The Connecticut-based professional choir, CONCORA, recently named internationally-renowned Bach scholar, Dr. Christopher Shepard, as its new Artistic Director, following the retirement of founder, Richard Coffey. CONCORA is producing a unique Bach Festival this month, which will culminate in a performance of the St. John Passion on March 20, 2016 at 4:00pm at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford. Tickets are available here.
I conducted the following interview with Dr. Shepard in 2015 shortly after he accepted the position with CONCORA:
Congratulations on your appointment as CONCORA’s new Artistic Director! What is most exciting to you about assuming that post?
It’s so hard to say what’s most exciting about taking up my new position as Artistic Director of CONCORA, because so many things about it are exciting! But perhaps more than anything, I’m excited about the new challenge of working with a fully professional choir. I’ve loved my career of teaching high school and working with avocational singers, but I am really looking forward to working with trained singers who bring such a wealth of choral experience to their work with CONCORA. I anticipate a real sense of collaboration between the singers and me.
Please share a bit about your musical background and your philosophy of conducting.
I began my musical life as a pianist and choral singer. Over the years, I added organ (which I play well enough to be a church service player, but I’d never call myself an organist!) and harpsichord. My father and grandfather were both professional singers, and although I myself don’t have the large, rich instruments that they had, I’ve always instinctively thought like a singer. Because of that, my philosophy of conducting is steeped in the voice: I feel that my job as a conductor is to bring the best out of each singer in an ensemble, first by encouragement and support and second by (hopefully positive) correction.
Can you talk about some of the mentors and role models who have been most influential in your life?
Part of the reason that I’m so excited to be returning to Hartford is that I encountered so many of my mentors here, both at the Hartt School and at the Yale School of Music. One of those CT mentors, Pam Perry, was actually my first mentor, though in Montpelier, Vermont, where she was my middle and high school choral director, before she went to Hartt to get her DMA and then run the choral program. In my senior year, I took a Bach seminar with Kerala Snyder, who had just completed the seminal book on Dietrich Buxtehude. She introduced me to the importance of understanding musicology, particularly the significance of influences that preceded major composers like J.S. Bach.
At Yale, Maggi Brooks became a pivotal figure in my musical development; her elegant conducting technique, capacious intellect, encyclopedic knowledge of the repertoire and unremittingly high level of score preparation continue to inspire (and sometimes chasten) me, thirty years after first studying with her. I also loved my two summers at the Oregon Bach Festival studying with Helmuth Rilling, whose unparalleled understanding of Bach’s choral music was inspirational.
You spent many years teaching and directing choirs in Australia. In what ways did your work in that country affect your conducting technique and your perspective as a musician?
My dozen years teaching and conducting in Sydney represented a real “coming of age” period for me. Sydney is an amazingly musical city, not only with the resident ensembles in the fabled Opera House, but also with the world-class Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, a very fine period instrument ensemble. I was able to draw on the high standard of playing and singing there to form the Sydneian Bach Choir & Orchestra, with whom I performed all of Bach’s major choral works; I also conducted the first half of a complete choral cantata cycle. I loved my years in Sydney, and I return every summer to visit friends and do some conducting—it’s an amazing place.
Please explain a little bit about your fascination (or obsession, perhaps?) with music of J.S. Bach.
Perhaps not a clinical ‘obsession’, Tom, but yes, I confess to a deep love and respect for Bach’s music! I wish I could say that it began with my keyboard playing, but like so many other pianists, I found the preludes and fugues hard going in high school. It was actually my first fall at Hartt that did it for me; one of the first works I sang there was cantata BWV4, Christ lag in Todesbanden. Perhaps more than anything else, it was the inner, driving rhythms that got me—my understanding of counterpoint came later, but at that point, it was the inexorable energy at the core of the music. Even after all the Bach I’ve done, it’s still that sense of inner rhythm that provides my initial experience for each new piece. But from there, I love the process of score analysis and finding many (though never all) of the hidden musical and theological messages that Bach imbeds in the music. It’s like doing a puzzle—though one that can never be properly solved.
If you could only conduct one musical work during your lifetime, what would it be and why?
Easy: Bach’s B Minor Mass. It contains every form of western choral music up to 1750; and since so many composers since then have been inspired by Bach, you can see the seed of nearly every type of choral music that followed.
Please describe some of your current research interests.
My two major research interests reflect my two major musical interests—teaching and Bach. On the teaching end, I’ve been focusing for several years on the male changing voice; since I taught at a boys’ school in Sydney and led more than 1000 boys through their voice change, it has been a natural focus. I do a lot of work with teacher training on this subject, particularly in Sydney. In terms of Bach, I’ve been reworking my PhD thesis, which looked at the evolution of Bach performance practice just before the widespread acceptance of period instruments for Baroque performances.
How would you describe your “ideal choral sound”?
This has really changed over the years. My ears were really trained initially by Gerry Mack—a beautiful, rich sound with a considerable amount of vibrato. In my senior year at Hartt, James Jordan joined the faculty; he introduced me to Frauke Haasemann and the whole Westminster approach to choral music, which also shaped my vocal soundscape conception. Although I am not a pedantic vibrato opponent, I must say that constant exposure to Bach recordings, as well as European recordings, has slowly changed my preference over the years to a choral sound that favors a lighter soprano vocal mechanism, while keeping a vibrant and ringing tone for the lower three parts. I find it endlessly fascinating: as my doctoral research showed me, “ideal choral sound” is very much rooted in each era’s current Zeitgeist.
Please share something about yourself that has nothing to do with music.
I am an addictive reader, and as any of my friends can tell you, I’m never seen without my Kindle. I love fiction, but I’m also a huge fan of politics and history—I think my favorite set of non-fiction books is Robert Caro’s magisterial multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. I also love to run, and have been a runner since middle school… though I have to admit that these days, I much prefer running down the Greenway on the west side of Manhattan, where I currently live, to those brutal hills of my native Vermont!
This interview is also published on the CT ACDA blog.
An article by Steve Mecalf about Dr. Shepard’s debut concert with CONCORA is posted on the WNPR Arts Blog.
CONCORA’s videos and podcasts, such as the ones below, can be found at concora.org/podcasts.