For about half a century, Duain Wolfe has been putting choirs through their paces.
Here’s a taste of his impressive resume: He’s in his 20th season as director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. He founded and still leads the Colorado Symphony Chorus in Mile High Denver. He directs choruses at the Aspen Music Festival, the Ravinia Festival and the Berkshire Choral Festival. For 20 years he was chorus master and conductor for the Central City Opera Festival. He founded and led for 25 years the Colorado Children’s Chorale. Oh yeah, for 14 seasons he’s been the visiting choir doctor with the National Arts Centre.
If there is a big choral work being presented in Southam Hall, you can pretty much guarantee Wolfe has been involved in some way.
Over his career he has become very acquainted with the major works of the choral repertoire. One of those is the Verdi Requiem.
“I have done it a few times,” he said with not a little understatement in an interview with ARTSFILE. “It must be two dozen different productions. I do it at least every year or two and I have been around for many decades.”
Verdi’s music has served Wolfe well. He won a Grammy in 2011 for a recording of the requiem with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Riccardo Muti.
One could consider the requiem a war horse. But war horses get performed basically because they are good and because they sell.
For Wolfe, though, it’s the music. “It is so extraordinary. One of the the things that I like is the incredible variety. It has everything from beautiful chorales, to enormous fugues and double fugues, to thrilling scary stuff, to very quiet stuff. It is an amazing piece, all wrapped up in one.”
The requiem does have a bumpy history. The first portion to be written is the Libera Me, which Verdi wrote in honour of the death of his friend, Rossini, but it wasn’t performed. The requiem was finished years later when another friend, the poet and writer Mazzoni, passed.
The Libera Me is a microcosm of the entire piece because within its 422 bars Verdi has really placed the entire sweep of his mass, Wolfe said.
“It starts with the soprano in this incredible outburst of begging for help, then the chorus quietly enters doing a chant. Right there, in the first few seconds of the movement, there is this contrast and it keeps doing it.
“But, of course, the most exquisite moment is the chorale, the requiem aeternam with the solo above it. My God, it’s gorgeous.”
He “never ever” gets tired of it. “Not one minute. It’s not just that it adds so much variety, it is so powerfully and profoundly moving. Sometimes I find it is even kind of difficult to rehearse because you get so wrapped up in the music that you forget you have to actually rehearse the group.”
When one has a chance to talk to someone like Wolfe, it’s important to ask: What distinguishes a good performance?
“One element,” he said, “is being faithful to the score because Verdi really knew what he was doing.
“In the Verdi operas, there is lots of latitude for conductor interpretations, but in the requiem, the closer it is to the score the better it is. That means you have to have voices that can really do what is required. You need a chorus that can sing exquisitely softly and also has a very full big sound. And you have to have an orchestra that can do the same thing.
“Lots of times, something is missing. There might be players in the orchestra who don’t have the finesse needed. And there might be singers in chorus with the same issues.
“The good news in Ottawa is the orchestra is fabulous and so is the chorus so should be in good shape.”
There is another danger. The requiem can be very easily overdone, he said.
“Or there may be people who are just singing through lots of stuff instead of focussing on making a fantastic sound. Or when they try to do the really soft stuff such as the chant they are mumbling, inaudible and incoherent instead of being clear and sounding good.”
The other thing about the requiem is that it often change from very loud to extremely quiet abruptly. It’s hard to change gears and that means a singer needs to focus, he added.
“The good news is that in spite of those difficulties, Verdi really did understand voices. Everything he did makes sense vocally. Even the pyrotechnics he requires of the soloists make sense.”
And soloists singing Verdi find that their voices are all nourished through his lines.
Wolfe studied piano and voice at university and was engaged in a post-graduate musicology degree when he got a job leading a children’s choir in a church. The eventually led to running the whole music program.
By the time he finished he had “decided I really wanted to be in performance. I was offered positions as a chorus director and the next thing you know I realized this could be my life. I liked it.”
Before that he had thought he would end up in the musicology world, but it was important for him to get the performing degree “so that I would have something to bring to whatever I was doing in scholarship.
“The next thing you know I was in opera and it was really opera that kicked off everything.
“At least in the professional performing world, opera requires everything. I was a pianist. I could coach singers.” And he eventually started conducting rehearsals and directing the opera chorus and ended up in the pit of the Central City Opera Festival for 20 years.
These days, Wolfe divides his time between homes in Colorado and Chicago with regular visits to Ottawa. In Colorado, where he was for this interview, he says he’s starting to notice the stress of living some 5,280 feet above sea level.
Also the state is extremely dry.
“Singers who come here have to plan on extra days to get used the dryness and the altitude.
“They all say they are going back to New York from Colorado and do all the auditions they can while they have more breath than anybody on the planet.”
Asked about his work with children, he says he did it because, “I liked it. It’s pretty much that simple. I started the Colorado Children’s Choir 45 years ago and I have enjoyed every single minute. I worked there for 25 years and proudly celebrated the 45th anniversary few months ago.
“I have always enjoyed children because they don’t know that things are difficult. We adults look at (some music) and we are totally baffled by it.
“Kids, just as soon as they hear it, it’s fine… They have such an adventurous spirit and are so accommodating, it is a wonderful thing to work with. Kids are very exciting. I loved it.”
He knows also that learning music also affects the lives of children.
“If you are directing children, you need to behave yourself because everything you do might have some kind of influence on them. It might spur them on in music or politics. You have to always remember that you might say something that might transform some child’s life forever.
For 14 years, he’s worked at the NAC. Over that period, “it has evolved and changed. It has been wonderful however to watch the choral field in Ottawa take on more and more challenges.
“It’s getting better and better — better sound, better everything. Directors in Ottawa are pushing people and challenging them.”
Is he really a choir doctor?
“I just go there and they sit me in front of a chorus and I start doing my thing. I do what I do,” he said.
“I work fast, sometimes too fast. Sometimes I realize should slow down but I get over that in a few seconds. If you work fast, people respond.”
He starts work Friday evening with the combined choir that includes the Ottawa Choral Society, members of Cantata Singers and guests from other choirs like me.
With Verdi Requiem, fittingly, the chorister is also as theatrical performer, he believes.
“You have to actually do the drama that is required while at the same time paying particular attention to all the details and nuances that will make a good performance. It is hard.”
Not only that, the choir is singing the Italian variant of Latin. It ain’t easy.
One aspect of this work is that the choir is handed over to the conductor for the performance. That’s fine when the conductors have the abilities of Alexander Shelley and Pinchas Zukerman, he said.
Not so much, “if you work really hard with the chorus, get it beautifully prepared and everyone ready to go on stage and turn it over to a mediocre conductor. That would be very frustrating.” He’s been fortunate to work with some of best on the planet for decades.
Sometimes he prepares a choir for a guest conductor that he doesn’t know and that means the choirs have to be flexible so that they can adapt to whatever direction conductor wants to take.
That’s why ya gotta watch, he said.
Where: Southam Hall
When: Sept. 11 & 12 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca