by Peter Rutenberg
Their names shimmer as if rising in a mirage and vanish into the corporate memory that few today are privileged to retain. Fred Waring, Norman Luboff, Roy Ringwald, Randall Thompson, Fenno Heath, G. Wallace Woodworth, Howard Swan, Margaret Hillis, Roger Wagner, Robert Shaw... the pioneers, the visionaries, the laurel-wreathed pantheon of the Golden Age of American Choral Music.
Herewith, a few personal thoughts about the conductor's art and practice, in that time or any. When the fiscal recession and government shortsightedness of the 1970s first began to chip away at it, the memory of that Golden Age was strong. It wasn't so long before, that Fred Waring and Norman Luboff were in the thick of concert touring, sculpting a "sound," erecting an "ethic," and enriching our culture with their refined ideas of showmanship and excellence. To their countless arrangements of classics and folk tunes, Randall Thompson and Roy Ringwald added compositions that set an unmistakably American tone in choral music. At Yale, Harvard and Occidental, Fenno Heath, G. Wallace Woodworth and Howard Swan built impressive choral empires with national reputations. In the late 1940s, Robert Shaw and Roger Wagner took the initial steps that would lead them to international recognition with their respective Chorales: they revived the classics, Wagner cultivated young composers and brought their new works to light, and both could boast of impressive collaborations with composer-arrangers who championed the American folk arts in song - Alice Parker and Sally Terri. In 1957, Margaret Hillis took the then unprecedented step of forming the Chicago Symphony Chorus at the request of the orchestra's conductor Fritz Reiner. It was a remarkable time.
Lest we get too carried away in reminiscence, we would do well to recall that the myths and legends of yesteryear were once the stuff of everyday existence, fraught with the same kinds of peaks and valleys we experience in our own. Take this slice of life: In the early years, Robert Shaw had a habit of communicating with his singers by letter. One Thursday night in 1946, he finished a lengthy missive with the following thoughts:
"Both sound and structure are great dangers. Musicians can get lost in either. Great conductors get lost in sonority and sensuousness, and others get lost in the musty leaves of musicology and pedantry. It would be wonderful if we could balance these - almost, could exhaust each. If only we could abandon and charm the whole body to the making of sound, and at the same time allow our minds to order what sound when. See you Monday. -Robert"
It would take another three decades to bring that philosophy to full bloom in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under Shaw. Too often, we look at what has become "well-known," "standard," or "traditional," and forget that it too was once new, unheard of, and at least a bit revolutionary. Even Brahms' Requiem took a while to catch on. In our search for great art, for the pinnacles of choral music achievement, we must keep the perspective that, indeed, it is not the achievement or the finished product alone that makes its greatness, but rather the process, the journey of becoming the new thing, and the change that we will experience because of it. Hans Gal, the 19th century performer and composer (and member of Brahms' circle), gave this assessment of various letters written by history's greatest composers: "It is hardly possible to read the records of great musicians' lives as they emerge from their own expressions of thought, without being struck by the preponderance of tragedy, of frustration, of self-sacrifice revealed in such documents ... Any conclusion, however, would be misleading without due consideration of an essential redeeming feature: the indescribable bliss the artist finds in his work as the highest fulfillment of his destiny. Creating is the aim and end of the artist's instinct. His struggles and sufferings are but passing clouds; the reality is his work."
Of course, it is the conductors - who transfer this "bliss" on behalf of composers to the audiences - who elicit from musicians a potion concocted of one part humanity, one part soul, one part emotional probity, all spiced with textual clarity and musical skill - who raise the quality of life in the here and now. It is the conductors on whom we are dependent for the rich fullness of our musical experience. In the Golden Age, it was the likes of Fred Waring, Norman Luboff, Robert Shaw and Roger Wagner who put American Choral Music on the front burner and kept the fires burning so that we might all share in this joy.
It is a time worth remembering. And since our very own Paul Salamunovich was there for most of it, we are indeed privileged to hear a hand-picked program, lovingly sung by the Chorale, embellished by the considerable talents of three artists whose histories originate with that of the conductor's (under the baton of Roger Wagner), and warmly illuminated by brief stories from the podium.