Thursday, April 14, 2011

Choral Interviews- part 4: Mary Alice Stollak

Mary Alice Stollak is a double Grammy Award winner ("Best Choral Performance" and "Best Classical Album") for preparing the Michigan State University Children's Choir for the acclaimed Naxos recording of William Bolcom’s "Songs of Innocence and of Experience". She is also a recipient of the Maynard Klein Award for lifetime achievement given by ACDA-Michigan.

While residing as founding artistic director, over thirty new treble choir works were commissioned and premiered by the Michigan State University Children's Choir under Stollak’s leadership. Santa Barbara Music Publishing Company publishes the Mary Alice Stollak Choral Series, a set of treble choral publications that presents works by national and international composers in a variety of musical styles.

Stollak has appeared as festival guest conductor and workshop presenter in twenty-two states as well as Argentina, Canada, Germany, and Italy. Stollak served as the choral director for the National High School Music Institute (NHSMI) at Northwestern University for twenty years and for the Haslett (MI) Middle and High Schools for ten years. She also served as Director of Choral Activities at the University of Michigan-Flint. Her choirs have performed at numerous ACDA conventions at the state, division and national levels.

PC: In watching you conduct I have always admired your sense of phrasing and use of rubato. How did this beautiful sense of phrasing come to you? Was it the influence of a teacher, or years of experience, a combination?

MAS: Before I try to describe how or why I do things in the manner you just described, I would like to share the following quotes. First, from Rabbi David Wolpe's "The Power of Presence":

“What we learn from a great teacher cannot be put into a book, because it is in a look, an inflection, a quirk of personality or a tossed off comment. The greatest human lessons are found in the power of presence.”

And from the book, “Choke” by Sian Beilock:

"As we get better at performing a skill, our conscious memory for how we do it gets worse and worse." - University of Chicago sports and motor learning expert."

In other words, I’m not sure why, as a performer or conductor, the beauty of line is almost everything to me as a musician, nor is it easy for me to describe what I do…I just seem to do it. There are a few possible experiences, however, that have made a difference in how I interpret music, some of which may be found in your question about my life before the MSUCC.

Choral music, for me, was an extension of performing art song. I gave bi-yearly recitals at MSU between the late 60’s until the mid-80’s and spent countless hours searching for literature by listening to the best recordings of singers that I greatly respected. I specifically listened to art song recordings…Renata Tebaldi, Victoria De Los Angelus, Janet Baker, Elly Ameling, Joan Morris, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, to name a few. I LOVED how these singers treated phrases, how each could hang on a word for just the perfect length of time to give it meaning, how they gave the impression that what occurred between the notes was as important as the notes themselves. (Some day listen to Lieberson singing the Bach Cantata BWV 82, “Ich Habe Genung”…it’s breathtaking.) It is that communication between singer and listener…that belief that each phrase has power and that it touches the hearts of the singer as well as the listener. This became my mantra in each and every rehearsal. We used every analogy possible to be sure that what we did had meaning and that the text and the line was not done-in by being notey.

In Howard Swan’s book “Conscience of the Profession” there is a wonderful chapter about the need to talk about beauty throughout each of our rehearsals. I was teaching at Haslett High School at the time. What an eye opener for me! Because of this, the concept of beauty was foremost in everything that we did, including the warm-up. Too often, warm-ups are perfunctory. I strove to make each warm-up simple. While warming-up, I remind my singers that they are young artists…they would beam when I’d tell them that…and even within the warm-up their goal is to produce an artistically pleasing sound. This gets them to concentrate more and to see the warm-up as something less tedious that prepares them for the beautiful (not just accurate) tone that is needed to help in interpreting the music.

PC: We mostly know you from your amazing work leading the MSU Children’s Choir, yet you taught many years before that outside the children's choir realm. Can you tell us more about those years of your career?

