Interviews with Dale Warland
Warland-Bettinis Interview: Part 1 of 3
As founder and conductor of the internationally acclaimed Dale Warland Singers, Dale Warland is said to have rejuvenated the choral genre by focusing largely on commissioning new music. In 31 years, he has commissioned over 270 new choral works from more than 150 composers, including Dominick Argento, Libby Larsen, Stephen Paulus, Carol Barnett, Aaron Jay Kernis, George Shearing, Peter Schickele, Alice Parker, Kirke Mechem, Mary Ellen Childs, Augusta Read Thomas, Janika Vandervelde, Bernard Rands, Chen Yi, Emma Lou Diemer, Brent Michael Davids, Frank Ferko and Eric Whitacre. The Dale Warland Singers’ annual Choral Ventures™ program, created in 1987, has awarded over $162,000 in commissions to 60 talented emerging composers from all over the USA. Warland is a four-time recipient of the ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, honoring “pioneering vision, leadership and commitment to commissioning and performing new choral works at the highest level of artistry.” In 2003, the Dale Warland Singers’ recording, Walden Pond, which features the works of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Dominick Argento, was nominated for a Grammy. Warland served 19 years as Director of Choral Music at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned a bachelor and a master of music degree from St. Olaf College and the University of Minnesota, respectively, and a doctor of musical arts from the University of Southern California School of Music. Below, ComposersOnline writer Abbie Betinis, a composer and former member of the Dale Warland Singers, interviews Warland from his offices in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Reprinted by permission of ComposersOnline.org – link no longer available)
Dale WarlandComposersOnline [CO]: You have commissioned choral music from all sorts of composers, and have conducted countless programs of 20th and 21st century music. From your unique perspective on the current state of choral music, are there any modern compositional trends that you see going on right now?
Dale Warland [DW]: I guess I don’t see any obvious, major trends. Every composer that I encounter seems to develop his or her own voice, which is great. But I would say that harmony seems to take more interest right now than rhythm, per se.
CO: You’re hearing more tonal music?
DW: Yes, and with certain exceptions, certainly. But rhythm seems to take a back seat. There is, in terms of harmony, what I call a “cluster binge” going on. But the music itself is often very stagnant as far as a sense of flow or motion because rhythm has become secondary. This just happens to be what I see a lot. But composers and choirs in this country I think are really – and I’m talking about this country – are much more limited, or are making themselves much more limited in their use of anything but very simple rhythms and meters.
CO: Do you think that that stems from needing to be performed? Are composers simplifying their music just to be able to get it heard?
DW: I think to a large extent they are. Not the so-called well-established composers, but those who really seemingly are trying to get ahead in their careers tend to write, I think, in order to be performed. And as a result they make things too simplistic.
CO: Is there a way around that for the emerging composer?
DW: I think there is. There’s no question, there’s a big need for simple, effective choral music, but I think that’s a great challenge for composers – to learn how to write for the masses, but still with a fresh voice. And that’s not easy, that’s not easy at all. But with a little bit of effort, combined with good imagination, of course, I think we could fill that need without “writing down.”
CO: Do certain pieces come to mind – of composers you admire – who are writing easy enough pieces that the masses can do, but which still have a sense of flow?
DW: There are certain composers right here [in Minneapolis] who are doing just that. Steve Paulus is one. [ed: Stephen Paulus’ Pilgrims’ Hymn was recently performed in the funeral ceremonies of former President Ronald Reagan.] He is able to write very accessible music that has a creative, fresh touch to it. That’s the best example I think.
CO: When I think of repertoire I’ve done with you, I think of Halsey Stevens’ Go Lovely Rose.
DW: Yes, that certainly is a good example. I think that’s the big challenge: to write accessible music that’s still really good and well-crafted. But as far as learning how to write specifically for chorus, as a special instrument, I’d just say look at those like Rachmaninoff, Howells, and Britten.
CO: Are there specific “camps” of styles that composers new to choral music should be familiar with?
DW: I don’t see any specific camps, but there very well may be. I just can’t spot any or name any.
CO: Where can choral composers find strong models for compositional ingenuity? DW: Would-be choral composers should look at and listen to outstanding orchestral compositions of our time. I think that’s probably where it’s happening more than in choral music.
CO: What is the advantage of looking at orchestral music?
DW: If not looking, listening. I think here is where composers have stretched their imaginations a lot more than in choral music. Somehow composers seem to feel limited by what the voice can do, and that’s not only the fault of the composers, but of the conductors too. One great example of a country who fought that trend was Sweden. After World War II there were conductors, Eric Erickson for example, who were very curious about the music of the rest of the world. They’d been so isolated for so long. And they started by singing madrigals – all kinds of madrigals. But the composers of that day would also sit in and sing, so they learned by singing. (And one of the most important things that a would-be choral composer can do is to sing in a choir.) But what they did there was extraordinary: The conductors would invite composers to write for that choir, and then they just kept raising the level. So there was this communication and this mutual challenge which kept raising the bar until the point where Sweden produced, and even yet today, is producing some of the greatest music, and some of the greatest choirs in the world. Because they’ve had this kind of challenge.
CO: And you don’t see that happening in America right now?
DW: No. There are some exceptions, I suppose. To a certain extent [the Dale Warland Singers] have tried to do that. It might be because Sweden is a small country and there was a dynamic leader who really got it going. It really permeated the whole country – now they have great choirs and they’re all doing music at a very high level. Even the kids choirs! And in the Eastern countries too. I went to Hungary one summer, and it was an international competition, but the level that those kids brought was just phenomenal. It would challenge our professional choirs. So there are certain pockets where it’s happening, but we, in the United States… I think our choirs are so inconsistent in terms of quality of performance and especially in quality of the writing. That’s what raises the level of the choir is the challenge of the music, and we just have not challenged our choirs enough. I keep using that word…
CO: It does seem like a downward spiral. If the composers aren’t writing to a high level, choirs aren’t singing to a high level, which makes composers think they can’t challenge them…
DW: That’s right. And I don’t mean difficult – though sometimes it’s that too – but just high-quality, challenging music.
CO: You’ve brought a lot of high-quality music into the world by commissioning over 270 new choral works for The Dale Warland Singers. What are some of the most memorable works that you have commissioned, and by whom?
DW: I may not think of them all… Dominick Argento has written some of our most memorable things: I Hate and I Love, and of course Walden Pond. Frank Ferko’s Hildegard Triptych. An older one by Stephen Paulus, Evensong.
CO: That one is so beautiful… the moon rising. The text-painting is glorious.
DW: Yes, it has some real magic about it. Another one along those same lines, which we recorded, is Alf Houkum’s Rune of Hospitality. Also Libby Larsen’s So Blessedly It Sprung, Carol Barnett’s Hodie, also Carol [Barnett]’s An American Thanksgiving. That last one is based on early American music, shape-note singing.
