Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Interview with Walter Chapin, Part 2

Here is part two of five of my interview with Walter Chapin, director of the Oriana Consort.

Interview with Walter Chapin, 1/30/09, Café Algiers in Harvard Square, Cambridge, 2:00 pm

(continued from Part 1)

A: Now, where did you go to college?
W: Here at Harvard. I joined WHRB, the radio station, which is still in existence, of course. It was all closed-circuit then. And I became, at the end of my freshman year, jazz music director, and so I would organize jazz – oh, there were programs where you would have a series that would be jazz history, or a series that would concentrate on a certain player, or you’d just do Saturday afternoon disc jockey stuff. And so I was in charge of all that, and that was fun. Of course, all this time I’m soaking up classical music at WHRB, because this was being broadcast all the time, as well as jazz. Oh, I didn’t mention, I was also in the Harvard New Jazz Society, as a matter of fact I was president of that. And we would bring in concerts. We brought in the Modern Jazz Quartet. We brought in Lee Konitz, the alto saxophone player, used to be with Stan Kenton. We brought in Dave Brubeck, and he would play for an audience of a hundred people at what was then the Harvard Union, they use it for something else now, it’s the building on the other side of Quincy Street. So all that was great. And now, musical education, this segue ways. So I didn’t immediately major in music at college. I started in the sciences, and that didn’t work. And sophomore year I knew I had to change my major, and I had a musical moment. I was standing in a record store – there were record stores then! Nowadays there aren’t even any CD stores anymore! You have to ---
A: Well, there’s that little one hidden on JFK…
W: A little one, a little one, right. But this was a record store on JFK, it was called Boylston Street then, and these were the days when you could –
A: JFK was called Boylston Street?
W: Boylston Street, yes. This was before the assassination, it was renamed after the assassination.
A: Oh, I didn’t know that.
W: Yes. These were the days when you could take a record off the shelf, go into a booth, and it wasn’t shrink-wrapped, you could just take it out of its folder, put it on the record player, listen to it, and see if you want to buy it. Of course, today you can do that online, which is back to the old system, you can hear it first. So, this was the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society, they were two separate organizations, but they would always sing combined. Or usually. And I heard them doing Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia.” And I said, “I think I want to major in music. This is drop-dead beautiful.” And something just happened to me. It was that famous place where he’s ending one of the little sections, and I believe the tenors have a descending line that involves an A natural while the sopranos are holding an A sharp. And it makes this incredible dissonance. And my ear, since high school, is always attuned to these sorts of – listen for things that happen in music. And I said -- A natural, G natural in the tenors, against an F-sharp major chord in the upper voices. Maybe it’s in the bass line, I think it’s in the bass line. The tenors are holding
C-sharp, F-sharp and A-sharp, the basses are going A-natural, G-natural, F-sharp. Little things like that happen, this is just incredible, I’ve got to major in music. And so I did pretty well. Not with any academic distinction. I was sort of a timid guy.
A: Now, was anybody there who’s still there now? Like, was Jameson Marvin already there?
W: Short answer is no. Randall Thompson was there. Oh yes, he was on the faculty. I took his course in Renaissance counterpoint, as a matter of fact. Walter Piston was there. Yes.
A: Wow. Very distinguished.
W: Scholars like Arthur Tillman Merritt, and – you had to be on the right side of him to get along with him. I was not on the right side of him. And George Woodworth, who did the Harvard Glee Club. Over time, one faculty member has been replaced with another. And through retirement, or whatever, and sometimes through leaving. You know, it’s like any other faculty, it evolves. Well, now you have people like Christoph Wolff and Shelemay, and Leon Kirshner, for heaven’s sake. And Jim Marvin, who followed F. John Adams, who followed Elliot Forbes who followed George Woodworth. As Glee Club director. So the middle of my sophomore year, I started in taking harmony, Arthur Woodworth’s music history, whatever. And just soaked up classical music all over the place. Still I was not a great scholar, of great academic distinction, but somehow I knew that music would be a career, or semi-career, or something. And still, all through this, no interest in choral conducting. I didn’t even join the Harvard Glee Club. I didn’t think I could sing. And in point of fact, I was not, at the time, a very good singer. I’m still not great, but I’m an adequate singer, and that came later, which I’ll point out. After college, I had no idea what to do. I went in the army, I spent some time working in a record store. Again, soaking up music.
A: How long were you in the army? And were you in the army band, or just the straight-up army?
W: No, no. Well, you know, as a matter of fact I was later. I was –
A: Was this Vietnam-time?
