‘Being careful is no fun!’: Anne Matlack leads Harmonium in new directions for 25 years

Erotic love songs in church?

Only Anne Matlack would attempt such a feat. The artistic director of the Harmonium Choral Society has been dazzling–and confounding–Greater Morristown music lovers for a quarter-century.

Her surprising career will be celebrated on Sunday, March 10, 2013, by the singers she has led since 1987. (A few seats remain for the 5 pm gala at the Westin Governor Morris; call 973-538-6969 for reservations.)

Anne’s eclectic repertoire–including Samuel Barber’s erotic The Lovers, presented last weekend in the Morristown United Methodist Church–sometimes raises eyebrows even within her own ensemble.

Anne Matlack, right, is celebrating 25 years leading the Harmonium Choral Society. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Anne Matlack, right, is celebrating 25 years leading the Harmonium Choral Society. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“With 100 people [in the choir], there’s always some who embrace Anne’s choices, and others who complain about it,” said Jeri Herbert, an alto whose tenure matches Anne’s.

“But she keeps people on their toes, keeps the choir vibrant,” Jeri said. “She exposes us to music we would not ever, ever uncover ourselves…There are always challenges to undertake. In the end, we’re all in this together, pushing through. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

Or, as Anne puts it:

“Being careful is no fun!”

The nonprofit Harmonium had 35 singers when Anne was hired.  Educated at Yale and the Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, she now also serves as choirmaster and organist at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison.

“We DO need to keep attracting audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Singing music by more than dead white men is a good way to do this.”–Anne Matlack

Although Harmonium members are unpaid, about two-thirds of them have day jobs in the music world. Anne treats everyone accordingly, Jeri said.

“Before every rehearsal, Anne has name cards. She puts every card on the seat where everyone should sit. Her attention to individuals makes us all feel important. If one person is missing, she knows. I’ve sung for other directors. If you can’t make it, they say it’s okay, you’re volunteers. Anne treats us like professionals, and we step up to the challenge.”

Another fan is Martin Sedek, a 27-year-old Harmonium alumnus and composer. The Denville native is about to enter a music doctoral program at Rutgers. He credits Anne with setting him on his path.

“She has a teaching soul,” Martin said after Saturday’s Harmonium concert. “She finds the people she can help, and does whatever she can to help them. I owe a lot to her.”

We caught up with Anne Matlack online and asked what drives her quest to mine gold from obscure piles of musical ore.

Video sampler: Scroll below for clips of Harmonium in action.

MORRISTOWNGREEN.COM:  First, congratulations!  To last 25 years in any job is almost unheard of nowadays. And to excel, that’s truly astounding. What is your secret?

ANNE MATLACK: It seems funny, but I just do what I love, and I keep doing it, and time flies by.  I enjoy the process of rehearsing, and I’m constantly generating potential future programs. I do work really hard, but feel so privileged to have and grow this wonderful group.

MG:  Take us back a quarter-century to your very first rehearsal with Harmonium. How did the group sound?  What was going through your head?  Anyone from that lineup still singing with Harmonium?

ANNE:  Not sure I really remember my first rehearsal, although I do remember my audition pretty well. I conducted the Bach Magnificat and Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb and I was rather pregnant. They sounded good, and responded well to suggestions…. Jeri Herbert  is a good one to talk about that time. Joan Tracy was there, too.

MG: How many singers have passed through Harmonium over the years?  Do you allow alums to sit in with the ensemble?  How has Harmonium changed over the years?

ANNE:  There wasn’t that much turnover in the early years…I’d guess a hundred have passed though….We had an “alum” carol for the first time last Christmas, Ding Dong Merrily. Anyone can “sit in” on a rehearsal, but to sing you need to re-audition if you’ve left.

The group has gotten of course bigger, but I think that has brought a lot of energy. And it’s younger. I think my repertoire and demanding standards attract the young music teachers…and then it’s a nice support community for them.

“I hope people emulate us to see how young, democratic and dynamic a chorus can be.”–Anne Matlack

When we first started there were just two concerts a year, December and May.  Then we added March when we did the Monteverdi Vespers. Now it’s a subscription season, with about 20 run-outs as well from the sub-groups, the Outreach Chorus and The Chamber Singers.

