Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Chat with Gary McKercher, San Diego Master Chorale's Forward-Looking Music Director

Established in 1961 as the San Diego Symphonic Chorale attached to the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, the San Diego Master Chorale broke off to become an independent art organization supported by a grant from the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and by private donations in 1979. The SDMC performs 25 or more concerts each year all over the city and even abroad, with a vast choral repertoire ranging from spiritual to classical to operatic numbers. I heard them for the first time in April 2008 singing in the world premiere of Daniel Kellogg's The Fiery Furnace with the San Diego Symphony (the collaboration won them the 2009 Chorus America/ASCAP Alice Parker Award), and have since been so impressed with their consistent excellence that I stopped by at their reception table during a recent concert of Beethoven's 9th symphony not long ago and, with the help of Dr. Carol Manifold, the SDMC's vice president, got to ask their music director, Dr. Gary McKercher, a few questions:

Smorg: Is the SDMC composed of mostly local singers? Do you get big turn outs at your auditions?
Gary McKercher: SDMC draws its membership from every direction of San Diego County. Audition turnouts vary from a half dozen to as many as 20-25 singers. There doesn't seem to be a pattern.

Smorg: Is singing at the SDMC a full-time job or secondary job for the singers?
GM: If by job you mean, a real job with remuneration, it is neither full or secondary. All singers are amateur/volunteer performers, generally with an extensive singing background. They are rigorously auditioned. Unless retired or having someone in the household bringing home the tofu, no singer could live on a union wage even if we were paid. The payoff is solely musical and the joy of the corporate singing experience.

Smorg: Has the economic downturn been rough for the SDMC in the past year?
GM: It has had its negative impact. The largest hit was suffered in the men's sections with members losing jobs and having to leave the area permanently, or jobs that stayed here and were expanded making it impossible to meet the SDMC performance schedule and many variations on this exclusive theme. A few local critics seem not to uniformly understand the social dynamics of this situation for our organization and others like it. If a job or family takes singers away, I don't have a pool of professionals to whom I can immediately turn.

Smorg: I feel I get every cent's worth of the ticket price every time I attend one of your performances. But it has to be a tough job to keep the entire chorus performing so well in so many different repertoire. How do you keep everybody so musically on-the-same-page in a chorus this big? Is the rehearsal time taking up all the weekends and holidays?
GM: SDMC rehearses one night a week for 2 1/2 hours and that's the whole cahuna. I very, very seldom schedule weekend rehearsals, and never holidays unless we are contracted by the SDSO (i.e. 4th of July). When the preparations tend to get crowded, I have a system of musical checkpoints which identifies for singers the sections, or movements, or entire pieces that must be ready by a designated date. Thus far, it has worked pretty well, but I always feel a bit like a well-known variety show act, the one where a guy is spinning plates at the top of sticks. When one is wound up another is winding down and needs attention.

Each Monday post-rehearsal, I have to assess what the group has or has not achieved, whether or not I can leave things that might be improved simply through repetition for the following rehearsals, but also that which will need much more time refining. The expectation is that the black and white on the page will not be taught in rehearsal. That's singer homework.

Smorg: I was very pleased to see such a good audience turn out during the Beethoven 9th concerts in early December since classical music (choral and opera included) events here don't seem very prone to selling out. The SDMC has performed abroad in Europe where classical music isn't as far removed from the mainstream as it seems here. Do you notice many differences in how performances are organized and how the audience reacts in Europe versus here in America (I'm assuming that the European audience would tend to be more familiar with the music performed than the American audience would)?
GM: This is an interesting and perplexing question, one which I and many colleagues have pondered at length over the years. There seems to be a hunger for live performance overseas on a more consistent level than here. Let's face it, European classical music was transported to the States, and being an adopted somewhat elitist art music in its early life, it tended not be a music of the American people at large nor have their widespread interest.

Jazz and musical theatre is what America has uniquely contributed to the music world and these have had a major impact. The pervasiveness of popular culture in this country is seductive, but I sense no more so than in Europe. What is crucial to creating new audiences is that which happens in formative years in school and home with probably home being prime.

There is no logical reason why the Midwest has produced such a fertile choral culture other than these two sources and the strength of the academic, community, and religious choral traditions. When I was growing up in rural northern Iowa, one would be hard-pressed to have found a household either in town or country that did not have a piano. Every little Midwest town had a choir and a band and many still do. This can create a culture not only of performers, but eventually, listeners.