MAS: After graduating from Indiana University, I was mostly a solo performer, singing a lot of oratorio and symphony works for mezzo-soprano and orchesta. My first love, however, was the art song. After our three children were all in school, I taught at Haslett Middle School & High School, (which then had only 450 kids in the high school) and built that program from a half-time position to a full time choral program. In my ten years there, we sang for two Central Division ACDA Conventions. From there, I taught at the University of Michigan-Flint where I was Associate Professor of Music. While there, I instituted the annual Black History Month concerts as part of the university’s outreach mission, as well as focusing on 20th century choral music, and performing music by women composers. For about 20 years, I spent five weeks each summer as the choral conductor for the National High School Music Institute at Northwestern University. It’s been a great ride!

PC: What motivated you to found the MSU Children’s choir? Can you tell us about its early stages?

MAS: I will always be thankful to Jim Forger, Dean of the MSU College of Music for asking me to direct a children’s choir in the newly formed MSU Community Music School. I had no idea at that time, that young children were capable of creating such artistry! We started in 1993 with a very small choir of about 22 children who were in the early elementary grades. Each semester, the number of children joining the choir grew and with each performance, their parents and others in the community became increasingly and amazingly supportive of this organization. Fast forward to 1998—five years from our founding, our 70 voice choir sang in performance at the ACDA Central Division Convention. I guess that even when it was just a neophyte group, I tried to instill in our singers a love of excellence for its own sake, that they love making music for its aesthetic experience, their ability to touch others through beauty, and even the simple joy of doing it right. I always searched for quality literature, and let me just say what a pleasure it has been to perform music by composers such as you, that write with such sensitivity…it made the children’s experience so much more meaningful! Back to the support of the children’s parents…in my 16 years with the choir, we commissioned 30 works, one of which was “Angels Voices” by John Burge, a five movement work for choir and full orchestra that later went on to win the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors’ 2006 Outstanding New Choral Composition. This was all made possible by the support of our choir families!

PC: The choir appeared at the Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music as the Official Representative of the United States. Can you tell us about that experience both from your viewpoint and also what the kids in the choir experienced?

MAS: This was the turning point in the choir’s history up until that time, and needless to say, we were all excited to sing in such a wonderful venue and experience such a warm and exuberant audience! However, there was one experience that touched our singers and that allowed all of us to take home an unexpected memory that the singers still mention, when I meet with them—and who are all now adults. We were chosen to sing the premiere of the Moses Hogan piece, “Music Down in My Soul.” The day before the performance, we were given the opportunity to work with Moses Hogan on his piece. He engaged the singers with great fervor, with empathy, with passion and with humor. His focus was mainly on the text and how to make it more meaningful within the gospel tradition. What a stirring experience for all of us! This was August of 2002. You can’t imagine the visceral reaction of our children when only 6 months later, after learning about it, I ended a rehearsal by telling the children of Moses Hogan’s untimely death in February of 2003 at the age of 45. We extended our rehearsal time, and with tears in all of our eyes, especially in the slow, lilting section of this piece, we began singing. With many hugs at the end, we celebrated our wonderful experience with him that we were blessed to have been given.

PC: At your farewell concert leading the MSU Children's Choir, among other works you performed Robert Jager's "I dream of peace,"music about the civil wars in the Yugoslavian/Bosnian area in the 1990s as seen through the eyes of children. Can you tell us more about this piece and what about it that resonates within you?

MAS: The first time I conducted this piece was for the 1999 ACDA National Convention in Chicago, at an interest session on commissioning new works for children’s choirs. In our frequent discussions about the meaning of the texts, there is always an “ah-hah” moment when individual choir members connect with the emotional imagery that was before them. The text of this work is compelling, and at an all-day rehearsal that we had that fall, I asked children to volunteer to read out loud one page of the book, published by UNICEF and to comment on the drawings, with discussion with the rest of the choir members. This brought the children closer to those that wrote the poetry and enriched their understanding of the texts. We premiered the three pieces of the “Terezin Lieder” by Marjan Helms, with texts from “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” Ten years later we premiered her “Voices of a Vanished World”, which is a two-hour work which explores the emotional and spiritual implications of the Holocaust, particularly as witnessed through the eyes of children. This two hour work draws on the melodic contours and instrumental colors of Yiddish folk music, as well as Jewish liturgical chant. And how does one prepare a children’s choir for the horrifying nature of “911”? Yet, we performed the John Adams, “On the Transmigration of Souls” with Mr. Adams conducting the Detroit Symphony.

