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Letter to the Editor: Dr. Michael Culloton

I am writing in response to Emma Garton’s opinion piece from March 16 titled “All ensembles are not created equal.” I found myself at odds with her writing at several points, and am thus responding to those points on which I believe she has overstepped with her comments. My vantage point is one that makes me uniquely qualified to respond as I am the conductor of three of the “lower” ensembles that she wrote about in her article: Chapel Choir, Kantorei, and Cantabile. I’ll show my hand immediately by taking offense to her own term, “lower,” to describe valued ensembles and students here at Concordia. In my five years on the faculty, I have never heard another member of the faculty or administration use such a term to describe any of our ensembles. That kind of term only serves to set students into a defensive mode and turn the dialogue into a place of negativity and low self-worth. I do not believe we need to go there, and my students must know by now that I do not see them as second-rate citizens on campus!

I’d like to pause to state this clearly: I am not meaning to negate the feelings that our students may have about perceived inequalities with their musical experiences. Every instructor in our building works very hard to provide the best musical and educational experience in their ensembles and classrooms, but students will still perceive things to be unfair, and they are entitled to do so. That being said, and I may say it again to be even more clear, I’d like to offer some points for clarification and consideration. Please note that my comments will be limited to the choral program in which I work.

I would first like to remind Ms. Garton that choral music is irrevocably linked to the Lutheran liberal arts tradition. The immigrants that came to America from Norway, most notably F. Melius Christiansen, brought with them a tradition of choral singing that is at the heart of many of the Lutheran colleges that we claim as sister institutions. This is not to say that instrumental music has no place on our campuses. My colleagues here and the students in our ensembles know that I place a high value on the work they do to advance the mission of the college, recruit future students, and grow as musicians in this place. We do this work together on behalf of a wonderful student body and the tradition of distinction that we are known for upholding through the diligent pursuit of musical excellence in all of our ensembles.

I’d like to offer Ms. Garton my thanks for her kind remarks about Chapel Choir, Kantorei and Cantabile. I am continually inspired by the work of the singers in these three choirs, which I am continually thankful to conduct. However, I must take issue with her statement that “the lower choirs receive almost no recognition whatsoever” and that “these groups are often overlooked.” I do not find this to be true at all, and I work on a daily basis to combat such feelings, though I will grant my students the right to feel whatever they want about this. In fact, I know that many of the singers in my choirs are greatly disappointed when they don’t get selected to sing in our flagship choir, The Concordia Choir, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to draw the best out of each of them. My singers’ goals for themselves become my goals for them. If you want to sing in our wonderful flagship choir, then I want to help get you into it! (And I will celebrate with you the day it happens!)

Before my time at Concordia, I was the Artistic Director of two community-based choral organizations. One of them was a youth organization comprised of five choirs with singers in grades 3 through 12. It was very clear to me that we could not function as five flagship ensembles due to the financial restrictions of our organization. Instead, it was essential that we had a single choir that served as our flagship group while we still provided great opportunities for ALL of our singers. That is what I feel like we do very well at Concordia.

For example, this past fall I took Cantabile to the ACDA of Minnesota’s annual Men’s and Women’s Festival held at St. John’s University. The women of Cantabile were a featured college choir that day and served our college well singing for an audience of more than 500 high school singers (potential Cobbers). This was not an inexpensive venture, but it was worth every penny of the thousands of dollars it cost to rent two busses, purchase music, and buy them all lunch on the campus. Kantorei was able to give the premiere performance of a new piece by

Twin Cities-based composer Ralph Johnson, and is collaborating with Symphonia and the theater department on a concert version of the musical CHESS. The Chapel Choir just completed our annual spring tour during which we sang for three great choral programs in the state and presented four formal concerts in churches and the Centrum. We feel really blessed by the opportunity to take our music on the road and share it with audiences, and I bet the length of tour is just right for a great number of my singers.

And to that point, it needs to be said that we ask a great deal of the Concordia Choir (and Dr. Clausen!) when we send them on the road for 15 days to share their music with packed churches and prospective students. This is a sacrifice that I think was lost in your article. The students give up their spring break and a week of classes to participate, and they work very, very hard during the tour serving on crews and sleeping in different places every night. But, I digress, if only slightly.

One other statement of Ms. Garton’s made me recoil, and I’d like to address that and set the record straight. She stated that “to have this lack of cohesion within a single department is an issue that needs to be acknowledged. There’s even a similar issue within the choir department itself.” Let me be clear yet again: NO, THERE IS NOT. There may be choral programs in the United States that are as cohesive as ours, but there are none that I can identify that are more so. Our choral program is collaborative and collegial, and Dr. Clausen and I share the belief that we are stronger because of this. That doesn’t mean that you won’t find a singer who feels it is a completely fair situation, but I’d sit with any of them to try and convince them otherwise (and to separate their emotions from the facts at hand).

For example, you may recall that we produced a Christmas concert that was taped for public television this past December. It was a brilliant collaboration with all four of our choirs and our flagship orchestra, the Concordia Orchestra. One of our sister institutions also tapes a Christmas production that only includes their flagship choir. Let that sink in… our Christmas special showed all four choirs and the orchestra (and lots of time for everybody!), and a sister college showcases only one choir. I use this television taping as an example, but I am proud of the fact that all of our singers get to participate fully in the concert every year, including our quick trip to Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis where we do the concert twice in one evening.

Another sister institution is presenting the performance of a masterwork at Orchestra Hall soon, and they are only bringing their flagship choir and orchestra, leaving hundreds of students behind and not including them in the project. On April 8, all four of our choirs and the Concordia Orchestra will be presenting the premiere of Dr. Clausen’s new oratorio ‘The Passion of Jesus Christ’ at Orchestra Hall and we’ll do the same the next day on our campus. ALL of our singers are involved – none are left behind.

These are just two examples of why this was one of the most egregious oversteps in Ms. Garton’s article. Had I been asked, I would have fervently argued this assumption and discussed the unified spirit that our choral program possesses. There is no schism, and I am disappointed that such an assertion was made.

Lastly, I think that Ms. Garton’s effort to assert that the Concordia Choir receives standing ovations based on reputation and not their “current status” is rude and offensive, which does not mean that she can’t say such things. None of us should spend too much time wondering why audiences rise to their feet for one performance and not another because the reasons will rarely satisfy our curiosity. Sometimes people have been moved beyond measure by a performance, and other times the audience will simply be tired of sitting in their seats. Whatever the reason, Ms. Garton’s argument is clearly that she does not believe that the Concordia Choir deserved such an ovation at the Music Scholarship concert. This came across as petty and immature, lessening the impact of the rest of her article. I also thought that her flippant dismissal of the number of Grammys that Dr. Clausen has won (zero, for the record… though a CD featuring his compositions did win one) was distasteful. We should never beat down one group of people to try and raise up others, and this lesson was forgotten in Ms. Garton’s article.

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