of singers all in a row in tuxedos stacked on risers singing at the audience. Right now, we are rehearsing Tan Dun’s Water Passion, to give you an example of a piece where the visual aspect is very important. The music is primary but the way that the stage is set with the lighting and the interactions of the singers and the players makes it a completely immersive experience.
We just finished a beautiful spring with three significant commissions. We did an extraordinary work with Nico Muhly called How Little You Are, for three guitar quartets and chorus. It is based on journal writing and poetry of southwestern American women—prairie women if you will—from the 19th century. Then just two weeks later we performed two big commissions. One was by Jake Runestad, a piece called Come to the Woods, with text by John Muir. Then we did a large extended work by Eric Banks called This Delicate Universe, set to the Greek poet Cavafy. That's been rich and wonderful.
Just last week we finished an exciting user-friendly program that we called "Great Big Choruses." We included several movements from major oratorios and ended with the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, something I had never done before but was really interesting. We have an all-Bach program tomorrow which includes Magnificat and some other works. I'll be doing the Arvo Pärt Passio at the Oregon Bach Festival in a couple weeks.
My fall is going to be devoted to completing a work that I'm composing called Considering Matthew Shepard. Conspirare will do the full premiere in February 2016. That's something very near and dear to my heart. We did a workshop performance of it about a year ago and now we'll do a complete performance. We're doing a Stephen Paulus tribute concert and we will record a CD. We have a Pablo Neruda CD that's coming out in September and we're really excited about that. There's a great piece, which I'm a real champion of, called Ode to Common Things by Cary Ratcliff, and we recorded the premiere of the piece. There's a new version that makes it accessible and available to a lot more people. It's for four-hand piano, two percussion, harp, and guitar, and it's a fantastic piece. That's coming out in September. In Cincinnati I'll be doing a great new work that will be premiered in April. It's a really rich and fertile time.
With Cappella SF, we're such a new group that I'm still trying to find the ideal match of singers. We haven't set the exact roster yet. We have a pool of singers I've assembled from constellations. That's important, to find the ideal match of people who blend well together. With a symphony chorus, it's an ongoing process every year. We have auditions and we just find the best singers possible to fill openings in the group.
With whatever group I work with, there is the ongoing process of refining phrasing, musicality, blend, intonation, sound, and diction. We have a big hall here to fill—Davies Symphony Hall, with 2,700 seats—so one really needs to be mindful of diction, but find a way that feels emotionally convincing, that doesn't feel superimposed on the music. It's stuff like that that's an ongoing thing.
Something that I've focused on lately is how to deal with German diction. I had a set way before, and I had to change my thinking about that. It's mostly in regard to the treatment of r's. I was kind of speaking in an old-fashioned Bühnendeutsch [stage German] treatment of German, which is already more than 100 years old. You rolled all the r's—very simple.
But nobody does that anymore in Germany. They think it kind of corny if you do, and it does sound very old-fashioned. Nobody speaks that way anymore. You swallow the r's, except the initial r's like “recht” or “richtig.”
I have the opportunity to interview our great baritone and soprano soloists when they pass by, like Christian Gerharer and Matthias Goerne a couple of years ago, and other German soloists. I ask them what they do. They say different things.
Goerne said something interesting. He will omit most of those r's inside words and at the end of words, but if it's more agitated, musically, or louder, he will roll them. He doesn't have a set rule. He varies it. Gerharer said that he does not ever roll any of those r's, but I caught him doing it in the Brahms Requiem at least once. "Well, that's an exception," he said. At the same time, we had a German soprano soloist and she did kind of 50/50. Goerne's approach to that is, in a nutshell, what I'm trying to do now. As a choral director, I want to find one principle and avoid having to micromanage each and every word.
That is my principle: When it gets more agitated, let's roll the r's. When not agitated, in general, omit them.
