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Q+A with Chanticleer’s Music Director William Fred Scott

 
We reached out to Chanticleer’s Music Director, William Fred Scott, for a Q+A prior to Chanticleer’s concert in Vancouver. In this thoughtful interview, Scott tells of his first encounter with “the world’s reigning male chorus”, Chanticleer’s program repertoire, standout touring moments, and more!
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Much of Chanticleer’s repertoire includes vocal music of the Medieval and Renaissance periods. [Noteworthy for audiences: It appears as though Sebastián de Vivanco’s piece, Veni, dilecte mi, will open the program. Although Vivanco’s music is virtually unknown today, he was a leading composer of his time]. Can you tell us a bit about how you selected the program’s repertoire, as well as a bit about importance of Chanticleer’s commitment to bringing to life these period pieces?

William Fred Scott: First, the program. As usual, we have a great time kicking about titles that sound provocative and which, we hope, will be commercially intriguing to our audiences. Needless to say, almost any program which is based on texts (as all choral, vocal, theatrical presentations are) is going to revolve around one of a handful of standard themes. Love/death, war/peace, happiness/sorrow, age/youth. Those seem to be the topics and, Heaven knows, there’s a great deal of music from which to choose. There’s always a strategic plan at work: will a program “play” as well for an audience which is new to Chanticleer as it might to one which has heard us for years? Will there be enough representation of Renaissance music? Should we commission some new pieces? Will the program be heard mostly in religious settings or is it likely to be a more mixed bag, you might say? Are enough languages represented? Too many? Is it all fast or too slow? Where’s the joy for the listener and the intellectual challenge for the singer? Or vice versa? Sooner or later, a good title emerges. We liked the Noël Coward song, “My Secret Heart,” not just because it’s a brilliant song of a certain period but because it implies that there might be wonderful passions longing within each of us, passions just waiting to be let out, to be sung about, to be enjoyed. Once we decided on that theme as the framework, then it was up to me to fill in the empty space with music of all sorts and sizes, all periods, sacred and secular, happy and sad.

I was particularly anxious to include (sacred) music based on the texts of the Biblical “Song of Songs.” This book of the Bible is a fascinating collection of poems, anecdotes and stories which on the surface are very religious (they pertain to the Virgin Mary, the Messiah who would come posing as the Bridegroom at the Wedding, ultimately the Church as the Bride of Christ) but underneath all that, they are surprisingly erotic and sensual. It seemed to be the perfect place to begin examining the secrets of our hearts.

Since Renaissance music is so deeply imbedded in the DNA of our group, it was natural that we start the program with a group of motets based on these Biblical texts. Vivanco and Guerrero are two Spanish masters whose music we often sing: the Vivanco is particularly exciting to me because of the way it juxtaposes a quartet against the rest of the group. All sorts of counterpoint ensues: each line seems designed to point out various aspects of the text and the musical groupings complement each other beautifully. In the case of the Guerrero, “Rise Up My Fair One, and Come Away,” there is an astonishing bit of Gregorian chant that goes right through the piece, from start to finish, which gives the sensual exuberance of the piece a very church-y backbone. Fascinating.

We also have a second, shorter, group of Renaissance music, as a kind of palate-cleansing dessert. Three poems by the great French poet Ronsard examine aspects of love which I found particularly humorous. “Bonjour, mon coeur” carries a clever reversal: the poet assures his petulant wife that he loves her more than anyone; he goes away to work for the King. Why? to get money to pay for her expensive jewels…which she deserves because he loves her so much. Antoine de Bernard’s “Your sweet, smiling face” is one of the treasures of the repertoire—very romantic, very simple. Typical Ronsard images abound: the teeth are like pearls, the lips are like rubies.

There is so much “early” music to be found and performed. That’s one of the great joys, I think, in making programs. Surely there will be plenty of Victoria, Palestrina, Monteverdi and Gesualdo to go around, but there are so many more composers whose works are just coming to light thanks to recent scholarship. We love investigating lesser-known Lassus or Mouton, for instance; it keeps us on our toes to learn new/old music of great and near-great composers like Vivanco, Guerrero, Bertrand, Philippe de Monte.  Delicate juxtapositions add spice to the “typical” programmatic mix. (I hope!)

It would be great to learn about your own personal journey with Chanticleer (from the beginning) and bit about the on-going experience you’ve had directing “the world’s reigning male chorus”. What have been some of your greatest joys, milestones and celebrations with Chanticleer thus far?

FS: I first encountered Chanticleer about thirty years ago when I was Associate Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony. We did a concert of Mexican baroque and American contemporary music. I was struck immediately by the clarity of the sound, the amazing blend, the charisma onstage and off that they projected. Since my coming to Chanticleer as Music Director about three years ago, I have still been aware—although it is, with one exception, an entirely different collection of singers—of the clarity of sound, the immaculate (but it takes work!) blend, the commitment to scholarship and the charismatic relationship Chanticleer always seems to have with its audiences. In fact, these are the guiding principles of all we do.

