Thursday, May 12, 2011

Choral Interviews - pt. 5: Ethan Sperry

I'm in Cincinnati working with the Cincinnati Children's Choir this week and having a great time. Their concerts Saturday will include two commission premieres by me, plus two other pieces I wrote recently. Being here reminds me of the last time I was here attending the 2010 ACDA Central Division Conference. One of the greatest performances that week was by Ethan Sperry's choir from Miami University (that's Miami of Ohio, folks). I got to know Ethan a bit during a long conversation with him and Mike Scheibe and I realized I had to know more about this fascinating and hard driving musician. So here, following a short bio, is a two part interview with Ethan:

Ethan Sperry is Director of Choral Activities at Portland State University, where he conducts the world-renowned Chamber Choir and University Choir and leads undergraduate and graduate programs in conducting. Beginning in the Fall of 2011, he will also be the Artistic Director and Conductor of the Oregon Repertory Singers.

Sperry also serves as the National Repertoire and Standards Chair for Male Choruses for the American Choral Directors Association and the Vice-President of the Intercollegiate Men’s Choruses. From 2000-2010, Dr. Sperry was on the faculty at Miami University in Ohio where he conducted the Men’s Glee Club, Collegiate Chorale, and Global Rhythms Ensembles.

A prolific arranger of World Music for choirs, Dr. Sperry is the editor of the Global Rhythms series for earthsongs music, one of the best-selling choral series in the country.

PC: Judging by the joyous interaction I saw between you and your singers that I saw in Cincinnati at the ACDA Central Division Conference in 2010, how hard was it to leave Miami University and start a new position at Portland State this year?

What do you think was the key element in that special relationship you had with your singers at Miami?

ES: It was very hard to leave my job at Miami University, especially because of how close I was to the students in the choirs. We had formed meaningful bonds and shared some truly special experiences.

However, turnover is inevitable in the academic setting. In my ten years at Miami I had watched hundreds of students I was close to graduate and move on. Last year it became my turn. Taking this attitude towards my leaving was actually suggested to me by some of the students, and it helped me adopt the best possible perspective on the situation. And of course we still stay in touch.

But I’ve been lucky I guess – I seem to form this kind of relationship with most of singers I work with. But since I was at Miami for ten years, seven years longer than I have held any other teaching position, the bonds ran much deeper than I was used to, and yes it was very difficult to decide to say goodbye.

And now that I just read the great piece by Weston Noble on your blog, I’m going to use his word, VULNERABILITY to answer your question. I learned from my father (who is also a musician) that great music is great because it captures some essential human feeling or experience and brings it to life. Our goal as musicians is to make a personal connection with that spark in the music and share it with others. You have to be willing to be vulnerable to do this.

As a choral conductor, I spend a great percentage of my rehearsal time on this issue: exploring what the text and music or a piece is trying to say and trying to connect it to our own experiences. I share my thoughts and actively solicit the singers’ thoughts as well. That requires them to be vulnerable too. In my opinion, there is no way NOT to feel close to people once you are that open with them.

PC: Oregon and Washington have such amazing choral programs, all the way from children’s choirs through the university choirs. Now that you have been there for a while, to what do you attribute this to?

ES: The choir directors I’ve met in Oregon and Washington really know each other and like each other. They all want their programs to be the best, but that does NOT translate into them wanting their colleagues to fail. I find this especially surprising at the high school level. Both Oregon and Washington have state championships for choirs – one choir each year is named #1, and I find that their colleagues congratulate the winner and are happy for them. Then they go home and work harder to try and win the next year.

I think this has happened because there are three majors events in Oregon where these choir directors spend significant time together, get to know each other, and really learn from each other and from the best choir directors in the world. One is the Oregon Bach Festival which I think needs no introduction. The second is the Liederkranz Club, a social club of choir directors who go to a beautiful retreat on the Columbia River Gorge each November and invite famous clinicians to come and hang out with them. Everyone you can think of from Robert Shaw to Eric Ericsson have been guests at Liederkranz over the years. The third is Rodney Eichenberger’s Haystack Rock summer conference where choir directors spend a week at Canon Beach sight-reading new releases and working on their conducting.

