William Fred Scott
(c) Lisa Kohler
At the end of the 2019-2020 concert season, conductor William Fred Scott will complete five years as Music Director of “Chanticleer,” a twelve-voice male singing group based in San Francisco. Scott, the fifth music director in that organization’s forty-year history, created and supervised hundreds of concert programs, encompassing well over three hundred different works of music from Hildegard von Bingen’s chants to commissioned works from John Harbison, Nico Muhly, John Musto and Zhou Tian, to name only a few.
Prior to his work with Chanticleer, Scott was a major force in the musical community of Atlanta. Scott had been involved in the Atlanta music scene since 1981, when he was invited by Robert Shaw to join the Atlanta Symphony as Associate Conductor. With the symphony, Mr. Scott led hundreds of concerts each year including children’s concerts, summer concerts at Chastain and Piedmont Parks and the ever-popular Champagne and Coffee series, which he created. On the death of Robert Shaw, Scott was asked to preside over “Christmas with the Atlanta Symphony,” concerts in the Shaw tradition which drew consistently sold-out houses. He has conducted a diverse symphonic repertoire and introduced numerous works to Atlanta audiences, including the American premiere of Philip Glass’s “The Canyon.” The roster of soloists who performed with Mr. Scott during his years with the orchestra is an amazing and varied list, including Kiri te Kanawa, Itzhak Perlman, Earl Wild, Ella Fitzgerald, Don McLean and Judy Collins.
Following his tenure with the orchestra, Scott was Artistic Director of The Atlanta Opera, a post he held for twenty years. During that time the opera company saw unprecedented growth. The company not only purchased and renovated rehearsal and office space in mid-town Atlanta, it carried out a successful capital campaign, staged operas in four different theatres in Atlanta and in Spivey Hall (a yearly staging of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors) and was hailed as one of the “hottest young companies” in the United States. Scott’s operatic repertoire includes the standard operas of Mozart, Verdi, Bizet and Puccini alongside Stephen Paulus’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Blitzstein’s Regina, Floyd’s Susannah, Schuller’s The Fisherman and his Wife, Prokofiev’s War and Peace, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Britten’s Albert Herring, and Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos and Salome of Richard Strauss. He has conducted The New York City Opera (in New York and on tour in Los Angeles), Opera Carolina, the Opera Company of Boston, Michigan Opera Theatre and Hawaii Opera Theatre. His European debut took place in Prague, conducting Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
Mr. Scott is a native of Thomasville, Georgia. He is an active member of both the (Episcopal) Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta and Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. In 1974 he was graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Prior to his move to Atlanta, he served as Assistant Conductor, Chorus Master and Artistic Administrator of The Opera Company of Boston, as led by the redoubtable impresario and conductor Sarah Caldwell. His operatic debut took place in the spring of 1975, leading Beverly Sills and Tatiana Troyanos in Bellini’s rarely-staged The Capulets and the Montagues. He is a frequently sought after writer, lecturer, teacher and adjudicator. He divides his time between his home near Atlanta, his studio in San Francisco and a cottage near the seashore in Ocean Park, Maine.
Where are you from?
How did you get into music?
I fell in love with the sound of the piano in kindergarten. There was a woman who came every day to play songs for us to sing and there was a tall upright green piano — ugly shade of green. I sat right next to that piano every time she came, and I wished I could crawl inside it and be that sound. So from the earliest, as I can remember, I loved the sound of the piano. I loved playing the piano. I started playing the piano very early, like five or six years old, and I also played the organ as soon as my feet would reach the pedals.. My basic background was in church music, as I think it frequently is for people who studied piano or studied organ. Then, I got into vocal things through church music.
Where did you attend your undergraduate studies?
Georgetown University in Washington.
Did you do any young artists programs during undergraduate studies?
No. I didn't think I was going to be in music. I was in the Foreign Service school, with my eyes on a career in the diplomatic world.
What did your resume look like for music?
Nothing. All on-the-job training.
Do you think that these experiences were better than doing young artists programs and doing your undergraduate studies in music?
Since I didn't do that, I'm not sure how to make that comparison. There were also very few young artists programs for conductors. When I realized that I was going to switch out of foreign service and into music as a professional, my mentor, who was the music editor of The Washington Post, essentially said, “I'll teach you everything you need to know about the music business, and then you'll go and be a coach at an opera house.” So for me, it was learning by just doing it. So, I don't know what kind of other preparation I would have done. I certainly like the way it turned out because it made me learn a lot of music because I wanted to learn it and not because “This is your assignment for tomorrow.”
There was a singer from the Metropolitan Opera, a wonderful American singer named Phyllis Curtin. Phyllis was head of the voice department at Boston University when I was working in Boston. We were good friends and judged several competitions for the Metropolitan Opera together. Once, when we were judging a Met competition in Puerto Rico, she said to me, “You are lucky because you had a great liberal arts education. That gives you so many frames of reference for everything you do, rather than if you had just gone to a conservatory and sort of been steered towards practicing all the time. You really wouldn't have had the kind of background that serves you so well for conducting opera or coaching lieder, or, you know, knowing what the Ordinary of the Mass is.”
When did you realize you wanted to be a professional musician?
Sophomore year in college. I only went to one school. I went to Georgetown and as soon as I graduated, I started working as a professional musician.
APPLYING TO GRADUATE SCHOOL
Does attending a more acclaimed yet competitive school provide more opportunities in the long run as opposed to a smaller school with more individual opportunities?
I'm not sure I know, because, frankly, I'm so far away from it now. This was 47 years ago, you know, so I can’t tell you so much about what is happening to a young person now. Going to a good college that has a good liberal arts background and a good music program is probably going to serve you better than if you just go straight to a conservatory. I think there are exceptional talents all around but, frankly, a college freshman's voice is really just a high school senior’s voice. So, there's sort of no reason to play games with yourself like, “Oh, I'm going to go to Juilliard for my undergraduate, because next year, I'm going to be singing at the Metropolitan.” Unless you are really brilliant, you are not going to be singing at the Metropolitan after your freshman year in college anyway.
