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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Great interview with Rod Eichenberger by Josh Bronfman

Joshua Bronfman's Choral History podcast is quickly becoming "must listening" and his recent interview with Rod Eichenberger brought back great memories from me. I'd urge you to listen to these. It takes time, but is definitely worth it!

I've posted about Rod before (you can find the posts here) but answered Josh's podcast listing on Facebook. Here it is, my further appreciation of Rod and all he's meant to my life:

Fantastic interview, Josh! I enjoyed it immensely, learned a few new things, but could also add a few!

I began as an undergrad at the University of Washington in 1968, right at the same time that the DMA program was starting up, so during the same tim
e that Bruce Brown, Larry Marsh and others started (I think those two began in 1969).

I came out of Shorecrest HS, north of Seattle, where I'd worked with Leonard Moore (interesting person, deserving of another post--he was also my JH teacher in 8th and 9th grade), and Neil Lieurance, who student taught at Shorecrest my sophomore year. Neil was accompanist my junior year and took over the program my senior year, and would become a major influence and died too young last year at 70. You can find more about Neil (and a number of these things) on my blog.

I had a good voice and good ear, but had never learned to read. In the summer before my freshman year, Weston Noble was doing a couple workshops in the Seattle area. I went to the first one, which was largely about the voice matching he did. Weston liked how I sang well enough that he asked if I could come to the second workshop as well, which I did. Weston did ask if I was interested in Luther, but knew that I was planning to go to the UW. I didn't know this until a number of years later, but Weston called Rod and told him the, "perfect blending baritone" was coming to the UW. If it weren't for that I doubt I would have made the UW Chorale (the top choir) my freshman year. At my audition I remember Rod asked me if I could sing the opening of the Kyrie from the Mozart Missa Brevis in F (K. 192, which we did that fall). I replied, "No, but I can probably sing it if you play it for me first." Well, I got in.

Rod put me next to an organist (Greg Vancil) who was, of course, a superb reader and told Greg to make sure I got the right notes (which wasn't too difficult) and knew that my voice would work well with Greg's. On the other side of me was Dennis Coleman, who became the long-time and *very* successful conductor of the Seattle Men's Chorus (just now retiring). 

Of course, I learned an enormous amount from Rod. At that time he taught the undergraduate conducting class as well, so he was also my undergrad conducting teacher (his load at that time was ridiculous--teaching undergrad and grad conducting, supervising the work of his MM and DMA students, and conducting both the UW Chorale and Oratorio Chorus (the next big choir--there was also an unauditioned choir--University Singers--which he was able to give to a grad student). 

Along about my sophomore year I was enormously shy and was feeling a bit left out at UW (only my fault through shyness). I'd also gotten to know Bob Scandrett at Western Washington University (who also died this past year) through Neil, who was doing an MM during the summers at Western. I went to Bob's summer workshops, and that summer I went up for a workshop with Gregg Smith and stayed with Neil at his dorm. Rod came up for the final concert and afterwards we all went to Bob's for the post-concert party. Bob asked if we'd make the punch and Rod and I proceeded to make an incredibly potent punch and gradually got pretty well tipsy. Leaving late we discovered that the dorm was locked and I couldn't get back in. So Rod said, hey, come stay with me and we'll look through the new music I'm doing with my church choir (he was then at Blessed Sacrament Church with a great choir) and we sightread through a lot of the rep he'd chosen (by that time I *could* sightread!).

So, starting my junior year I now became a mostly silent member of the gang and started hanging around Rod's office with the other grad students (at that time, Bruce Browne, Larry Marsh, and Ted Ashizawa--I may be leaving out others). I still remember listening to them arguing about the proportional relationship in a Gabrieli motet. I learned an enormous amount by being the fly on the wall and also got other benefits. I sang in virtually every one of their graduate recitals, learning repertoire, improving my musicianship, gaining new ideas for rehearsal technique, etc. Rod also had large stacks of complimentary scores he'd received from publishers and told me if I'd file them for him I could keep any duplicates. I did this and gained the beginnings of my own choral library, but would also, if filing a piece by Hindemith, look at what else Hindemith had written and started to get an overview of the repertoire. 

Rod turned 40 that year, the same year I turned 20, so it's always been easy to remember how old he is (and since that's 1930 and 1950 it's also been pretty easy to calculate our ages!), which makes me 65--very hard to believe--and Rod 85 (almost impossible to believe, given his vitality and energy).

