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May 27, 2004

There was just dead silence -- and a few tears," Dale Warland said, recalling the time a year ago when he announced after a rehearsal that after 32 years he would fold the Dale Warland Singers at the end of this season. He explained to the singers that, at 71, he wanted to do other things and that there was no point in keeping the group's name going if he weren't in charge. It was a difficult speech to make, but he got through it. "After all," he said, "this has been my whole life." Reflecting on that speech a year later, he said, "I'm not sure, even today, that it was the right decision. But I'm comfortable with it."

At this point, it's irrevocable. In a concert Sunday at Orchestra Hall, Warland and his 40 singers will say goodbye. The program, titled "I Have Had Singing," will include milestones in the singers' career, including Dominick Argento's song cycle "Walden Pond," the recording of which was nominated for a Grammy this year. Choral directors from around the country -- among them Thomas Hall of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and Robert Summer, founder of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay -- will help pay tribute to Warland on Sunday.

Dale Warland's musical roots go back to his hometown of Badger, Iowa. The farm boy attended a one-room school where the kids sang every day. Another big musical influence while growing up, he says, was Ann Severson, the choir director at his church. "(She had) perfect pitch, could play keyboard, could sing. I'll always remember her because she could also whistle," Warland says.

After college at St. Olaf, and during a stint as music professor at Macalester College, Warland formed his choral group in l972 with a mildly radical notion. The singers would be paid. "When we first started, it was such a separation between the musicians and the singers," Warland says. "And I would be very defensive, (saying) 'We are all musicians.'" However, art, not money, was always the guiding force of the Warland Singers. The demanding auditions for the group were legendary. Every singer auditioned every season.

From the beginning and to this day, Warland championed new music. The commitment pleased composers, but didn't sell many tickets. Warland struck a balance by mixing the new with old favorites. British composer John Rutter, the conductor of the Cambridge Singers, says the formula paid off. He says Warland's vision kept hope alive among composers that their new works would be heard. And, Rutter says, blending them with the familiar kept audiences interested. "(They were) always refreshing their approach, always refreshing their repertoire with new material, always looking for new ideas, always moving with the times," says Rutter. "That's really quite a remarkable achievement, when you consider how few choirs there are that operate on that sort of basis worldwide."

Warland intends to stay busy in the next few years. For one thing, he wants to spend more time with his family, including a granddaughter in California and another grandchild expected in August. He will be teaching at the Eastman School this summer and at a school in Ohio. And although it hasn't been announced yet, he will spend one week a month during the upcoming school year teaching in the graduate choral conducting program at the University of Minnesota. He said he makes more money in a week of guest conducting than he did in a month here leading his singers.

The archives of the Dale Warland Singers -- 1,500 scores, including the 270 works that Warland premiered over the past 32 years -- will be donated to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Ten of the group's 26 recordings are still available. The demise of the group will leave a hole in the life of 40 singers. Some are talking about staying together and forming a spinoff chorus under another name. Jo Halversen, an alto who has sung with Warland for 26 years -- the longest tenure of anyone still in the group -- plans to start an orchestra in her church. Her favorite memory: the singers' performance at the World Choral Symposium in Helsinki, Finland, in 1990. "I'm going to miss the friends that I've made in the chorus, Dale in particular," she said. Halversen already is steeling herself, trying to make sure she doesn't burst into tears during Sunday's concert. "Of course, that's easier said than done," she said. "Even in these last concerts of the season, it's been difficult."

Posted by acapnews at May 27, 2004 10:54 PM

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