Ready... Set... RETREAT!
Each autumn, close to the beginning of the new season’s rehearsal period, Chorale holds a Saturday retreat, at which we eat three times, rehearse for about five hours, and have a chance to interact with one another, extensively and extra-musically. For the past three seasons, we have retreated to Ellis Avenue Church, a reconfigured mansion in the Kenwood neighborhood, just north of Hyde Park. The building has a room big enough to hold all of us, a decent piano, a large kitchen, a spacious yard, and a wonderful, open front porch and steps, where most of our non-musical time is spent.
The food, the drinks, the dishes and utensils, the charcoal, are provided both by Chorale management, and by Chorale members. We always have more than we consume—our members are generous. Coffee, bagels, and donuts for breakfast; pizza or sandwiches for lunch; bratwurst and potluck items for supper. While Chorale rehearses, our managing director, Megan Balderston, and our board president, Angela Grimes, set things out for the various meals, then clear them away to make room for the next repast. At the end of the day, folks pack up their leftovers, their coolers, their dishes and utensils, and head home.
Frequently, we have guest observers, who show up in the afternoon and sit in on our rehearsal, watching and listening as we work, and then join us for supper. At various points during rehearsal, we break off singing, and Megan, Angela, and I address the choir about our coming season, as well as explain various long-term policies and procedures, of which new members may be unaware—and of which everyone should be reminded.
This retreat, coming as it does between two consecutive Wednesday rehearsals, really jump-starts our learning of new music. With only two or three days between rehearsals, the singers forget very little between one Wednesday and the next, and end up much further along with concert preparation, by the second Wednesday, than the hours of rehearsal alone would suggest. And—the choral disciplines to which we subscribe, become more familiar and deep-seated, with concentrated exposure. Our sound, our phrasing, our onsets and cutoffs, all improve immensely over the course of this one week.
A word about the bratwurst. I have always provided bratwurst for my choirs, ever since I began conducting at the University of Chicago, back in 1984. I used to order it—first, from Tuvey’s Meat and Music, in Watertown, Minnesota, back when my family farmed near there; then, after I moved to the University of Virginia, through a German restaurant in Charlottesville. About the time I returned to Chicago and founded Chorale, it occurred to me that I could save a lot of money, and have more fun, if I just made it myself. I had grown up in a sausage-making family, and knew it was possible. I experimented around with recipes and procedures, and finally came up with what I now make. There is always plenty. This year, a former member of my other ensemble, Chicago Men's A Cappella, Adam Gillette, will start the fires and do some grilling while we rehearse—so that the brats will be ready, fresh and hot, when we quit rehearsing.
Sausage is like choirs: one takes many disparate ingredients, carefully and artfully combines them, stuffs them into something that gives them structure, and comes up with a product that is ever so much better than the sum of its parts. For me, a perfect metaphor for my role as conductor.