Up Close & Personal with Saginaw Choral Society Artistic Director GLEN THOMAS RIDEOUT

Picking Up the Baton & Carving New Territory

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Local Music, Artist Feature, Culture, Community Profiles,   From Issue 741   By: Robert E Martin

09th February, 2012     0

The Saginaw Choral Society is undoubtedly Saginaw's premier Community Chorus and one of Michigan's finest award-winning vocal ensembles, rendering unforgettable musical experiences throughout the Great Lakes Bay community for over 75 years.
This season, the Choral Society's sixteenth Artistic Director Glen Thomas Rideout steps to the podium, bringing a fresh focus, energy, and expansive vision to the Choral Society that can be readily experienced and felt whenever the group steps upon a stage.
Glen Thomas Rideout is an award-winning conductor and baritone. A native of Baltimore, he holds a Bachelor's Degree in Voice from Vanderbilt University and a Master's degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree; in addition to serving 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 prize winner 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, Coratia, 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.
On Saturday, February 25th he will conduct Mozart's Requiem with The Saginaw Choral Society in partnership with The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra for an 8:00 PM performance at Saginaw's historic Temple Theatre. With this performance Rideout hopes to “Boldly explore Mozart's brilliant mind and trouble life through this monumental work of art that is one of tragedy and redemption; genius and obscurity. My goal is to have audiences hear the beautiful sounds of this classic score as they never have before.”
On the eve of this pivotal performance, I had the opportunity to speak with Glen Thomas Rideout about his unique background, some of his career accomplishments, and many of the things that he feels both distinguishes the Saginaw Choral Society along with what he hopes to achieve with this bedrock collective of the Great Lakes Bay cultural community.
Review: I see that you grew up in Baltimore, which is also home to the notorious avant-garde filmmaker John Waters. What was it like growing up in Baltimore and how did that environment help shape and form your interest in music?
Glen Thomas: To grow up in Baltimore is to learn to see life in its fullest color. And I mean that on many levels - so many shades of people, so many varying passions and arts, so many ways of engaging the holy in spiritual life.  
My formative years were shaped constantly by this array. Each day was an immersion course in cultural cooperation and conflict, of privilege and of poverty. And I found myself often standing in the middle. My family lived in a predominantly black, predominantly poor neighborhood. But my mother, who believes so fervently in my intellectual potential, steered me in the direction of the finest public and private schools in Baltimore. In high school, I spent five days as a boarding student at McDonogh, returning home for weekends and heavy doses of church.  
At school, I would spend hours and hours working on a Mozart score. At home, I would spend hours and hours preparing gospel choirs for worship. Music became ubiquitous in my thinking and in my living. And, being that I can (off the podium) be quite an introverted personality, the freedom to open the fullness of my expressive potential was invigorating. That I could speak music with black and white and Latino and Middle Eastern friends and strangers, and that we could tap deeply into each other's expressive souls was a gift I had to pursue.  
And that I could possibly lead others to that freedom...well, that's why conducting is the job for me.


Review: What musical influences - both classical and contemporary - helped inform and inspire your interest and sensibilities towards music in general, and choral music in particular?
Glen Thomas: Oh my. Where does one begin...better yet, how could one stop once he begins? 
I was taught conducting by my high school choir conductor - a phenomenal mentor. And he and I are close friends and colleagues now. It was he who introduced me to Maestro Robert Shaw's work. Shaw pioneered the art of conducting choirs in America. He builds a performance like a house. He was meticulous, incredibly demanding, profoundly genuine, a masterful musician. I use Robert Shaw techniques every rehearsal I ever conduct.  
Perhaps more importantly, I'm driven by my years of growing up attending a church (several days a week) whose music was almost invariably gospel. More than love, I am spiritually tethered to the feeling you get when you hear or engender music that makes your body move. Think about it. From the time we're born, we're banging on highchair tables and swinging our bodies around when we here great rhythm. In that sense, rhythm is fundamental to how we discover the world and each other. So, even as we work with Mozart's Requiem, our primary focus is tapping into a rhythmic pulse that will sweep our audience right on to the magic carpet. I'm doing vocal percussion while the choir rehearses a fugue; the singers are snapping their figures like they were swinging a jazz tune. We're infusing the beauty of this remarkable, timeless score with the living rhythm of our own bodies.  
But here's the most telling list. Here are some of the artists in my iPod's "Dog Walk" playlist: 
Bobby McFerrin, Fred Hammond (a leading modern gospel recording artist), Ethel Merman, Mozart (for obvious reasons), Ella Fitzgerald, TalkFine (a local band here in Ann Arbor) and a little Beyonce to round things out.


Review: Having graduated from Vanderbilt University and also done post-graduate work at The University of Michigan, what experiences and knowledge did you glean from your studies that you have found to be most useful in terms of furthering your own musical vision and aspirations?


Glen Thomas: I studied voice at Vanderbilt, in the studio of a particularly gifted performer, Gayle Shay. I was particularly enthralled by her ability to stimulate my logical mind while opening my voice to sounds and expressive nuances I had never heard before.  
I think it was crucial to my choral philosophy to study with her. I work to continually expand and open the imaginative tools within my singers, while offering them the methodical means to turn mental conception into nuanced vocal sounds deeply connected to the vivid images we discover in our music.


Review: I realize that you've only recently started as conductor of The Saginaw Choral Society, but am interested in your impressions about factors within the Society that you also feel distinguish it and make it special.  Also, I would be interested in some of your own goals and things you would like to achieve with the group as its director.