But also important for our organization, and I think for the choral field, is that we’ve had many outstanding choral arrangements that were made for us. And those are important, I think – we need them. And these are fresh, advanced more than just arrangements. And again, these are primarily from our composers in residence, Carol Barnett and Stephen Paulus. And there are countless specific titles.
CO: How do you “discover” these often young, emerging composers? How did you originally come across Stephen Paulus, for instance? Stephen Paulus
DW: Well Steve was a student at Macalester [College] when I first came there. He was at Macalester only two years, and then transferred to the University of Minnesota. But I knew his interest in writing and I just had a habit of doing this… (laughs) …just asking people to do things if I saw talent. For instance, in the choir I had an outstanding art student and a great singer too. And I just asked her to do cover design, and I she did marvelous work. And that led to other covers including recordings we did at Macalester. She’s now a leading architect! But that would happen with other people too. And Steve was one of those people. After he transferred to the University, we were at a concert together, and it was almost spontaneous, the whole idea. I just asked him if he would write a piece for the Macalester Concert Choir. I think we were going overseas the next year. That was the very first commission he’d ever received. I just saw great potential there. And of course he took to it and delivered, and since then we’ve commissioned some forty pieces over the years.
CO: Just from Stephen Paulus?
DW: Just from him, right.
CO: That’s incredible! So you might recommend that the student composer go to conductors in their school first, saying “This is who I am and what I do…”
DW: Sure, sure! I think just letting people know is the key to promoting your music. I think the do’s and don’ts of promotion are very important. There are some composers who… well, they just bug you so much you don’t want to have anything to do with them. And there are certain things to remember to do when you do have a performance by a conductor and choir – like thanking them. There are some composers I simply won’t perform because I don’t want to work with them. They’re obnoxious.
CO: Obnoxious in the promotion of their music?
DW: Yes! (laughs) Of their music, and of themselves! And it’s usually the lesser composers, too, who try to make up for it by being pompous!
CO: Your Choral Ventures™ program gave a lot of emerging composers a wonderful outlet for their work, as well as a jumpstart to many careers. Is this a model you would recommend to other musical ensembles who are looking for ways to encourage the emerging composer?
DW: Oh yes – I started this thing 15 years ago. Mary Ellen Childs was the first composer.
CO: How did you select the composers?
DW: It was very different in the beginning, but in the end we did have a process that seemed to work well. We first sent out the Call for Scores. We’d start with 150-200 scores, gather them together, and the composer-in-residence would do a preliminary screening to bring it down to 40-45. Then I’d sit down with the composer-in-residence and make the cut to the final four. We’d invite those four composers to write a piece for the reading session, then, after reading through the four new pieces with the choir, we’d choose one composer to write a piece for the following season.
CO: Did you get a big grant to do this?
DW: Yes, this all came from the Jerome Foundation. The idea was very simple to me, and very clear to me. And the Jerome Foundation snapped it right up. It was an idea which aligned exactly with their philosophy. Later we were also supported by the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University.
CO: Did you have to get the grant first before you were able to instate the program?
DW: Yes, we did.
CO: That’s sometimes a scary thing for composers to do in promoting new music, before you know whether it will take off.
DW: It’s scary for anybody to do. You can never predict exactly how it will work out. Once we workshopped Mary Ellen Childs’ piece that first year, she went back and started over.
CO: Has that experience happened a lot, that a composer will be so surprised by what happens in the chorus, that they’ll go back and really revise?
DW: Well, we didn’t have so much room to do that later on, but the first year we really did. I think it was a great service to her, and a great service to choral music. The result was so much improved… We were on the road in Indiana at one of the universities’ annual new music festivals when we did this. It was a public reading and workshop, so we did what we could on the spot to change things. And once she heard us in a workshop situation she took it, went home, and came back with basically a brand new piece. And it really turned out wonderfully. Then we premiered it at the Walker [Art Center] in Minneapolis. Now we have reading sessions with four composers and then commission one of the four to write a new piece. We changed that to make the music all new. So the process has also evolved.
CO: I love the cooperative aspect of the Choral Ventures™ reading sessions. It’s an unusual opportunity for both the audience and the singers to be able to comment on and ask questions about what they’re hearing. I imagine the immediate feedback to the composers is really helpful to them.
DW: I think it is!
CO: In the end, would you have changed anything about the Choral Ventures™ program?
DW: I wish we would have had more money for more rehearsal time. We only had one rehearsal total in the beginning, and it was just way too tight. Even in the end, we still only had two rehearsals, the second of which was open to the public.
CO: It’s obligatory that the chosen composers attend the reading session so they’re able to hear what the choir sounds like live…
DW: Yes, they have to be there.
CO: …and that may change their mentality when they write the commissioned piece the next year?
DW: That’s right. And what’s curious is some of those who didn’t win have gone on to do great things. Eric Whitacre was one. He submitted Water Night for the reading session and he wasn’t ready in my estimation. Now of course he’s rich and famous, it’s a bestseller, and everybody’s imitating Water Night. That’s part of the “cluster binge” that haunts me now: the “Whitacre influence” has been very strong in some of these young composers. But Brent Michael Davids’ submission was another great piece. I felt good about that. Jennifer Higden, Lisa Bielawa, Mark Adamo…
CO: That’s a great list of composers…
DW: One of the pieces that I think was very successful was by Jacqueline Jeeyoung Kim. J. Aaron McDermid’s piece was also very successful, as well as Martha Sullivan’s from last year.
CO: I think it’s fascinating to note that in the last three Choral Ventures™ reading sessions I’ve attended, it’s clear what mentality a composer is coming from when they first bring in a rough piece. I think it was Jay Huber’s piece which took a really interesting orchestration technique and turned it into a choral idea. He was chopping off the beginnings of the sound envelopes and merging them with different choral timbres so the original sounds were distorted. It was such an interesting technique that seemed to come straight from the orchestra and I thought it was such a great effect.
DW: When I’ve selected composers, I’ve always tried to keep an eye open for those who I have seen write very effectively for orchestra but who have never written for chorus. I want to influence them to bring that unique knowledge and skill to the chorus.
CO: When you looked through the scores preliminarily, were there ever glaring errors? Did people follow the directions in the Call for Scores?
DW: (laughs) Oh no! Lots of disappointments!
CO: How many did you cut automatically because they didn’t follow the guidelines?
DW: Oh, probably 50 of the 200. At least a quarter of the submissions were automatically eliminated.
CO: That’s very interesting – because the guidelines are very clear…
DW: Yeah. It’s really basic! That, or they had no idea what it means to write a respectable piece.
CO: Did you look at the bio too to determine that cut?
DW: They each submit a bio, but it’s not the critical thing. It’s really all based on the music they’ve submitted. But also just plain bad copywork! I mean, so bad that even a beginning theory student should know better. Messy manuscripts, and just a lack of attention to accuracy and detail.
