Bill Leslie's Carolina Conversations

Calling All Choir Members

Posted April 13, 2010 9:54 a.m. EDT
Updated April 13, 2010 9:56 a.m. EDT

Please share your funniest or most memorable story about being in a choir. I’m sure that’s where many of you started singing. I recall a tap on the shoulder at church when I was about ten years old. A woman wearing a huge hat remarked: "Young man, you have such a nice voice. Why don't you sing in the choir?"  No one could shut me up after that. I was on my way in music. 

The person with the best choir story will win a pair of tickets to a concert this Saturday night, April 17th at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Cary. The Concert Singers of Cary will be joining Bill Leslie & Lorica for an evening of Celtic and folk music beginning at 7:30PM. 

Since we call this the Carolina Conversations blog I thought it would be nice to share a conversation I had with one of the area’s finest choir directors. Larry Speakman founded the Concert Singers of Cary nearly two decades ago and currently serves as the group’s Artistic Director. We look forward to sharing the stage with Larry and his talented group Saturday night in Cary. 

(1) How does it feel to be approaching the 20 year anniversary of the Concert Singers of Cary? 

It’s a great feeling on a multitude of levels. On the one hand you think about how much time has gone by and how many of us have known each other through both good and painful times. There are still over 20 original members from the first year. We watch our children grow up and we think “Wow, when did all that happen?”It has been a long and joyous road as we have grown from the glimmer of an idea into one of Cary and the Triangle’s most established performing arts organizations. In addition to our own very active performance schedule we have presented three programs with the North Carolina Symphony since last summer and will present a fourth on June 19th at Koka Booth. For our 20th season we will be presenting a gala season that will see us perform with The North Carolina Symphony at Meymandi Hall and Koka Booth Ampitheater, The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle at the Carolina Theater, The Durham Symphony at The Armory in Durham and the Raleigh Symphony. What pleases me most about our 20th year beyond those wonderful collaborations is that the content of the programs really reflects who we are as an organization. We are known for a wide spectrum of programming, including the great Western “Classical” music of composers such as Beethoven and Mozart, Pops concerts, new compositions and unusual works such as our recent Performances of Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, a work for full orchestra and soloists, performed simultaneously with the 1928 classic 88 minute feature film The Passion of Joan of Arc.  

(2) Why did you feel compelled to found this group two decades ago? 

When I moved to Cary in 1989 it had a population of over 40,000 residents and I was surprised to find that they did not have a year round community chorus. I had founded one in Quakertown Pennsylvania in 1986 and saw what wonderful organizations they could be. I was approached by a delightful woman named Barbara Brown about being a part of a task force that was interested in starting one. The founding committee also included Fuller Blunt, a retired vocal music teacher from Long Island, NY, Sarah Sheffield with the Town of Cary and Mabel Howell. We wanted to find a name that would imply that we were performing music that was in a formal concert setting, but not a reflection of any one type of musical style. After tossing around various ideas I suggested The Concert Singers of Cary and it fit all the criteria. What I find interesting is that Choral Societies were first established in the early 1800’s in Europe as an outlet for the newly emerging middle class that came after the French Revolution. The composer Franz Schubert was very active in them and wrote a great deal of music for them. The May Festival Chorus was established in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio by German immigrants and is the oldest continually operating choral society in the United States. It is still a major force there today. In many regards these choruses are some of the most delightful to work with because of their absolute love of music and enthusiastic nature. I think that what makes them so special is their ability to unite people in a world that is constantly trying to divide them. It isn’t just about performing, as we value the rehearsal process as much as the performing experience. Looking at a text or subject through the eyes of a composer can be very stimulating as we peel back the layers of a composition in rehearsal each week. There is something spiritual, not in the religious sense but in a musical sense that takes place when we sing together and it helps us to either leave our differences outside or even better, realize that they are not nearly as important as the things that we as human beings have in common.  

(3) How many singers do you have and what about their level of talent? 

We have over 180 eligible singers and typically have 125 in any one given project. Most of our schedule is made up of self contained projects so if someone has work or family commitments they can opt out for a project and then come back. Our level of skill and ability is very diverse. We decided early on that we wanted to establish a high standard for the group and have had auditions since our first year. The least experienced singers have pleasant ensemble voices with a good sense of pitch and rhythm who learn as much by ear as anything else. They are very committed to rehearsal attendance and working on their parts outside of rehearsal. On the highest end, we have professional musicians. Several area high school vocal music teachers sing with us and we have a total of about 45 on our roster who either have degrees in music or extensive university level training. About 12 years ago, we established a Chamber Choir that has more rigorous standards for membership and does some extremely complicated music.  

(4) It's been said that the Concert Singers of Cary are better known outside town. Why is that? 

I can’t say for sure but I have a couple of thoughts about that. Firstly, there are many people, including some who live in Cary see Cary as a bedroom community. This may have been true years ago but is certainly not the case now. We live in a town that is approaching 150,000 residents (nearly double the size of Chapel Hill) that is culturally and ethnically diverse. I think that what may be a larger factor though is the lack of a dedicated performance arts space. We have never had a home base with which to have been seen or identified with in the way that the North Carolina performance arts groups based in Raleigh have with the Progress Energy Center. We sometimes joke that we should include a “Where’s Waldo?” puzzle in all of our programs so that our audience can find us for our next performance. The area churches have been very supportive of our efforts. The town has done a good job of converting the gym at the Herb Young Community Center into a surprisingly viable concert space. Things began to change though when Koka Booth Amphitheater in Regency Park opened and we are eagerly awaiting the opening of the new performance arts center in the historic old Cary Elementary building in mid 2011. The business community is excited about the economic energy that can come from this new space, so hopefully we will gain a higher profile with resident status. As of this writing though, our work with the North Carolina and Raleigh Symphonies make us very familiar to audiences who have seen us perform in Meymandi Hall, Memorial Hall and the Carolina Theater. 