So go someplace, I would think, where they can't do any harm to your voice. But in the meantime, you're picking up languages; you're picking up history; you're seeing art; you're thinking about philosophy; you might even be studying theology. All these things will be an input to your performance. I wouldn't recommend to a young person to get as focused as a conservatory, let's say, in the undergraduate time. I think it's better that, if you're going to really take a music career seriously, then there's no reason to rush it. Especially if you're a singer, or even more especially, if you’re a male singer, you need to have time to let your voice develop anyway. So, be learning other things as well!
Why did you not attend graduate school in music if you knew that you were going to become a professional musician?
I was already working. I was employed by the Opera Company of Boston almost as soon as I got out of college.
Is it more beneficial to attend graduate school or gain experience right out of undergraduate school?
I conducted dozens of performances at the Opera Company in Boston when I was 22 years old. I would have never had that experience in graduate school.
Did you have that lined up while you were an undergraduate student?
No. It's just that I've been very lucky. To use the language I like, I say, “I'm blessed.” Because a number of influential people were, well, let’s say, God just sort of put them in my face and said, “Here's a really great opportunity you could have if you want it.” And I think the trick is to be as prepared as you possibly can be and just say, “Yes.” And then go out and find out what else you need to know. Never turn down a job you haven't been offered, you know.
At any rate, I had graduated from college and didn't know what I was going to do. I had a little church job and I had some voice students that I coached in Washington. I played some rehearsals here and there, but mostly, I was just sort of picking up jobs when Sarah Caldwell came my way. I played rehearsals for her at Wolf Trap and she invited me to come to Boston. I started conducting in maybe the second month there. So, I was already conducting opera by 1975 — I was 22.
What was your official undergraduate degree in?
Does attending a more acclaimed yet competitive school provide more opportunities in the long run, as opposed to a smaller school with more individual opportunities?
I don't know. I think that's a very good question. I think for a performer that's going to be in an ensemble situation, that is to say, an opera singer, as opposed to say, a concert violinist, I think to be able to be on stage as much as you possibly can is a better thing than never to get on stage. I think the next sort of axiom is that you need to be on stage with people that are better than you are. (And this also applies to theatre students. You need to go see as much theater as you can.) You want — need — to be on stage as often as possible, and you need to be watching and listening to people who are clearly better than you if for no other reason than to steal their good ideas!
It's like, you know, Luciano Pavarotti will say, without embarrassment, “I watched Joan Sutherland sing so I could learn how to breathe.” You know? So, perhaps if you are a big fish in a smaller pond, and you get to be on stage a lot, maybe that's better for you as a graduate singer, let's say, than to go to a gigantic school where all you are going to do is maybe be in the second chorus of Hansel and Gretel and that’s your performance opportunity for that year. I don't know if you learn so much in that situation. It may be that you go to a really big school because there's a really big, famous teacher that you think is going to teach you everything, but I bet that's also a question of how you luck out or not.
How important is it to have a master’s degree? How important is it to have a doctoral degree?
It depends on what you're going to do. The opera singers that came my way during 20 years of running the Atlanta Opera — I never once asked if they had a degree. I may have said, “With whom did you study?” But it doesn't matter. If you can stand on stage and give me a good theatrical performance and sing beautifully, I really don't care what kind of degree you have. But I think if you're going to get a degree because you also need to have a fallback option, then probably a terminal degree is necessary if you're going to teach in a major school. They don't seem to take anybody that doesn't already have a doctorate, but I don't think that matters to you as a performer on stage.
How important is GPA in undergraduate studies?
Not important, at least to me, no. When I had what you might call the “impresario” role as artistic director of the Atlanta Opera, it wouldn't have made any difference at all. If I were the head of choral music at Westminster Schools in Atlanta and was on the prowl for another choral director to work alongside me, then I would need to know where he or she studied and what his or her GPA was and what their experience was. But it depends on, sort of, where you are and what you're looking for.
In academia and the education field, do you need a degree?
I think you need a terminal degree now. When you get to be my age, then experience counts for a lot. I was hired to direct choral music at Westminster Schools, not because I had a degree in choral conducting, but because I had already been in the business for 40 years and much of that included working with Robert Shaw (Mr. Shaw never had a degree in music, you know.). Once again, it's all about where you're going and what they're looking for. If the academic institution is looking for sort of a, for lack of a better word, a senior citizen in the field that can bring experiences and personality and “name” to the job, probably the degree part is not that important. But if you're going to teach music theory at a small girl’s school somewhere, they're not going to hire you unless you can say you've got some good degrees, because they need that for their accreditation. That’s not necessarily to say that you are good or not, but the school has to be able to say, “Oh, 76% — or whatever number they need — of our faculty has terminal degrees.”
How do you find a conductor that you would like to study with?
Find conductors that have lots of recordings. Listen to every single performance of the Beethoven Eighth Symphony you can find! Then, you find one that seems to sound like what you see on the paper and you go, “I like that. I wonder if I can study with that man or that woman? Where is that person?” Then, you might discover that those people are not teaching in college. So, then you sort of read their bio and find them. You probably want to find somebody that's had experience in front of an orchestra, or in front of an opera company, or in front of a chorus. Again, I think you want to go to a place where you feel like you'll get some experience.
Conducting is a very strange bird because we can't conduct ourselves. We have to find people that we can conduct. When I was still in Georgetown and learning about music, I conducted the Brahms First Symphony and Sacre du Printemps … but I was just conducting a record in front of a mirror and seeing what I looked like! You can read Max Rudolf's book on conducting. There are a lot of things you can do to get yourself prepared for that first step, but ultimately, you need to work with people. If you know your music, your body will show it. But you need to know how to correct somebody; you need to know what the problem is, how to diagnose it, and how to fix it. You will need others to “sing under” or “play under” you.
[In preparing to be a conductor] go to a school where they will give you an orchestra to work with. If you can’t, at least be someplace where you think you can find six-string players that will be willing to play. You'll find them your first week in the dorm, you know. Somebody will want to come together and you say, “Could we just make some music together? I need to practice my conducting,” and make them play exactly what you show and then you'll see what you do wrong because they'll play it wrong.
I think schools that might have associations with institutions that have summer programs are good. For instance, if you could get on to something that's associated with the Boston Symphony in Tanglewood or Bowdoin, which sponsors an international contemporary chamber music festival every summer up in Maine, or Temple University used to have with Saratoga, they used to have an exchange. Anything you can find that gives you a chance to do what you think you need to do, that's where you need to go.