Smorg: Last year the Zurich Opera staged a performance of Verdi's La Traviata at their central train station and broadcast it live on TV. It was a major hit with the television audience in Switzerland. Do you think the same sort of thing can be attempted here? Would it successfully draw enough attention and new audience to classical music and opera to offset the cost?
GM: I applaud any efforts to bring new audiences to the music that we have grown to appreciate. Some of this may appear to be gimmick-laden, but so what? Last summer I attended a choral convention in Philadelphia where a new work, "Battle Hymns" was premiered in the city's 18th century armory, just a vast open warehouse area.

The work opened with a horse and rider sauntering in then out, followed by the appearance of a choir in military costume marching (after a fashion), but often moving during the piece. There were also dancers amidst the choir and a percussion ensemble stationed at opposite ends of the armory. By the way, the horse and rider returned to end the work.

Engaging? Arresting? Very... Groundbreaking? I'd say so. The performances not staged for the convention participants (mostly choral directors) later in the week were sold out. Something like what you mention and I describe could to be staged here in San Diego, but it takes an organization willing to take a risk and some major underwriters.

Smorg: Is there any chance of the SDMC doing Beethoven's Choral Fantasy or Verdi's Requiem in the near future? :oD
GM: We performed the Choral Fantasy January '09. Verdi has been done in past, but no plans for it in near future, but definitely being considered by SDSO in years to come.

Smorg: What is the best thing that could happen to a choral performance? Is there any sort of experience that makes one feel really good about singing at the SDMC?
GM: That it moves both audience and singers; that it explores familiar and unfamiliar musical terrain; that it represents the highest possible musical attainment and potential of the singers. That is makes hearts pump and tear ducts active. I loathe the common introduction to audiences just before a performance: "Sit back, relax, and enjoy the performance". I feel a really engaging concert should have people on the edge of their chairs, a little tense, and sometimes not entirely entertained, but at very least a concert experience that asks people to think and feel on several levels.

Smorg: Is there any sort of project/performance that you would really like to put on if you don't have to worry about funding or attracting good audience turn out?
GM: A concert of the most cerebral choral music currently available. Mind you, there is good stuff and there is a lot that is not so good. I throw one or two pieces of this nature on our self-produced concerts, but wish I could do more.

I am especially attracted to the music of the 20th century/new millennium Swedish choral school, but also the relatively unknown choral music of Max Reger, Bartok, Hindemith, Pizzetti, and Richard Strauss. There are some next generation Americans who belong on that list such as Stephen Paulus, Frank Ferko, Libby Larsen, Howard Helvey, Stephen Sametz and many others. It's almost overwhelming the number of good young composers currently creating for our art form.

Smorg: Aside from joining the San Diego Symphony in formal concerts and performing at private events, you also have excellent outreach programs that visit local schools and retirement homes. Tell us a bit about it?
GM: We have a dedicated corps of singers who have developed a program called "A History of Choral Music" which recently has taken off in a much more active way in county elementary and middle schools. It incorporates both recorded and live music to a visual track at a very basic, but engaging way in order to inform young listeners about the art form in which we are involved. The retirement home outreach is really a more "ears-on" experience where singers get seniors singing and listening to music that is familiar to them from their pasts through home, church, or school.

Pretty cool, ay? I didn't even realize before that the 125 men and women singers of the San Diego Master Chorale don't even get paid to perform. They are amateurs in the tradition of Bobby Jones, if you will, doing their thing for the love of the art. And doing it exceedingly well! If you ever find yourself in San Diego and with some free time on your hand, why not check to see if there is a SDMC performance going on near you? You can even hire them for private performances (like a wedding or other ceremonies). Visit their website at www.sdmasterchorale.org for more information.

Upcoming performances by the San Diego Master Chorale (2010):

February 14(4PM) - Sacred & Profane: Five Centuries of Music of Love and Laughter
Rancho Bernardo Presbyterian Church: 17010 Pomerado Rd, San Diego, CA 92128
March 20(8PM) - Cathedral Classics: Music for Choirs from Sacred Spaces
St. Paul's Cathedral (Banker's Hill): 2728 6th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92103
June 19(8PM) - Amigos in Concert: Music from Latin America
Copley Symphony Hall (Downtown): 1245 7th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101


Anonymous said...

I would like to invite you to the Britten's War Requiem performed by the La Jolla Symphony Chorus June 5-6, 2010 at Mandeville Hall, UCSD. Judging from your comments, I'm sure you will not want to miss it.

Smorg said...

I'd love to go indeed. :o) Have marked in on my calender. Thanks a bunch!

Drew80 said...

Very fine interview, Smorg.

Good reading.