For four seasons now The Saginaw Choral Society has flourished under the artistic guidance of Director Glen Thomas Rideout, who stepped into his role back in 2011 as the sixteenth Artistic Director of Saginaw’s premier community choral group that next year will be celebrating its 80th season of entertaining and expanding the musical parameters of choral music in our area.
A native of Baltimore, RIdeout holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Voice from Vanderbilt University and a Doctoral degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he currently serves as an active music minister, conductor and clinician, having let the musical ministries of congregations in Tennessee and Michigan. Indeed while serving as Artistic Director of the Voices of Praise at Vanderbilt, he facilitated that choir’s growth from 20 to 70 members in three years, and is that choir’s longest serving elected director.
Rideout gained national recognition for conducting as second prizewinner in the 2009 Conducting Competition of the American Choral Directors Association and his recent international schedule includes conducting engagements in Poland, The Czech Republic, Canada, Croatia, Finland, Iceland, Estonia, Russia, Spain, Andorra and France.
Rideout’s passion for music and the capacity it possesses for drawing seemingly disparate people and groups together stems from the fact that he views music as truly a ‘universal language’ – a notion that he developed during childhood; and has tested numerous times since with people from different cultures, persuasions, and backgrounds.
Regretfully, Glen Thomas will be leaving the Saginaw Choral Society at the end of this current season, which will conclude on with an ambitious thematic performance entitled God & Galaxies: A Cosmic Conversation on May 9th at The Temple Theatre.
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Glen Thomas to discuss the vision behind his final performance with the Saginaw Choral Society, his future plans and ambitions, and his thoughts about the work and achievements that he strived to create with expanding the reach and depth of Choral Music in the Great Lakes Bay region.
In terms of his immediate plans, Glen Thomas is devoted to the work he has derived inspiration from at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ann Arbor, where he has served for eight years now. “I am going to spend my time now working exclusively for them building up the profile of the work we’re doing,” he explains.
“It’s a 650-member church and is very social minded and that involves a lot of the work we do putting together a community singing inside the church empowering people by giving them the tools that people use in their own meetings at home with their families, working in concert with the social justice themes we examine in church.”
For his final performance with the Saginaw Choral Society Rideout has pulled together an exceptional thematic extravaganza entitled Gods & Galaxies, which has involved an enormous amount of work to realize the goals he is striving to achieve with this performance.
“We have some of the most beautiful skies and skylines in Michigan, so with this final season concert I want to start 500 years ago and take things up to today so we can hear what people over that course of time have said and felt about the skies, the sun, the heavens, discovering space, and how that seeps into our music,” he reflects.
“It’s a concert that tries to pull together as many different voices under the question of when you look up at the sky, what do you see? Essentially, I was interested in the way music has explored space and the heavens throughout the expanse of time and wanted to pull as many different excerpts of choral music that explores space and the heavens as we could,” he relates.
“What is interesting is that the earlier the music is written, the more we see people exploring outer space as the heavens – we talk about God and get into God and questions of theology, which is where Haydn comes in. We’re doing the heavens and creation from this, but as we get more modern we go up to the 20th and 21st century and hear Meredith Monk’s ‘Astronaut Anthem’, as one example, which was written in the 1960s. She writes an opera that explores Earthlings going into space. Most people consider her a bit weird, but she’s one of my favorites and has this chorus called the ‘Astronaut Anthem’ that imagines Earthlings landing on this planet with the sounds of UFO’s ascending at the end. It’s really a hoot to perform and I use this example to say that this concert is exploring as many different ways that we can to explain what’s up there in space as we can get into a two-hour performance.”
“We will also be featuring a piece commissioned by Catherine McMichael, who is a solid composer in her own right,” notes Glen Thomas. “I was lamenting to her at one point about the difficulty in doing a concert about space because all the music written about it is so slow and I couldn’t find anything light or fast or contrasting to perform. Most of the music is so ethereal, so she took that plight of mine and ran with it and wrote this piece that runs about seven minutes and basically lifts the entire program right off the ground. That’s the best way to describe it – it’s the centerpiece of this concert that other things revolve around.”
