It would be difficult to overstate the impact that Richard Coffey’s work has had on the choral music scene in Connecticut over the past four decades. His visionary leadership, commitment to artistic excellence, and dedication to community outreach have played vital roles in raising the bar for choral singing statewide.
Coffey has held several prominent positions, including Director of Music at New Britain’s historic South Church and Music Director of the Hartford Chorale, but he is probably most widely known for his work as Founding Artistic Director of CONCORA, one of New England’s few professional concert choirs. Coffey’s entrepreneurial zeal, keen intellect, passion for great choral repertoire, and a “let’s get right down to business” approach have helped to create in CONCORA a unique organization that is recognized not only for its high artistic standards, but also for the strong sense of community that it fosters among singers, conductors, and audiences throughout the region.
As a rehearsal technician, Coffey is meticulous, well prepared, and efficient. He thinks through every detail, artistic and logistical. He has a loyal following among singers in part because he understands how to push people hard while maintaining a warm, collegial, and supportive atmosphere. He has a terrific sense of humor, and he is not shy about incorporating it into his rehearsals. He runs a very tight ship but is also sensitive to the fact that the “instruments” in his ensemble are human beings, and that laughter and friendship make the music sound better. He is much more than just a superb musician and a gifted conductor; he is a consummate leader whose thoughts and actions reflect a deliberately holistic perspective on the music making process. The rewards of hard work are generally self-evident to professional artists, but, even so, Coffey always goes out of his way to convey to his singers how much their efforts are appreciated.
Richard Coffey retired from CONCORA in 2014. During his final season as Artistic Director, I had an opportunity to interview him about his 40 years with the organization.
Please describe CONCORA in your own words.
CONCORA is the region’s first all-professional concert choir, created to provide performers and listeners the opportunity to be exposed to and enriched by great music that might not otherwise come their way.
What have been the greatest rewards of working with CONCORA over the past four decades?
The presentation of new, unusual, beguiling, and often traditional works, by association with area professional vocalists and instrumentalists. Working at a “fever-pitched” level of high expectations of ourselves as we serve as “resurrectionists” for the composers, both living and not.
What have been the greatest challenges?
Addressing the often widespread notion that choral music is a lesser art than instrumental music and that “anything goes” as to programming and performance criteria. Unfortunately, there is often a lower standard of expectation for choral endeavors. Those who attend high-profile choral concerts discern the difference. Those who yawn at the art, and thus ignore it, because there seems to be a chorus on every corner, are missing out on some great experiences.
What are some of the best decisions that you and/or the organization have made over the years?
To insist upon equitable compensation for the artists who compose CONCORA, thus raising the bar for what is expected of them and raising their own sense of merit for having their talent deemed worthy of such compensation.
If you could go back and do something differently, what would it be?
Have more rehearsals, noting that my love of rehearsing can be expressed as, “The reason we give concerts is so that we may rehearse.”
Your passion, vision, and artistic leadership have clearly been instrumental in supporting CONCORA’s growth over the years. What other factors do you believe have been essential to the organization’s success and longevity?
The faithfulness of the artists has been critical to this success, and that fidelity applies not only to long-term members but to those newly on board. There is a sense of pride and purpose among them. In addition, having a dedicated and hard-working board of directors cannot be overestimated. The devotion of the board and their work within the community on behalf of CONCORA keep us afloat, and joyfully so.
How have you seen the landscape of professional choruses in the United States change over the past 40 years?
There are more than ever! In 1974, when CONCORA was launched, there were very few. I am thrilled to see the increase in numbers of professional choirs throughout the country. This is a signal that the public is appreciating and supporting such high-level artistry.
What makes CONCORA unique? What would you say are some aspects of the organization that distinguish it from other choral groups?
The uniqueness comes from the high standard for membership which thus makes possible the embracing of challenging repertoire that might otherwise be neglected. “Challenging” need not mean new, necessarily; it can (and does) mean the music of masters, such as, and especially, J.S. Bach. CONCORA is known for its performances of Bach and music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Other choruses have as their charge the preparation and presentation of the large-scale symphonic works of the 19th century and some decades on either side of it. There is room in the choral world for both, so that the entire choral oeuvre is prepared and performed within a given community.
How would you describe your philosophy and values as a conductor?
The score comes first; personalities come second; complaints are addressed last.
What was your original vision when you first founded CONCORA (or the South Church Choral Society)?
To provide compensated performance opportunities to young people emerging from collegiate studies and to offer the concert-going public the chance to hear high-quality music rendered at a high-quality level.
Can you please describe your approach to rehearsing with the group? How does your rehearsal technique with CONCORA differ from the approach you use when working with other ensembles?