In some ways you could argue that technology has barely impacted us at all because in the end, you are about the human voice mainly un-amplified as our creator gave us our instruments. Of course, that is the timeless beauty of choral music, and I think that is the fundamental aspect of it that we all respond to. At the same time, the huge advances in the recording industry have made a big difference, and like many other ensembles and professional organizations, we are finding our way in the ever-changing landscape. We’ve had relationships with labels like Nonesuch and more recently with Decca. Those relationships are wonderful and they still work in some situations.
One of the things we’ve realized is that we need to take control of our own recording plans and self-produce more and more. That is what orchestras all around the country and other enterprising choral organizations have been finding.
It's been exciting as we consider how we share music—how is music shared and transmitted now? We're always asking how we can participate in the future, which is really the present. We think a lot more about video and the impact that it has. I'm interested in knowing how we could use technology more for performance and even rehearsing sometimes–Skype rehearsals for instance. It's a notion I never would have even entertained, but now is a curiosity.
So much remains to be seen in terms of production elements and production values for concerts. What's possible technologically now wasn't just five years ago. It's an exciting time and I think it's a challenging time because in choral music one might think initially, and sometimes I do, that what we do is human bodies in a good acoustical space, simple and direct. Yet I think we will be the lesser if we stay in that perspective because I think there's a way that this music can reach people. I'm definitely in learning mode with it all.
: Searching for repertoire is made very easy when you can browse online and go through recordings and scores. CPDL is a great thing, and so is the Petrucci Library.
With my new group, we have already recorded two CD's. It's fascinating that you can listen to them, make comments, and send them back and forth. I have yet to do a Skype rehearsal. Looking forward to that day, maybe.
I think the rise especially in the last five to ten years of smaller targeted professional ensembles. They are operating at an incredibly high artistic level–Conspirare and The Crossing, Seraphic Fire, and several other groups around the country. These groups are setting the bar incredibly high and they are defining a new business model, which I find really interesting. Here in LA, the Master Chorale has been largely a professional ensemble for many years now and we are going to a fully professional model over the next three seasons. In the year 2016-2017 we will be an ensemble of 100 professional voices under the CBA through AGMA. Right now it is 82 professional singers and around 40 singers that we call supplemental. It’s a complicated structure. We are simplifying things and that will give us more flexibility in all sorts of ways.
Certainly in professional choral music there's been such an amazing flowering of the profession. There are so many fine groups springing up in so many places. The level of artistry, singing, and the skillsets that singers are bringing as a result of this is really significant and quite thrilling.
Little by little, choral artists and conductors are taking more courage in their program choices. We are hearing a wide variety of interesting and innovative programming and performance offerings. We've tended to be somewhat of a traditional and conservative art form. I think that people are breaking out and seeing this as a medium for a broad spectrum of musical expression, and taking on some more individual distinctive voices. This, to me, is a very positive thing.
It seems to me that the organization of American choral life has become very, very strong. I admire the strength in regards to the richness of the conventions; the, workshops, lectures, and concerts given at these conventions. It's very important to have access to that forum, to be able to keep yourself up to date and meet your colleagues, to get new repertoire ideas and hear lectures on a wide range of topics.
As for changes in choral art, I think because of the fact that it's easier than ever to distribute your recordings, the symphony and music-making as a whole has been internationalized so that everybody hears everyone so easily. At the click of a button, you can hear groups from Norway, Singapore, Japan, America, Mexico, Sweden… It seems to have brought us to a more unified understanding of what choral singing is. For good or bad perhaps, but it seems to me that we're moving in that direction. It is, perhaps, a little more difficult these days to say where a choir is from only by listening to their sound and way of singing.
The challenge is the same for every classical music organization: continuing to build our audience when there is so much competition for people’s attention and the marketplace is so saturated. In choral music we have certain advantages According to the Chorus America survey from a few years back, there is something in the neighborhood of 40 million Americans who sing in some sort of a choral organization, whether it is a church, a school, or a community chorus.