W: Oh, no, no, no, this was before Vietnam. I was lucky enough to be too old for that -- that is, too old for Korea, and too young for Vietnam. No, no. Too young for Korea and too old for Vietnam. I could have gone to Vietnam, but the thing is –
A: Who would want to?
W: Well, I was in the reserves, and later, getting ahead of myself, I was up in Maine, and I was unable to attend reserve meetings, so a discharge came in the mail. I said, “This is nice.” And that was around 1965, when Vietnam started eating up. I suppose I could have, but I escaped. And so finally I said, I’ve got to get this together. I went to New England Conservatory and worked on a second bachelor’s, which took me two years.
A: In what?
W: In Music Ed. And, well, I’ll go teach public school music for a while, and see where to go from there. So here I was, in Lorna de Varon’s NEC Chorus, and this is the first time I’d been in any kind of chorus of any distinction.
A: And how old were you at this point?
W: At that point I was…23.
A: Oh, OK. Oh, so the army and the record store and all that didn’t take very long. That was pretty quick.
W: Yes, right. So, from the first rehearsal, and I may have told you this at one point, that time we went to hear Lorna, from the first rehearsal I was totally blown away. I said, choral music is my thing. And before the fall was out, we were singing with the BSO, we were doing Cantata No. 4 with the BSO, and we did Berlioz, Romeo and Juliet with the BSO in the springtime, and I said, this –
A: Bach to Berlioz; that’s quite a range! Even for the BSO.
W: Yes, oh, yes! Oh, sure. So all this time I’m learning all the instruments and all the transpositions, turned out to be invaluable. Learning all the clefs, which I’ll get to later.
A: And that was because you were in music ed.?
W: Yes. And so I started joining every choir I could. And you weren’t supposed to do that, but I did it anyway. I was in CpM for a year, Chorus pro Musica, and I joined Dan Pinkham’s choir at King’s Chapel. And I’d been in a voice class, where ordinary, not distinguished voices could learn to produce a singing tone well. Not with great artistry, but correctly. Anyone who’s halfway musical can really learn to sing. I’m getting ahead of myself, but people come to audition, and they make a not attractive sound because they have tension in their throat muscles, and I write them a letter, “We can’t take you, but I would suggest that you put your resources not into trying to join another choral group right now, but in going and taking some voice classes.” And I give them some examples of people around here who do that. Go learn to sing. And, as a matter of fact, one teacher wrote me just last night, and sent me an e-mail saying, “I’m so glad you sent so-and-so my way. He seems very focused and he wants to do this, and I think I can help him.” I’ve said that to other people who didn’t take it so kindly. *laughs* So it depends on who you’re talking with. But I caught on that this had implications for people in general. Gee, if I can learn to sing halfway well, then maybe a lot of people can. So then I took a summer course in conducting at Harvard Summer School, and I was absolutely terrified of standing in front of a group, trying to get them to do something. I remember a rather short Josquin motet or something, and trying to get twenty people to sing this. I was not a natural conductor, I was scared to death, and, you know, got through it. And I took Lorna de Varon’s conducting course, and I was a little less terrified, but still basically sort of terrified. I remember taking one NEC chorus rehearsal when Lorna was away, and she assigned her different students to take this rehearsal, take that rehearsal. I thought I did all right. But still it was a scary experience. Life experience as a conductor, this segue ways right in. So I certainly was not someone who comes along and within one year I’m the talk of the town, and oh, this brilliant young conductor. I was the exact opposite. Everything I learned and did happened very slowly and incrementally. A little bit here and a little bit there. Sometimes almost imperceptibly. And with all kinds of mistakes along the way. You name it, you name the mistake, I’ve made it. And hopefully have learned from it. I went up to Maine and spent six years as a director of music for a couple of small towns there, and that was –
A: In the school, like at the high school?
W: Yes, exactly, in the school systems. And I conducted instrumental groups. I started a chorus, there wasn’t one, and it was sort of feeble, but I made an attempt. It was mostly instrumental. And I sang in choruses at Boston University during the summer, because I’d started working on a Masters in music history.
A: So you finished the music ed. degree?
W: Yes. So then, after six years, I said, “All right, I’ve got to leave Maine, I’ve got to finish this darned degree.” So I went back to BU full time, so now I’m about 29 – no, 30. And took Jim Cunningham’s conducting course, and he said, “Well, you know, you’ve got some real potential there.” Well, that encouraged me. Jim was Don Teeters’ predecessor at Boston Cecilia, and as a matter of fact, Jim was leaving Cecilia in the spring of that year, and he accepted a position out at UC Berkeley. So there were auditions for a new director for Cecilia. Well, I knew I didn’t have the experience to make it. I said, “Jim, can I just go through the audition process? That’d be a great experience.” And I did, and Don Teeters was one of the half-a-dozen other people, and Don Teeters got it, and he’s been doing it ever since. But I was no longer terrified at this point, and