Friday, November 06, 2009

Interview with Mary Beekman, Transcript, Part 1

Here is the first part of the transcript of my interview with Mary Beekman. The second part will go up tonight, and I'll finish posting it tomorrow!

Interview with Mary Beekman on 10/31/09 at a Starbucks in Watertown, MA

A: …with where were you born and raised?
M: I grew up in New York City, on the Upper East Side.
A: That’s so interesting, I never know any of this.
M: I know, nobody ever does. And I came to Massachusetts to go to college. I came to Harvard.
A: Now, when you were growing up, did you play an instrument? Did you sing?
M: I played piano, and I sang in my junior choir, and I sang in the chorus at my school. But singing…I mean, I may be way off base in saying this, but one of the assumptions that was made in the past, anyway, is that choral conductors are people that aren’t good enough to be orchestral conductors, or they’re people who want to sing, but they can’t do that. Choral music has always been my medium, and to be a choral conductor has always been my goal. So it’s not like I’m waiting around for something else.
A: Since you were what age? Do you even remember?
M: Since I was – oh, that’s hard. You know, it’s interesting, because I visualized myself conducting an orchestra, because my mother took me to the New York Philharmonic as a kid. But I never – I played piano, and I only took up an instrument – I went to the national music summer camps when I was sixteen, and picked up the flute, because a kid in my cabin played flute. And then I came back and joined my orchestra. But I think a tip-off to how important choral music was to me was that I was raised in an Episcopal church on the Upper East Side of New York, and they had a professional boys choir, and a professional adult choir. And there was no outlet for amateur adults. So I was in the junior choir, and then, like, when you’re thirteen you don’t do that anymore, because, you know…
A: They’re little.
M: They’re little! Right. My junior year I re-joined the junior choir. My junior year of high school. Because I just – I wanted to sing. And I was singing in the small select group at my high school, and I was singing in the large group at my high school, and I was studying piano with a person who worked in the prep division at Juilliard. But I just wanted to sing more. So I joined the junior choir. You know, when I think back on that, it was kind of –
A: A sign?
M: Well, yes, it should have been. But it was also, you know, the late sixties, I was also very interested in folk music, I was very interested in using folk music as a protest to the Vietnam War. So I came to college, it was just…
A: You said you came to Harvard?
M: Yes. So here’s the thing. I had taken organ lessons as a senior project in high school. And my teacher had told me that when I came to Harvard, I should go to Memorial Church and talk to John Ferris about organ lessons. So I came to Harvard, I tried out for the Collegium Musicum, which is the – it was the inaugural year of that organization. It’s the premiere choral SATB group at Harvard. And I tried out for that. And I tried out for the chorus, which was like anybody can sing, just because I wanted to cover my bets. And then I was going home from the choral audition, and I saw Memorial Church, and my teacher’s words rang in my head. And I thought, so I’ll go in and talk to the guy. Well, they were holding choir auditions. And I was like, “Meh, I tried out for two groups today, I might as well try out for a third.” So I sit down, and they have these things where you fill out your experience, so I’m like, you know, “Sang in this choir, did this, blah, blah.” It was like a two hour wait, and there were all these people in the waiting room. And I got in this conversation with the woman next to me. She was a soprano, and we chatted, she said, “So, what’s your background?” and I told her, “Oh, I was in the select group in my private high school, and what about you?” And she said, “I’m a graduate student in voice at New England Conservatory,” and I said, “Oh, my God.” This isn’t just any choir. I mean, here’s this woman, really nervous. So, the door opens, it’s my turn to audition, and it’s John Ferris. So I don’t know if you know that name, or if you’ve heard anything about him, but to a person, people who have sung with John Ferris would tell you that their lives have been changed by him. I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t say that about him. So I went in and tried out for him. And I found out much later that he was not going to take me because I’d been the alto section-leader in chorus in high school, so I had a voice like a buzz-saw, so everybody would hear me. Like, “MEHHHH!” It was very instrusive in a choral sound, and so I don’t blame him, he wasn’t going to take me. But the guy who was his secretary said, “Take her, because she’s very enthusiastic, and she wants to study organ, and she’ll be good for the morale.” And I thank him. Because I basically lived in Memorial Church for my four years at Harvard. I sang every day in the morning choir. I sang in the regular choir. And then after I graduated I kept coming back for special concert things, because I just couldn’t – you just can’t explain it. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked with someone that’s been just transformative. And it’s interesting, because he died a year ago, and Jeremy Eichler asked if he could interview me about him. And you know, we’re trying to get at the essence of what made John Ferris John Ferris, and you know, basically it wasn’t just his musicianship, it was his whole sensibility as a person. You felt like you were singing Schütz, and Schütz was speaking to you through John, and you were speaking to the congregation, Schütz was speaking to the congregation, and it just was an extraordinary circumstance. So, in my hubris – I mean, everybody who sang with John, the sad thing, the tragic thing about people who have sung with John is that most of them don’t sing. They’re like, “Oh, I can’t replicate that experience, so I’m not going to sing again.” I’d love to know that that was wrong, but at least the people that I hung out with, that was it. “I”ll never have another conductor like that, so I’m just not going to sing.” My thought was, hubristically, “I can’t sing under somebody like that, I’m going to conduct.” Now, in the meantime, summer school of my sophomore year, he taught a conducting class at the summer school, and I audited it. And so now you come to a series – so the first serendipity is that I walked into his office. The second serendipity is that I was accepted. I had a lot of older people sort of sitting next to me, counseling me. The four years I was there, John would say, “I’m just going to name names. Mary, you stand out.” Every time. I tried out for every solo there was, I never got one. So I always tell my singers, “I know what it’s like. I know what it’s like to have the least good voice in a chorus, and to never get the solos.” And I just don’t have a very nice voice. But it’s made me a much better conductor, because I have to figure out how to make people sound the best they can sound.

But anyway, back to the serendipity. I took this class. And one day my junior year John couldn’t warm up the choir, so he asked me to do it. And after I warmed up the choir, there was an alto that he trusted, and she went up to him and said, “You know, she’s very good, she can warm us up anytime.” Because you know, some people, they’re not very efficient, so – yes. So that was one serendipity. Number two serendipity was that I was really good friends with a guy in the choir who had a brother who was two years older than me who lived in Lowell House, and directed this group caleld the Harvard-Radcliffe Graduate Chorale which was open to any members of the Harvard community without audition. He did, I think, a masters at Harvard, so he was finishing up his Masters as I was graduating. And the tradition of this chorale was to have the present conductor pick the successor. So he was bitching one day to his brother that he didn’t know what to do about this chorus, and Chuck said, “Well, why don’t you ask Mary, maybe she’d be interested.” So he did.

(to be continued!)

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