If there is a conductor and you think, “Man, I love it. I love exactly what that piece sounds like. I want to find him or her,” you could write that conductor and say, “I would like to come soak up your aura, what do you think?” and the guy will say, “I think you're crazy.” Or he will say, “I can't do it, but I would suggest to you that you talk to somebody I taught 20 years ago, who's now at Penn State.” I mean, you're going to get your next jobs by connections anyway. Until you get a manager who's really, really going to sell you, you're going to get jobs because you know people who know people.
How important is it for a choral conductor to improve their orchestral skills and ability to conduct an orchestra?
If you're lucky, you're going to be asked to conduct pieces that have instrumental accompaniment. And there is nothing that wrecks a rehearsal faster than a choral conductor who doesn't know how to deal with an oboist and a trumpet player. And orchestral musicians are such snobs that they will just not give back if they think you haven't thought about them. They’ll call you a “choral conductor” and it won’t be with love in their hearts.
Think of this example: You're about to give an upbeat, and you find your hands in the air, because you're trying to get everybody in the chorus to look at you and the trumpet player has to play also. The trumpet player is going to get pretty mad because you don't remember that a trumpet player can't have his embouchure ready and his instrument to his lips for all that time while you were hesitating. I learned this, not the hard way, but from a trumpet player from the Boston Symphony who said to me, “For God’s sake, man, don't keep your hands in the air that long. We need to know just before you want us to play.”
I think you've got to hope that you can conduct at least a Bach cantata in your life. And then maybe you're going to go beyond that. And you're going to be asked to conduct a Schubert Mass. Or something even bigger, orchestrally speaking. You’re going to need to have your parts marked for relative dynamics and bowing and stuff like that. So, it will be nice to have some string players in your back pocket who can tell you “This is what we can do well.”
I think the conductor needs to know as much as possible about everything that might ever be in front of him. And that's not the same thing as saying you need to know how to play every instrument of the orchestra. That's not what I'm saying. You need to know what an oboist can do. How long can an oboist really hold that note? How soft can a bassoon really play? (Which is, not very.) The bassoons, of all the winds, have the least variance between really loud and really soft. And so, the conductor is going to look foolish if you keep going “Quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet” to an instrument who's already as quiet as it can be. So, I think the more opportunities you have, in a way, it's kind of the liberal arts paradigm. It's like, the more you can know about everything else, the better you're going to be at what you do need to know.
And don’t forget to make sure that the orchestra parts and your choral scores and your accompanist’s score all agree. Measure numbers, rehearsal letters, metronome markings. It all has to be in the parts before the first rehearsal.
What type of auditions have you overseen (opera, choral, oratorio)?
Well at the Opera Company of Boston and at the Atlanta Opera, I did almost all the casting. So, all the auditions went through me. (Not as much, maybe, in Boston as later in Atlanta.) I never really had any say on who was hired as a soloist at the Atlanta Symphony. That was done either by Mr. Shaw or by the Artistic Administrator of the orchestra. My role there was different.
And in my high-school work with The Westminster Schools, the big choruses were sort of “come one/ come all.” Anybody could get in, in a way — and if they want to sing, that's great. And you can't “fail” Chorus. Yeah, you really shouldn't. But we also had a small group called The Ensemble, which was 24 singers. And I auditioned every one of those kids.
My school [Westminster, in Atlanta] happened to do the Christmas portion of Messiah with its orchestra every year. So my high school kids sang all the solos, which you might think would be tragic. (And sometimes it was slightly tragic.) But it was the most amazing experience because those kids took it so seriously. They knew that they would have to come “work with Mr. Scott” at least two times before they auditioned, then they would have to audition in front of opera singers from Atlanta, not just in front of me. And so they had to go … well, it’s like appearing on stage with no clothes: you're very vulnerable, and you're very scared, and they work and worked and worked and, what a gift! I mean, here's a, you know, a 16-year-old bass, that is singing “The People That Walked in Darkness” in front of a panel of judges in an auditorium that seats 800 people. That experience is not ever going to come to him again. And then he might even get a chance to sing it in front of his classmates. I've done a lot of singer auditions in my life.
How does an opera audition differ from an oratorio audition?
For the opera audition, you're [I would be] looking for a voice that is instantly interesting and immediately commanding in terms of timbre, color and technical ability. For an oratorio solo, you're looking for a voice that is, I don't want to say less interesting, but chances are that an oratorio singer is going to have to blend in a quartet, probably more than an opera singer will have to. Singing in the quartet from Rigoletto, for instance, is an entirely different kettle of fish than singing one of the solo parts in the Missa Solemnis. I mean, the four soloists, even in the Verdi Requiem, have to shed some of their operatic individuality, so that they can be in tune together: you're going to need a soprano in the Verdi Requiem that has that beautiful high B-flat at the end of that long a cappella choral section. She's also got to have several high C’s over a chorus of 200 and a full orchestra, and she also has to sing the Agnus Dei with the mezzo in perfect harmony and perfect octaves, and not too loud. And so your normal, wobbly 57-year-old second-tier Verdi soprano is not going to be able to do that. She's going to be messy. On the other hand, the woman who can sing perfectly “Hear Ye, Israel” from Elijah is probably not going to be very interesting as Leonora in Trovatore.
Let’s face it: the singers over history whom we really remember are singers whose voices you can recognize in two notes. For opera you need a voice of great personality and color. And depending on what the pieces are and what your hall is, you need some power or not so much power. You know, if you're doing a Handel opera in a small room, that's a totally different voice than the one who has to sing Carmen at the Staatsoper. And for me, even for a major role in a major house, I don't want somebody that's wobbly. I still want somebody that's going to sing in tune. I like singers that can count. A lot of opera singers, I hate to say it, have a horrible idea about rhythm. They sing sort of “This is how long I think I hold it.” Or worse, “I think I used to hold it about this long the last time I sang it.” And they don't really cut off when you're supposed to cut off. And so it can be very difficult to get togetherness on stage. And, you know, they chalk it up to “Oh, this is my personality.” Well, but that's not good musicianship. You could take down from dictation every scale that Callas ever sang, it was so precise. And she never stopped being Callas.
