It's the repertoire
I distinctly remember that my college choral conductor, Weston Noble, had a couple of four-drawer file cabinets in his otherwise comfortable, uncluttered office-- cabinets that had nothing to do with his secretary, or with the daily operation of the music department. The drawers were always closed, and were not labeled. One time, he asked me to retrieve something from one of them-- and I discovered the rich and mysterious world of Weston’s single copies collection. All of the drawers were stuffed with choral music; many of the pieces had notes written on them, notes paper-clipped to them; many were gathered in manila folders; many looked unused. I asked, in awe, have you conducted all of this music? No, he laughed, not even a tenth of it. He had gotten it from publishers, from composers, from conducting colleagues, from former students, from reading sessions. He also had a piano in his office, and would play through pieces at night, make notes, file some in folders labeled “openers,” “closers,” “light,” “next year,” “All-State” etc. He told me that his first priority as a conductor was selecting his choir, but that a close second was choosing appropriate repertoire. Any conductor accumulates a similar collection. Mine is enormous. The fact that I sang as a professional chorister for so many years, means that I not only have collected single copies, but also that I know a lot of music which I do not personally own. And like Weston, I periodically dig through my collection, as well as through my memories and my recordings, to find just the right piece for this or that. Sometimes, I explore my collection just for the joy of it, discovering pieces I did not even know I had. I am not so painstaking and organized as he was—I have stacks all over the place, unlabeled folders, single pieces lying on shelves and gathering dust but which I am loath to file, for fear I lose track of them.
I think the most important thing Weston told me, relative to his collection, was that there are millions of pieces of music out there, and one will never do all of them. Take the time to find what you love, and work on that; don’t waste energy on pieces to which you are not committed. You will lose interest; and your choir, and your audience, will sense your lack of engagement. Sure, a younger, less experienced conductor has to experiment, has to explore many possibilities, some of which turn out badly. I thank the many years I spent conducting a high-level church choir with a good library, for giving me the opportunity to try out hundreds of pieces; that, combined with my singing, gave me a wonderful opportunity to develop my own taste, to discover my musical passions, to explore style and technique in a concrete way.
I work no less hard now, than I did thirty years ago, choosing repertoire for a concert season. I wallow in possibilities, listen to recordings, awaken my family by playing through music late at night—and I go to my single copies collection, to find just the right piece to go where it is needed. Chicago Chorale’s 2014-15 season is in some ways easy, a slam dunk: Mozart’s ’Great’ Mass in C minor and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion both sit at the very top of the “great music” mountain, and both are personal favorites of mine. Our spring concert, though, will consist of a number of smaller works, focusing on the theme Da pacem Domine—Give peace, Lord-- works which must satisfy my personal taste, must complement one another within the larger structure of the program, must contribute to an overarching theme without bludgeoning the listener with it; works which must satisfy, even thrill, as individual statements, while forming a satisfying, uplifting, entertaining whole.
Chorale has now rehearsed twice this fall, and I am getting a feel for the sound and character of this particular group of singers. I’ll soon be able to choose appropriate repertoire for the spring, and the prospect really excites me.