Chorale’s new master a popular choice

By Lawrence A. Johnson

When one considers American cultural destinations like New York, Boston, and Chicago, it’s clear that even with an entity like the New World Symphony, Miami cannot compete with the volume and — in most cases — quality of classical music being presented in these cities on a nightly basis.

Yet it’s a telling sign and reflection of South Florida’s cultural potential and rising reputation for the arts that Joshua Habermann left San Francisco – a rich, musical center with a superb symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas and one of the top three opera companies in the nation — to take up not one, but two new local posts.

“San Francisco is a wonderful city,” said the 40-year-old teacher and choral director. “I grew up there and it was very hard to leave. I was comfortable and happy. But this was an opportunity I really couldn’t pass up.”

That opportunity was Habermann’s taking over as director of the choral studies program at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, a job Habermann assumed this summer.

But his other position — one of higher profile to the concert-going public –will be unveiled next weekend, when Habermann makes his debut as artistic director of the Master Chorale of South Florida. He will lead three performances of Mendelssohnn’s epic oratorio Elijah with baritone Donnie Ray Albert, which opens Friday night at First Presbyterian Church in Pompano Beach.

Habermann established deep personal and professional roots in the city by the bay, logging fifteen years as assistant director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and two years as interim director upon Vance George’s retirement. He also spent twelve years as professor at San Francisco State University, where his artistic legacy includes many acclaimed performances with the SFSU Chamber Singers.

For Habermann the choral studies program at the Frost School, which was built to a high national level by his predecessor at UM and at the Master Chorale, Jo-Michael Scheibe, was too much of a lure to turn down. “The graduate program which I really love is so strong here. Mike had such a tradition of attracting top students and I wanted to build on that.”

Even though San Francisco possesses a livelier classical music scene than Miami, the very abundance of performing groups makes it difficult for university events to establish a presence, something that is less of an issue in Miami. “Frost is a bigger school of music and it has a larger profile within the musical community than the university in San Francisco did,” says Habermann. “San Francisco is such a cultural city and there are so many professional activities that the university’s activities are a relatively small part.”

The Chorale search proceeded on a parallel track to his UM interview process. Yet impressive as his resume and choral-building skills were, it was Habermann’s soft-spoken personality that helped win over the singers of the Master Chorale, who chose him over more than three-dozen applicants for the job.

“We had some wonderfully talented people apply,” says Chorale president and tenor Mark Glickman, who said that the board was immediately taken with Habermann but he wanted to see how the singers would respond. The four finalists essentially “auditioned” for the 140 members of the chorus by conducting them in a piece they knew well and then rehearsing the singers in a work new to their repertoire. “He was charming, he was personable and everybody loved him,” said Glickman. “He was far and away the favorite of everybody in the chorus.”

Glickman also notes it wasn’t just that Habermann’s nice-guy persona but the fact that many of the Chorale’s members are professional singers and were impressed by his search for quality in their vocalism. “He’s very focused on sound, on the pronunciation and pitch he wants.”

Another new element that has helped in rehearsals, said Glickman, is that their new director is a professional singer himself with a busy career of appearances. “A lot of times Mike would try to describe for us what he wanted, but Josh demonstrates for us what he wants. He’ll sing it the way he wants it sung.”

There definitely seems to be a genuine buzz and excitement among the Chorale’s rank and file as well. “He’s very good at bringing out the emotion in the music,” says baritone Scott Latta. “He’s pulling something out of us that has been hidden inside for so long. It’s amazing how he’s been able to do it with such grace. It’s been very exciting.” And with all respect and gratitude to Scheibe, the Chorale’s founder, Latta seems to reflect the view of many in the chorus that the change came at the right time. “I really believe Josh is going to take us to a whole new level.”

“He’s able to elicit a sound that is very impressive,” says Nancy Gates-Lee, the Chorale’s vice president and chair of the search committee that hired Habermann. “He makes you want to do well and commands respect in a very quiet, positive way. He’s never raised his voice, which is amazing to me.”