My approach for preparing scores is the same for CONCORA as it is for any chorus or ensemble I am fortunate enough to conduct, and right now these include the marvelous Chancel Choir of South Church, New Britain, and the masterful, highly energized Hartford Chorale. I believe that scores should be dissected, studied, and put together from the cellar to the highest point of the roof. My approach is called “the layered technique,” and through it the music is built and absorbed one step at a time.
Of the hundreds of concerts you have conducted, are there any that stand out as particularly memorable?
The Bach St. Matthew Passion in 2001.
CONCORA has collaborated with numerous guest conductors, composers, and ensembles over the years. What have been some of the most exciting and fruitful collaborations you have enjoyed?
It is true we have been engaged by a number of area orchestras and other performing organizations. James Sinclair of Orchestra New England in New Haven was pivotal to our growth and stretching our limbs, through associations with his own outstanding ensemble and with other enterprises Maestro Sinclair recommended us for, such as a revival of the folk opera Magdalena by Villa-Lobos, putting us on the stage in New Haven and Lincoln Center (and subsequently in the CBS recording studio) with such artists as Judy Kaye, George Rose, Faith Esham, Kevin Gray, and Jerry Hadley. Through Maestro Sinclair, CONCORA became the chorus-in-residence for three years of the Bard Summer Music Festival. We have also had strong and successful associations with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and its conductors Michael Lankester, Edward Cumming, and Carolyn Kuan.
Can you share something about your work with CONCORA that people might find surprising?
Perhaps that designing a concert (selecting the repertoire and perhaps the concert’s theme itself) is one of the most difficult tasks I must address. It is rewarding, in the end, but a hard-pull along the way (chiefly because of the many musical options that are available).
Please describe some of CONCORA’s outreach initiatives.
Our annual summer festival brings together a corps of CONCORA professionals with more than a hundred choral-music aficionados, all to prepare and present, within one short week, a highly polished concert, often of a masterwork. Also, our quartet of vocalists, called CONCORA TO GO, performs concerts and “hands on” musical experiences for students in the region’s elementary and middle schools. CONCORA often presents concerts entitled “Extraordinary,” so called due to their educational and outreach intention and scope. In these, a number of regional high schools and colleges are invited to send a select choir or ensemble to rehearse and perform with each other, and CONCORA provides a large professional core. These enterprises make possible a large, well-trained chorus, and the events are held in appropriately spacious and acoustically resplendent environments. We are always pleased when a young adult professional musician contacts us later on to tell us that part of their inspiration for a career choice was their association with CONCORA’s “Extraordinary” concerts.
What process do you use for selecting repertoire?
First, choosing a given concert’s theme and then gathering all the possible scores I can find, or procure, that become the “global set” from which the concert is finally built. I also receive a large number of scores from composers who would like for us to perform their works, and I study them all, though that can take quite a while (often to the disappointment of the composers, I suspect).
How is it that the music of Bach has come to earn such a special place in CONCORA’s repertoire?
Because the music of Bach is, to me, without peer, I approach it with a deep sense of devotion and reverence. Its intricacies and sophistication appeal to me, yet, in the end, the music moves the mind and heart for reasons beyond detail and intellectual stimulation. It is so thrilling and powerful and poignant that it commands my attention more than all other music, and I have been fortunate to be able to bring Bach before our audiences in a way which I hope and believe is life-changing.
How are you feeling as you approach the conclusion of your tenure with CONCORA?
I am very invigorated by it, because I leave CONCORA at a time when it is still highly regarded by its members and its audience and at a time when we have the finest board of directors we have ever had in our history. The search process for a new artistic director is highly organized, with a blue-ribbon committee in place to see it through. Fifty-five applications have been accepted, from the Americas as well as from Europe. I am excited to see all of this unfold, and I know that it will happen in a very upbeat and upscale manner.
Do you have a dream for CONCORA in the years after you have stepped down from your post as Founding Artistic Director?
That CONCORA continue to be a principal player among the region’s major performing artists and that it continue to embrace music that otherwise would never be heard.
What are you looking forward to personally and/or professionally in your “life after CONCORA”?
I hope to be able to attend more concerts, as my current schedule, with its many duties, both day and night, often keeps me at work rather than in an audience. I have always enjoyed leading choral festivals, seminars, and workshops, and now have the time to say “yes” to more of those invitations. I also would like to be able to finish reading the New York Times on a regular basis!
For information on CONCORA’s current activities, check out www.concora.org.
This article was originally published on the CT ACDA blog in October, 2013.
An earlier interview with Richard Coffey was published here in a 2008 issue of the newsletter of the Eastern Division of ACDA.