CO: So presentation is a factor?
DW: Presentation is definitely a factor. I think it’s very important to make a piece look inviting and easy to read. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for having a score that’s not easy to read.
CO: So you prefer computer notation?
DW: Well, it doesn’t have to be, but you do get spoiled with it. Of course in the early days it was all done by hand. But some of it was so messy that you’d just throw up your hands… (laughs)
See PART II BELOW for Dale Warland on:
- compositional influences
- promotional advice for composers
- favorite 20th – 21st century choral pieces
SEE PART III BELOW for Dale Warland on:
- choral notation
- score layout
Warland-Bettinis Interview: Part 2 of 3
In the second of three interviews for ComposersOnline.org, Dr. Dale Warland discusses his plans after the Dale Warland Singers, recommends ways to promote new music, and discloses his 17 favorite examples of fine choral writing. He spoke with ComposersOnline writer Abbie Betinis from his offices in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the summer of 2004. (Reprinted by permission of ComposersOnline.org – link no longer available)
Dale WarlandComposersOnline [CO]: So now, after 32 years conducting the Dale Warland Singers, you are retiring from that role in order to do many things, one of which – or so I’ve heard – is to be a composer!
Dale Warland [DW]: You do me great honor to even put me into this category! I just have not been able to keep up with writing. I was hoping that I could have a life that would be a balance between conducting and composition, but to do the job right of artistic director is all-consuming. Running an organization is seven days a week, and that’s part of the reason I have to stop, because I have time for nothing else. And it gets tougher and tougher as people expect more and more. But I simply enjoy writing – even with all the struggles I have to do it. No great pretensions… I’ve just got to do it.
CO: Do you have any specific projects lined up?
DW: I have four commissions lined up for the 2004-2005 season, two of which will be original works. The first is a commission from Opus 7 for harp, cello, and chorus, and the second is from the Choral Arts Ensemble in Rochester, MN, for chorus and percussion. The other two pieces will be arrangements for chorus.
CO: Are you interested in non-vocal pieces?
DW: I’ve written some… Clarinet is one of my favorite instruments, and I’ve written pieces for cello and piano too. Some of those things were published many years ago. But nothing for orchestra. Only student works for orchestration and arranging classes.
CO: My favorite arrangement of yours is Coventry Carol.
DW: Oh, thank you! That’s a good, solid arrangement. I’m trying to buy that back from the publisher, but they won’t give it up!
CO: Do you have a specific style you’re drawn to when you write? Or any specific composers whose styles have influenced you?
DW: I don’t know if I have any special style that I’m drawn too. I guess I would look at my style as very conservative now. One of the things I want to do now is to shake loose. I need to either shake loose or go to a teacher who will shake me loose! (laughs)
CO: I always feel an incredible sense of flow in your arrangements and your compositions. And beautiful phrasing.
DW: That must be instinctive with the conducting. Phrasing is very much a part of me with so many years of experience shaping music as a conductor. My teacher, Halsey Stevens, was very good with me. All the doctoral students in choral music at USC had to have a “craft,” and one of the crafts you could take on was arranging, so I signed up. He liked my work so well… I did Coventry Carol with him, dedicated it to the concert choir there at USC, and they premiered it while I was a student there. But Halsey Stevens said maybe I could do some original things and he’d change the requirement of arranging into composition. So I had a semester of composition with him and that was very good. In both arranging and in composition, he forced his students to be very clean and make sure everything counted. I remember that when I’m writing today. You don’t just put in anything extraneous. No filler! Everything must really function, must have a reason behind it. You can look at Coventry Carol to see his influence.
CO: And he was a very efficient composer too… nothing wasted.
DW: Oh yes. It’s very evident in his music. So that was very influential. He’d point to his own very clean writing, and wouldn’t let us get away with any excess baggage. But I have other models for composition too. I haven’t used them like I want to yet, but they’re in my brain, ready! For instance, a great model for choral sound and voicing of a chorus is Rachmaninoff. In the Vespers alone, my gosh, there’s a lesson on every page on how to write for chorus! Of course that’s one kind of sound, but even lessons as general as the tremendous effect of doubling at the octave – having the sopranos doubled by the tenors… Moving the melody from one voice to another… Phrasing… When I want to look at great technique all underwritten with great spiritual quality, I look to the music of Herbert Howells. And in terms of sensitivity to text, Dominick Argento is extremely effective. Benjamin Britten is another one who sets text wonderfully well.
CO: What is it like to conduct your own work? Is it more or less difficult than conducting other composers’ work, and why?
DW: Oh! (laughs) Well it’s always such a surprise to hear how the music actually sounds after you’ve written it!
CO: Are you surprised by it? Even with your knowledge of the voice?
DW: Well, of course I think I hear it all, but it’s still never the same until you hear it live.
CO: And it’s never the same on a piano…
DW: No, no… and that is a danger! You must be very careful about not only writing what you’re able to play. I do work at the keyboard — I get inspiration from live sound. There is a danger in depending on it, especially if you’re trying to play all the lines of a choral piece… To put down only what you can play is a real danger. But about conducting my own music… Except for being slightly embarrassed, or worrying whether the performers are going to like it, it’s pretty much the same for me to conduct my own piece as anyone else’s. I work out all the breaths and the divisi like I do for any piece. But I always worry about people liking something, or it being effective. So I think I just need to do more, and shake loose.
CO: How exciting!
DW: And writing music is something I can do, and want to do, that won’t be quite as demanding in terms of everyday schedule. I don’t have any great pretensions about it, so I think that is good too. I want to write for my own sake, for my own madness, and see what happens. When I was your age, if you’d asked me what I wanted to do, I’d have said I wanted to be a composer. In a way I haven’t fulfilled that dream. I just thought the greatest thing in the world would be to pack up a bunch of scores and fly to New York.
CO: Instead you’ve packed up a bunch of other people’s scores and flown all over the world…
DW: It was probably meant to be. If the goal is to be a great composer – that’s pretty frightening, even nearly impossible. So if you want to do it, you just have to go and do it… and see what happens. I would tell any young composer: Go for it now. Don’t wait. Don’t say, “Well I’m going to do that when I have time.” Keep the writing going, and let everything be in a mess if it’s in a mess. Just don’t stop. I think that would be my advice to anybody! You have to allow time to develop your passion… because to make a living in this business is tricky. And if someone is interested in your work, for goodness sake, RESPOND! Respond to conductors and to all inquiries. Respond on time, show up on time, deliver on time… these things are crucial.
CO: Do you get a lot of unsolicited scores in the mail?
DW: Oh yes. It’s slowed down a bit, but it used to average about one a day.
CO: Did you ever get through all those scores?
DW: No. Their screening became the responsibility of our composer-in-residence when I had one. In the case of Carol [Barnett], she’d say, “You know Dale, you should look at these three pieces.” So we’d sit together and I would look at them closely. For the others, I’d only take a quick look.
