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Learning from Eric Ericson III - Robert Sund

As you read the thoughts of various musicians who worked with Eric, you’ll discover commonalities—which is only natural—but each from a slightly different perspective.
 
For me, one of the best things about doing this series is giving me the excuse to get in touch with my Swedish friends. This week it’s Robert Sund. I met Robert in 1989, on my first trip to Sweden. But I really got to know Robert when we were judges that same year at the first Marktoberdorf competition. Since the judges’ deliberations were all done in German he helped me find the right word as we discussed the performances. I’ve had many meetings with Robert over the years, but I learned still more during this conversation.
 
Robert has a background that is out of the ordinary compared to Swedish choral conductors. He took piano lessons for 6 years (until he was 14) but his real love was jazz. He played piano, trumpet, trombone, and other instruments, listening to a lot of music (Swedish Radio had a big band in those days), formed his own band and did arrangements for them. When he went to Uppsala in 1963 to attend the famous university there (the oldest in Sweden, founded in 1477), he went to study English and his intention all along was to be an English teacher and for music to be an avocation. He hadn’t even sung at that point.
 
He auditioned for the orchestra at Uppsala on trombone, but was told that they rarely used trombones and he ought to sing. He quickly met a group of singers who heard him play jazz and they formed the Olsson Quintet, an all-male group singing jazz and other light music. He auditioned for the great men’s chorus, Orphei Drängar, conducted by Eric, in 1964, but didn’t get in that year, so sang in Allmänna Sången (one of the oldest choirs in Uppsala—formed in 1830, but had just become a mixed choir in 1963) and took voice lessons. The next year he was accepted into OD—Eric had already heard of the Olsson Quintet—and began his long association with Ericson. He says he’d never even heard of Eric when he arrived at Uppsala!
 
Robert and the Quintet became involved in the famed “Caprice” concerts which were held every December and were programs with fun, funny, and surprising elements (and usually a special, surprise guest—if you want to hear more—you can order CDs containing music from different Caprice years: here or here). Because of Robert’s skills as an arranger (again, self-taught) he was on the program committee and very involved with OD early on.
 
You should know that Eric loved jazz, so this was something he and Robert very much shared. And if you were around Eric very much or heard him sitting and improvising at the piano, you’d inevitably hear some jazz.
 
As time went on, Robert did his master’s degree in psychology (as well as musicology) at Uppsala and later worked briefly as a psychologist. However he gradually realized that music needed to be more than an avocation, so he began studies at the College of Music in 1971. He was Eric’s assistant with OD from 1968 (taking rehearsals when Eric couldn’t be there) and became conductor of Allmänna Sången in 1970. His conducting debut with OD was in 1969 when Eric was ill and he also took the choir on tour.
 
During the time he was at the College of Music (1972-75), he sang in the school’s chamber choir (which he said was fantastic in those days with many fine singers and conductors who’d later become well-known) and also in Eric’s Chamber Choir from 1973-77. From 1985 to 1991 he and Eric were co-conductors of OD and he took over totally in 1991, retiring in 2008.
 
So now, to let Robert speak about his experiences with Eric:
 
I was always very close with Eric – always with him, making programs, discussing OD. He was interested in my family and children, even up until the very end. The Olsson Quintet had dinner with him and Monica every first of May, which also lasted until very near the end.
 
In terms of programming he was always very careful, wanted other opinions, and delayed making decisions – the program committee for OD had to push him a bit. He always wanted to hear what other people were thinking. In this sense he was very open to questions from choir, patient (perhaps even when he might not have been) and his manner was gentle. This way of working with people (as opposed to conductors who get angry) was one of the things I admired and learned from him.
 
His workload was amazing, especially in those days. [Sparks: during this time he rehearsed OD one night, the Chamber Choir on another, had the choir at St. Jacobs in Stockholm (with whom he did all the major works with orchestra) on another, the Radio Choir three days a week, the Chamber Choir at the College of Music, and teaching at the College of Music—and remember all of these groups toured at different times of the year as well]. He loved to rehearse and could easily and happily spend 10 minutes balancing one chord and getting it in tune. If there were two minutes left at the end of rehearsal he wouldn’t end early, but start another piece. OD were often astonished if a guest conductor came in and stopped rehearsal early. As an example, OD was on tour one year and they had a dinner together at a restaurant. Eric asked everyone to bring their music to the restaurant and then rehearsed (in the restaurant) until shortly before the concert.
 
He used the piano frequently in rehearsal (although lots of a cappella singing as well, of course) and relied on it to show what he wanted. He was a marvelous pianist and would either demonstrate how he conceived the music or use it to help with tuning, difficult harmonies, or other aspects of the music. I also use the piano as a tool in my rehearsals.
 
Very early on Eric began recording not only concerts but rehearsals. You’d always see him with his headphones on, humming along as he listened to the last rehearsal. This was very much part of his routine. I’d imagine this began at the Radio where he had access to recording equipment. He loved technology and as soon as portable recorders were available he brought them to all his rehearsals and concerts. This allowed him to hear what the choir was doing from a different perspective.
 
Uppsala was a place where he totally relaxed and where many of his close friends were. With OD he was one of the guys. When I went to Stockholm to study I was surprised to see the awe with which he was regarded. People would say, “Do you know him already?”
 
You asked about his sound: if you’ve heard the recording of Swedish songs he did with the Real Group it shows that Eric loved a light, clear sound with fantastic intonation. He always spent time with phrasing. In some ways he was reluctant for the choir to go to the extremes of forte, because he could lose that lightness, balance and intonation. In the same way, he emphasized vowels for their effect on tuning and color and de-emphasized consonants. He rarely went for drama, but beauty of sound and wonderful intonation.
 
He had a great sense of humor and used it to relax the choir. The worse things went, the more funny he’d become.
 
Eric has been my only teacher. Not only during my studies at the College of Music, but also during 20 years of close cooperation in different choirs I have learnt almost everything I know by watching him work. Of course I have studied other famous conductors and picked up details here and there, but I am most lucky to have had the opportunity to have been so close to the greatest master of them all.