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Friday, January 23, 2015

Guest post - Bruce Sellers on working with Ward Swingle

Bruce Sellers is an American tenor and conductor with a rather extraordinary background as an ensemble singer. After studying at the University of Georgia he went to Indiana University where he studied with the American Heldentenor James King. He also studied with Marcia Baldwin and Margaret Harshaw. At the same time he became involved in the Early Music Institute there. From 1985 to 1988 he sang with the wonderful all-male ensemble, Chanticleer. In 1988 he went to Amsterdam to study with Dutch baritone Max van Egmont (I was lucky enough to work with Max for 6 years at the Pacific Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, WA from 1979-1985 when I was conductor, and again in 2009 leading a Messiah performance when my colleagues from Allegro Baroque got some of us back together, along with the Seattle Baroque Orchestra led by Stanley Ritchie, to celebrate their anniversary with the first complete performance of Messiah with period instruments in Spokane. Max, in his late 70's, still sang fantastically!). Bruce worked regularly as a soloist and free-lance singer, beginning to sing with the Netherlands Chamber Choir as a freelancer immediately. He then became a full-time member of the Chamber Choir in 1990, singing with them until 2005, when he returned to the US.

This choir, much like a number of other professional European choirs, worked more as an orchestra would do in the US, meaning an extraordinary number of concerts each year, some with the current music director, but many with guest conductors, meaning that Bruce sang with many (all?) of the outstanding conductors in Europe during this period (for example, Eric Ericson was long a regular guest conductor with this choir). Singers also had to be flexible and be able to adapt to many different styles, from early music to the latest avant-garde music. Frankly, I'm jealous of this incredible experience!

Following the my post on the recent death of Ward Swingle, which I also posted on Facebook, Bruce replied about working with Ward when he was with the Netherlands Chamber Choir. I asked for permission to post it here as a guest blog and Bruce agreed. Thanks so much, Bruce! Here it is:

I sometimes have to pinch myself to realize how blessed I've been in my life! Ward could be demanding and wasn't always diplomatic, in fact at times he was downright unpleasant, but it was always in pursuit of making things as good as they could be.

For us the challenges were that of the 8 singers he had to work with, 4 of us were native English-speakers who were also a bit familiar with the style he wanted. The others were Dutch and maybe not quite as at home in the style, but they were quick studies. We had to learn to sing with mikes, which is an art unto itself, especially mikes of the hand-held variety, plus the program had to be done totally off book, something else we weren't as familiar with doing (though in Chanticleer I had to memorize TONS of music!). Our rehearsal periods per project tended to be only about 2 weeks tops (about 10 3-hour rehearsals), but I think for this program we had maybe 3 weeks since it had to be from memory. At the same time, Ward was rehearsing 8 other singers from the choir for the other half of the program, which featured Berio's A-Ronne, which Berio had written for the Swingle Singers (it's a crazy piece and VERY hard).

It seemed to me that part of the reason that Ward was rather bitter at this time was that this was not long after the big court battle he had waged for the rights to his name. The New Swingle Singers wanted to disassociate themselves from him, but wanted to keep the name. He sued in order to retain control. From what little he said about it at the time one could tell it was a VERY sore point with him. What he particularly resented was that people would use his editions of his arrangements and then decide to arbitrarily to just change things here and there as they wanted. It really cheesed him off. Everything was to be done essentially "come scritto", as far as he was concerned, no exceptions!

A colleague in Holland just mentioned to me that she saw the Swingle Singers recently over there and that it appeared Ward had reconciled with the group, which is wonderful news. I remember his contention at the time was that the group (based in England, and calling itself "The New Swingle Singers"--Chanticleer performed with them in a festival in Holland in 1988) were using his name and doing his arrangements, but were changing the arrangements here and there at their whim, which greatly aggravated him. 

I can't remember exactly what was on our part of the program, but I remember Ward wrote a Cole Porter Medley specially for us that was quite difficult, but really lovely. We also did stuff like the Bach G minor Fugue, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Agincourt Song, When I'm 64, Ward's setting of "Roadside Fire", "All the Things You Are", and a thing called "Music History 101" that featured "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" as done in various periods of music history (Mediaeval, Renaissance, Baroque, etc.), right down to a "rap" version, which featured yours truly. I was the only one who dared to do it (or who was stupid enough, take your pick!), but I had fun with it--yep, I came out in reversed ball-cap, sunglasses, and lots of bling necklaces--it WAS the mid-90s, y'know. Anyway, Ward loved it and relished telling me that I really was nothing but a "big ol' slice of pure Georgia ham", which is just what was needed!! Somewhere I actually have a cassette tape (remember those?!?) of one of those concerts, and I think on one of our compilation CDs of various choir performances Ward's version of "Roadside Fire" shows up (it's a lovely piece).

Pardon me for being so long-winded.....the memories tend to come flooding back all of a sudden!! Long & short of it: he was a brilliant man.

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