Here's the transcription of the second part of my interview with Amelia LeClair. You can find the first part here, and there is more to come. Don't forget that Cappella Clausura, the group she directs, is performing this weekend!
Interview with Amelia LeClair at the Cafe Algiers, Cambridge, MA, on 4/22/09, cont.
Q: And now you’re on NPR (ed. note: Amelia will be on Here and Now sometime this week) so he made a good call, right?
A: He did? I’m having a blast.
Q: And tell me about working with him and directing, because I haven’t really heard a lot about that.
A: He’s a master – he’s got an amazing ear, an incredible ear for choral sound. He can take almost any rag-tag group and turn it into a refined, English-quality…He likes the English school of sound, which is that sort of pure, no vibrato, without all that wobble. But he can turn almost –
Q: I bet NEC students love that!
A: They were told not to sing, you know. But let’s not go there. He just had an amazing ear for detail, for diction, for all kinds of things. Probably the only drawback was that he was such a consummate musician, innately consummate musician, that he wasn’t as good at explaining stuff. For example, one of the stories that I tell a lot, I was learning how to do – conduct a fermata. And I said to him, “So, Simon, how do you…?” Now I know how to do it.
Q: They’re hard.
A: They are hard! So I said, “Well, how do you do that?” And he thought a moment, and you could see the little wheels turning, and he said, “Well, you just do, don’t you?” [laughs] And I thought…OK.
Q: It seems like such a fussy thing for somebody so tall to say.
A: And he was like that. He was just – he was totally like that. But I also have to say, he was the kindest, kindest person, to me. I think within five days of my first semester at NEC I felt completely out of my league. “Whoa, am I out of my league.” And I went up to him and I said, “Simon, I don’t think I can do this, this is very nice of you to accept me, I cannot do this, this is…ugh.” He said, “Don’t be silly. You’ll be fine.” “Oh. OK.” So, you know, he wasn’t going to accept that. And I was really glad he didn’t accept that. Because I was real ready to quit. It was just…wow.
Q: Were there any musical experiences that you had there that you particularly remember?
A: Probably – oh, yes. A lot. I mean, we sang some amazing pieces. Those are the things that stick in my mind. We sang an incredible Scarlatti Stabat Mater. Gorgeous piece of music. We sang an amazing piece by Jonathan Dove called something like “The Passage of Time.” I’m not sure. But he’s a modern English composer. Wow. He had good taste in music. We sang John Adams’ Harmonium. Ooo. I bought the full score, it was just so fabulous. Get the CD. It’s amazing. And stuff like that, that’s what I remember, is just learning these incredible pieces of music, and being a part of them. Both in the big choir, because we had to sing in the big choir, all the conducting students, and in the chamber choir, we also had to sing in the chamber choir. Which was a real treat, because we got to sing with really good singers, and we got to sing really good stuff. So that’s what I remember. I remember also being in his office and listening with him to pieces that he was thinking about scheduling in our rehearsal, and just enjoying how much he enjoyed it, and how much – I mean, you know, he would say, “Listen to this!” and I’d say, “Oh, yeah!” And it was just really nice, really nice. We had a very nice rapport, I think because again we were the same age, or similar in age. And here he was dealing with these young Americans, he didn’t quite know how to deal with some of that. Even though he’d spent a lot of time in Kansas doing just that. But it was really a treat, really a treat. And I feel extremely lucky to have been there from the day he arrived to the day he left, basically. Because he was there for only two years. Yes. Those were my two years.
Q: Only two years? Wow, that is lucky.
A: I’m telling you. It wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I actually – Tamara Brooks was his predecessor. Tamara Brooks was at NEC. And probably three years before I went to NEC I was starting to think about conducting. And this is kind of an interesting story, because I was 47 years old, and I was thinking about doing this work. And someone said to me, “Call up other women who have become conductors, and see what they had to do.” Because I was starting to call around – “What do I have to do?” And someone said, “Call up other women conductors and see.” So I got a list of some people. I called Ann Howard Jones, I called Roberta Hume (sp?) –
Q: I’m very interested to hear about Ann Howard Jones. What did she say?
