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Chorus Line-Up

Three Vermont Conductors Share Measured Words About Their art


Published August 3, 2005 at 2:32 p.m.

The festival season is finally in full swing, and the sound of music is wafting across the state from Craftsbury Common to Shelburne Farms. For many Vermonters, attending these outdoor concerts is a summertime ritual, complete with ergonomic lawn chairs, gourmet picnics and Peace Pops from the Ben &; Jerry's mobile ice cream wagon. But who is that guy at the front of the stage -- the one dressed like a maître d', waving his arms around with a thin stick in one hand? As the Welsh poet Gluyas Williams explains, "This backward man, this view obstructor, is known to us as the conductor."

But what is it he actually does -- this oddly gesticulating fellow who often gets top billing on the program, and is routinely paid more than the people actually making the music? And how does it play out when those people are the instruments? When the maestro is "conducting" the oldest, most common, finicky sound source: the human voice?

Robert De Cormier, 83, leads the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus, with 80 to 100 singers from all over the state. He started the group in 1993. De Cormier also founded Counterpoint, Vermont's only professional choral ensemble, in 2000. The dozen-strong chamber group focuses on performing and recording seldom-heard repertoire, with a special commitment to contemporary composers and music related to the Holocaust.

De Cormier is remarkably low-key when discussing the jaw-dropping highlights of a 60-year career. His credits include conducting, composing and arranging for Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul and Mary, three Broadway shows and an Alvin Ailey ballet, and 17 years as music director of the New York Choral Society.

De Cormier realized he wanted to be a conductor during World War II. Wounded in Germany, he was hospitalized for a year and a half. The latter part of his convalesence was in New York, where he got involved with the New York City Labor Chorus. De Cormier was trying to choose between labor organizing and music when one night after a rehearsal the conductor took him out for a drink and told him, "You're going to go back into music, and you're going to go and audition for Juilliard," De Cormier says. "And I did," he reports, "but always with the idea that I would use my music in that way, and that choral music was a way of uniting people, of expressing your own political point of view and about whole issues of social justice."

Dawn Willis, 47, is the assistant conductor of the VSO Chorus. She speaks glowingly of De Cormier. Just as he created Counterpoint to provide another outlet for the VSO's core of pro-quality singers, Willis started Bella Voce because many VSO women were eager to sing in an all-female choir. In early 2004, the group went "from passing thought . . . to a performing ensemble of 34 women" in a matter of weeks.

Willis downplays the significance of being a woman in the male-dominated field of conducting; of 10 students in her choral music doctoral program, she was the only female. Yet part of her mission clearly is mentoring other women in music. This spring Bella Voce held joint concerts with Kaleidoscope, the women's chorus from Essex High School; its conductor doubles as Willis' assistant director.

Willis was a teenager when she started conducting, for a children's choir at the local church. "I really caught the bug at that time," she says. "It just has always been a love, a passion of mine. I love working with people, I like making music with people."

William Metcalfe has a doctorate in history, not music. In 1998 he retired from UVM after 35 years of teaching; conducting has never been his "day job." His Oriana Singers, a small, high-caliber early-music choir, is entering its 25th year. Metcalfe also conducts frequently at the Mozart Festival. This year both the Oriana singers and the Vermont Gilbert and Sullivan Singers, which he also directs, are performing. Metcalfe's wife Elizabeth is the region's go-to harpsichordist.

Like Willis, Metcalfe also cut his conducting teeth while in high school. The music teacher who conducted Gilbert and Sullivan shows "stuck a baton in my hand at one point and said, 'I can't do this rehearsal, will you do it for me?'" Metcalfe recalls, then amends his thought. "Actually he probably just said, 'Do it,' and I did."

Recently Seven Days asked DeCormier, Willis and Metcalfe about their unusual vocation and what drew them to it in the first place.

SEVEN DAYS: How did you come to focus on choral conducting over orchestral conducting?

ROBERT DE CORMIER: Both the fact that I was a singer, and that I thought the chorus was a way to express something that was very special, a way of bringing people together.

DAWN WILLIS: The whole concept of the text has always been a particularly interesting and inspiring part of the puzzle for me. The texts give us meaning in so many ways. Of course, the music does, too, but I feel like the wedding of those two factors is what's particularly exciting for me. And I love it that so many people can sing and share in that experience, whereas sometimes orchestral opportunities are limited to those who have had a good bit of musical training.

WILLIAM METCALFE: I suppose because I had done work with voices when I was starting to conduct, and, let's face it, it's a lot easier to start a small choir than it is to get an orchestra going, and to pay an orchestra, and so there are more opportunities available if you want to conduct choirs.

SD: I don't think everyone in the audience necessarily understands why conductors get such prominent billing -- on concert programs, on recordings. Aren't you just the person who keeps time with a baton, a sort of human metronome? Or is there something more to your job description?

ROBERT DE CORMIER: The conductor without the singers or the players is nothing. I think the conductor gets too much credit, to tell you the truth . . . I think the most important thing the conductor does is to provide a concept, an inspiration, a knowledge of the music, so that he can teach the players or the singers what that music is really all about.

DAWN WILLIS: I'm thinking significantly ahead from where the current music is happening, because the conductor is responsible for the next measure, and generally has the next five to 10 measures in her head prior to their arrival . . . The lushness of the moment is always colored a bit by the preparation -- you're thinking about what lies ahead.

WILLIAM METCALFE: In fact, of course, conductors do both less than beating time and more. Establishing tempo is very important, it's crucial to how a piece ends up sounding. I think that the tempi chosen . . . give life to a piece, or they suck the life out of it if they're wrong . . . My approach to conducting is, the medical rule applies: First, do no harm . . . A conductor can screw things up fairly quickly, even with very seasoned, good musicians. And yet there are times when a conductor can help: setting tempo, in transitional periods, and then that sort of mysterious business about whether or not the musicians are inspired to play their best, and enjoy playing their best. Sometimes they're more highly charged and inspired, and I think a conductor can supply a level of energy and focus that maybe helps.

SD: Anything else about choral conducting that readers might be surprised to know?

ROBERT DE CORMIER: I feel very fortunate and blessed even to be able to have had this long, wonderful relationship with music and people . . . There are choruses wherever you go, all over the world, and you have an almost instantaneous relationship with those people because there is this bond between people who sing in groups.

DAWN WILLIS: Conducting for me is so satisfying because it isn't just about me. It's about a collective effort . . . Performing well on your own is incredibly exciting, but to help others do it all together as a single body is incredibly satisfying, and not easy. But when it works, there's really nothing else that compares to it . . . Choirs oftentimes are very giving; people tend to be there because they want to be there. It's not just a paying gig for them, but a chance to share their heart and soul. And that's what it is to be human, and that's why music touches all of us.

WILLIAM METCALFE: Choral singing is as compelling to the people who do it as playing golf, playing tennis, playing basketball, can be . . . There is a terrific high that people in the performing arts get out of performing, and enough of that high runs back through the rehearsal period to keep you going. The real high comes when you actually perform for people.