No matter how much we’ve changed, we’ve tried to keep our essential “Harmonium”-ness, which includes nurturing our own soloists, reaching into the community, being a community for each other and of course, demanding an eclectic repertoire around a theme.

We developed and official mission statement and this has helped us focus through all the demands on us. The mission of Harmonium Choral Society is to inspire and transform our community through music. We seek to perform a diverse repertoire of choral music at a high artistic level, and advance the choral art through education, commissions, and community partnerships. Within the chorus, we create a challenging and enjoyable environment where excellence can flourish.

MG: Previously, we have talked about the sense of community in Harmonium, a choir that comprises talented singers of many ages, from many walks of life. There appears to be genuine affection among members of the group. Yet most workplaces have a few bad apples. Have you had members you personally loathed?  Is it possible to make beautiful music with ornery characters?  Ever throw anyone out of Harmonium? 

ANNE:  If the answer was yes, I probably would not answer this question, but truly, we all love each other as we work towards our common goals.  This is not to say that folks don’t get ornery but usually it’s in service to the music so we tolerate it — we really are a family!  No one has been “thrown out” —but some hard mutual decisions have been made over attendance issues or hearing loss.

MG:  You have nurtured a number of choral composers during your tenure, commissioning new pieces. Why is this important to you? Who has made you proudest? What is the future of choral music? 

ANNE:  SO many things make me proud about the commissions! Winning the Chorus America Education and Outreach Award for the High School Choral Composition Contest was definitely a high point. Celebrating the contest last year and looking up what the young winners are doing now–and finding so many of them still composing, even making a living from it, and considering the contest a formative event for them [was another highlight].

Composer Martin Sedek, 27, was mentored by Harmonium Artistic Director Anne Matlack. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Composer Martin Sedek, 27, was mentored by Harmonium Artistic Director Anne Matlack. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Performing in front of peers is also gratifying for me, so when we sang for the American Guild of Organists and ACDA [American Choral Director's Association] those were great moments.

As for the future of choral music (small question!), I hope people emulate us to see how young, democratic and dynamic a chorus can be.

According to Chorus America, 42.6 million people in the U.S. sing in more than 270,000 choruses today. It is NOT a spectator sport, but participatory.

Yet we DO need to keep attracting audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Singing music by more than dead white men is a good way to do this (while still teaching the joys of Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, etc.). Having the composers (and poets) present is very exciting to the audience. They know they are a part of something dynamic and alive.

MG: Harmonium concerts are eclectic, to say the least. If there is a choral tradition on Mars, your subscribers will be the first to hear it!  How do you select the material for your programs? 

ANNE:  When I hear a work that I particularly want to do, I sometimes build a program around it.  I want to have a good mix of old and new, fast and slow, a theme that makes sense, and a concert that has a good trajectory.  (For example after [last weekend's]  beautiful, difficult, intense, and sad Barber work we really DID need to “go to church” and sing some exuberant Mozart (which had a similar orchestration). Program ideas are percolating in piles around my dining room–as my family can attest!

MG: This takes a certain fearlessness on your part. Before last weekend’s concert–featuring Samuel Barber’s The Lovers, based on erotic poetry by Pablo Neruda–I had never heard the word “pubis” sung in a church.  Where does this fearlessness come from?

ANNE:  Ha! I think that was fearlessness on Barber’s part–it WAS 1970, and commissioned by Girard Bank! My fears around the Barber were not really that the audience would not get into the poetry, but rather around the fact that one can never afford as much rehearsal time with the orchestra as we all would wish! But being “careful” is no fun! Our most challenging pieces have been the most memorable for everyone…it’s worth it!

“Every once in a while we have to re-define boundaries:  This is me, your conductor, talking, not your wife.”–Anne Matlack

MG: Both of your daughters have sung with Harmonium.  What sort of feedback have they given you after rehearsals and concerts?  Have you ever gotten a roll of the eyes and an “Oh, Mom!” ?  