CO: But somebody did look at every one of those scores.
DW: Oh yes.
CO: As a conductor who has actively sought new choral music, can you recommend places for composers to market and promote their choral compositions?
DW: Always start with what you have. A composer should actively talk to conductors and get recommendations. Just ask people, “Do you know anybody who conducts a high school choir who would be interested in new music?” Then you make sure to tell that director who sent you to them. Then, send out your music and see what happens. But don’t send too much! Also, only send good dubs… no bad recordings. I would never send MIDI – I’d rather just have the score. And I would never send a recording of a bad performance.
CO: That sounds like good advice.
DW: Also, work on your own. Don’t talk to other composers about promotion because it can be so competitive. I just think you should make your own way. Go your own way, and shower the other composers with kindness!
CO: What’s the best thing to say to a conductor when you meet one? I know that sounds like a straightline, but seriously… if I were meeting you for the first time, I would be scared to death.
DW: Most conductors are very happy to meet composers.
CO: What could I say that would interest you in my music? What would set my scores apart from all those piles of unsolicited scores on your desk?
DW: I just think you say whatever comes to you. If you have some connection, be sure to use it. “So-and-so said to say hi to you,” is usually ok. Telephoning is not ok. I don’t think I’d do it in general. I used to receive so many calls… calls from all over the world. They say, “I hear you like new music” and they send you something. Then they call you a week later and say, “Well, what did you think?” And you’re so busy you haven’t even opened the box! Ruth [Warland] is still going around our house opening envelopes and saying, “You never answered this!”
CO: Do you recommend email over telephoning?
DW: Quite often I’ll get an email that asks if I’d be willing to look at something. Of course I say yes and then they come through. That’s a nice way to do things. But the best promotion is always word-of-mouth, and I’d start with people I know: “So-and-so said you might be interested in this particular piece.” Or if you’ve heard their choir, that’s good too. But never put pressure on anyone.
CO: How far ahead do choruses program their next season of music?
DW: It’s usually done about a year in advance. The deadline for the Dale Warland Singers was to have everything programmed by December for the following season, which ran Oct-May.
CO: So to send in a score and hope it gets into the next season is pretty unlikely.
DW: Yes, but there are always exceptions. Don’t let that stop you.
CO: Now that the Dale Warland Singers have completed their final season, and therefore aren’t accepting new scores, what other vocal ensembles might you recommend to composers seeking performance of their works?
DW: Well, since I am continuing my work as both teacher and conductor, I will continue to receive scores and to commission new works.
CO: Is it hard to find funding?
DW: It’s not THAT hard. In this day and age, it’s just not that hard. All you have to do is ask. You can’t just ask anybody, but ask a likely person, a foundation, or a corporation. Just say, “Would you like to support a commission? This is what I have in mind…” No, it’s not hard. In fact, it’s especially easy to say to an ensemble, “Would you ever like me to write a piece for you, because I have a potential donor who would like to fund a project.”
CO: I see…
DW: Of course, in that case you really have to have a potential donor… (laughs) But vocal groups who do commission include The Kansas City Chorale, Volti, Opus 7, and many others. It just takes a little time and a little research to find them. Of course, you only want to send scores to one choir per geographic area. Don’t send your music to all the professional choruses in Seattle, for instance. If more than one choir wants to do it and finds out the other one has also programmed it, you can create an awkward situation. Now, if you send it to one and don’t receive a response within in a certain time, politely ask for your score back, and then send it to the other ensemble. Always keep a record of what you send out to conductors. Keep a separate card with every score that details the history of that particular piece. Someday you’ll want to know when it was written, the source of the text, and who all the people were who rejected it before it got its big break! I will never forget when I was in my early writing days in California. I would pack up a wonderful manuscript so carefully, wrap it and get it all perfect, and I’d take it down and give it to the postman, and they’d FLING it up into the truck. Just STAMP STAMP STAMP – FLING! And I’d cry, “Oh! My child!”
DW: (laughs) Oh, that’s such an image!
CO: One name you’ve mentioned multiple times in these interviews is that of Dominick Argento. I know you’ve worked extensively together. How did you meet?
DW: Dominick Argento was one of my teachers when I was a student at the University of Minnesota. That’s how we first met, but then a few years later, when I was teaching at Macalester, the SAI organization wanted to do a retrospect of Argento’s works. They engaged me to be the guest conductor, and it was an entire evening of Dr. Argento’s music. He was there, and was apparently favorably impressed with what we’d done with his music. But I didn’t have so much to do with him until the Warland Singers really got going. I commissioned him, then, for our tenth anniversary concert. That was I Hate and I Love, a fabulous piece for chorus and percussion. Since then, we’ve become closer and closer. I used to be very uneasy being with him because he’s so brilliant and articulate. I would worry that I might say the wrong thing. But I’ve learned to relax now because I know he has respect for what I do. So now I just throw it right back at him, so to speak, and we have the best time. I could never have predicted we would develop such a close friendship. He’s one of my favorite people. We have great mutual respect for each other. He loves the fact that I take such care with a score. He loves the choir, what they do. It’s very special to have that respect from someone you so admire.
CO: What is it about his vocal writing that you appreciate?
DW: At first glance it may look awkward and difficult. But you soon realize that it’s so convincing, vocally-friendly, and fresh.
CO: You’ve mentioned I Hate and I Love as the 10th anniversary commission, and you placed Walden Pond as one of the top 17 scores to study choral writing at its finest (Ed. Note: see below). What other choral pieces by Argento do you recommend?
DW: A Toccata of Galuppi’s is the third work that the Dale Warland Singers have recorded. It’s a wonderful piece. It’s a bit unusual, but contains such fantastic writing. For inspiration regarding concepts, Dominick, like Benjamin Britten whom he deeply admires, does this splendidly. It is so essential for a composer to have a clear, solid concept. As soon as you have a clear concept, the piece can seem already written for you! https://youtu.be/zMI143DwJec?list=PLWDcMDRhFRwzNA-vKQHJ5MN6SxHZj42Rp
CO:This Toccata is such a good example of a concept piece. The off-stage harpsichord juxtaposed against the serialism in the choir is stunning.
DW: Yes, it harkens back to Baldassare Galuppi and goes awry. It uses the 19th century poem by Robert Browning, and then explores both twelve-tone technique and actual baroque harpsichord quotes from Galuppi. But you know, Argento has also had concepts he’s had to throw out the window because he couldn’t find some component of the equation… either a text or something to go with it. For one piece he was going to write for us — which ended up being Walden Pond — we sat down and he diagrammed it all out and I thought it looked great! But the next thing I heard from him, he’d thrown it all out the window and had started over. Of course the result was fabulous.
CO: So it’s a long planning process for him.
DW: Yes, he takes every piece that he writes very seriously.