[PC: I'll add a fourth: Chor Anno, the brainchild of Howard Meharg]

I also want to give some credit to Bruce Browne, my predecessor at Portland State University, who was Director of Choral Activities there from 1978-2006. Bruce tackled the most difficult repertoire possible with the PSU Chamber Choir and was very aggressive in seeking new challenging repertoire for choirs. He was a leader in introducing the music of Tormis, Rautavaara, and a host of other Scandinavian and Baltic composers to the United States. Many of the best high school directors in the Northwest studied with Bruce at PSU and seem to have absorbed a love of this music. It’s crazy to hear so many high schools not only learning but mastering Rautavaara’s Lorca Suite. Taking on this kind of repertoire really raises the bar on what a choir can do.

PC: What do you think are the best ways for an aspiring high school director to get into “authentic” folk music of the world and do it well, so that it respects the music and does it justice? How can they conquer the fear of doing it badly?

ES: One reason I love performing non-Western music is because I don’t find non-Western ideas in the music. I find basic human emotions and experiences that I have, I share, and I understand.

School administrators approach Diversity from the perspective that we need to learn about and highlight human DIFFERENCES. I absolutely hate this approach and think it is exacerbating racial and social problems in our country. When I sing music from another culture I feel how similar I am to people that other people (administrators) keep telling me I’m supposed to be very different from.

So, don’t be afraid of performing World Music, because it’s not as different as you think.

However, there are differences in vocal technique and style from culture to culture (as there are large differences in technique and style in various types of Western music) and we do want to do justice to all the pieces we sing.

The way to learn is by immersion, even just a little bit of immersion in the culture(s) you are interested in.

The best way to get an authentic performance is to travel to the place the music is from, meet some musicians, and hear some concerts. For most of us that’s not possible due to time or money or both. But we have recordings. And we live in America: there are communities from almost any foreign culture you can think of in almost every American city, even the small cities. The number of truly phenomenal Indian musicians I met in Dayton, Ohio was staggering to say nothing of Cincinnati.

And I’ve never been to Haiti, but I perform a lot of Haitian music. I know lots of Haitians who live in the United States, and I know Western musicians who have lived in Haiti for extended periods. I’ve been to concerts in Haitian communities, and I’ve invited Haitian percussionists to accompany my choirs and talk with my singers.

PC: You are one of our up and coming young conductors full of energy and vision. What changes do you envision in the US choral scene over the next ten or twenty years?

ES: I’m seeing, well hearing actually, American choirs making a much wider variety of sounds. I’m not referring to pieces that require expanded vocal techniques, I’m talking about choirs changing their sound to suit the piece they are performing. I think this is at the crux of great choral music-making, and I find it very inspiring. Britain has this amazing choral tradition where they all sing so cleanly and so perfectly and I think we have been trying to emulate that for a long time. In doing so we created some beautiful choirs, but I think we missed a lot of musicianship along the way. American choirs have been much more adventurous in programming, not only in championing modern music but in exploring the music of other cultures. I’m glad our concept of choral sound is becoming as flexible as our choice of repertoire.

PC: Can you tell us about a) the most influential a-ha moment for you as a student, and who the teacher was and/or the situation b) a similar moment when you felt you, now as a teacher, had made an amazing positive impact upon a student's life and view of music?

ES: I had a very powerful experience during my junior year of college while on spring tour with the Harvard Glee Club. We were in Solana Beach, California and were performing at a small church. Not a particularly special concert, not very nice acoustics, not the highlight of our tour. But for some reason, we sang differently that night. For some reason, we blended and tuned so well that I actually felt other people’s voices coming out of my mouth. I even felt myself singing several notes at once. I started looking around, and I could see it one everyone else’s face too, several guys had stopped singing and some were even crying. I don’t think any of us has ever forgotten that concert or that feeling. Before that concert I was pretty sure I was going to be a choir director, but after that concert there was no doubt in my mind.

I still don’t know what causes this phenomenon, but I’ve been able to replicate it. Not on demand, and not on purpose, but it’s happened to me twice more as a singer and in about a dozen concerts I’ve conducted. It’s a very powerful and reassuring feeling to know – even if for just an instant - that you’re not alone in the world.

PC: End of Part One- I will post part two in a few days: Ethan talks in depth about his experiences exploring world music and the development of his music series at earthsongs

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