So that's what you're looking for. This instantly interesting and recognizable voice, who is also a great musician. And you add to that a couple of other factors in the opera business, you need to have a good linguist. And (I think this makes me a little old fashioned in a way,) I think you have to look for somebody who's going to be believable in the part. My idea of casting in opera is that you are also casting a theatrical work. And if you're talking about a singer who's dying of tuberculosis, say, La bohème, then the 365-pound soprano who is in the blush of health, eating doughnuts — she is never going to be believable on stage. If your job as an opera impresario is to sell tickets and convince people that the opera is really great, then you can't put up on stage people that don't look believable and say, “Oh, well, you know, it’s all about the music.” You need to create for them a whole … what to call it? The Gesamtkunstwerk, the totality.The musical part of it has to be well put together and right, but also the theatrical part. Opera auditions to me are always lots of work. To listen to singers for four days in a row, say for an opera competition, or for an opera casting- call, is really tiring. Because you're thinking not only about the ability to sing good music, but all of the theatrical things that also go into it. It is far easier to pick a soprano to sing the Schubert G-major Mass.
What do you expect someone to do when they first walk in the room?
Well, first of all, I love singers. I have great respect for singers. I think it's really difficult for a singer to go to an audition with somebody who he or she doesn't know, because they [the singers] don't have any idea of what that person in the hall wants. You know, we don't have to give you a list of what our demands are. With some luck, a singer is represented by an agent who has worked with me in the past and says, “if you're going to sing in Atlanta, you better look believable, and you're going to have six weeks of rehearsal, and Fred Scott is a stickler for rhythm, you know.” So that singer will, with some luck, have been prepped by his or her manager.
Of course many young singers don’t yet have management and they deserve to be heard, too. When I ran the Atlanta Opera, every year I tried to make sure that I carved out at least a week to hear unrepresented singers. Because most people in big opera companies never hear you if you don't have a manager. And I thought there are a lot of singers out there that for whatever reason, don't have a manager. And there might be a hidden gem, and sometimes they work. But never mind that.
But back to the question. You know, I think a singer has to come in and be natural. I'm not interested in somebody putting on airs. I think your water bottle should be left outside of the room. I think you need to dress appropriately. I think you need to carry yourself on stage. And I think you can tell very quickly whether or not it this seems to be a singer with whom you could work. Because there's going to have to be collaboration. And I think you can tell just by the way a singer walks on stage, whether or not that singer thinks you have anything to offer to him or her. If that singer’s, like, “This is me and you can't change me,” I think you can find that out. You'll probably hear it in the singing too. But honesty as a performer is very contagious and everybody in the room likes it. And the person who's going to hire is not going to hire somebody that's this pretentious, you know. They're going to see your natural honesty come through.
And I think it's important for singers to remember with whom they have sung. If I say “Oh, I see you've done Tosca in Charlotte, who conducted that?” and they say “Oh, well, I don't remember,” then I'm not interested in you anymore. Because that means that when you go to the next audition, and you've just taken a lot of my money to sing Aida in Atlanta, you're not going to remember me! You’re not going to remember anything about it. If it's just a gig, and it doesn't matter, there's no personality involved. If there wasn't a little bit of your life that was shed, then that's the kind of performance you're going to get. So I think it's important to remember your conductors and your directors.
Nobody cares on your resume how many master classes you went to. Those master classes don't do anything. Master classes — generally the school pays a very important singer a lot of money to come tell you to close that [i] and sing that phrase louder, softer, faster, slower, whatever. You make a teensy change and the great teacher looks at the audience and asks “Now wasn't that better?” And everybody claps and then that person leaves and doesn't give a damn if you sang better or not. No master class can reframe your voice in that short period of time. Only hard work with a teacher and a coach can do that, not somebody that hasn't worked with you and your singing over and over and over. You need all the input you can get and that’s where the master class teacher is helpful, just to make suggestions of things you might go back to the studio and consider.
What material do you expect someone to bring with them into the room (paperwork, resume, binder of music, etc.)?
I think a singer should always have a resume and a photo to give to whoever's listening. And I think the singer better have a good copy of that music for the pianist. If you've got cuts, make sure they're marked. If you've got a tempo that you've worked out with a metronome, have it written “quarter = 88.” (Don't turn to the pianist and go it goes kind of like this “Snap, snap, snap.” You can find a metronome. If you're going to have a career in music, you need to know how to know what your speed is.) For one thing, you don't want the pianist to screw you up. The pianist has never seen this edition, doesn't know where the page turns are, “Oh, am I supposed to cut to here?” Be sure you have in your binder everything you say you're going to have. If you know what you're auditioning for, then be able to sing, sort of, anything out of that opera, or out of that oratorio.
If it's just kind of a cattle-call, then you'll want to have something (if you're going to an opera audition) in the major languages, French and Italian and German, and something in English, generally. And you might even have some pop song [musical theatre] with you because many regional opera companies are doing everything from G&S to Sondheim these days. (Most of the time, people that are going for opera jobs don't sing musicals well. So I would not have wanted to hear that unless I was going for something special. But chances are that would be a different audition.) So that's what I would bring on the stage and really, truly look spiffy. You know, men do not wear hats inside. That's just a cardinal rule. That just doesn't go. And you don't wear ratty clothes. You don't wear jeans that are too tight or skirts that are too short. Wear shoes you’ve worn before. Look, wear something that you're comfortable in. But look sharp. You have got to sell yourself.
You've got to, for one thing, choose for your opening piece a piece you do really well. And if in a competition or an opera audition, if you are allowed three and a half minutes of time, then don't announce “Ah, Fors’e lui and “Sempre libera” from Traviata because that's 12 minutes. If you're allowed two pieces, theoretically you've just sung two pieces! And if they say thank you very much, then don't leave the stage in a huff because you didn't get to sing your next piece. You just used up all your time. You wore out your welcome. That doesn't mean that you need to start with Musetta’s Waltz, because it's short. So start with something that you do really, really well. And then get disappointed if they ask for Musetta’s Waltz because they don't want to hear you anymore. Whoops, you did some something crazy. You still can’t leave the stage in a huff — that’s all the guy who runs the competition will remember! Don't sing the Gavotte from Mignon if you don't have a high D. Because chances are, whoever's listening to you expects a high D. Just don't do it. Don't do anything that you don't do well. And don't put on your list a piece of music that you're not ready to sing. You may not ever get another chance to sing for the Atlanta Opera or for the Boston Symphony. Or for anything smaller than that. I mean, small companies are going to have less time and less money to spend on you than big companies. So it may be that you're going to go sing some auditions in New York and, you know, a small company in Atlanta or much less. Mobile, Alabama can only rent a hall for three hours and they're going to try to cram in as many people as possible. So, you know, really, really hit it. Hit it hard and hit it really good. And be pleasant. And say thank you and so nice to see you. Generally, you don't have to say to the person who's listening to you, “I'm going to sing ‘Caro nome’ from Verdi’s Rigoletto.” Okay, we know what a “Caro nome” is. And we know who wrote Rigoletto, you know, so just be you. Just be honest. Look like you’re enjoying yourself.