I remember very fondly a moment from a European tour some three summers ago. The conclusion of a Latin motet by the English composer William Byrd sung in an ancient French church was, without a doubt, one of the most unearthly, beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard. An entire concert in a cool church in quite warm Macau was balm to my ears; similarly, three concerts in a row in Bolivia, performing baroque religious music practically unheard since the eighteenth century, were an exquisite pleasure. More recently, concerts in Vienna’s Musikverein and Budapest’s Franz Liszt Hall were astonishing. Everything we work for was on display: command of languages; command of styles from the oldest chant to the newest commissions; ease of singing loud or soft, fast or slow; emotional and internal knowledge of the pieces; and, finally, that amazing audience rapport. I continue to think I have the greatest job in the world!

Chanticleer has a long-standing commitment to commissioning and performing new works. Can you tell us a bit about the selected commissioned pieces that Chanticleer will perform as part of your “My Secret Heart” program?

FS: We have enjoyed a long relationship with the Finnish composer Jaako Mäntyjärvi. When the programming of My Secret Heart began to take shape, we realized we wanted something “northern,” Scandinavian, brooding, elemental to go along with the Renaissance and Contemporary American pieces that would take up most of the program. So we turned to Mäntyjärvi who, in turn, steered us toward a favorite poet of his, Edith Södergran. Södergran’s poems bring us a mini-cycle of desire, fulfillment and loss which is all the mort poignant considering her short life. And Mäntyjärvi has clothed those texts in a harmonic world and a rich, glowing sonority that is, I think, unique to him.

A much earlier work is “Love Songs” by American composer Augusta Read Thomas. They were written for Chanticleer a number of years ago although these are the first public performances. Really a series of epigrams—and very cleverly scored for twelve “soloists”—the way the music finally becomes choral at the very end is surely Thomas’s way of saying that love ultimately brings us all together. And that is no secret—that’s how the heart works! In every Chanticleer program there are bound to be arrangements made just for us. Our last group features a number of popular songs that were arranged just for us, and, in the case of “My Secret Heart”—the Noel Coward song from which the program takes its title—arranged just for this series of concerts.

Performing in the Bay Area is coupled with an extensive and far reaching touring season. Can you tell us about one city (or venue) in particular that has stood out to you this season while on tour, and why?

FS: Each city is an adventure for us (how’s that for a cop-out?) because each one presents a special set of circumstances either to be conquered or, at best, enjoyed. The hall, the hotel, the climate, the audience, our familiarity with the city or the area, all this plays into our excitement at “sizing up the place” and getting to know the audience. We’ve been as far afield as Hungary and as close by as a short bus ride from our San Francisco offices. We never forget how much we love the Rudolfinum in Prague, the Liszt Hall in Budapest or the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. But we also treasure our California Missions. Christmas at St. Ignatius church in San Francisco always seems like the perfect homecoming. Singing last month in the Oratoire du Louvre in Paris was special to me, maybe because I just love Paris so much. We’re all crazy about Portland, Oregon because the audience is so warm there and the food trucks plentiful. Personally, I can’t wait to spend time in Vancouver. It’s one of my sister’s favorite cities in the world! We’re looking forward to being there for several days.

What are you most looking forward to about visiting and performing in Vancouver? What can audiences expect?  

FS: Aha! A perfect segue from the previous question. Everyone who’s ever experienced Vancouver tells us we will be fascinated by the climate, love the food, enjoy the people. We’re certainly looking forward to those things. We will also have a chance to work with several local choruses in a festival on Saturday morning. Working with young people always thrills us: we have some really great teachers within the group and our ability to share some of our strength and experience with others gives us great joy. To those in the audience that may have heard Chanticleer before, I would say this: we hope we just get better year after year! This year we have four new singers, two sopranos and two tenors, and the sound is, to my biased ears, as beautiful as I have ever heard it. The program you’re going to hear has a variety of styles, the old is mixed with the new, the sacred with the profane, the glorious with the giddy. We hope that somewhere along the way, everyone will be moved by the immense power of music and the clear joy that can be felt when people make or enjoy music together.

Next year, the world will be celebrating with Chanticleer on your 40th season. If it’s not too early, can you tell us a bit about what your 2017-18 program has in store?

FS: Trade secrets!! Lots of travel, celebrations of Eric Alatorre whose almost thirty-year career with Chanticleer is a milestone in itself, maybe some new recordings, several new commissions, tons of good concerts (I hope!)  Stay tuned!!

Is there anything that we haven’t asked that you’d like to share?

FS: No. Haven’t I bent your ear enough already?! Thanks for letting me run on and on about music and these men, whose work I admire and whose friendship I treasure.

Please describe the “My Secret Heart” program in just three words.
Three times three:
Love Always Wins!
Music Never Fails!
Invite Us Back! Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 10.17.41 AM

Chor Leoni Men’s Choir presents Chanticleer in Concert on April 21 at 8pm at the Chan Centre. Get your tickets here.

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William Fred Scott, Chanticleer’s fifth Music Director, was the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Atlanta Opera from 1985 to 2005, and the Associate Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra from 1981 to 1988–a post offered him by legendary conductor, chorus director, and arranger Robert Shaw. He comes to Chanticleer after a five-year tenure as Director of Choral Music at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. Scott is also well known in Atlanta as an organist.