Choral Society History

by James Livingston

[This article first appeared in the December, 1999, issue of the Marquette Monthly. It appears here with the permission of the author and the MM publisher.]

In its beginnings the Marquette Choral Society looked promising but probably not of long life, like most new species. It grew out of conferences between Professor Harold Wright, then head of Northern Michigan University's Department of Music, and a group of predominantly young, recent immigrants hungry to continue the music they had enjoyed in school. Some had heard that other universities in small towns — Cornell in Ithaca (1960), Virginia in Charlottesville (1962), North Carolina in Chapel Hill (1963) — had sponsored choruses that combined the orchestral resources of the school with the vocal abilities of the community. Would something like that be possible here?

Professor Wright pondered. Such a combination, dedicated to performing choral masterpieces, would benefit both university and community, forging a stronger alliance and providing a unique experience. But two questions remained. Would the university support it, and did the community actually have sufficient talent and will?

He took the first question to President John X. Jamrich, an avid musician. Jamrich leaped at the opportunity: the university would re-define one position to include directorial responsibilities. Music director-designate was William Dehning, Assistant Professor of Music. A local committee would develop a constitution for the Marquette Choral Society.

Fortunately he found a strong community tradition to draw on. Like other upper midwestern cities with a strong Scandinavian substratum, Marquette boasted a history of choral singing, from the Marquette Musical Association (founded 1884) to an earlier Marquette Choral Society (active 1930s) to the Marquette Oratorio Society (1950s). But few of these had persisted for more than ten years. The planners of 1971 wanted something more enduring — and something integrated into both community and university.

This Marquette Choral Society would be different. For one thing, it would ground itself in local resources. Previous groups had been heavily subsidized; this would be self-sufficient, eventually even realizing a profit. Earlier groups had also routinely depended on importing outside talent for difficult parts; this would give preference first to society members, then to local voices, in assigning solos. This would help develop individual voices, in the process raising the level of the group as a whole. A developing music department would also strengthen the connection.

In its course the MCS has been nurtured by four musical directors. The first, William Dehning, gets credit for establishing the character and focus of the chorus. Although he worked with it for only one year, he left a lasting legacy, both in personal impact — establishing the tradition of dynamic interaction between chorus and director — and in musical orientation, for the offerings of those first concerts, Handel's Messiah (1742) and Honegger's Le Roi David (1921), disclosed the dual thrust of MCS's cultural orientation. While carrying out its founders intention to offer mainstream choral masterpieces, it would not shy away from more challenging and innovative modernistic works.

The second director, Douglas Amman, during a ten-year tenure defined the character of the MCS. Most of the major changes in venue, equipment, and format of the Society occurred during this period. Concerts appeared in everywhere: not just St. Peters Cathedral, but Kaufman and Peterson Auditoriums, Presque Isle Bandshell, even on tour in Houghton. He pioneered the summer program. On at least two occasions he supplemented chorus with youth choir, although neither became permanent. The Society invested in a stage extension for Kaufman and in seated choral risers; it also developed several fundraising techniques. And the chorus navigated most of the standard repertoire — Vivaldi's Gloria (1715); Haydn's The Seasons (1800), The Creation (1798), Lord Nelson Mass (1798); Bach's Christmas Oratorio (1734), Advent Oratorio (1720's), St. Matthew Passion (1729), and B Minor Mass(1750); Mozart's Requiem (1791); Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (1822); and Brahms's German Requiem(1868). It also dared the modern intricacies of Poulenc's Gloria (1961), Vaughan Williams Hodie (1954), Bernstein's Chichester Psalms (1965), Orff's Carmina Burana (1936), Walton's Belshazzar's Feast(1931), Rutter's Gloria (1974), and Hovhaness' Magnificat (1958). 

Steven Edwards followed in 1982, remaining until 1986. Rather than radically reconstituting the group, he concentrated on polishing and refining its technical character. While continuing with some examples of the standard repertoire, Maestro Edwards is better remembered for exploring some less traveled roads. Along the way he opened up ears to formerly unknown splendors: Handel's Israel in Egypt(1739), Mozart's Vesperae Solennes (1780), Bach's St. John Passion (1724), Schubert's Mass in A Flat (1827), Bruckner's Mass in C Minor (1867), and Respighi's Lauds (1930). 

Floyd Slotterback became musical director in 1986, following three very impressive predecessors. Totally unfazed, he managed to win over the hearts of his chorus almost immediately. Asked how he could be so relaxed in the face of such pressure, he replied characteristically: Sheer insensibility. He made it his largely by introducing less known but lovely and expressive works of major composers. Thus he has presented works by Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven that are minor only because those masters later did greater things. Maestro Slotterback let in light on formerly overshadowed beauties. He also resurrected the wrongfully buried Petite Messe Solennelle of Rossini (1863), spotlighted several underexposed wonders of Randall Thompson, and dared two a capella works, Vaughan Williams' Mass in G Minor (1922) and Rachmaninoff's Vesper Service

After a few relatively trouble-free years Maestro Slotterback has had to face changes that threatened the lifeblood of the MCS. A long period of cultural and academic erosion has depleted the body of trained musicians necessary to accompany the choral masterpieces. But Maestro Slotterback has excelled in inventive solutions. One method has been to commission works by outstanding composers and then invite them and/or their groups for the premiere. This has resulted in such memorable concerts as Dave Brubeck's Earth Is Our Mother for our twentieth anniversary and Jackson Berkey's Kyrie from the Mass over a Period of Time. Another gambit invited experts on a particular instrument or repertory to accompany us. This has brought to Marquette Elinor Niemisto, one of the outstanding harpists of the Midwest, and the John Anthony Singers, master ambassadors of the Spiritual and its American heritage--and Mastersingers, period. In these and other ways Slotterback has expanded the range of the choral society and enriched the life and soul of the community, creating a true cultural symbiosis. 

In 28 years the Marquette Choral Society has reached early adulthood under the guidance of four different parent-figures, each different, each gifted, each giving life. A major cultural entity in the central Upper Peninsula, it looks forward to a long maturity.