How important is it to get to know other professionals and major names in the field of conducting?
I think it's important to know other professionals. (I don't know what you get out of a so-called major name. In a way, a major name is subjective.) What is great is if you can attend rehearsals of somebody, even if they're bad. You need to steal what's good and know what doesn't work. When I was hired by Robert Shaw to go to the Atlanta Symphony, where I was Associate Conductor for seven years, I had to cover every concert that they played. That was my job. It was to be cover conductor for everybody. So, I spent day after day after day after day, sitting in the hall listening to rehearsals. I didn't really have to do anything. But I had to have my score learned and be ready to go. That was occasionally boring, but mostly it was just fascinating to me to watch other conductors to see how their bodies worked, to hear what they would hear and see if they could correct the mistakes that inevitably came up.
So, if you can find the so-called big name, and, you know, just say, “Can I come to your rehearsals? Can I bring the score and come to your rehearsals?” Conductors are generally egotistical people. They're very happy for you to be flattered by what they do. Gush a little. Just a little. “Yes, I would love to come sit at your feet. Oh, Maestro.” It may be that there are symphony orchestras that will have programs that help young conductors, or that will let you come to rehearsals.
As a conductor, how easy is it to transfer conducting methods between genres (oratorio, orchestral, choral)?
I listened. I've been listening since I was five. I'm just fascinated by the music, and then I start learning it. And I had the good fortune to be in front of people. I just got jobs in the opera business, and then in the symphony business, and then in the music theory teaching business, and then the choral business. Kind of diverse jobs came to me, and it was lovely. I got to reinvent myself sort of every few years. I mean, I had seven years in Boston. And I thought I would like to work with symphonic repertoire. But I didn't actively pursue that. Robert Shaw was hired to come conduct at Boston. He spotted me and said, “The Atlanta Symphony is looking for an Associate Conductor — you want to come to Atlanta?” And I thought “Yes, I do.” So, two years later, I went to Atlanta, and there I was conducting hundreds of performances of symphonic repertoire, which I could never have gotten if I'd been in grad school. I was just there. It's lucky for you if you can work with a good orchestra. So, I had good players who were willing to let me make mistakes. And I began to learn what I needed to look like on the podium. And then the Opera called me; I already had experience as a coach, of course, and as a conductor in Boston, and many concerts under my belt with the orchestra in Atlanta, so I said yes. And I had 20 years of doing that. And then the Chanticleer job ultimately came along. And I had had lots of input and lots of experience. You just listen, you just watch, and you just do it.
How have you diversified your ability to conduct and teach different genres of music?
The disciplines are always the same: you can only sing or play a note so long, so loud, and with such, in such, a color. I mean, the more you do it, the more your body says this is exactly what you need. And breathing for a singer is the same as it is for an oboe player. You know, I mean, it's all about breathing. It's all about getting community. Whoever is in front of you is making the music. You're not [making the music] as a conductor. So, there is a certain amount of humility, which can be hard on a conductor! (But the fact is you are, I am, very humbled in the face of Beethoven — or Benjamin Britten, for that matter. Or when standing in front of an orchestra in Prague, in Mozart’s own opera house? How can I not be?) But still, the disciplines that I as a conductor need to impart to you as a performer are the same. It has to be unanimous, or else the whole thing sounds like anarchy. People want a performance that is together. Beautiful, and theatrical. And that makes the Spirit come alive, whether it's a religious piece, or an opera by Verdi, or a Debussy String Quartet. I mean, you're still getting togetherness and beauty. And that gets the spirit into that piece.
Opera, for instance, is slightly more difficult because it's slightly longer, most of the time. But that’s really the only difference. I could just as easily conduct Rosenkavalier tomorrow, or the Missa Solemnis, or a Bach Cantata, or a Beethoven symphony. Yeah. It's all the same.
MUSIC DIRECTOR OF CHANTICLEER
What does a normal rehearsal for Chanticleer look like?
We rehearse twice a day, five days a week, for about four weeks before a tour or concert series starts. I try to send out some rehearsal minutiae before we get together. When I study the pieces, I also try to figure out what the voicings might be. And also tempo. And breath markings. If there are things that the music needs marking, “Measure two; that should be a half with a quarter rest.” I try to solve as many problems as I can beforehand, because I believe very strongly, and I learned this from Mr. Shaw: not to waste people's time. My rehearsal mantra is something like, learn the notes as efficiently and correctly as possible as soon as possible, then you will have more time for the “deeper” things in the score.
Even so, there is talking involved. My talking. And some of that is just going over the notes that were sent out in advance. Some singers, even in my Chanticleer singers, sort of resent this because they think I'm barking at them or talking down to them, or I'm giving them all these things in the music that they could have figured out on their own. What they don't realize is that I'm giving their voices a rest. As long as I’m talking, they’re not singing! There are a lot of ways to “skin a cat” as a conductor, and you learn the art of conducting a rehearsal. And if you're dealing with the singers, they cannot sing solidly for three hours. They have to be given some rest.
I do try to send a lot of material ahead. And then I try to be very clear, in the rehearsal, that we are doing what I said ahead of time, while also realizing that everybody has a different method of learning. And so there are some of my men, some of any group, that, no matter what they put in their music, they don't really know what to do until they’ve sung it several times, and with other voices around them. So you kind of have to stop and remind them, “That's a quarter rest.” and then you keep saying it — or not — and you do it over and over so it's internalized. However you can get it in, that’s the goal! That's just a lifetime of knowing how to lead a rehearsal. You don't know that when you're 20. You do [maybe] when you're 67.
You have got to remember that everybody is learning at a different speed and in a different style. And so there is not going to be any one rehearsal way that's going to work. Sometimes, you have to make it very simple. Sometimes you just need to let people sing. Sometimes you need to preach at them a little bit.
