This September, I was fortunate to be one of the conductors selected by ACDA to take part in an exchange with the ICEP (International Conductors Exchange Program). I was very excited when I first heard about this program a few years ago, when I was asked to serve on the NW Division Steering Committee for the Cuba exchange (the first one that ICEP undertook). I organized a two-week itinerary of college, community and high school choir visits across the state for Corina Campos, conductor of the internationally renowned Vocal Leo chorus. Corina’s teaching residency at University of Washington was deeply meaningful to students and faculty, and especially our graduate choral cohort, including an MM student from Columbia, Central America who served as her translator during the ACDA NW Conference. Getting to know Corina and more about Cuban choral music led me to do an entire set of Latin American choral works in our Winter 2014 concert. Those who attended Corina’s interest session on Cuban choral music were impressed with the large volume of music she shared as well as tips about “performance practice”.
When ICEP announced a call for applications to Sweden, I was especially intrigued, because growing up in high school, I developed a passion for the Swedish choral canon. It was by chance, through checking out records (yes, LPs back then) at the public library, that I discovered Eric Ericson and his Chamber Choir. The compositions they performed, and the tone and phrasing of their singing was immeasurably beautiful and mysterious to me. It is no surprise that top conductors in our field such as Richard Sparks have written entire books about “The Swedish Choral Miracle”. In addition, I have a cousin living in Örebrö, Sweden, the city I was eventually tasked to visit. Let the adventure begin!
Once selected, the first step was hosting my “partner” in the choral exchange, Gunnel Sjöberg, conductor and voice teacher at the Örebrö Kultur School and a prominent soprano soloist in performances across Sweden, as well as a former soprano in the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir. Gunnel came to the United States to attend the NafME NW Regional Conference in Spokane, offered workshops to Gonzaga University Chorus as well as working with University of Washington Chorale and Chamber Singers, teaching graduate students in choral conducting, and offering private voice lessons and a masterclass for my voice studio. While in Seattle, she also did workshops with Seattle Pro Musica, the Swedish Women’s Choir, and the First Covenant Church choir. Gunnel has tremendous energy on the podium and has composed many original warmups that are imaginative and very effective at building beautiful tone and vibrancy in choirs. She is also a very encouraging private teacher, working steadily and intensely to encourage more expressive, stylistically correct interpretations. ACDA is very lucky to have had the leadership and service of Tim Westerhaus, Director of Choral Activities at Gonzaga University, who organized Gunnel’s busy itinerary.
In September, I boarded a plane to Sweden to be reunited with Gunnel and her husband, Fred Sjöberg, the Swedish coordinator of the ICEP exchange and conductor of the phenomenal Örebrö Chamber Choir. I was fortunate to stay in their beautiful home and get to know their two sweet cats, Max and Simba, as well as meeting their three children. I was a co-boarder with T. J. Harper, the director of the ACDA ICEP program and DCA of choral music at Providence College. One of the first things that struck me about Swedes is their ability to slow down and take a “pause” (mid-day break with coffee) that they call “fica”. It is a time not just to “get caffeinated”, but also to have pleasant conversation with colleagues and friends. Gunnel, Fred and T.J. had many meaningful, fun conversations seated around the kitchen table, even in the midst of a busy week-long itinerary.
While in Sweden, I worked with many students at Gunnel’s “Kultur School”, an after-school program offered to any student middle school and high school aged, teaching choir and private voice lessons, as well as working on musical productions. I conducted warmups with the Örebrö Chamber Choir, as they prepared for their performance of the riveting “Requiem for Peace” by Larry Nickel, utilizing photographic images of people encountering war in many different historical contexts. One of the highlights of my visit was the opportunity to teach conducting and offer a lecture on vocal technique and Laban movement at the University of Örebrö (my host, Karin Olgren, works on the faculty there, and we are already strategizing ways to have her visit Seattle in the near future!). The students were excellent young conductors and very inquisitive, reaching out even past my visit to email me with follow up questions and ideas.
While meeting many Swedes (and the entire group of Voces 8, an English vocal phenomenon!), I also had an invaluable chance to interact with other American conductors while in a faraway place. I was able to enjoy conversation and bonding with David Puderbaugh, Josh Haberman, Emily Williams Burch, Adam Steele, and T.J. Harper, in a way simply not possible even at ACDA conferences in the states, where everyone is running fast from session to lunch to performance. Our conversations ranged from choral repertoire, teaching philosophies, the question of university unionization, time management and family life, and of course, where is the best food and drink in the city!
Today the world is becoming more and more integrated, and I see this especially in a city like Seattle where students come from all over the world to study. I am always looking for ways to heighten my students’understanding of each other through the repertoire. ICEP is a unique vehicle for helping make these connections palpable for many individuals and communities. I see it not only as musically meaningful mission, but an initiative that has potential to raise social consciousness. I encourage everyone to consider applying for future projects. Just see how it opens up your choral community as well as your imagination- and ultimately, your heart.