So…in this case, it’s really about the gravitas of the subject, about the words and the feelings that they evoke. Bill Payne says it more eloquently than I can…he’s a rock-n’-roll musician-lyricist, who has two Grammy nominations and has worked with many entertainers from Garth Brooks and Bonnie Raitt to Taj Mahal.

"The weight of words and their importance are in abundant evidence in poetry, creating a music in the way the words fall upon our ears (the cadence), and painting images in our mind supplemented from experiences drawn from our lives. Our understanding of poetry often reveals itself much later; we are simply drawn into the flow of words, attaching meaning where we can. The intimate act between writer and reader is the bestowed gift of shared response.”

PC: You and the choir were blessed to have a very skilled, very sensitive pianist in Judy Kabodian. Can you tell us what Judy brought to the group both in rehearsal and performance?

MAS: Some of us are lucky enough to have very attentive and supportive guardian angels. The nuns who taught me for twelve years in Milwaukee Catholic schools always made us keenly aware of this fact. So for you to use the word “blessed” is exactly right. Judy was not only our pianist, she was a collaborator…it was ALWAYS chamber music when we worked TOGETHER. Judy brought grace to every rehearsal and performance. Judy brought love, and devotion that was a model for the children, and for me. I’ve had the privilege of working with more than several great musicians in my life. None, however, brought to the musical banquet such great personal pleasure. She helped to make the music more harmonious, our musical experiences richer, and the laughter we shared before, during, and after almost every rehearsal and performance brought great joy to my life. I was blessed…very blessed!

PC: Can you tell us about the experience which led to you winning two Grammy Awards?

MAS: We loved working with William Bolcom and Leonard Slatkin, the University of Michigan forces and observing the fabulous solo musicians on the performance and recording of the Bolcom “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” What a terrific experience for our children, on many levels. There was an unintended experience that bears mentioning. In a thank you letter that I wrote to William Bolcom I mentioned that we were performing a piece by Imant Raminsh that uses a Shoshone Indian text in which a loved one is described as…“ my heart’s friend.” I went on to say that…”at one point in the rehearsal a few of our choristers observed you and Ms. Morris holding hands. They mentioned that to me during our next rehearsal and I explained that you were married to Joan Morris. They let out a collective sigh. You shared with them your wonderful music, and you also, through your example, showed that even with your busy professional lives, you exemplified the text of this Raminsh piece. These are important lessons for our children.” Mr. Bolcom wrote me that he was very touched by the children’s observation and their response, and we went on to do another performance with Bolcom and Morris about the history of culinary songs!!!!

PC: You've been retired a couple of years now from the MSU Children's Choir as well as retired from the many summers in which you led the Northwestern University Summer Institute choir (a select high school mixed choir)-- what are you doing to keep busy? And are you doing any guest conducting?

MAS: I have been spending many hours, almost every day when the Michigan weather permits, in our front gardens. I’ll be preparing our home and garden for a charity garden tour this summer…always a performance, huh? I am constantly knitting and trying out new recipes for cookies, cakes, and comfort food for my beloved husband, Gary. He attended not only almost every performance but almost every rehearsal of the children’s choir wherever we performed. I wish all conductors are blessed to have not only a supportive partner but one who loves the learning process and the music as much as we do.

I’m also eagerly looking forward to conducting the children’s honor choir for the 50th Anniversary of Minnesota ACDA. I LOVE conducting in Minnesota!!!! I’m also doing some work for the Michigan Chapter of Chorister’s Guild, and with a Federation of Music Clubs Festival Choir.

I am eagerly looking forward to the release, on the Naxos label, of “Songs for Lada” by Alla Borsova which should be out by this summer. Slatkin is conducting the DSO on that CD. That performance was my “swan song,” and what a marvelous work it was!!! It called back to my Eastern European roots and I can’t wait to hear it. Oy, oy, oy…how did we ever learn 40 solid minutes of Belorussian and four parts? I guess I’ll find out!

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