Glen Thomas: Every choir in the world is a unique construction, as it is filled with the singular histories and imaginations of its people. Saginaw Choral Society comprises and partners with the community's greatest thinkers and artists. And so the voice of Saginaw Choral Society is the voice of the great people of Saginaw. It is our community's great voice.  
And at the same time that this stature influences the precision of the rehearsal process (I tend to lead a quick- paced, highly- focused and--I hope--deeply engaging rehearsal), it also means that the work that we do must be deeply relevant to the community we represent. I'd like to build a stellar sound, but also stellar community outreach. And we've begun by visiting many of the area's schools and by engineering creative charity and outreach projects that work to stimulate our community's growing health.  
Our work is to be a community choir. And community is the biggest part of that term.  
Review: Please tell me a bit about this upcoming performance of 'Mozart's Requiem'.  It sounds like a fascinating story-line and pertinent to many contemporary conflicts and issues facing many Americans in today's society.  Why did you select this piece and how are you going about translating it - are there any elements contained within it that you are trying to bring out or render differently?


Glen Thomas: Isn't it interesting that a piece like this can at once be a staple of the world's concert music repertoire and be filled will so many issues of family financial turmoil, class dichotomy and personal devotion? 
Mozart's last years were marked by economic insecurity--Mozart's lifestyle often proved more expensive than his income (many of us have been there!). This cycle had pushed Mozart's family to the brink of bankruptcy. Consider this incomparable legend, whose name is familiar even to those who've never intentionally experienced concert music, struggled with keeping his home.  
So it became very important to accept as many jobs writing scores as possible. The commission for Requiem was funded by a Viennese count in memory of his departed wife, Anna. He began the work, finishing several movements and fragments of others. But his death in 1791 left the score with a significant amount of unfinished material. Mozart's family debts did not depart with him, however.  
Mozart's widow, Constanze, kept that fact a secret, hoping to enlist a composer to complete Requiem without alerting the count and risking a cancelled commission. It was Mozart's former student, Franz Süßmayr, who would flesh out the fragments. I'll remind you that this was a covert operation, Süßmayr could not simply compose his own ideas. Rather, he worked to seamlessly integrate Mozart's voice with his own. You might say, Süßmayr's job was to accomplish a musical resuscitation of one of the world's most brilliant creative minds. Talk about pressure.  
All, quite literally, to pay the rent.  
And here's where experiencing this work with Saginaw Choral Society gets very interesting. On a screen above the stage, we'll mark the exact points at which Mozart's pen stops and Süßmayr's begins. At times, the exchange is virtually imperceptible. At others, the difference is hilariously jarring. We'll lead our audience through this experience, offering a chance to hear the monumental work in a way you're certain never to have experienced before.  
We'll pair Requiem with a set of spirituals and short independent works from the modern area of music. In some ways, this can act as a musical palette cleanser. But the real purpose is to allow our own American contemporary concert music to speak and interact with this legendary work...to link the current American experience/conflicts/issues to those to their 200-year-old Austrian counterparts. 
Review: Can you also please tell me a bit about the last performance of the season, 'African Sanctus' and what it is about this piece that drew you towards it?


Glen Thomas: British composer David Fanshawe, much like Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, was fascinated with traveling the world to discover new music. Essentially, his life was a much cooler version of what we do on Youtube!  
For African Sanctus, Fanshawe traveled down the Nile River in East Africa, stopping at whatever villages would welcome him. He would learn about the music and dance and body expressions that characterized each tribe or people. He recorded countless excerpts of these musics as he went along, for the purpose of creating one large musical journal of his discoveries. 
The result is African Sanctus, a piece for choir, soloists, and unconventional orchestra (including electric guitar and keyboards), audiotape and slide projector. The piece effortlessly weaves the East African soundscape with Fanshawe's British musical mind. At once the piece is liturgically Christian and Muslim, it is both African and European, both a grippingly sensitive concert work and a bombastic multimedia explosion. 
An adventurous programming choice, I think. And that's why I've given the piece a prime spot in our season. The music itself is fantastically engaging. But the beauty that arises from these many cultures and peoples interacting in this musical dance is a metaphor for Saginaw and for Michigan's health and wholeness.
Review: What do you feel is the most challenging components involved with serving as conductor of The Saginaw Choral Society and what are some of your short-term and long-term goals with the group?


Glen Thomas: The choral society has worked for 76 years to offer musical experiences whose excellence and engagement match the excellent potential of Saginaw's people. The challenge now is to expand that work to welcome an even more diverse audience. 
And so, at the beginning of my work with Saginaw, I set out to lead the ensemble to relevant, engaging, uncompromisingly excellent performances without exception. If we can draw an audience into musical experiences, which invigorate the creative spirit, we can help to stimulate the innovative solutions that will strengthen and re-build our community.  
Because I believe in Saginaw and in Saginaw's people, I chose repertoire that stirs the imagination and we prepare those pieces meticulously. We are uncompromising in our artistic fastidiousness. And we endeavor to paint musical tapestries that both reflect and stimulate the growing creative minds of our great people.  
It means there are no throwaway concerts. Nothing left to chance. Every second filled with the thrill of freeing the community spirit to sing and to be heard.


Review: Feel free to add any additional thoughts or comments on any areas that I may not have touched upon.


Glen Thomas: It's been fantastic reflecting on these questions with you. You honor my life's work and devotion by offering such thoughtful questions for my reflection. Thank you.


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