In looking back at his tenure with the Saginaw Choral Society, what are the things that Glen Thomas is most proud of artistically in terms of high-points, but also in terms of direction that he’s guided the Choral Society as it moves forward into the future?
“My best contributions have been artistic,” he reflects, “expanding the breadth of programming possibilities and collaborative opportunities with school choirs in particular. I think the sound of the choir is more beautiful and disciplined and nuanced because of the work we’ve done together, but mostly I think that when I walk out of here – and I hope the singers will agree with me – that we can hear more of them in their sound. They’ve learned to work together in even greater ways as a community and can operate at a really high level of excellence.”
“I think we’ve set a noble standard for what a community choir can sound like and bring to the table, and I hope what happens next is that the organization will take this transition time to really examine itself now that we’ve expanded our tools and ask themselves what they truly want to be. What kind of a niche do they truly want to fit and how do we want to serve the community and come up with some smart and strategic ways to achieve that.”
Does Glen Thomas feel the Choral Society has expanded with new members under his guidance and does he feel it a challenge to engage new audiences with an interest in choral music?
“I have the blessing and curse of never thinking about numbers,” he states. “I do know that the interest is there because as a nation and a world we’re quickly becoming aware of how many different possibilities there are with expression all over the world with digital technology. Some people are choosing choral music and new possibilities are always surfacing, but given that 14 million people in the United States sing in a choir every year, we’re not going anywhere. As long as there’s more than one human being with a voice there will always be a choir.”
When asked what three performances he guided the Saginaw Choral Society through that he is most proud of, Rideout immediately references Mozart’s Requiem. “Putting it together with sub-titles and interspersing movements of Mozart with spirituals that were sung at the same time across the pond was an amazing experience. The choir performed beautifully and the orchestra really came into play in a strong way.”
“I also totally enjoyed my involvement with Shades of Blue, which featured Michael Brush and Morgan McMillon because it explored some interesting water and I feel there was a real group effort to make that show come alive, anywhere from the choir and what they put into the rehearsals to what people saw visually on the stage. I feel that production was beautifully done.”
“As for a third high point, there is one specific moment in our Fantasies of the Opera presentation where we got to the Humming Chorus from Madame Butterfly and gave out glow sticks to everyone in the audience. I remember turning around asking the audience to break them so it looked like fireflies in the air and turning around and seeing these enthusiastic faces of kids waving them back and forth. I think this speaks to what I’m trying to do in general, which is bring some connection to these songs and the people they serve, while also putting a smile on a kid’s face.”
As for his future aspirations and goals, Glen Thomas says that the work he does at the Unitarian Church is really a good 40 percent of his portfolio. “I’m going to be conducting and think we are creating a particularly interesting community of singing that is quickly becoming an example and a yardstick for Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country. Every day is full of possibilities and I’ve never been the type of guy who has seen himself on a particular podium.”
“I write a lot in my spare time and speak quite a bit and also conduct a fair amount of workshops on choral singing and communities, which is where my true interest it. It’s fascinating because there is a strong place in my heart for the teaching of this art, because there’s so much we have yet to articulate. Once people understand this about music they get more engaged with it.”
Saginaw Choral Society Director Tamara Grefe has nothing but praise to sing for the contributions and vision that Rideout brought to the organization. “Glen Thomas came to us in October, 2010 as a candidate for the Artistic Director position and to say he wowed us is an understatement. Since then he has continued to wow us with new and awe-inspiring repertoire and exceptional leadership in furthering the artistic direction of the group. He won a national conducting competition and completed his Doctoral studies in Choral Conducting at the University of Michigan during his tenure with us.”
“We feel very honored and blessed to have had his artistry and guidance over these four years. He brought many superb concerts to the Temple Theatre stage and we look forward to a stunning, if not bittersweet, performance at his final concert, Gods & Galaxies on May 9th.”
“As an organization we extend our gratitude to Glen Thomas for the artistry he has shared with our choir and our patrons. We wish him all the best in his future as a choral conductor and musician of the highest caliber.”
Saginaw Choral Society’s performance of ‘Gods & Galaxies: A Cosmic Conversation will take place at 8:00 PM at The Temple Theatre on May 9th. Tickets are available by calling 989-754-SHOW or going to www.saginawchoralsociety.com
16th November, 2023