Everybody in the group does not come to their rehearsal with the same amount of study that I do. They're not supposed to. My job is to know all of the music and to know how all of that piece fits into the whole program, and how that whole program fits into the whole program for the year. All any one singer needs to know is his part, certainly at the first rehearsal. You hope that they will have done some study. And that's why I send along things beforehand, because how can you prepare yourself if you don't know how fast the piece is going to be?
Our rehearsals generally work in a way that we can go through and first get all of the bits and pieces. I try very hard to make sure that the architecture of the piece is solid. Because chances are, the first way you sing it may be the way you always sing it. Certainly, if you're teaching high school, you learn that the way you rehearsed it in September is the way they're going to sing it to you in May four years later! I want to make sure that when it gets in, it gets in right. I don't want to waste time learning music, and I don't want to learn music wrong.
So ... we get the nuts and bolts; we get the architecture of that piece and then we make sure that we have the right pronunciation. We make sure that we have the right feeling of the piece, because any given program at Chanticleer has anywhere from 20 to 27 pieces of music in it. I've also got to figure out how, in each rehearsal, we vary the time we spend together. You don't want to sing just slow Renaissance music for six hours. Somebody's going to be bored. Not everybody at Chanticleer adores Renaissance music. And not everybody in Chanticleer can sing Gene Puerling pop arrangements. Or wants to. So the rehearsal has got to be a good mix of repertoire and styles. So you know, you’ve also got to mix up your rehearsal, so that you have a variety of styles and speeds and color and tessitura and still try to get something accomplished. And leave yourself time at the end of the rehearsal just to run it.
After a while, you have to stop focusing on the little picture and begin to see the big picture. And certainly, with the Chanticleer program, they have to figure out what kind of stamina their vocal cords need over the course of a two-hour program. And if you just keep stopping and working on stuff, they're not really developing the muscle memory that they need for any given piece.
So our rehearsals start from the basic structures and begin to go towards the big picture. I think you as a conductor, word of advice, have to go through every single part in a score, no matter whether there are only four vocal lines or a whole orchestration, and figure out where the rests are and how long they are and what the relative dynamics are. (Mr. Shaw used to say, “An orchestra doesn't balance itself.”) So you gotta know that a horn at a certain level is going to be louder than a viola at that same level. So the horn needs to be marked down a notch. The viola probably needs a crescendo.
Once you have gone through all the parts, and then you've marked them in their music, either you mark them or a librarian does, then the person knows that you have gone through everything. And they know that you care about them. You care about the second bassoon as much as you care about the concertmaster. So in Chanticleer or any kind of rehearsal, I want to make sure that they know that I know what they're doing and that I believe they can give it back to me. A great deal of respect is there. They don't always believe that, but it's there.
And if the program is about X, Y, or Z, the singers might wonder, why is that in that program? I obviously have an ulterior a dramatic or theological reason for a piece. They may not know that when they first receive the music. They may not even realize what the whole program is about. They just have 27 pieces of music. So, then I begin to let them save their voices while I preach a little bit — and all of a sudden there are things that you didn’t think about a minute ago which might begin to inform how you sing, or what you think about the music. Technically things change a little bit but so does your subconscious, which also informs your face. The way you look on stage, all of a sudden, is slightly different. Because somebody just reminded you that such-and-such-a-piece is really, say, about the first time that somebody put the dead Jesus in the arms of his mother, you think of the Michelangelo Pietà. And you think of how big St. Peter’s is. And then all of a sudden, you can't sing this the same way again. Anything I can think of to just throw at somebody that makes them continue to think. And not just think about, “Oh, am I making a beautiful tone?” Because that gets very boring.
How quickly do you digest pieces (first singing to performance-ready)?
Different strokes for different folks, obviously. The fact is, I don't think that we really know a program inside and out until we've sung it in front of the public half a dozen times. And maybe even more than that. We sang our 40th-anniversary program a year ago this spring. And then we went to Skywalker Studios and made a CD of it. And then we sang it in Europe. And when we finally came back to sing it in the United States, it was clear, “We really know it now.”
One of the things that we do at Chanticleer rehearsals is that when we get to our dress rehearsal time, we start asking people from the staff to come and listen. Audiences react to musical effects or textual nuances in ways that may be strikingly different from what you had in mind — and you need to experience that before you meet the public for the first time. And then after you have sung a program in a variety of spaces, you realize that you begin to hear things in one space that you didn't hear in another space. And all of a sudden, you're standing in a bad room, and you hear somebody else's line really clearly because it's very dry and you're very close. And you never really heard that line in a soupy room. Or you get to a soupy room and you think, “I think this would be so much better if we would just sing really slowly and let it all digest.” But the fact is, [if you do that] you've lost the spine to the piece. And so you figure out, “Oh, how can I, in this space, really keep my own personal integrity going?”
So it takes a while to get all that in your system. So I don't think, just from what I hear, we are really ready with a program till we've sung it half a dozen times [in front of an audience].
How much do you allow the members to make decisions regarding phrasing and musicality?
The fact is, the buck has to stop somewhere. And that’s at the feet of the Music Director. The ensemble music-making is one gigantic democracy is just fiction. And furthermore, you cannot, if you are a singer in the group, know how you sound, and you can't know how the group sounds. That's why, for instance, as a solo singer, you need to keep in constant touch with your teacher or with a coach you trust. Your ears can't tell you what the audience is really hearing. So somebody has got to be sitting out there listening to you. And the more polyphonic the piece is, the more somebody has to control how the moving lines work. And you can't tell if you're in the middle of it. You can't tell if you're too much or too little.
And so that's why, if I can give as much as possible at the beginning, so that they can know the technique of how I think this counterpoint has to work, then clearly, after they sing it, I hear things that I did not know would be more or less beautiful. So I can hear a line and I think, “That line doesn't have to be forte with these particular three tenors.” If I had high school tenors, I might need a lot of sound there. So a lot of what I sent them, I am also correcting as I hear. And I will say, “Why don't you change that to a mezzo-forte? And you can make that a quarter note, rather than a half note.” So, I'm also correcting myself as I hear them do what I asked them to do. But it's very inefficient if everybody is in the middle of squabbling about how long the note should be. Once we have the pieces learned and internalized, then those pieces really come to life performance after performance, because the men begin to invest all those ideas with their own musicality and experience.