Compared to our orchestral brethren, we have an incredible advantage in terms of reaching audience members. While there are challenges I think it continues to be a really exciting time. There is so much great new creative energy in the choral field these days. There is certainly a renaissance of great composers who have rediscovered the voice in the last twenty years. That is really exciting to see and to be a part of.
Keeping what we do in front of people and keeping people connecting with it is challenging. It feels like a challenge because with all of our phones and iPads and Apple Watches and iPods, everything is available. We are used to immediate gratification and immediate response. Our attention spans, I think, are getting shorter. I think one challenge with what we do is to keep finding ways to engage people, to really connect with them through this art form. We just can't go out and assume that people have a connection with this because most don't. I think the onus is on us to figure this out because we're the ones who have a deep love for this, and we as the practitioners really need to bear that burden of knowing how to bring this to people and keep it in their lives.
The challenge is how do we maintain interest in choral singing as an art? How do we keep our audience? I have to confess, I am no expert on all these questions. It seems to me that, although it's said quite a lot that classical music is endangered these days, I'm not sure that choral music-making is in as much danger. It's a wonderful way of making music in that we don't need expensive instruments. You can fashion a good choral instrument from people who have not spent years studying at conservatories and learning to play an instrument, as is the case for an orchestra. It's sort of easy, and I don't mean that in a derogatory sense. It can be an easy way to quickly produce beautiful art. I think we have a good future in that, when there are cuts in music education in so many places. Singing is still inexpensive, and appealing to many people. I don't think I see a decline in the interest of singing in young people today, although there may be a decline in the willingness to sacrifice hours and hours of practice to learn an instrument.
When it comes to choral singing, it seems to me that it's blooming. Look at China, for instance. It seems to be exploding there. I guess the challenge is more how do we keep our audience interested.
I think we have a huge responsibility as directors to always keep looking for what is around the next corner. What is the good music that is being written now? We need to preserve the classics and do them on a regular basis, but a significant percentage of what we do needs to be new music so that the art doesn't die out. It's hard work to browse through concert music and try to find what is good, what is interesting, what is appealing, what says something to us today.
I suppose it has to do with being open to every kind of experience. For a lot of young conductors there is a tendency to become very tunnel-visioned about that specific narrow part of the art form. I think that if my older self could go back and talk to young Grant, I would tell myself to read more poetry, go to more plays and concerts, listen to more different kinds of music. To open myself up to as many artistic experiences as possible because all those things inform the depth that you can bring to the art form. Especially as a conductor, we have to remember that we are the teachers, the communicators, the more that we build and fill our vessel, the more insight, wisdom, and experience, we can pour towards others.
I would say it's multi-pronged a bit. As practitioner, bring rigor to your development and training. As an artist and human being always, always, always follow your heart. It's simple.
One piece of advice? I have to single out one? Listen to good choirs to get your ideal firmly established. As long as you have that ideal in your head, you find ways of working toward that ideal.
Steven Zopfi's "Ten Questions" interview with Joe Miller appears in the Fall 2015 issue of the Voice, and can also be found online here.
Steven Zopfi is Artistic Director of the Portland Symphonic Choir in Portland, Oregon and Director of Choral Activities at the University of Puget Sound.
Grant Gershon serves as the Music Director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and is the Resident Conductor of the Los Angeles Opera. Gershon has served as the assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Salzurg Festival, and at the Berlin State Opera. He sits on the Board of Directors of Chorus America.
Craig Hella Johnson is the founder/conductor and Artistic Director of the Grammy-award winning Conspirare and serves as the Artistic Director of the Victoria Bach Festival as well as the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati. He is a past Artistic Director of Chanticleer.
Ragnar Bohlin is director the Grammy-award winning San Francisco Symphony Chorus and Artistic Director of the Capella SF. He has regularly appeared with the Swedish Radio Choir, the Eric Ericsson Chamber Choir, and the Royal Opera Chorus of Stockholm.