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Kathleen Battle—Part 2: Campus

July 9, 2018

Geoffrey Boers remembers the process was like a series of bridges being built—across cultures, musical styles and perceptions.

“When the two choirs first got together, each was a little worried,” he says. “The Sound was afraid the Chamber Singers might take away from their sound and style; we, meanwhile, were afraid we wouldn’t be able to perform gospel style correctly.”

Under the direction of The Sound of the Northwest founder and director Juan Huey-Ray and UW Chamber Singers’ director Geoffrey Boers, the two choirs began rehearsing separately in early January—several months before the April concert date. A few weeks before Ms. Battle’s arrival, a handful of UW Chamber singers joined The Sound of the Northwest’s Monday night rehearsals, but there were only two “official” joint rehearsals—one about mid-way through and the other on the day before the first scheduled rehearsal with Kathleen Battle.

According to Jennifer Rodgers, a doctoral student in Choral Conducting at the UW and a member of the UW Chamber Singers, “The number one goal for both choirmasters was to prepare their choirs to be ‘ready for anything.’ They wanted to make sure we could respond to sudden changes in repertoire or other issues that might come up in the course of the week. They didn’t want Ms. Battle to be frustrated or disappointed. And of course, we wanted her to encounter as professional an experience as we could offer.”

The Sound is a community choir dedicated to increasing the universal awareness and appreciation of the rich African American musical heritage. The UW Chamber Singers, meanwhile, comprises students on a professional track and focuses on performing challenging repertoire of all periods with particular emphasis on art music of our time.

At first, Boers and Huey-Ray tried to solve the problem of combining two very different ensembles by having the Chamber Singers stand in back, their pitch and accuracy supporting the warm, rich styling coming out of The Sound of the Northwest singers. Then they tried moving The Sound in back to support the Chamber Singers as they tried to develop greater comfort with a tradition of music and singing that was unfamiliar to them. Finally, Boers and Huey-Ray just mixed the two groups together, and that’s when the magic happened.

“What happens in musical ensembles,” Boers explains, “is that everyone falls in love. And that’s what happened. We ended up celebrating the differences—that’s what art does. It lets you ‘fall in love,’ live empathetically, and step into someone else’s shoes.”

There was still one more bridge to cross together, however: Kathleen Battle. Everyone knew she could be demanding.

The first time Dr. Boers conducted the choir in front of her, her tough reputation seemed confirmed.  “Her first words to me were, ‘Don’t conduct like that!’”

Boers laughs at the memory. “I was hearing the challenges of the two choirs trying to work together, and I was trying to solve them in my best Western Art Music Conducting manner. Ms. Battle stopped me and told me I looked silly. She then told the choir, ‘If he conducts like that, don’t follow him!’”

Afterwards everyone laughed about it, but he was taken aback in the moment. Over the week, however, he watched Huey-Ray and Ms. Battle and got a good conducting lesson—and not just from them. Right before the performance itself, Joyce Matthews, one of the singers in The Sound of the Northwest pulled him aside and said, “you know, classical musicians think about the music to solve problems. In this tradition it has to be felt.” 

“I always tell my students, ‘do, then know,’” Dr. Boers says. “Feel it first and figure it out afterwards. It’s a basic premise of my teaching. But this time I had to practice it myself.”

Though Ms. Battle’s stature led choir members to fear she might be inaccessible, they discovered, instead that she was gracious on stage and off, and a truly excellent teacher—one whose technique, coupled with her authentic style, was something everyone could connect with.

“Having Kathleen Battle here was huge,” Boers says. “It was a master class in many ways. Watching her work with her accompanist; watching her coach the narrators. Her voice is still beautiful—she talked to everyone about how she sings now and how she’s negotiating her voice at the age of almost 70. It was a profound experience in so many ways.”

At the end of the performance, during the many enthusiastic audience ovations, one last bridge was crossed: Ms. Battle broke from her place in the line, ran over and held Dr. Boers’ hand.

PART 1: Community