CO: It’s such high-quality music…
DW: I think it’s a good lesson for any young composer — because you won’t be young long: Always take your music seriously. Well, seriously to a point. Because when you are 60 or 70, they’re not going to say how old you are. They’ll say, “Look at that piece!” And you might have written it when you were 12!
CO: Do you have any final advice for composers?
DW: I do. I think composers should choose their communication wisely. It’s so easy to be influenced by other composers. Talk to a lot of different types of people and go your own way. That’s what I say. Talk to conductors! I think you’ll have much more confidence, and persistence, and your imagination will “fly” more if you don’t communicate exclusively with other composers, but stimulate your imagination by talking to playwrights and going to plays, by going to dance and theater, by reading books, seeing movies… You can catch yourself, I think, in just being too caught up in competition. I don’t know… We all have that as composers: the element of ego that you can’t fight. It should be a healthy ego, but sometimes there are elements of ego that make you wonder if it’s really healthy. But more than anything you want to make your way, and forget about that natural tendency to be competitive about it. Just go your own way and enjoy it.
CO: Thank you so much for meeting with me, Dale. It’s really been wonderful to talk with you.
DW: Oh! (laughs) Abbie, the pleasure is mine!
Dale Warland’s list of 17 EXAMPLES OF CHORAL WRITING AT ITS FINEST: Composer Title Forces Dominick Argento: Walden Pond SATB, three celli, harp (1996) Samuel Barber: Reincarnations SATB a cappella (1940) Benjamin Britten: Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30 SATB soloists, chorus, and organ (1943) Benjamin Britten: Hymn to Saint Cecilia SATB a cappella (1942) Benjamin Britten: Cantata Academica, Op. 62 SATB soloists, chorus, orchestra (1959) Luigi Dallapiccola: Canti di Prigionia (Song of the Prisoners) SATB, two pianos, two harps, eight percussion (1938-1941) Irving Fine: The Hourglass SATB a cappella (1949) Herbert Howells: Requiem SATB a cappella (1936) Herbert Howells: Take Him Earth for Cherishing SATB a cappella (1964) Frank Martin: Mass SATB double chorus a cappella (1922-1926) Arvo Part: Magnificat SATB a cappella (1989) Arvo Part: Berliner Messe SATB chorus or soloists, organ or string orchestra (1990, rev. 1991) Krystof Penderecki: Psalms of David SATB chorus, stringed instruments, percussion (1958) Ildebrando Pizzetti: Due Composizioni Corali SATB a cappella (1961) Francis Poulenc: Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel SATB a cappella (1951) Sergei Rachmaninoff: Vespers (All-Night Vigil), Opus 37 SATB a cappella (1915) Igor Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms SATB chorus, orchestra (1930, rev. 1948)
SEE PART III for Dale Warland on:
- choral notation
- score layout
Warland-Bettinis Interview: Part 3 of 3
In this final interview for ComposersOnline.org, Dr. Warland provides specific tips for writing choral music, including advice on notation, score layout, and text-setting. He spoke with ComposersOnline writer Abbie Betinis from his offices in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the summer of 2004. (Reprinted by permission of ComposersOnline.org – link no longer available)
Dale Warland’s 6 Tips for Writing Choral Music:
1) Find good quality texts. So many people make such a distinction between writing sacred music and writing secular music. To me there just “ain’t no difference”. All great music is sacred, and all great texts are sacred. (Of course, a religious piece is one hopefully appropriate for religious purposes.) I get so disgusted with people calling certain things sacred and then having the worst text in the world. Choosing a good text is very important.
2) Write beyond what you can play at the keyboard. Don’t limit your vocal lines by making them dependent on your keyboard skills. I see this too much in composers new to vocal writing.
3) Know all you can about the voice. Approach writing for the voice as you would any other instrument. Find out what idiosyncrasies it has – and it certainly has them! Learn the ranges, the tessitura, extended techniques, etc.
4) Be realistic and practical without losing your imagination and freshness. So many composers shoot themselves in the foot by making things unnecessarily difficult. I think composers should look at each individual part and think, “If I were going to sing this, what would I want to be singing?”
5) Avoid awkward jumps or difficult pitches to execute in the voice. There is an important distinction to be made here between musically-awkward and vocally-awkward writing. Musically-awkward writing might be intervallic leaps that look difficult at first glance, but which singers can certainly learn. These might be a tritone, or a seventh… and even those are not so difficult after you get them in your ear. Some of the best choral writing includes some very difficult intervals all in succession, and yet remains very singable. So it’s not necessarily the interval, but the placement of the voice that can make a leap awkward in execution. Vocally-awkward writing has to do with this placement of the voice, and it can be unhealthy, even impossible. Range issues come into play, tessitura, etc. There are certain vowels that are harder to sing high, and certain consonants which make those approaches to the vowel easier. So don’t necessarily avoid musically-awkward intervals, but to put the sopranos at triple forte on a low B… now that’s vocally-awkward writing, and should really be avoided.
6) Sing in a good choir. Choose one with a high level of performance and a high level of repertoire. It will be your best teacher. I took this interview opportunity to ask Dr. Warland all the specific questions about writing for chorus which I had always wondered. Below, he reveals his preferences for text setting, breath marks, specific notations, score layout, and more. – Abbie Betinis
1) Avoid texts where there is an overabundance of awkward words or syllables. Dr. Warland says, “There are really very few entirely awkward words. But something like ‘chrysanthemum,’ for instance, is a very beautiful word, but very awkward to sing.”
2) Use natural word stress to determine placement of text. For instance, avoid accentuating a “schwa” sound. (“flow-ER”)
3) When notating the text, pay attention to the way the syllables divide. If the word is “pas-ture,” then writing “past-ure” is incorrect. Invest in a dictionary which includes syllabification.
4) Always include the text of the piece, as it appears in its original form, somewhere in the score, preferably on the inside front cover. Also, if possible, print the text in the program. Dr. Warland says, “Of course it’s always good to have a program note too – something about the concept of the piece. Many composers forget to include the program note in the actual score, but it is also a helpful tool for the performer.”
CO: Should composers be specific about marking places to breathe when writing for chorus?
DW: There are disagreements about breath marks. Some composers think I’m overzealous about them, especially when editing scores to go off to press. But I think composers should put them in when there are places where they want breaths for sure.
If there is a danger to breathe in a place that should be connected, I suggest a broken line connecting the noteheads to indicate “no breath.” [ex. 1b]
I tend to be very specific by adding eighth rests for breaths, so everyone cuts off at the same time. For clarity, I really do prefer that a composer writes rests right into the measure in that way [ex. 1c].
Many times, a composer will prefer a breath mark [ex. 1d] instead of a more specific rest because the breath may not be exactly on the final eighth, for instance. It may be later. In these cases a chorus might wait until the very last instant and then give more of a general lift, rather than a full breath.
