The Saginaw Choral Society is without doubt our regions premier ‘Community Chorus’ and one of Michigan’s finest vocal ensembles, rendering unforgettable musical experiences throughout the Great Lakes Bay area for over 75 years.
Artistic Director Glen Thomas Rideout has made it a mission to bring fresh focus, energy, and expansive vision to the Choral Society that can be instantly felt whenever the group steps upon a stage. In addition to bringing fresh and original programming into the choral mix, Rideout is a firm believer in engaging the entire community in the gift of song – whether it’s through any of the season performances that the Choral Society diligently pursues and sharpens to perfection; or whether its by going into the community to work with young voices and talent unable to afford a studied musical education.
Rideout is an innovative and energetic force that deeply cares about the value and importance of music as a litmus for gauging the strength, happiness, and solidarity of a community. An award-winning conductor and baritone, he received his Bachelor’s degree in Voice from Vanderbilt University and a Master’s from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he recently finished his doctoral degree.
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.
On October 18th Rideout leads the Saginaw Choral Society into its new 2014-15 season with an innovative performance entitled Art Slam that will be held at The Temple Theatre at 8:00 PM. Held in collaboration with The Saginaw Art Museum, showcasing art from its permanent collection, Rideout and the Choral Society will explore the notion of what art possesses that allows us to hear it through a musical examination of works of art that spring into new life through the vessel of sound.
In advance of this landmark performance, I recently sat down with Glen Thomas to discuss the upcoming 2014-15 season for The Saginaw Choral Society, his goals for the new season, and his hopes for impacting lives throughout the community through the liberating power of music.
Review: In terms of goals that you were shooting for when pulling together this new season for the Saginaw Choral Society, what are some of the objectives that you were shooting for to distinguish it from previous seasons and past accomplishments?
Glen Thomas Rideout: Up to now our previous seasons have dealt with performing large themes where an entire season encompasses one whole theme and that can get quite taxing if you have two concerts that fit perfectly, yet are finagling a way to make the other performances work thematically.
So this year we started in reverse and tried to put together concerts that work very well on their own, with beautiful sets and pieces that work well on their own, and allow those concerts to give us a direction for the season.
I would say this year is more of a mosaic – a stitching together, if you will. The goal is to see that every time we take to the stage we are batting 1000 and everything we put out there is something we love to do that inspires us and is colorful. Plus, this is my first year not being a student in a very long time. I finished my Doctorial studies in May, so now I am able to take many ideas that I was unable to pursue that with the additional time I am now capable of accomplishing. As an Artistic Director I have more time to invest into the Choral Society this year.
Review: Tell me the season opener that you have planned for October 18th entitled ‘Art Slam’. You are doing this along with the Saginaw Art Museum and it sounds like an ambitious collaboration.
Glen Thomas: When I was visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts I turned a corner and was about ready to leave the museum when I saw a huge painting of a 20th Century black man dressed in purple velvet and Timberland boots sitting on top of a horse and rendered like an 18th Century French painting of a general.
It struck me that I wanted to do a concert using this impulse of how visual inspiration leads to audio. A painting has much to show us, but what does a painting sound like? What does it have for us to hear? This is what I wanted to explore, so I went to the Saginaw Art Museum and they let me into their vault while doing renovations and restoration on their works, and I would go through their collection until I felt these inspirational musical impulses spring from another painting. I collected these works and spent time with them and created a song list to accompany them. There exist a lot of provocative and evocative things in their collection of art that lends itself to music. My goal with this is start a conversation and articulate our emotions through music that reflect what we experience when viewing these works of art.
We took 15 to 17 pieces and found music to match the artwork. Some were easier than others. For example, there was this interesting late 19th century painting of water crashing and you can see these thick gobs of paint oozing, so naturally I thought of Mendelssohn’s Elijah because after the big drought Elijah prophesized and the people prayed and God flooded the land with water for the first time in years, so that was an easier match. Other works were tougher to match with music. Coming up with something that captures the moment in the same dramatic manner as the artwork does can be a tough proposition.
As for presentation, the Saginaw Art Museumwas very generous about having us photograph their collection, so we’ll display these works during the performance with information about the piece and then display the lyrics as sub-titles. The choir will be stage right and the screen stage left displaying the artwork. My hope is people will challenge me a little bit, as we get different conceptions of what fits with each painting – or at least agree with my musical selections so heartily that it inspires applause.
We’re experimenting with the way we use the Temple stage, plus the choir is not only singing but also engaging in physical gestures and motions that tie in with each piece of art. We do this with one of Bach’s Chorales and it’s that sort of thing where we’re trying to bring in some of the delightful weirdness that exists working with visual artists and that unique perspective they have.
One of my college teachers once said that singing is about 75 percent visual – it’s about how we render a song emotively as well as physically.
Review: Moving on with the season, following Art Slam you have the annual ‘Christmas in Saginaw’ series event coming up in December. What can we expect from that?
Glen Thomas: I wanted to do some of Handel’s Messiah largely because I haven’t tackled it as a conductor before and it’s one of those major works clamoring to be performed. We know and love the piece so much, but I wanted to learn more about it, and the most interesting thing I learned is that Handel wrote Messiah on a tour of Dublin in 1742, so it wasn’t composed in England. He was writing it during a visit that he had taken to Dublin and had no idea what the caliber of the singers would be once we arrived. He used the text of a priest who later said that Handel’s setting of Messiah was so far ‘below’ the text he had written that he wished he never composed it.
