Making Beautiful Music
September 22, 2009
Katherine FitzGibbon adds a new dynamic to Lewis & Clark’s vocal music program.
by Ellisa Valo
Performing a funeral mass might seem like an odd way to conclude a year of rebirth and renewal. But Katherine FitzGibbon knew what she was doing when she chose Mozart’s Requiem for the concert that culminated her first year as Lewis & Clark’s director of choral activities. The ambitious and triumphant performance both celebrated and brilliantly demonstrated how far the college’s vocal music program has come in the past year.
The 2007-08 academic year ended with fewer than 40 students participating in a single choir. By the end of 2008-09, nearly 100 vocalists were singing in two choirs and a third ensemble.
Ask FitzGibbon to explain the explosive growth of the program, and she points to tradition, timing, and supportive colleagues. Ask her students, and they point at her–her energy, her enthusiasm, her ideas, and, at the core, her love of music.
“If you are presenting music that students want to sing–music that’s important–it will draw them in,” says senior Ariana Lenarsky, a voice performance major.
Will Preston, a first-year student majoring in music composition, concurs: “I mean, tackling Mozart’s Requiem–who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”
The Requiem performances–one on campus and a second downtown–seemed to pull in the entire Lewis & Clark music community. Onstage, some 140 vocal and instrumental performers joined forces to present the college’s first major collaborative choral-orchestral work in more than two decades. In the audience, hundreds of students and alumni of all ages gathered to bear witness. At the final performance were two special guests–Betty Glarum, the widow of Stanley Glarum, choral director from 1947 to 1975, and Gilbert Seeley, the James W. Rogers Professor of Music from 1975 to 2008–who, together with FitzGibbon, represented three generations of Lewis & Clark vocal music leadership.
This being Portland, it’s worth noting that all of these people willingly abandoned the warmth of a rare, sun-drenched April afternoon to sit indoors, in a dimly lit hall, and drink in the darkness of Mozart’s final masterpiece.
No one regretted the choice.
Even when the massive carillon of the First Methodist Church contributed to a grander-than-planned finale, clanging out its six o’clock bells just as the choir and orchestra reached the last climactic moments of the final performance–even then, no one was disappointed. Only a slight shrug of FitzGibbon’s shoulders as she continued conducting suggested that anyone even noticed. Sopranos soared, basses bellowed, and audience members leaped to their feet, sharing the performers’ giddy euphoria at what had been accomplished.
“I knew the Requiem would be a challenge for the students, but one that was absolutely attainable,” says FitzGibbon, “and they rose to it beautifully.”
FitzGibbon had been teaching and conducting for about 10 years, and singing for most of her life, before she joined Lewis & Clark’s music faculty last year. Having experienced both the liberal arts environment (during her undergraduate training at Princeton University) and the conservatory environment (at the University of Michigan, where she earned her master’s degree in conducting, and at Boston University, where she completed her doctorate in musical arts), she knew that she wanted to teach in a liberal arts college. Fortunately for Lewis & Clark, the timing of her job hunt coincided with the college’s search for a permanent choral director.
“During my interviews for the position, I had an immediate sense from both the department and the administrators that they wanted to build a very strong, active choral program here,” says FitzGibbon. “The faculty, including Gil, my predecessor, could not have been more supportive and welcoming. The students were fantastic–very bright and motivated. And the quality and comprehensiveness of the department really excited me. I just fell in love.” Although she had interviews lined up at several other colleges and universities, FitzGibbon didn’t think twice when she received the job offer. “I canceled all of the other interviews and said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks–I’m going to Lewis & Clark.’ “
FitzGibbon began composing the idea for the Requiem performance well before the school year began. In her summer post as the head of faculty at the Berkshire Choral Festival, she prepares the chorus for huge choral orchestral works every summer. “I’ve experienced firsthand how exciting it is to be part of that, and I really wanted to bring that experience to the Lewis & Clark community,” she says.
In a visit to the campus in spring 2008, she mentioned the idea to Lewis & Clark’s orchestra conductor, George Skipworth, who was immediately and enthusiastically supportive. She met with students and ran the idea past them, as well, and “their faces lit up,” she says. “I thought this would be a great way to get the entire music department involved and to really show the students what they were capable of accomplishing. It also occurred to me that this might bring greater visibility to the department and bring more students into the fold.”
