Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ramo Award Acceptance Speech

This is the talk I gave at Thornton Commencement upon receiving the Thornton School's highest honor:


I’m periodically asked, if I had to do it over again, would I? Would I spend more than half of my life conducting collegiate choral ensembles?  The answer is always yes.  I have been immensely fulfilled by my work—by my 22 years of music making with undergraduates at two previous institutions, and by the chance to teach and rehearse a lot of graduate students for 15 years at this one.  I have spent my entire professional career at the college level—have enjoyed every second of score study, 59 out of every 60 minutes of rehearsal, 45 out of every 60 minutes of classes and private lessons.  I’ve even managed to enjoy up to 10 out of every 60 minutes of committee meetings. 

Anyway you cut it, I’m a lucky man.  I’ve often heard people at occasions like this say that they were so actualized by their work that they would have done it for free.  I might have, too. Until I came to USC, a lot of people seemed determined to let me try just that.  But my family and I have always had everything we needed and even a few things that we wanted, materially anyway, which is all that money can really do for us.

So yes, you betcha I’d do it over.

What I didn’t expect was the degree of respect and affection I have received from students over the years.  I have two folders in my files, one labeled Ego File and one labeled Soul Food. I used the former for kind cards and letters from students; I would dig it out when feeling insecure and feckless. In the process of weeding my files, though, I decided to do away with the Soul Food file.  That’s because all of the wonderful things that the students have said to me really do satisfy my soul, get right down to where my obsessions are—I just got it wrong about the Ego part.  It was enough for me that those closest to me in my work considered me a good man, an inspiring teacher and one helluva conductor.  That is why they are represented so thoroughly at my table today—I couldn’t have done what I have done without them.

Because we conductors are essentially parasites, you see.  We need a host body to nourish us, feed us, keep us alive.  That host is the ensemble, which could exist without us.  Conductors don’t exist without ensembles, though, and I often wish more of them would keep that in mind.  But I’m starting to rant again, which I want to avoid.

Speaking of Ego:  I want it clear at this point that, while here, I didn’t do the professional convention appearances, the European competitions, the concerts with the LA Phil and Helmuth Rilling, for me.  I did them for the school. I really did do them to re-ratify the importance of choral music on this campus, to make it important again to my colleagues and my bosses, to make it again a thing of wonder, justifiable pride, and long-term efficacy in the lives of hundreds of young people.  Because only choral music has these magic ingredients:  God’s own instrument, the human voice; humankind’s finest achievement, language, and the marvelous ingredient of a bunch of determined, dedicated, occasionally inspired people who are all—literally--on the same page of great music at the same instant, whilst picking pitches and vowels out of the ether--no valves, keys, fingerboards, or animal skins to rely on.

It is the ultimate team sport.

That alone was enough for me.

Imagine then, my surprise when my colleagues gave me this particular award.  I was stunned.  I was speechless.  I had chills, and I damned near cried in front of Dorothy Ditmer and Giulio Ongaro, when they announced it to me.  I had no idea that my colleagues on the faculty of one of the five finest music schools in the country considered me—Minnesota Me—worthy of this great music school’s highest honor.

My teachers, Charles Hirt and James Vail, received this award.  My student colleagues from my time at USC, Morten Lauridsen and Rick Lesemann received this award. To be in such company is more of an honor than I could possibly have hoped to attain.  I am not their equal—I don’t presume that—but I consider it the highest possible professional achievement to merely be listed on the same page with them in the future, forever.


I am almost out of words ("Deo gracias," say you).  I have to say that I really do hope that I have done USC proud, because it has certainly done me proud.

I thank the colleagues who considered me worthy of this, as well as those who have worked with me so amenably the past decade and a half—Terry Cravens, Giulio, Bryan, Debora, and Alan Smith, especially.  I thank bosses who gave me opportunities I might not otherwise have had, especially Rob Cutietta, the finest boss of my entire career, who said, simply, regarding the then-impending 2006 Asian Tour:  "It’s your turn; it’s choral music’s turn."

Mostly, though, I thank the students.  They made it all go. They always have, and I suspect they always will.


I must thank you all, too, for enduring this happy nonsense that I have just tried to articulate.  Please enjoy the rest of your day, possibly with someone you love.

Good afternoon.

Los Angeles, 10 May 2007

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Hirts: Lucy and Charles

The publication of an article about one of my main mentors, Charles Hirt, in the recent Choral Journal got me to thinking and reminiscing a bit.  I'm quoted twice in the article, both quotes from a presentation in 1996 where I was asked to introduce him.  I got to know him well, finally, after coming to USC in 1992, twenty-three years after leaving grad school at USC.  I went over to his home in Glendale many times and visited him before his death in 2001.

But the best part of seeing him again was to get to know his wife Lucy for the first time, really.  After his death, I still went to see Lucy quite a bit; she was always dressed beautifully and I always mixed our drinks at the little bar in their little den: vodka tonic for her, scotch for me.  She was a francophone and francophile of the first order, a superb musician, a wonderful conductor, a great organizer, and an extremely intelligent woman.  She was also charming as could be in the Olde Worlde sense; charming, yes; stuffy, no.

She wanted so much for Charles' work to be more recognized than it was, and donated all of his papers to ACDA immediately after his death.  That donation has finally borne fruit but far too late for her to see it.  I am glad that some recognition has finally come and hope it continues: Believe me, compared with that man, many of today's current famous 'giants' are midgets in comparison. I'll be 70 in a month; I can say that now. (So, Shawna Stewart, finish that treatise and publish the sucker. OK?)

One of the things of which I am most proud is what Lucy thought of my book Chorus Confidential.  Upon reading it, she wrote me this letter.  It is my favorite 'review.' It is one of my most treasured possessions.

Charles Hirt Photos, Choral Journal, ACDA -- August 2012