Seeing places to breathe in a score affects a singer in a psychological, subconscious way. When a singer is looking ahead and sees a breath coming, she does something different to the phrase. Likewise, if none of the singers know where the breath is, the phrase can really suffer. In the end, I think a choir likes to know where the heck they’re supposed to breathe. Ex.1a leaves the breathing entirely up to the conductor, who may or may not add a breath between the words. The dotted line in Ex.1b clearly states there should be no breath between the words. Dr. Warland’s choice: An eighth rest in Ex.1c clearly indicates a breath before “heavy,” as well as the exact cut off for the ‘s’ on ‘Trees.’ A breath is clearly what the composer intends in Ex.1d, but the exact placement is left to the singers.
On Release Notes…
CO: I’ve never understood a specific inconsistency found in vocal writing: When releasing a held note on beat 1, most composers simply write a rest on beat 1, but some tie the note to an eighth note after the barline [ex. 2a, 2b]. How do you interpret the difference, and which do you prefer?
DW: This has been difficult for me too. It comes from the instrumental tradition, but there is a difference in the connotation. An instrumentalist will tend to release on the downbeat when there is a held note like that over a barline. As a conductor I’d say, “Sing into it!” and then put the final consonant on the eighth rest after beat one. But it’s true, some composers – especially those coming from the instrumentalist tradition – intend, with that tie, to hear the final consonant on the eighth note, not the following rest. It always comes down to “What did the composer really want?” And if you can’t call ’em up, then you just have to decide. Did they intend the release on beat one? Or did they intend it on the ‘and’ of one? I recommend keeping the score as clean as possible. If you want to stop at the end of that measure, then don’t tie it to anything. Even if there is a final consonant at the end of the word. If the word is “trees…”, then the final “z” sound will be on the downbeat of the following bar anyway, with or without your eighth note. I don’t see any need for it.
CO: I have seen SATB choral scores in two, three, and four staves. What do you prefer to see?
DW: A piece should have a separate line for every voice part, unless it is completely homophonic. If all the dynamics, rhythms, and words are the same for each voice part, then two lines will work (SA share one line, TB share another). Otherwise, four-line notation is much more clear. (Editor’s Note: Dr. Warland also told me the three-staff choral scores I’d seen were those of Norman Luboff, whose main goal was to save paper! Who knew?)
CO: When choral parts divide, there are often quite unequal numbers of singers on each part – especially when dividing from the usual 4 parts (SATB) into the slightly more unusual 6 (SSATBB). You’re known for being extremely particular about balance, would you speak a little bit about how to use balance and divisi in choral writing?
DW: I love dealing with balance and divisi because it can just be magical. One of the secrets to the success of the Dale Warland Singers is simply dealing with balances. An audience doesn’t know who sings what, they just hear what they hear without having any idea how many people might be singing on a part. But getting the proper balance – whatever the composer wants – is very critical to a great final result.
Orchestras have the same challenge. Some orchestras deal not at all with balance. I’ve seen a lot of conductors just ignore it, just play away. But balances are crucial to me. Time after time when I critique a choir, I’ll say, ‘The balances are all messed up. How do you have this divided?’ Many choirs do exactly what’s on the page and don’t listen to it at all! Therefore, how the composer sets up the page is absolutely crucial.
CO: OK, so imagine this: A men’s part divides from two lines (tenor and bass), into three, with the basses split and the tenors in unison [Ex. 3a]. What happens to the balance?
DW: However obvious, a choir will not necessarily have equal numbers of singers on each of these three lines. Because the split is specifically written in the bass part, you may have half the number of basses on the bottom two parts, against the entire tenor section on the top.
If you want a passage like this to be balanced, you must have a footnote that says “Divided parts should be balanced equally.” To balance equally, the conductor often has to come up with a 6-part SSATBB divisi from the choir which is different from the SSAATTBB divisi used for 8-part writing. I often call composers to say, ‘Do you really want this line with double the number of singers on it? Or do you want it all equally voiced?’ I’ll pin them down if it’s not written in their score. I have had to do that time and time again. In an equal 6-part SSATBB split, it is likely that some second sopranos will move up to sing first soprano, while some first altos will be moved up to sing second soprano. Likewise, some second tenors might be moved down to baritone, and some baritones moved down to the lowest bass line.
CO: Is range ever an issue in re-voicing scores in this way?
DW: Yes. In all this part-switching, range can be a problem. That is something the composer should think about beforehand:
What voice parts might have to stretch their range to balance this texture? It is difficult to know how to show divisi on the page. Sometimes I see a three-part texture with two parts on the tenor line, but the bottom tenor is the same as the baritone because the composer wanted only three parts, not four. That is misleading too because half of the tenors and half the basses will be on that one part, overbalancing the outer voices. [Ex. 3b]
A composer has to decide where a piece is going to be able to best represent it on the page. It may be just a momentary thing, or it may be quite a bit of music that goes by this way. Usually I find the best way, especially if the part is in the lower tessitura of the voice, is to write the split into the bass line, with a note referring to equal balances, as I mentioned before. That seems most clear. A conductor’s first instinct will be to split the voices as they see the line. That’s why you have to put a big footnote on the page that says, “Darn it! Get it balanced!” (laughs) It’s really very critical! I just can’t emphasize this enough.
On Tempo Markings…
CO: What should composers do to best represent tempo in a score?
DW: Though the essence of your piece will be very clear to you as the composer, it may not be nearly as obvious to the conductor. Key character words in addition to a specific metronome marking can really aid a conductor in hearing your music how you hear it (“robust” or “boisterous,” or something). A simple ‘ca.’ before the metronome marking also gives a conductor liberty with tempo, if that is what you wish.
On the Piano Reduction…
CO: The commissioning guide for the Dale Warland Singers includes a list of score layout do’s and don’ts. It requires a piano reduction (for rehearsal only) to be placed beneath the a cappella chorus parts, but I wonder whether it’s really necessary if it takes so much space on the page. Don’t conductors read open scores anymore?
DW: I seldom use a condensed score or piano reduction at the bottom of the page, but everyone seems to think one should be included. I guess I would say to put them in, but I think it is a bad habit for conductors to get “plunking along,” playing the reduction. I focus on every choral line instead. And that takes good discipline on my part! When I study a score, I sing each line, or play one part and sing another. There are rare occasions where I study the reduction, but I think it is good advice to have one part per line, plus the piano reduction.
CO: Do you prefer drawn out crescendos/decrescendos, or a simple “cresc.” to conserve space on the page? DW: I don’t believe dynamics can be overmarked. I would so much rather see crescendos and decrescendos drawn out, than the words “cresc.” or “decresc.” If it is a matter of space on the page, I recommend using the plain words as a last resort. And always remember to mark the dynamic at the beginning and end of the crescendo or decrescendo. I feel it is always better to be too specific than not to pay attention to detail.