I was learning an enormous amount during this time. Rod mentions the Australian tour as a huge impact on his career (I wasn't able to go on that one, unfortunately), but it was an earlier tour in 1971 that was a huge impact on me (after my junior year) to Vienna for two weeks for a big symposium with 7 other American university choirs (including Maurice Casey and his choir from Ohio State). We also toured after that to Venice, Verona, Lake Cuomo, Zurich, Andermatt, Dijon, and finished in Paris. I stayed in Europe afterward and spent time visiting at Wilhelm Ehmann's Westfälische Landeskirchenmusikschule, a week with Greg Vancil and then finance Nancy in Salzburg (who were studying at the Mozarteum that year), a couple weekends bookending that visit observing Helmuth Rilling in Stuttgart, and then about 10 days in Cambridge going to evensong services at King's and St. John's (David Willcocks allowed me to attend a rehearsal for evensong at King's--George Guest kicked me out of his rehearsal!).

Both the experience in Vienna, which included each American choir doing a full program in different churches in Vienna, all of use combining for Mahler's 8th Symphony in the Konzertverein with the Vienna Boychoir and Bratislava Radio Orchestra conducted by Günther Teuring, Kodaly's Psalmus Hungaricus in an outdoor performance at the Rathaus, and a quartet from each choir (I wasn't one of them) doing the Stravinsky Mass at Stefansdom in a Sunday service. It was, quite simply, an inspiring experience, as was my time in Europe afterwards.

I missed the fall quarter because of that, but when I got back asked Rod if I could participate in his graduate conducting class. He allowed me to do that, so I learned even more. He spoke in the interview about doing experiments with conducting gesture, but he also developed some ideas when he was office-mate with David Shrader (Schrader?), who was the percussion teacher at the time. I think Shrader helped him with ideas of certain kinds of motion (pick-ups, which Rod called "into", for example) which he then associated with certain gestures. There are others who will have a much better idea of Rod's development of those ideas, which continued after he left UW and, as he mentioned, during his many workshops in Australia and New Zealand and also at USC. 

I also had the job at University Methodist which Rod mentioned (although not following Rod directly, there was another person there for 3 years before I came--I was there 8 years). The UW organ teacher that Rod mentions, Walter Eichinger, was still there and yes, an enormously nice and supportive person--and a wonderful musician, too. Rod advised me NOT to take the job, but I did anyway (when do students always listen to their mentors?!).

After the Australia tour I don't think I sang in the Chorale anymore and probably was mostly done with my degree. So I was less involved with Rod after that, particularly when he left for USC.

But when I took the job at Pacific Lutheran University in 1983, following Maurice Skones, Rod immediately got in touch with me and said, "I know something about following legends and if you ever need to talk, just call," and gave me his number. From that time we kept in touch when we could and if my PLU choir was touring to Southern California (which in those days we did about every third year), we always had a day off and I'd go visit Rod at USC, have lunch or dinner together, and if he could, he'd come to my concert.

Since that time (or at least when he left for FSU) we've kept occasionally in touch and have seen each other primarily at conferences. A summer ago he did a workshop for Alan McClung at UNT and we got him over for dinner at our house. It's always incredibly fun to talk with him, as *anyone* who's experienced his presence knows!

Rod was an enormous influence in so many ways. One of the things I noticed from the beginning is that every time we've met he always had some new ideas--he's always exploring and learning, a true "lifelong learner." I hope I've picked up much of that from him. 

I've always felt that among my musical debts to him are a sense of rhythm and phrasing that I know started directly with singing with him. And I'm sure there are many others as well, some I may not recognize.

His speaking about collegiality and how to treat people (or ignore the bitching that always goes on) has also been an influence on my approach.

Rod in rehearsal was always fun, volatile, and extroverted. This was difficult for me at the time because that's *not* my natural personality (although I've come a long ways since that time). In this, I learned a lot from my (relatively brief) experience with Helmuth Rilling at the Oregon Bach Festival in 1972. Rilling was conducting the B Minor Mass and this was long before the professionalization of the chorus. Rilling was almost mechanical in rehearsal ("recover to a MF in b 42, the crescendo to F in b. 44, downbeat"), just concentrating on getting the dynamics, articulations, ensemble, etc. correct. But then in one of our last piano rehearsals, during the build up from Et incarnatus through Crucifixus to Et Resurrexit, he started to conduct in a totally different manner, just exploding on the Et Resurrexit (and then calmed back to his usual way of leading the rehearsal). From then on through the orchestra rehearsals to performance he got increasingly intense and expressive, showing things, changing things, and using gestures we'd never seen before. It was a great lesson for me that to be successful, I didn't have to have Rod's personality.

But then, it's always been one of the great things about Rod that he's enormously supportive of all his students. We talked about the Rilling experience and he never (as some people might) talked down my experience. And he's been a true supporter for all of my professional life.

This is a very long way of saying thanks to you for doing this interview (and capturing some of our choral history before it disappears--although Rod's videos will keep alive much of what he did, as will his students). But it's also my way of thanking Rod for the huge and important influence he's been in my life.

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