I think there is a great degree of poignant drama in Messiah and because it’s so accessible people come with their opinions regarding it. It’s tough to do something new with it because of that factor, so I’d like to see if we can do the piece justice while bringing some Technicolor to the dramatic elements that Handel was so meticulous about.
He wrote it in less than 30 days and as a result of schooling, I have specific ideas about what the music of this period should look and sound like. I think it’s a bit lighter than we’re used to hearing with the Halleluiah Chorus, which today tends to be rendered in a more bombastic manner. Handel was shooting for the beauty of each voice and I think there is more to these choruses than we thin possible, even if it’s the 40th time you’ve heard the work. That’s what I’m striving for. I’m trying to speak more directly to what Handel’s voice would have been, which is an exercise of opinion; but more fun doing that what’s expected.
Along with Messiah we’ll intersperse the Christmas show with Lessons in Carols and the idea of following different scriptures with a carol. We’ll take modern scripture and poetry and juxtapose those sections of classical scripture with similar texts set in the 20th Century. A major source of excitement about Christmas is hearing voices singing these carols that we all grew up with; and many people don’t sing at all except possibly Silent Night during Christmastime, so again I am striving to balance the known with the new.
Review: Is it harder to work with large or smaller groups of singers?
Glen Thomas: It’s a different set of values. When working with a large number of singers you’re dealing with more instruments and with that comes more disparate levels of expertise and increasingly different ideas of what music is about. Making those different voices and ideas cohere is the challenge. With a smaller choir this tends to be easier, but what tends to be difficult is the nitty-gritty of going into highly detailed work with precision. Plus logistically with a smaller group if people are absent, it’s more difficult to have a rehearsal.
Following this in February will be a Small Stage performance that I will be giving at the Castle Museum in February and for a few months we’ll be doing smaller concerts. I’ll be singing some of my favorite songs at the Castle and then we’ll have our Membership Showcase in March that will feature Songs from Stage & Screen at First United Methodist Church.
As I noted earlier, we’re taking a bit of a break from the larger scale to focus on the individual voices and showcase more of the diversity of sounds that the Choral Society has developed.
Review: Tell me about ‘God & Galaxies: A Cosmic Conversation’ that will be another big event at the Temple in May. This sounds both ambitious and fascinating.
Glen Thomas: The idea for this is to take a journey through time. For thousands of years music has been inspired by people looking up to the sky, so this year we commissioned a work from Catherine McMichael and I’ve got friends from Ann Arbor working on different commissioned pieces, so we are working with poetry and tossing drafts back and forth.
With these commissioned works you want something that the Choral Society will want to perform again, so you want something that feeds our soul and works for us.
During the last year I’ve been interested in constellations and identifying them, and ever since high school when I inherited a dorm room that had stars on the ceiling, I’ve been fascinated with the skies. I had no idea these constellations existed, so I turn the light off at night and gaze at them. I’ve had them on my ceiling everywhere I live since then and wanted to do a concert that spoke to that wonder – the idea of looking up in the sky and becoming inspired.
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.
What do we believe about heaven or what’s up there? So much mystery is encapsulated in song, so this will be a fun and engaging performance. The tough thing with ‘space’ music is because everything is so still up in space, people tend to write an awful lot of slow music about space. I want to find some more music that explores and takes a sort of rocket journey into the stars, as opposed to an isolated one – the great space roller coaster if you will!
Review: How is the membership of the Choral Society in terms of singers? Do you have new talent coming into auditions?
Glen Thomas: Last year we took in 14 new singers over the course of the year, which is approaching one-quarter of our total singers, so that is encouraging. Now that I’ve had time to transition into the society and define the kind of music we’re doing, everybody seems excited about how the music we are doing is both relevant and artistic.
Review: The lack of music programs in the school system is frightening. How are you working to address that?
Glen Thomas: It’s a national problem and I also think it’s a class issue especially in Saginaw where we have a huge disproportionate gap between the wealthy and the poor. Wealthy people can afford music lessons for their kids, but what happens in the regular school where kids are doing songs by rote because they have no teacher who can read a score? You have talented voices that get lost because they can’t read music, so that’s a really big issue. I’ve been trying to work on establishing my own network of voice teachers to out into the community. At this point we have no choice but to address it because the future of art and music depends upon it.
We’ve been working in experimental ways over the years thanks to a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts that has allowed me to work with this staff and singers to explore the schools and find new singers and voices throughout the community. Last year we did the Adopt a Choir program and worked with middle and high school students, which connected the Choral Society with kids; and I hope it inspired some singers to want to put in the type of effort needed to be able to succeed at an audition.
This year we’re approaching it from the other side and putting together songs that we can teach by rote, so we can improvise and work together in live time. If we don’t value ways of getting our community singing, there is no chance of American music surviving. So I hope that over time we can map a strategy and help the community sing in a strong way.
There is more to singing than putting on a tuxedo and performing Mendelssohn.
Tickets for The Saginaw Choral Society ‘Art Slam’ on October 18th at the Temple Theatre can be purchased by going to www.saginawchoralsociety.com or phoning 989-754-SHOW. The performance begins at 8:00 PM.
16th November, 2023