Dr. Warland concluded the interview by assuring me that there are so many differences of opinion in these matters of notation, or score layout and so on, that it is important for composers to ask questions of conductors and performers in order to develop their own instincts. He recommends taking each situation individually, letting the music guide the notation. – Abbie Betinis, composer
Choral Conductor Magazine Interview
with thanks to Choral Director Magazine and Matt Parish for the permission to reprint this article
Dale Warland turned a love for disciplined, adventurous singing into a leading voice in contemporary music with his Dale Warland Singers. He continues to inspire students and pros alike to this day. By Matt Parish The first time Dale Warland commissioned a new piece of choral music, he contacted world-famous Jean Berger to write for Warland’s student choir at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.
The well-known composer dedicated the piece to Warland, who was then still an undergraduate who hadn’t a clue that commissions are typically paid. Berger didn’t mind – he was happy to send the promising young conductor a brand new work. The commission certainly wouldn’t be his last.
Dale Warland went on to have one of the most renowned careers in choral music, establishing new arteries of support for professional chorus work with over 270 new pieces of music from composers of all types. His beloved singing group, the Dale Warland Singers, spanned over 30 years in action (1972 to 2004) and 300 members, making unforgettable marks on the classical music landscape. They recorded 23 albums (including the Grammy-nominated Walden Pond) and appeared worldwide in concert and in annual radio broadcasts of the group’s classic Echoes of Christmas. Though he ended his career with the Singers nine years, Warland has remained busy with a long list of guest conducting jobs, residencies, masterclasses, positions with professional choirs in Minnesota, and even composing work.
Last fall, he was inducted into the Classical Music Hall of Fame alongside composer Steve Reich and the Beaux Arts Trio, among others. It seemed the perfect time to survey Warland’s career and his monumental efforts at establishing a new level of excellence in professional choral singing.
Warland grew up in a very small town in Iowa. His father, a farmer, was a self-taught trombone player, marching band enthusiast, and dedicated choir singer, and his grandfather had been a lifelong member of the local church choir. Warland followed his church’s conductor’s lead and enrolled at St. Olaf College, a lynchpin in the Midwest’s ages-old choral tradition that can be traced back to Scandinavian Lutheran churches. Warland’s leadership and conducting skills quickly earned him his own choir there, which he soon used to commission the Berget piece.
Warland went on to join the Air Force, stationed in Belleville, Illinois at Scott Air Force Base. There, he formed a choir that quickly grew in reputation, once performing for then-Vice President Richard Nixon. He earned his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota and his doctorate at the University of Southern California, going on to teach at Humboldt State College in Arcata, California and at New York’s Keuka College. He settled in as director of choral activities at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The Dale Warland Singers began at a time when professional choirs were not a common part of the arts world. Eventually, the idea caught on, thanks in no small part to the excellent sound of his developing choir.
The Singers were described in the most glowing terms possible. BBC Music Magazinewrote their December Stillness album was “splendid, melting stuff.” The Oregonian called the group “peerless.” The group’s sound, which was fine-tuned year-after-year to a nuanced, rich, and beautiful wholeness, became almost instantly recognizable.
It paid off in accolades – on top of the Hall of Fame honor, Warland and the singers enjoyed the Michael Korn Founder’s Award, three separate ASCAP honors for adventurous programming, the ACDA’s Weston Noble Award for Lifetime Achievement in Choral Music and Robert Shaw Award in Choral Music, Yale University’s Cultural Leadership Citation Award, the American Composer Forum’s Champion of New Music Award, and many more. It also earned the respect of the choral community at large.
The Singers performed works by composers like Stephen Paulus, Robert Shaw, Kryzsztof Penderecki, Libby Larsen, Carol Barnett, and Dominick Argento. They’ve also worked with conductors like Edo de Waart, Leonard Slatkin, Hugh Wolff, Bobby McFerrin, and David Zinman, among many others. Throughout, Warland has remained humble, maintaining strong ties to the Minnesota arts groups that nourished him early on.
Choral Director took time to talk with him from his home outside of St. Paul this winter about the careful road he’s followed on this one-of-a-kind musical career.
Choral Director (CD): Growing up in Iowa, you must have had a pretty limited exposure to large choral performances.
Dale Warland (DW): I grew up on a farm in Iowa, approximately six miles from Fort Dodge and about three miles from Badger. Badger was a little village of some one hundred people. It was our community and most of our social life centered in and around the Lutheran church there. I went to a one-room country school house through eighth grade and, for most of that time, I was the only one in my class. We sang every day and that was something that became part of my life.
CD: You’ve mentioned being inspired by the St. Olaf Choir, which your church’s choir director had attended. How did getting involved with their program affect your career?
DW: My life dream was to become a member of the St. Olaf Choir, but I never made the final cut. In my junior year, I was appointed assistant director of the Viking Male Chorus on campus and that really launched my conducting career. My senior year, I was the only conductor and did all the programming and rehearsing and touring. It was a great experience. I had my own college choir when I was 21 years old.
CD: Did your interest in both Early Music and 20th-Century Music begin to develop at that time?
DW: I was pretty interested in New Music very early. In fact, when I led the Viking Male Chorus as a student, I heard a work by Jean Berger, who was very famous in his day. I wrote him a letter, never having met him, and asked if he would write a piece for my Viking Chorus. He did. I never knew that you paid a composer, so he did this commission for nothing. It turned out that it was his first commission in the United States! He was a refugee, having fled the Nazis and coming to the United States by way of South America. It was his first commission in the United States, but without pay! That’s how naïve I was. I just asked him and he wrote the piece. That’s what you do when you’re naïve and don’t know any better.
CD: A major theme in your career was your desire to develop a culture of professional choruses. What was it like when you started out?
DW: My dream in life, after graduating from school, was to be a college choral conductor. But I soon realized that I lost many singers every year when they graduated. I also wanted to do music that would be much better performed if we had mature voices than those of undergraduate singers.
CD: Did that sort of situation just not seem to be happening for anyone at that point?
DW: There were a lot of community choirs, but as far as I know, no one was paying singers in choir. That was unheard of. Maybe soloists in churches were paid, but no choirs had any kind of an ongoing fee. When I started, what we could afford was very small. But as soon as we could, we did start paying a small amount for each service. That meant so much for rehearsals and so much for performances. However, it took a number of years before we even were able to do that.
CD: Did you have a certain strategy for raising funds ahead of time or for playing certain types of concerts to target your financial goals at the time?
DW: Just singing. [laughs] Corporations and foundations were very helpful but, compared to the instrumental and opera world, our grants were small. The general public just wasn’t used to the idea of paying singers. That’s a whole education in itself, even paying for concerts, for that matter. On top of that, my main interest was New Music. People would stay away from performances when they heard you were performing New Music until they realized how wonderful it could be and learned to trust you and believe that the New Music you did might exciting and beautiful.
CD: So you had a whole separate challenge of convincing that New Music could be palatable.
