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November 26, 2007

'I've always wanted a choir like this'

San Diego Union (CA):

Growing up on a farm in Iowa, Gary McKercher helped his family cultivate such crops as soybeans, corn and oats. A native of Manly, Iowa, Gary McKercher is looking forward to enjoying San Diego's climate and cultural activities. Now, as the San Diego Master Chorale's new music director, he's busy sowing musical seeds at the city's most prominent chorus, currently in its 48th year.

“I've always wanted a choir like this,” says the 58-year-old successor to Martin Wright, who became artistic director of the Netherlands Opera Chorus. “To do it right, you have to devote an enormous amount of time to it.”

McKercher leads the weekly rehearsals (“We pack a lot into 21/2 hours”), conducts the chorale's two self-produced concerts and coaches the chorus for its other ventures. Working with the chorale's board and general manager, Robert Holst, he participates in fundraising for the organization, which has an annual budget of approximately $150,000.

“The singers are very enthusiastic – a lot of fun to work with,” he says of the chorale's approximately 120 members. “This is a group with a real passion for what they do.”

While McKercher is a paid staff member, the singers are volunteers. Ranging in age from the early 20s to nearly 80, they include teachers, lawyers, doctors, accountants and, yes, a rocket scientist. “I have standards which I'm pretty keen on enforcing,” explains the veteran choral conductor who's expanding the ensemble's repertoire and honing its style. “But people have to have a sense that they're being treated respectfully. They may come to rehearsals after a lot of daytime pressures. Some of them drive 30 minutes just to get to rehearsal.”

McKercher discovered music during his childhood near the small town of Manly, Iowa (population 1,493). His mother was a soprano who once dreamed of a Broadway career (“I still have stacks of show tunes that she collected and sang,” he says).

Yet young Gary wasn't one of those children who belt out hit songs they memorized from recordings. “We didn't have a record player until I was a senior in high school,” he recalls. “That's when I went out and bought a stereo.” By then he was a leading member of his high school chorus, a tenor who had also taken trumpet lessons and sung in church. His teacher encouraged him to pursue music and McKercher did just that, earning a bachelor's degree in vocal music education at Iowa's Luther College.

During a year at England's Cambridge University, he learned about the country's rich choral tradition – “It was inspiring,” he recalls. He came back to the States and earned his master's degree in choral conducting at California State University Fullerton and his doctorate in choral music at the University of Southern California. In 1998, after teaching and conducting at various colleges and universities, he became the founder/music director of the Wisconsin Chamber Choir, a primarily a cappella ensemble based in Madison, Wisc.

Rewarding as the work was, he grew weary of the Midwest's harsh winters. That made a job in San Diego all the more enticing. Beating out 23 other candidates for the post of music director, he began work at the Master Chorale in August with a three-year contract that's renewable for two-year periods. “San Diego has a warm climate and wonderful cultural activity,” says McKercher, who even wants to try surfing. “It's a good move for me.” And, most likely, for the Master Chorale.

Posted by acapnews at November 26, 2007 10:05 PM


I've always wanted a choir like that too. Sniff . . . ;-)

Posted by: M. Ryan Taylor at November 27, 2007 8:27 AM

You have taught me more than any director I have had the opportunity to work with or to be inspired by. I live in California too (since 1987) and miss all that we did musically together. You are AWESOME Gary !!!!


Posted by: Steven Woodward at September 8, 2008 9:59 PM

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