as a matter of fact, the following year, Bob Gartside, who succeeded Jim at BU as the chorus director, took me as his assistant. So I did a lot of rehearsing of the BU chorus, and that was great. And I had the honor of preparing a chorus for a piece by Samuel Adler that he had just written, and was going to come to BU to do. “From Out of Bondage,” it was an adventurous piece. Almost atonal. And I’m teaching these weird intervals to everybody, everyone’s struggling through it, Samuel Adler is coming, and of course he made magic out of it at the first rehearsal, but at least I had prepared the chorus for him. And I prepared a chorus for Herbert Fromm doing some of his pieces, and that was fun. And at the same time, I’m in Murray Lefkowitz’s Collegium Musicum, where we are pulling Renaissance pieces out of everywhere, and performing them in class, and that’s when you learn to sing from the C-clef, or to play recorder from the C-clef, and to read all kinds of crazy scores that you get in all sorts of crazy Renaissance combinations of voices and instruments. So finally, I took a position as director of a community chorus on the South Shore –
A: What were they called?
W: I’m not going to say, because after two years we didn’t get along well. I had my ideas, and they had theirs, and I’m coming back to that in a minute. But I broke away, took some singers with me, and started my own group.
A: Called Oriana.
W: No, not yet. We called it the Pro Arte Singers.
A: Oh, are they still around?
W: No, they are not, but they evolved into Oriana, we just changed the name one time.
A: Now, did you break away and you were here, and not on the South Shore, or did you break away on the South Shore?
W: On the South Shore, started my own group, and that grew to be forty singers, and we did some credible community-chorus performances of Messiah, and I would hire instrumentalists from BU and things like that. But something was missing, and I didn’t quite know what it was. And that group kind of fell under its own weight. I’d made some mistakes there in organizing people. And a small group broke out of that of about ten people and that became the Pro Arte Consort. And there was a combination of whatever – it was both singers and instrumentalists, there were a lot of recorder players in it, that finally settled, stabilized, as an eight-member group…no, I’m sorry. The eight-member group became the Pro Arte Consort…Here’s the way it went.
A: If you can’t remember, you’re the only one who would ever remember, so…!
W: Right! We had eight singers, one of whom we still had, and that automatically limited our repertory. I said, “Look, if we want to do 20th-century music seriously, and not just Renaissance, we’ve got to expand.” And so there was a gradual expansion, first to twelve and then there was a movement from the South Shore, we centered ourselves here. And we began to rehearse at my house, and we would do little gigs around central Boston. We had done a lot on the South Shore, arts festivals and that sort of thing. And we began to expand in singers, we went to sixteen, and then…so this is all from about 1972 up through the eighties, up through the mid-nineties, and I also worked again as a secondary school teacher. I also got interested in computers, became a programmer pretty much overnight, that’s something I did very, very well, although I never fitted well into the corporate system.
A: So you were working full-time at the same time you were doing all this?
W: Yes, oh, gee whiz.Working full-time, being in Tanglewood Festival Chorus, probably not spending as much time with my dear wife Beth as I should have, in view of
all the support that she gave me; and probably not spending as much time
with our beautiful three daughters as I should have, although now they seem
not to have permanently begrudged me for that, doing music for the Sunday-school program at King’s Chapel. Running my own chorus, being in TFC, and I was in another chorus at the same time for a while. Anyway. So, around 1980, changed my career, changed my primary source of income to computer information systems, design and programming and whatever. And so that was good. (sips coffee)
A: I’m not really giving you a chance to drink anything!
W: Oh, that’s OK, I’m enjoying having a chance to just let everything pour out here. So it was in 1997 that we got to start auditioning.
A: Now, so let me go back. So, Oriana Consort…
W: Oriana Consort in the eighties –
A: Was concentrating on Renaissance and 20th-century?
W: Yes, we were an eight-member group. We did some interesting things. We played at one of the MFA affairs, we would sing for the King’s Chapel Tuesday noon concerts, we sang around public libraries, we did little gigs, we had a lot of fun. But if one member dropped out, you see, we were stuck, because –
A: Right. They did so much.
W: Right. So we had to do – I mean, I wanted to start doing some more contemporary music. Not that I didn’t like Renaissance, which I certainly did. But I wanted the repertory to become a little more eclectic, so let’s expand, and let’s start auditioning. So in ’97 we started auditioning and the quality of the group came up. And we were maybe eighteen people at this time. But I still made some mistakes in auditioning, took some people I shouldn’t have.

(This is the end of the recorded interview. Tomorrow's segment will contain Walter's notes on the history of the Oriana Consort, and information about their upcoming concert.)

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