DW: Right. I essentially simply gave it time. The choir, first of all, had to learn to enjoy it and do it well. It’s a challenge because not all New Music is quality music. If anyone heard the term “12-tone,” they would stay away. In not too long a time, we became well-known for our commitment to commissioning and our performances and recording of New Music. That really helped us make a name for ourselves – the 270 commissions we did. It’s amazing that if you believe in something and you can do it well, you’ll eventually gain support of people who are sensitive to those kinds of challenges.
CD: Did you have a concept for a group “sound” early on?
DW: Any concept of sound that I had at that time was totally embedded in my subconscious. I certainly had “a sound” in my head, but was not really aware of that being unusual. I realized that the big challenge was to take the raw material I had and, with effective conducting gestures and the right choice of words, somehow develop “a sound” that would be aesthetically appealing, beautiful to the ear, and also appropriate for most all repertoire.
CD: Was there a certain type of impact you were hoping to have on the choral music world with this group?
DW: I simply wanted to develop a professional choir that could sing anything and sing it at an incredibly high artistic level. I knew that, with half a chance, I could make that happen, even with little funding or a public that really didn’t think there was a difference between college or volunteer adult choirs and a professional choir. One of our missions was to inform the community that singers who have pursued advanced degrees in music and who had extensive performance experience should be paid for their work, just as a violinist or timpani player in a professional orchestra.
CD: What was your approach to the composers from whom you commissioned works?
DW: I laid out no specific criteria for the composers that we commissioned over the years except general practical matters of the event or concert: where and when it was to be premiered, a suggested approximate duration, instrumental forces to include, if any, and made it clear that they must keep in mind the amount (exact hours and minutes) we would be able to devote to its preparation.
I encouraged each composer to be as creative and unconventional as they wished. Further, I looked for composers who had written mostly or exclusively for instruments, and wanted to encourage them to write for voices. I also felt it was important to seek out writers who would bring a fresh touch to the choral repertoire.
Eric Whitacre is a good example of that. He was still an undergraduate and had written very little when we commissioned “Water Night.”
CD: You’ve pointed at local relationships as being extremely important in sustaining the group.
DW: We were one of the first performing ensembles to be part of the St. Paul Sunday radio program. We produced some 12 programs for them over the years. That alone helped a great amount with our exposure on the national scene.
At about the same time, Minnesota Public Radio (which is in St. Paul) began broadcasting our regular concerts and, annually, our Echoes of Christmas programs. Public radio did an awful lot to put us on the map. In our group, there was always a fine line between how much singing time the individual singer could commit to, and what the individual’s life style could bear.
The Twin Cities offered great opportunities to expand both income and repertoire opportunities with Minnesota Orchestra and the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, both world class ensembles with world class conductors and guest conductors. Other collaborations further expanded the repertoire and breadth of our musical experiences, included the Schubert Club, Minnesota Opera, American Composers Forum, as well as Minnesota Public Radio.
CD:As time went on, did you seem to find more kindred spirits in this push to make singers professional?
DW: When Robert Shaw came to town, he insisted on having the Dale Warland Singers when he was engaged to do the “Messiah” with the Minnesota Orchestra. That was a turning point as well, because the Minnesota Orchestra had never paid a chorus before and I had turned it down every time they offered it up to that point in time. One has to establish a certain performance level before one can really sell oneself as professional.
CD: Do you feel the perception of paying choirs changed relatively quickly throughout the country from that point forward?
DW: I don’t know if it was relatively quickly, but it certainly has changed. Now we have an organization that supports professional choirs – Chorus America (originally the Association of Professional Vocal Ensembles). But it’s not uncommon now to have all-professional or at least a paid professional nucleus for choirs all around the country. That’s great to see. Choirs are still not paid enough, but at least it’s happening and eventually we will get there.
CD:With the DWS (Dale Warland Singers), what was the typical lifespan of a singer?
DW: I don’t think there was one that we would call “typical.” Some of them were with the group 20 years. As the years went on, there was more turnover because people just began moving more. When we first started, people would rarely move out of town.
Everyone was required to audition every year, and those expectations were made clear. If you were slipping in terms of musicianship, vocal skills, or discipline, you knew your position was on the line. But everyone was always excited to be a part of it. As we were all paid more, that made it even better.
CD: Was everyone typically working day jobs throughout the span of the DWS?
DW: Probably a quarter of the singers were freelancers and a good many of them were music teachers. The largest share of the memberships did have full-time jobs. Most of them had jobs, however, that they could be excused from so that when we did do run-outs or tours, they could be able to take a few days off. They all knew the tour schedules well in advance, so we couldn’t take them into the choir unless we knew they could meet that schedule.
When we did extensive touring, we had a smaller group (26 voices) that I would engage. Later, we began booking our own concerts with all 40 voices. That was great because I could perform the repertoire that we wished and we could command the appropriate fees.
CD: Do you approach the student choirs that you visit now any differently than your professional choirs?
DW: No, my approach to both is fundamentally the same.
CD: What do you find to be the biggest concerns in choral education these days?
DW: In general, my biggest concert with the education of singers is a lack in the development of strong, overall musicianship along with a flexibility in performing effectively in all singing styles, including vibrato control to meet those stylistic demands. In the education of choral conductors, I see a general lack of extensive or even adequate knowledge of choral rep, along with what one would term a truly effective conducting technique.
CD: When you’re guest-conducting, what’s something you especially try to impart as an educator and choral advocate?
DW: I hope I am able to assist in getting the choirs that I encounter excited about doing good repertoire and doing it well. I’m still amazed that many don’t fully realize the importance of repertoire. That is critical. I try to instill that. I talk about three things – building the instrument (the choir), building the repertoire and programming, and building the musical leadership (the conductor).
What really makes the choir what it becomes or what it doesn’t become is the repertoire. The same thing with the conductor – he or she will grow only according to the demands of the repertoire. If it’s quality repertoire, chances are that conductor is going to become quality, as well.
CD: What gets your attention when building a choir’s voice?
DW: I’m a great attention-to-detail person – where you breathe, balance, everything that goes into making really fine music. Until all the essential details are in place, you cannot really begin making music. You don’t want to waste time telling everyone where to breathe or how to pronounce any given word. All the markings should be done first, then insist that the singers follow them when you do rehearse and perform. I always send markings ahead of time.
When I say “markings,” I don’t just mean only where you breathe but also exact pronunciation, dynamics changes, all the phrasing, the divisi assignments, et cetera. All of those go out before I arrive on the scene. I try to instill what I would term basic or fundamental expectations. These are essential to start with before you can even think of making great music.
The Dale Warland Singers Commission Award
The Dale Warland Singers Commission Award is presented by Chorus America in partnership with the American Composers Forum. It recognizes a chorus entering into an artistically meaningful and mutually beneficial partnership with a composer of their choice to contribute a new work to the choral repertoire. More information and how to apply can be found here.