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Interview: Eminent conductor Dale Warland sought 'spirituality' in Madison Choral Project pr

Renowned conductor Dale Warland finds it amusing when people assume that, since he disbanded his famous Minnesota choral ensemble more than ten years ago, he’s been relaxing.

“I stopped the Dale Warland Singers in 2004 and everybody thinks I stopped (working) or died or something,” Warland said with a chuckle. “They’ll say, are you enjoying retirement?

“I’m working harder than ever, but I don’t have to raise money for my own choir anymore.”

At 83, Warland, who lives in Mendota Heights near St. Paul, Minnesota, is among the best known choral conductors in the country. During his tenure with the Dale Warland Singers (1972-2004) the 40-voice chorus released nearly 30 albums and was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2003.

On Friday and Sunday at First Congregational Church, Warland will conduct the Madison Choral Project in a program he selected, called "The Music of Our Time."

Founded in 2013, the professional 22-voice Choral Project is led by artistic director Albert Pinsonneault, who is on Edgewood College’s music faculty.

This is the kind of work Warland can do more frequently, now that he’s not running an ensemble of his own.

“My life is a combination of guest conducting, composition and projects,” Warland said. “I do projects with Minnesota Public Radio. I’m working on a book about choral conducting. I have a choral series with G. Schirmer — not just my music, but music of other composers.”

What about retirement?

“That’s not in my vocabulary.”

Warland recently spoke with The Capital Times:

How did you come to be connected with the Madison Choral Project?

Bert (Pinsonneault) was a masters student at the University of Minnesota and I was brought in as a guest lecturer when he was working on his masters. Then I was in residence for a whole term at CCM, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. He was assigned as one of my assistants there.

When he came to Madison after he got his choir going, he sent me recordings. I heard and saw such potential.

How did you go about choosing the works for the concert?

I listened to the place I thought (the Madison Choral Project was) in their development, and evaluated their potential. I was looking for music that gave them challenges, that might offer the greatest growth. At the same time I wanted an inspiring program for the audience.

Specifically, I was looking for variety, built around a cappella but to contrast that with colors of a few instruments. I didn’t want the whole program to be a cappella. There were some works I was keen on doing that involved single solo instruments. There were also a variety of styles I looked for.

Are any of the pieces new to you?

All of the works on the program, I’ve performed some time in my life. These are first-rate composers. They’re settings of worthy texts, and they’re works that combine effective craftsmanship with a certain amount of spirituality.

When I say spirituality, I don’t mean they’re all religious or serious. There’s a depth to them, whether it be even folk music. There’s something special that I call spiritual.

I wanted the program to be enjoyable and gratifying for the singers as well as appealing for the audience. Along with that, they must be works I am enthused about.

The program has six parts, including “American voices,” sections from the Balkans and Blegium, classic American folk and “from Minnesota.” How did that come together?

I really wanted them to sing something by Arvo Pärt (“The Woman with the Alabaster Box”). He’s Estonian, so I think of the Balkans and I thought what other country would be matched well with it?

I came up with a piece by Vytautas Miškinis (“O sacrum convivium”), who’s Lithuanian. That fills out a section, about 12 minutes with the two works, and that seemed like a perfect match. It’s a great piece.

I had works that I mentioned earlier that called for a single instrument. A piece by Rudi Tas (“Miserere”) is a semi-extended work for solo cello. When you’re hiring a great cellist, at least do one more.

I knew a piece by a Norwegian composer who lives in the United States now, Ola Gjeilo, called “Serenity,” and it’s for choir and cello, another great piece. I remembered a Polk arrangement that calls for optional cello, “The Water is Wide.” I can use that cello in three pieces, sprinkled throughout. It makes a nice variety.

The same thing happened with trumpet. Trumpet opens the concert (in “Snow,” The King’s Trumpeter by John Muehleisen). The Dominick Argento piece, “To God,” is a great closer.

You seem to have such an extraordinary database of music in your head — works you’ve heard or performed and can call upon when you need to put together a program. That’s the kind of resource you build for decades.

You really do. That’s how important programming is. You can almost pick up the program at a concert and see that they put it together in their sleep. But what I love, and they don’t always turn out to be successful, is when you pick up a program with thought and concept to it.

The danger is when you’re asked to do a program of short works. It can all be made of up of three minute little ditties. I like a little breath when you can.

The Madison Choral Project is about half the size of the Dale Warland Singers. How does this affect how the pieces sound, and what are the joys and challenges of working with a smaller group versus a larger one?

I like the size of 22, 11 women 11 men. Everything is very clean. You’ve got to cover all the parts, all the voice lines, in divisi (divided) or multi-part compositions.

But the biggest factor really is the texture. That’s what changes when you go down from 40. Quite often there will only be one voice on a line here, and it’s a different when you have three to five voices.

The word is texture. The sound of a smaller group is quite different, but it’s not volume ... it’s texture. Also I find psychologically singers take more responsibility when they’re the only one on a given part. They don’t lean on the person next to them. There’s an ownership and aggressiveness that’s a little different than when you have a larger group.

It’s nice to see a “from Minnesota” section on the program, with some familiar names (including yours) on it.

Bert actually knew about this piece (“Always Singing”). And he said, how about including something of yours?

I had planned not to; I usually don’t program my own things. I’m not mainly a composer anyway but it seemed to fit as kind of an opener to that section.

It’s kind of fanfare expressing the joy of singing. I took a quote from a book of testimonies, interviews of people in this village about 100 miles north of London.

I found this interview where this farmer, he was in his late 80s and retired. He started talking about tough life was — they hardly had enough money for food, let alone clothing and so on.

But he said, “I remember we sang every day. We sang in the fields and at night we sang in the churches.”

So I took this prose and rewrote it and incorporated the hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” ... this is one of the pieces they sang in their churches.

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