How do you create a healthy environment within the ensemble with 12 different personalities and how do you handle conflict?
It’s very difficult because they think they are built on this foundation of brotherhood and democracy and that we talk about everything. But the fact is that we don't. And there has to be an enormous amount of trust on their part for them to realize that I would not ask them to go on stage and sound anything less than brilliant. I wouldn't have this job if I wanted them to be bad.
In the same way that, when you go to a staging rehearsal of an opera, you have to assume that the stage director doesn't want you to look clumsy on stage. That the stage director wants a beautiful picture to be made. And for the audience to understand the story. That is exactly what I am doing. I'm making a beautiful sonic picture and [hoping] the audience is going to understand the story. That is to say that, however the piece is made, the audience will understand why those notes are inevitably those notes.
So the singers have to trust that that's all I'm interested in. I'm not interested in furthering my resume. I'm not interested in being seen. This is very rare for conductors. Most of them have those two things in mind. I don't have to conduct in front of people. I've done that already for 40-something years.
So I want them to sound brilliant and make beautiful performances that touch people's hearts. In a way, they have to put themselves in my hands. And that's very hard to do with performers because performers are, by definition, egotistical, because they have to be to preserve themselves. You can't sing 110 performances unless you figured out just what kind of armor you have to have on. When everyone in the room believes in everyone else in the room, then we begin to have a healthy environment.
Conflict? If they believe in each other, and they in me, and I in them, then you can “duke it out” without making it personal. The goal in any ensemble shouldn’t be to kill each other with kindness by avoiding honest and perhaps just criticism, but to realize that honesty is the first step towards a good and lasting relationship.
What happens if a member is sick or is unable to perform?
They have to regroup really fast. And we do that more than you would know. We find ways that 11 people can sing for 12. And somebody takes that note, somebody takes that note and this note is already covered, so it doesn't matter. And this note, we can just lose, if we need to. So, they are constantly making adjustments if somebody is a little bit sick or big sick. But we don't have a sub list. We don't have people that can just come in.
FAMILY AND RELATIONSHIPS
Is it hard being a professional musician and balancing a relationship?
I think it is hard for most people. For most of my life, I have just had a job. I have not been on the road most of the time, as opposed to the singers that worked for me at the Atlanta Opera. I can't imagine what it must have been like, especially in the age before cell phones, and selfies. I can't imagine what it was like for these singers to be separated from their families for weeks at a time in a hotel, where the fabrics are bad and the rug is dirty, and you can't breathe and it's too hot or too cold. And you've left at home your wife and your two small kids. And you're in “Mobile” for five weeks, and then you're home for four days. And then you have to hit the road again because you've got another gig in Kansas City. I mean, these people that worked for me in the opera company were constantly on the road, because they had to make a living. I don't know how they did it.
Would it be difficult to have a partner and children as a professional musician?
I think if you're traveling a lot, I think things are tough. For me, as I might have said, I was blessed to be in Atlanta for 7 years with the symphony and 20 years with the opera. And my university teaching job (for five years after that) was only an hour away. And then my Westminster Schools job (for the next five years) was also in Atlanta. So, I have had jobs in the place where I lived from 1981 until now. I've never had to be on the road unless I really wanted to go someplace. These five years with Chanticleer are the first time that I've ever had a lot of travel included in my job. I think it must surely be tough for other performers if they're on the road a lot.
I know there are singers like the great Shirley Verrett, who had big X’s on her calendar and just said, “I will be with my husband and daughter this month, and this month, and this month.” And she told her manager, “This is really important to me.” So her manager just said, “I won’t book Ms. Verrett in February because she won't take a job in February.” That's a luxurious thing to be able to say because a lot of people have to take every job they can get.
Do you think that it is important to market yourself as a musician? Do you think having a social media presence and website are necessary things for a musician to have?
Probably so. But I haven't been into the position to hire somebody now for nine years. So, the scene is so totally different. I do know that you can find people on YouTube, or on a website. It's like an instant audition, which you couldn't, in the past, have done. When Gerrod was being proposed to me because we lost a singer during the Christmas tour, and I had to get a new soprano by January 6th, I contacted a number of people I knew around the country. And a woman whom I trust very much in Boston said, “Gerrod Pagenkopf is the person you need.” And I thought, “There are not enough days for me to get Gerrod to Atlanta to sing and then decide whether or not he can be asked to move to San Francisco. This needs to happen really fast.” And I thought, “I need to find Gerrod anywhere I can.” And as it happened, I found some clips of Gerrod’s performances on YouTube from stuff he had done in Texas with a singer I had known 30 years ago in Boston. And I said, “So tell me about Gerrod Pagenkopf.” So, if those clips of Gerrod on YouTube had not been there, I would not have been able to audition him and I would not have been able to take the risk of hiring him. And I couldn't be happier that I did. So, yes. I think that's really important. I think that's how you get your name out there. I think it's how you sell tickets. I think that's how you get managers to come hear you.
How important is it to network?
I imagine it is important. And I don't know exactly how you do it or what you do to get your name known. I don't know if networking is the same as what we used to call ‘getting a manager.’ Because that's also a chicken-and-an-egg situation because managers won't take you unless you've got some credits, and you can't get the credits unless you have the manager.
Is being a musician financially difficult?
No. It hasn’t been for me because I've always had full-time jobs. And they've always had benefits.
Where do you see yourself after Chanticleer?
That’s a very good question. I’m retiring — whatever that means — at the end of June in 2020. This coming year will be my last one at Chanticleer. I will have been Music Director for five years full-time, a sixth year part-time. (But my real working relationship with them started twenty-something years ago, you know!)
So I'm going to be in Atlanta with my partner and my dog. And I don't know what's going to happen next, which is rare for me. I mean, I knew when I left the Opera Company of Boston that I was going to the Atlanta Symphony and when I left the symphony, I knew I was going to the Atlanta Opera and then to Brenau University and then to Westminster Schools. I've always been going to something else and in so many ways, reinventing myself. But I'm just going to take it easy for a while and see what shows up. I don't think I will not perform in some way. I love playing the organ. I might play for a church somewhere. I'm not sure I want to deal with an amateur church choir again. I could teach school again. I could write. I just don't know.
