- Courtesy Of Pierre-Etienne Bergeron
- Eric Milnes
At a recent rehearsal of the Vermont Choral Union at the College Street Congregational Church in Burlington, 39 amateur singers gave their best rendition of Charles Gounod's "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" to Eric Milnes, their new director as of two months ago. Milnes was focused and energetic, swiveling on the piano bench to observe each section of the choir while tossing off a virtuoso accompaniment with no apparent attention to sheet music or keys.
When the chorus arrived at the refrain, the director leaped up to discuss and rehearse all the nuances of the word "rejoice": what to call the sound of its first vowel (a "schwa"); the way the second syllable could be sung in a tiny decrescendo; where to put that last S sound. Each minute directive pulled a better sound from the singers.
"That's a compelling shape," Milnes finally declared. The group had spent about 10 minutes on a single word. Everyone was satisfied.
Milnes is the seventh director of the 55-year-old chorus and arguably the most accomplished musician to hold the office. The early music specialist's biography is a dense list of performances at the heads of famous choirs, baroque ensembles and symphonies in the U.S., Canada, Europe and beyond. He has played with many of those, too, as a harpsichordist and organist.
Milnes, who holds an undergraduate degree from Columbia University and a master's in music from the Juilliard School, cofounded and directs the professional vocal and period-instrument baroque ensemble L'Harmonie des saisons. The internationally touring ensemble is based in Granby, Québec, where Milnes lives with partner Mélisande Corriveau, a cellist and viola da gambist who is L'Harmonie's cofounder and artistic director.
Also an experienced recording producer, Milnes produces L'Harmonie's albums, two of which have won Juno Awards — the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys.
In short, Milnes isn't the type of person one might expect to direct an amateur chorus in Burlington. Make that two: He became the director of music at the College Street Congregational Church in January 2020, after the retirement of its longtime director Yona Yellin.
Milnes will lead both groups in upcoming live local performances. The Vermont Choral Union performs two "Season of Light" holiday concerts, consisting of classical choral works for Advent and Hanukkah, this Saturday, December 3, in the College Street church and Sunday, December 4, at the First Congregational Church of St. Albans. Isabelle Demers, an associate professor of organ at McGill University in Montréal, will be the organist for both.
For their first live concert since the pandemic, members of the College Street Congregational Church choir will join L'Harmonie des saisons for a performance of George Frideric Handel's Messiah at their church on Sunday, December 11. It is likely to be the only Vermont performance of the work to feature a full baroque period-instrument orchestra, including Corriveau's cello, made in 1692.
Seven Days met Milnes at Kru Coffee on Church Street in Burlington in a rare moment of stasis for the director: He would conduct 11 concerts featuring five different programs in the next four weeks. Originally from New York City, Milnes, 63, sports shoulder-length feathered hair. He was chatty and opinionated — a far cry from his focused conductor's persona.
After years of dividing his time between Québec, Boston, New York and Europe, he recounted, he had been looking for "a way to center my activities nearer to Montréal." When the offer to direct the music program at the College Street Congregational Church arrived, Milnes had recently concluded a 37-year tenure as the music director of an Episcopal church in New York. He was looking for a new church directorship, and Burlington's location was ideal.
To learn about the local music scene, he queried a longtime friend and professional collaborator, Scott Metcalfe. A Burlington native, Metcalfe directs Blue Heron in Boston, a vocal ensemble specializing in Renaissance and medieval music.
As a violinist, Metcalfe was Milnes' concertmaster in several of the latter's ensembles, beginning in the late 1980s. For his part, Milnes has played harpsichord in Blue Heron performances and produced all of the group's dozen recordings. Its 2018 album became the first North American recording to win UK magazine Gramophone's Classical Music Award for Early Music.
Metcalfe recalled by phone that Milnes "was trying to get a read on what the scene [in Burlington] was like, what potential there might be to do something on a larger scale."
In fact, Milnes hinted to Seven Days that he has plans to launch a baroque music festival in town, though he didn't reveal details.
Though most of his experience is with professional musicians, Milnes is enthusiastic about directing a local church choir and a community chorus. His long experience with church choirs, often seeded with professionals, has taught him how to "assimilate people of different abilities," he said.
"I understand [the Burlington jobs] as a test of my long-held challenge: [to prove that] an amateur choir can sound as good as a professional one," Milnes declared. He added, "The only difference between a professional and an avocational singer is the voice they're born with."
Milnes' condescension-free approach has been a pleasant surprise to Burlington singers. Deborah Wright, a soprano from Essex who has sung in the church choir for 20 years, opined, "He knows how to make church choirs work better. He gets us to do what we didn't really know we could do."
Jim Bentlage, a baritone from Jericho who joined the Vermont Choral Union in 2016, during Jeff Rehbach's tenure, said of Milnes' rehearsals, "He's captivating; he's exhilarating. It's like you're taking a college course at Juilliard in not just singing but music history."
In Metcalfe's view, Milnes is "an extraordinary musician. He's capable of working at the highest professional level and does, but he also has a gift for working with amateurs, asking them for the best they can give and then being happy about it."
During the pandemic, Milnes taught his Congregational singers to create home videos of themselves singing their parts while listening to musical cues on headphones. Then he edited the results together, producing short videos of sacred music that were streamed by online religious services around the country.
Soon, the group graduated to singing Messiah remotely. Milnes blended the church singers' voices digitally with the professional ones of L'Harmonie des saisons, added the instrumental ensemble and produced a high-quality split-screen video of the work.
Matthew Van Wagner, a South Burlington tenor and member of both the church choir and the Vermont Choral Union, delighted in the Messiah challenge. "I would do 40 or 50 takes of a particular section," he said by phone. Van Wagner sang for a decade in the now-defunct Granite State Opera, among other ensembles, and plays trumpet in Green Mountain Swing.
He said the director is serious "but has a great sense of humor, too." One video Milnes produced features Van Wagner as both soloist and trumpet player in a jazzy rendition of the Black spiritual "Down by the Riverside." Other choral members — and one small dog — sing around him on separate Zoom-like screens.
Bentlage, who is president of the Vermont Choral Union board, was on the search committee that chose Milnes.
"When we looked at Eric's résumé, we were a little leery, to be honest," he said by phone. "He's quite an internationally accomplished musician and choir director, and we were thinking, What if this guy gets tired of us?"
The group no longer has those worries. "Eric has big ideas that are going to take us into a musical adventure that we've not been in as a group," Bentlage said. "We're no longer purely a cappella; he'll introduce instrumentalists. He has a vision for us as more of a period group putting on authentic baroque music."
In Metcalfe's view, Milnes' presence will enrich Burlington's music scene "in a way that's really logical: a southern Québec/northern Vermont collaboration, where there's French [heritage] on both sides.
"Having worked with him," Metcalfe added, "I know these are going to be superb concerts."