(5) Tell us about plans for your group to truly get a home in Cary. 

The new arts center has been in the works for quite some time. We will not only perform and rehearse there but as a resident group we will have a local address instead of a P.O. box. My house will no longer need to be our ship to address. We’ll be more visible than ever before and will operate in a professional setting. The arts center will enable arts groups to collaborate more and serve as an anchor in the revitalization of downtown Cary much as we have seen happen in Apex, Holly Springs, Durham and Raleigh.  

(6) What is your background as a singer and musical leader? 

I grew up in Philadelphia and attended Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ which is now the school of music at Rider University. I had the most wonderful experience there. The Westminster Symphonic Choir has had a long collaborative relationship with the New York Philharmonic as well as many of the world’s leading orchestras. We spent the better part of our summers performing as the resident chorus at the Spoleto Festivals in Italy and Charleston, SC. While I was a student at Westminster, we sang with Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, James Levine and Rafael Kubilick and recorded with them on Columbia records. The 1978 recording led by Leonard Bernstein of Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass and Poulenc’s Gloria was nominated for a Grammy that year. We also did performances with the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa, The Pittsburgh Symphony under William Steinberg, The National Symphony under Antal Dorati and the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Shaw. It was a marvelous educational experience for a young musician and I take much of what I learned in that setting in preparing The Concert Singers to perform with The North Carolina Symphony. In 1980, I went home to Philadelphia to begin a professional singing career and spent 10 years there as freelance soloist and member/soloist with The Philadelphia Singers which was an all professional chorus of 30. We published two recordings on the RCA. I also sang with The Opera Company of Philadelphia Chorus and did some small roles with them. During the last few years in Philadelphia I began to refocus my career on conducting by doing church and community work and doing private conducting lessons with Michael Korn and Max Rudolph who were faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music. In 2006, I received a Masters Degree in Choral and Orchestral conducting from East Carolina University. Since moving to Cary I have been singing with The Vocal Arts Ensemble of Durham. In recent years I have had the privilege of being invited to being a part of an all professional choir organized by The North Carolina Symphony and will join the 26 voice all professional choir Conspirare for two performances of the Bach Mass in B Minor during a week in residence in Austin, Texas in June. Conspirare was nominated for a Grammy in 2008. In addition to my work with The Concert Singers, I serve as Director of Music Ministries at Watts Street Baptist Church and have a small private voice studio. 

(7) Are you excited about your April 17th performance with Bill Leslie & Lorica? 

We are very excited to have this opportunity! It has been under discussion for several years and we were finally able to get the two groups together. We are very committed to performing a wide spectrum of music and we have often done programs that are very similar in style. We wanted our audience to experience this music through the intimacy of a small group such as Lorica as well as the lush sounds of a larger ensemble. 

(8) What is the theme of the April 17th performance? 

We haven’t given the concert a theme other than to say that there will be American, Celtic and Folk selections so that we have the freedom to perform music from a wider range of traditions. The music will come from much of the English speaking world and represents the hopes, dreams and aspirations of common people. For our portion of the program, I chose works that were written by living composers that are based on texts by Isaac Watts, George Lord Byron, James Agee, Oscar Wilde, George Herbert, John Donne, Sara Teasdale, E. E. Cummings and Robert Burns. In my own experience, I never showed much interest in this kind of literature when it was part of an assignment for English class but I grew to love and find meaning these texts when I sang them. 

(9) What have been your most memorable performances? 

We have had many, but there are three that stand out for me. In 1999 we organized a performance of a work called And They Lynched Him on a Tree, composed in 1938 by William Grant Still, an African American. The work is about a modern day lynching from the perspective of both the white and black communities. It is scored for double choir, one white, one black with narrator and mezzo soprano solo. I felt that contacting a historically black choir to perform with us would have been the easy decision, leaving us to raise the issue of race relations while immediately returning to our segregated lives after the performance. Instead, we created our own black choir by using our own black members and inviting other black singers from our community to sing with us. We rehearsed each choir separately for three weeks and spent some of the rehearsal time discussing race relations from the perspective of each group. The first combined rehearsal was difficult for everyone. When I left the building that night I saw nearly the entire black choir in the parking lot in deep discussion and my heart sank. I went over to them expecting the worst but instead, they welcomed me and said thank you for bringing this issue into the light. What I realized then was that for them it was always present even in today’s society. William Henry Curry, the resident conductor of the NC Symphony served as narrator for the performance and it is remembered by many to be one of the most powerful and poignant programs that we have ever done. The second concert that comes to mind was in 2005 when our concert doubled as a recital requirement for my Master’s degree from East Carolina University. Daniel Bara, the Director of Choral Activities at ECU, used some of our rehearsals as instruction sessions which opened up that process to the entire group. It helped them to better understand the mechanics of conducting and made them a part of my process in completing my degree. The third concert was our performance of Voices of Light in 2008 with the 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. The film on its own is a fascinating story, banned by the church, destroyed by fire and thought to be lost only to have an original copy resurface in a janitor’s closet in Denmark in 1981. The music was for an orchestra of 40, large chorus and two quartets of soloists. What was most challenging beyond the gut wrenching and brilliantly told story was the need for us to follow the film at the exact tempo needed using only the subtitles as a guide.