A: She said to me…I think she also was a late conductor. I don’t remember how old she was, but I think she came to conducting late, not music late, like I was doing. But she came to conducting late. And I said to her, “What do you think, would BU take me as a student?” And she said, “BU is not the place for someone like you.” It’s not going to accommodate, it’s not going to try to design a program around you, and that’s what you need. You need a school that will accommodate your kind of – not exactly special needs, but the fact that you have a certain lack of training. You don’t fit the mold, in other words. And she said, “Good luck,” you know. We had a very nice chat, she was very nice. But she just said, “No, BU is too much – it’s too strict, you have to do things a certain way.” So then I called – I think I called somebody at Longy, Peter Sykes, maybe. And I said to him, “How do you start an early music – how do you start conducting an early music group?” And he said essentially what Simon said, which is, “Well, you just do.” “Oh, OK, thanks.” Click.
Q: [laughs] So that was why you went to NEC, you knew you wanted to start an early music group.
A: I knew. Yes. Early music was my love since I was 25 when I first heard Simon Carrington singing with the Kings Singers. Which is such a funny thing. So anyway, I called up a number of other women. What’s-her-name, PALS…
Q: Oh…[ed. note, corrected: Amy is referring to Jody Hill Simpson - Alysoun Kegel is the current artistic director.]
A: Yes, the conductor of PALS. The founder of PALS. Anyway, she was lovely. She said to me, “When I was 47…” And I thought, “Hm, this is interesting.” I called Susan Davenny Wyner and I started to observe her, and she said – I guess she lost her voice when she was 47 – she started conducting. I called Roberta Humez, she said, “When I was 47…” And I’m thinking to myself, “What is this about women and 47? There’s something going on.” And I thought to myself, well, it’s partly having to do with your kids are old enough, you begin to see that there’s a world out there, you’re not snowed under with taking care of them, and, you know, you begin to explore. And so all these other women had begun to explore. So that’s what I started to do. And Roberta Humez, bless her heart – do you know who she is?
A: She was the person who you might have replaced at First Unitarian Society. She was there for forty-plus years as music director. First Unitarian Society of Newton. Anyway, she was there for forty-plus years. And I was a member of that church with my family and my kids, they all grew up in that church. And she said to me – I think I went up to her and I said, “Roberta, how would I learn to conduct?” And she kind of laughed a minute, and she said, “You might want to join the choir first.” [laughs] I said, “Ok, maybe I’ll try that.” So I joined the choir. And then one day, again, this is just serendipitous, one day after church she said to me, “Let me put you through your chops.” And I said, “OK. Fine.” So she did, and she said, “You’re hired. You’ll be my children’s choir director.” And I had zero experience. Zero. So I thought, “OK, let me see!” Well, it was lovely, she was very supportive and very nice, and I ended up leaving there after three years with a choir of 25 kids. Out of nothing.
Q: Wow, nice.
A: So that was nice. That was nice. We had a good time. And I loved the kids. They were so cute. Just so cute. And we did some really nice things. One of the most wonderful things I can say that I’m really happy about was that at some point Revels was doing Noye’s Fludde, and they sent word around that they needed children from various choirs in the area. They were gathering, they wanted a hundred plus. And I said to some of my kids, some of my kids who I knew had real talent, “What do you think? Do you want to sing for Noye’s Fludde?” And I talked to their parents. And they were all “Yes, yes, yes, yes!” So I had a couple of third graders, a couple of fourth graders, a couple of fifth graders. And we sang for Noye’s Fludde. And it was – I mean, they were so full of themselves. It was so great. They were so happy. And it was wonderful. And I went to watch them, and George Emlen was directing the whole thing. And I went to watch them, and as it turned out, he kind of needed somebody to keep the kids in line, and maybe to practice with them. So I ended up conducting a hundred kids for Noye’s Fludde, which was fun. Really fun. I had a huge baton. I had to stand up – we did it at Cambridge Congo, you know, and there’s a kind of a half a wall in the back, and all the set was in the front, on the staging area. Behind the staging area there was this half wall. I had to stand up on that half wall, which was kind of like that [points to something 2 feet high], stand up there and conduct all the kids like this, because they were all kind of in the dark. I should have had a Michael Jackson glove. So that was a lot of fun, and that was probably the culmination of my career at First Unitarian. So then after First Unitarian –
Q: And this was before or after NEC?
A: That was before NEC.
Q: That was before NEC.
A: Anyway, while I was at First Unitarian I started to go to NEC, and I quit doing all the stuff that I had been doing as a parent, which was being totally involved in my kids’s school, which was kind of sad, but then my husband took over, it was his turn, and it was his turn to do the homework and his turn to go to the meetings and all that kind of stuff. And I went to some, but I was flat out in school. In school.
Q: Still doing schoolwork, but…And then you graduated.
[to be continued!]