I think in the same way that God has had a plan for me for all these jobs over these 40 years, He will come up with something.
What has it been like working with Chanticleer for 5 years?
Yes, yes, yes. I've loved the music that we've made together. I loved the “study” part of it. These men, wow, when they are good, they are really astonishing. And it gives me a great deal of joy. Especially in a 16th-century church somewhere in France, when I hear a plagal cadence by Byrd, and it just seems to fill in the crevices between those old stones. And it sounds so beautiful. And I think “I knew that would work like that.” And I think “This is just the right space for that.” And that’s amazing to me. And it has made me very, very happy. What I'm not interested in contending with, is having to be on the road all the time.
Do you tour with the ensemble?
I tour with them a good deal. I go to most of the international stops and I go on the whole Christmas tour, not so much the domestic tours. Having a home on the other side of the country that I want to keep and also travel for the job itself has made me feel like I don't know what time zone I'm in half the time!
Have you found it stressful to end up with the Atlanta Opera, Atlanta Symphony, Chanticleer, etc.?
My experience at the Atlanta Symphony was such a wonderful learning experience for me. I had had seven years of opera experience under my belt, and I knew what I wanted to learn. The orchestra continues to play nicely for me. So that was great. If the conductor has done his homework, he knows his score. And he knows what he wants. And he may even know how to get it.
You've got to have good ears, and you've got to have a good heart. You've got to remember, if that sound is not what you had in mind, you can't go on until you do get what you had in mind. (Let me amplify that, or even amend that: you have to know when to move on, something larger might be at stake in any given moment of a rehearsal. What you want will come, I promise.) So many moving parts, so many personalities, there is bound to be stress. That comes with life as a professional anything, certainly as a professional musician.
There are things that I know I don't know well. I'm an all-right improviser at the piano and organ, and I can improvise “pop-y” things, but I'm not an expert in jazz. So there are things that we sing in Chanticleer that I know they can rehearse better than I can, because some of them, like Logan, Andy and Brian have better jazz backgrounds than I do. So, they can rehearse it, and then it's time for me to come in and say, “I still don't hear this line.” Or, “this bores me.” Or, “I don't think this is what this is supposed to be about.” That's the beauty of just being in the audience sometimes.
But in terms of everything else, the conductor needs to know his stuff. Coming in front of any kind of group, you don’t have to know the score from memory. But know what you think the piece is all about. And having gone through it and studied so that you know how people can give you that. That's not extra credit. That is what you have to know before you start.
You have to check and make sure that the edition they have is the edition you have. You don't waste people's time by going “Oh, I think that's on page four.” It's either in measure 16 or not. And so, you have to make sure that your materials are ready, that you're ready, and that you are rested. It's very easy to get mad. And you really don't get anything accomplished that way. You might have a little dramatic scene, just to get people perked up. But the fact is, they are making the music. For me to pitch a fit doesn't really mean that you can sing better. It might mean that you have to go home and study because you had forgotten. But that’s what daddy gets to do.
The conductor is kind of the daddy and the traffic cop and the preacher. There's a lot of pastoral care when you have people in front of you. And especially when people in front of you are singers. There's something very special, but also very vulnerable, about the fact that you are your instrument. Everything is personal. And the challenge, for instance, with Chanticleer is for them to know that when I say, “X, Y or Z sounds awful,” that is not code for “I don't like you.” That is not code for “I don't think you can do it.” Because the only reason I'm asking you to do it is because I believe with all my heart that you can. And that trust is hard. Some people never find it.
Some opera singers that you never want to have back may be great people, but somehow, you and they didn't click. Just somehow you couldn't find it in your heart to put yourself in their hands and vice versa.
What are some things you wish you knew while you were going through the process of becoming a professional musician?
Interesting. Since I didn’t know anything, it's still such a discovery to me. Because nobody said, “Oh, it's going to be this, this and this.” So I've constantly had to learn how to be involved with what I'm involved in.
I think you have to be flexible.
At the same time, I think you have to have your bottom line that is true to you.
I find it very difficult, for instance, to be around people who drink a lot, because I don't drink alcohol. I’m not any good at post-performance parties, especially ones that go on into the wee hours. Everybody just seems to get louder and louder and louder as the room fills with smoke — figuratively or literally. I just can't be there. I find it hard, for instance, to understand how somebody who's going to give a concert tomorrow can party all night tonight. And for me not to be judgmental about that is very difficult. But I think part of my job is to be judgmental about that. And that's very difficult with 12 grown men who don't think you can possibly tell them anything. I think I live a very disciplined life; I had to learn how to do that early on in my professional career.
Another thing I think I wish I had known at the beginning: how much pastoral care was going to be involved. Because it's not always just about singing the half notes. There's this constant figuring out of what you can do to get the best performance out of somebody. And sometimes it's really tiring. That doesn’t just apply to my time at Chanticleer, either. I had to learn that (or try to learn that) from my first conducting and coaching jobs at the Opera Company of Boston.
I wouldn't give up anything! Everything has led to something else. And everything has led to something else even more wonderful. I would never have thought that I was going to get a chance to live in San Francisco, which I love. Obviously I don't love it as much as I love my partner and my dog. (I also have a summer house in Maine that I haven’t had much time to enjoy in the last five years.) Else I would never leave Chanticleer. And so, you know, right now it's looking again for balance that I need in my life.
And quite frankly, conductors also have egos that are bruisable. And so, you know, you have to learn, if somebody in the back of the first violins is snickering at something you said, chances are they're not really snickering at you. They're snickering at somebody in the oboe section that just untied his shoe and thought that was hilarious. Even so, the reactions of people in front of you — musicians you’re trying to conduct and inspire — can be very hurtful.
You as a conductor, also must know what it is to be hurt. In fact, that's what makes you a great artist, I think. Vulnerable means, “You are capable of being wounded.” And to figure out how to reconcile your own wounds with your own toughness is maybe the lifelong lesson. I cannot be wrong — but I am wrong. You think I'm wrong — but I know I'm right. And how do we move on to the next step? With all that, that's where trust and passion and love all come into play.
And the fact is, once I get on the podium, that is one thing. It has absolutely nothing to do with how much I love you or not love you off the podium. They are two different places. And what performers frequently get confused about is the fact that they are two different places. When we're there to work, we are working. But — offstage and on — I love you. I believe in you. Let’s make music.