Many have commented on the difference with Scheibe who could on occasion be a strict disciplinarian. Yet Gates-Lee, says Habermann’s laid-back style doesn’t mean he’s a pushover. “Just the opposite. Through humor and his facial expressions he gets people to sing better than they’ve sung in a long time. We had two rocky rehearsals and then we just all kind of hit our stride. I’m amazed at the quality.”

The process of moving an all-volunteer chorus like the Chorale to the next level is daunting, but attainable says Habermann. Much of that means, an “attitudinal shift” in terms of how the organization is run and what the commitment of members are. “My goal is to increase the professionalism and bring professional standards to the singing — whether it’s a professional group or not.”

Towards that end, “building tone” is high on the new director’s agenda. “When you do these choral orchestral masterworks, it not about volume so much as about carrying power and having a beautiful tall tone in which the overtones line up and the tuning is really clean but not at the expense of depth. It’s about depth of tone and beauty of tone.”

Because Elijah is so big — two hours plus of music — “that requires us to be super efficient,” he says. “We’ve had to move very quickly. I’m used to doing that because when you work with professional singers and a professional orchestra every second the dollar signs are going by.”

To date he says he’s had nothing but positive feedback from his singers “The last couple weeks have really been the hard work, which I call ‘flossing’: getting in between the teeth, finding all the small errors and bringing attention to details, so it really has that professional polish.”

As with most choruses around the world, the Chorale’s tenor section has been the area most in need of strengthening. Ironically, Habermann’s previous base is, he says, the one locale in the country with a superabundance of tenors.

“Oh my gosh, we had incredibly strong men’s sections,” Habermann says. “We were bursting with tenors. I’d talk with choral colleagues around the country and they’d always say “There just aren’t enough tenors. God didn’t make enough of them. And I always say, ‘Come to San Francisco!’”

The youthful-looking choral director began his musical career late, not through the usual musical prodigy route but via his love of travel and languages. “My mother said that for my fifth birthday I asked for a passport and an atlas.”

He attended Georgetown University with the intention of training as an interpreter. Gradually through participating in performances himself and growing involvement with college and professional choirs, he realized his fluency in nine languages could be put to equally good use as a choral director. “Sensitivity to language inflection and the intersection of poetry and music — that’s choral music and opera, all the stuff I love.” He completed his doctorate in choral studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

A committed advocate of American repertoire, Habermann looks forward to presenting Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Lauridsen’ Lux aeterna with the Chorale in the spring. He also wants to explore more Latin-American music, and particular Scandinavian and Baltic repertoire, which is a specialist interest. “That music is so deep and so exciting,” he says. “They sing like crazy in Finland and Estonia!” In addition to his two new Florida posts, Habermann won the coveted spot as new director of the acclaimed Desert Chorale in Santa Fe, which he will take up next summer, taking care of his off-season in Miami.

Habermann is an active fitness enthusiast, tennis and volleyball player. “It keeps me happy, sane and balanced.” His only disappointment in Florida to date is being unable to pursue his surfing. “I thought I would be able to do it here but I’ve had very little success finding any waves in South Florida.” He recently became engaged — his fiancée is also a choral director — and they will marry in Hawaii next year.

Yet for all the activity and challenges ahead, the soft-spoken interpreter turned singer, teacher, choral director and conductor, says patience is the best course and it is not his way to start laying waste to local traditions overnight.

“You don’t come in and wipe away what has been there before without first understanding it,” Habermann says. “My feeling is that evolutionary change is always a smart thing.”

Joshua Habermann leads the Master Chorale of South Florida and Boca Raton Symphonia in Mendelssohn’s Elijah with baritone Donnie Ray Albert. 8 p.m. Friday Nov. Nov. 14 at First Presbyterian Church, 2331 NE 26th Ave., Pompano Beach; 8 p.m. Saturday Nov. 15 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 464 NE 16th Street at Bayshore Drive in Miami; 4 p.m. Sunday Nov. 16 at Pine Crest School, 2700 St. Andrews Blvd, Boca Raton, $30 in advance, $35 at the door. www.masterchoraleofsouthflorida.org; 954-418-6232.

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