She was right on all counts. As word spread–and FitzGibbon, who excels at publicity, made sure it did–more students began joining the choirs. By the time rehearsals for the Requiem began in January, the choirs had more than doubled in size, and the entire music department was immersed in Mozart. Professor of Music Nora Beck focused on Mozart in her Exploration and Discovery course. Students discussed the cultural and historical contexts of Mozart’s life and work as they debated the appropriate phrasing and articulation for various sections. “Everybody was walking around campus singing it,” says Ariana Lenarsky. “Students were dreaming about the Requiem at night. It got into our heads.”
For FitzGibbon, nothing could have been more rewarding. “They really got into it,” she says. “Lewis & Clark’s liberal arts environment fuels the kind of scholarly inquiry that deepens students’ appreciation of the music. Not only did they enjoy performing to a full house, but they took pride in having achieved this very rich and deep understanding of the music. I think they came away taking themselves much more seriously as musicians.”
In case it isn’t already obvious, FitzGibbon is something of a choir evangelist. “There’s something really special about singing in a choir,” she says. “It’s bigger than yourself. You’re one voice, but one critical voice within a larger ensemble, and together you’re able to tackle something as monumental as Mozart’s Requiem. It’s something none of us could achieve individually, but together we can.”
One of her goals this past year has been to open up more opportunities for Lewis & Clark students to sing in choirs. To that end, she reopened the Women’s Chorus, which had been dissolved three years ago. Rowena Held, who describes herself as “a music person, but not a music major” (she graduates in August with a double major in math and physics), joined at the urging of her housemate, Lenarsky. “It was nice for us less-experienced singers to have the chance to sing, too,” she says. “Choir was the one thing I was always excited to go to. It’s just so worthwhile to come to campus to spend two hours making beautiful music.”
FitzGibbon also launched a new Chamber Vocal Ensemble, a smaller group that gives advanced students an opportunity to sing works written for fewer voices.
And by ramping up promotion of auditions and concerts, she grew Cappella Nova, the mixed choir, from about 40 to more than 60 singers. “We’ve come so far since the beginning of the year,” says bass singer Will Preston, “that if we keep going up at this level, I can’t imagine where we’ll be in four years–maybe atop Mount Olympus.”
FitzGibbon has a lot of ideas about where she would like to take the vocal program in the future. She’s working on plans to build on some of the traditions of her predecessors, and to start a few new traditions of her own.
One tradition she definitely wants to restore is that of going on tour with the choir during spring break. Touring was a big part of the Lewis & Clark choir experience under Stanley Glarum’s leadership, and it contributed to the choir’s high profile and respected reputation up and down the West Coast. Beyond restoring that tradition, she hopes someday to expand on it by taking a choir overseas, as well.
Many Lewis & Clark graduates will be pleased to learn that FitzGibbon also plans to bring back the alumni choir this December. Singers interested in being a part of that can contact her through the college website.
Among other new initiatives, FitzGibbon hopes to start either a men’s choir to complement the Women’s Chorus, or a Lewis & Clark community choir, which would be open to alumni, staff members, students from the law and graduate schools, and other campus colleagues.
More collaborative opportunities, both on and off campus, are also high on her list. On campus, she has enlisted the Latin American Studies Program, the Gender Studies Program, and the Graduate School of Education and Counseling to help her bring powerhouse Venezuelan choral conductor Maria Guinand to the college for a weeklong residency and performance with the choirs, potentially in April 2011. Off campus, she is kicking around several ideas for working with local arts organizations, such as the Oregon Repertory Singers, which Gil Seeley directs. “We’ve had some lovely opportunities for collaboration with his organization, including the fact that we share a choral music library,” says FitzGibbon.
With the continued growth of the program as another priority, FitzGibbon has been doing guest conducting and recruiting events at local high schools to raise awareness among the next generation of choral singers. “When students start looking for a liberal arts college with a strong music program, I want them to immediately think of Lewis & Clark,” she says. “So far, the admissions yield among musicians for 2009-10 is quite high, so I think we’re doing really well.”
The only limitation to her plans, as far as she can foresee, is simple, physical space. Already, she finds that she has to employ creative scheduling to fit a growing population of singers into a limited number of practice rooms. But these, she acknowledges, are lucky people’s problems.
“It may sound cliché,” says FitzGibbon, “but looking toward the future of the vocal program, I feel a sense of limitless possibility. Every idea I’ve discussed with my students and my colleagues has been met with the same response: ‘That would be great! How can we make it happen?’ “
As she picks up the baton to begin her second year at Lewis & Clark, everyone seems to be on the same page, singing in harmony. And it sounds beautiful.
Ellisa Valo writes from her home on the Clackamas River, and sings in her car.
To listen to podcasts about the growth of the vocal performance program and the preparation for the Requiem performance, visit go.lclark.edu/chronicle/requiem.