ANNE:  Well, with both of my daughters, having them truly see what it is I do from the inside, allowed them to understand and respect me more, which is a great gift from a teenager. And they auditioned for Harmonium like everyone else, and cared and worked and rehearsed hard!

'OH, MOM!' Anne Matlack's daughter, Grace, smiles after her mom mentioned her at Harmonium concert in Morristown last Saturday. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

'OH, MOM!' Anne Matlack's daughter, Grace Van Cleef, 14, smiled when her mom mentioned her at Harmonium concert in Morristown last Saturday. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The first eye-roll did come with this Barber piece, because it IS a bit embarrassing to listen to your Mom explicate erotic love poetry in rehearsal.

Virginia is now 25 (of course, remember I was pregnant in my audition) and a music therapist, and got to tour both Eastern Europe and Italy with Harmonium–she even wrote her college essay about the experience of singing at Terezin.

Grace will get to tour Greece and Turkey this summer. That will be another full circle moment for me, because I was an AFS student in Turkey in 1977 and hope to reconnect with my “Turkish family” in Istanbul.

MG: Continuing with the family theme, your husband, Jabez Van Cleef, sings bass in Harmonium and wrote the libretto for Cantata of the Animals.  Does Jabez offer criticism of your direction?  Do you tell him if you think his singing is not up to his usual standard?   Any relationship tips you can share for other couples who work together?

ANNE:  It’s is so nice to be married to someone who “gets” what I do.  We do discuss  and process rehearsal and performances but he only critiques constructively, or shares ideas… and I hope I also only offer constructive insights to his singing. He is my biggest fan!

Every once in a while we have to re-define boundaries:  This is me, your conductor, talking, not your wife.  Boundaries, mutual respect and a sense of humor are my advice. Oh, and PLEASE don’t talk about Sunday night’s rehearsal with me on Monday (my day off)!!!!

MG: Harmonium has toured in quite a few countries. Which foreign concert was your most memorable, and why?   What place tops your wish list of venues where you hope to play? 

ANNE:  Each tour has had its memorable moment: For Eastern Europe, we sang a lot of Holocaust remembrance music, and singing Mark Miller’s Before Too Long (on a poem by a 14-year-old Terezin survivor) in front of the Jewish/Christian cemetery was the most memorable even though there was no audience.  It was a beautiful day, and it began to rain as we sang! We sang another poem from Terezin, Birdsong, and the birds began to sing, and as we started Before Too Long, the sun came out again. This really happened.

In Italy, we sang in a packed little village church which included distant cousins of Harmonium’s president and another choir we joined with.  In Spain we gave a concert in front of the Door of the Lions in Toledo Cathedral.

MG: Last time we asked, you said it was impossible to name your favorite Harmonium concert. So let’s make it easier:  How about your Top Three?

ANNE:  You may have noticed that I love Monteverdi….a big turning point/stepping-up-in-the-world concert was Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, in March of 1993, with an orchestra of period instruments.

MUSICAL GENES: Anne Matlack conducts her daughter, Grace, in the Harmonium Choral Society. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

MUSICAL GENES: Anne Matlack conducts her daughter, Grace Van Cleef, in the Harmonium Choral Society. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

In 2008, Whitmania with the Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem and Mark Miller’s Song of the Open Road world premiere—I wish he would publish it and we need to get more people to do this work–I think you may hear us sing it again soon!

In 2010,  The Peace of Wild Things, with the fist year of participation by the Neighborhood House kids as well Dugan’s Hooligans (Irish family band) was such a fun one…a world premiere by Ben Allaway in which Jabez helped with the text, lots of audience participation, fun world music….

Oh wait. Matthew Harris’ world premiere of A Child’s Xmas in Wales. But that makes four….

MG: What do you have planned for the next 25 years?

ANNE:  Plenty. I love that there is so much good repertoire we will never exhaust it all, especially if we keep commissioning new works!

MG:  Keep ‘em coming, Anne.

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Comments

  1. I think “being careful is no fun ” is the best I’ve heard in a long time. We need more Amnes on this world.
    Ginnie

  2. Kevin Coughlin says:

    Agreed!

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