A Conversation with John Emory Bush, Conductor of the San Francisco Concert Chorale
By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
The SAN FRANCISCO CONCERT CHORALE is one of San Francisco’s finest musical ensembles. This year marks their 35th anniversary and they are going for Baroque at Mission Dolores Basilica with Bach’s daunting masterpiece – the Mass in B Minor. The concert happens this Saturday night at 8:00 PM. Click here to purchase tickets on-line: MAY 31st – MASS IN B MINOR.
John Emory Bush is the group’s Music Director and Conductor. Maestro Bush holds a Master’s degree from the Juilliard School of Music and was privileged to study and coach with conductors Leonard Bernstein, Erich Leinsdorf, Helmuth Rilling and Robert Shaw. He also serves as the Artistic Director and Conductor of the VALLEY CONCERT CHORALE. Flying on the wings of song, John divides his time between San Francisco and Dallas, doing double-duty as Director of Music for ST. MATTHEW’S CATHEDRAL.
Several weeks ago the Concert Chorale performed the Mass under the baton of world renowned Bach aficionado, HELMUTH RILLING. Both conductors understand the great challenges of this choral masterpiece and the tremendous efforts required to capture and re-create the intentions of the composer. It was my privilege to speak with Conductor Bush about the work and his personal relationship with it.
JOHN EMORY BUSH & JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
SEÁN: Tell me about your typical day as conductor of the San Francisco Concert Chorale. What’s going on for you as you prepare for the presentation of Bach’s B minor Mass?
JOHN: It’s anything from dealing with the person who has hired the orchestra to making sure everybody will be paid, making sure the singers will be taken care of and what rehearsals they will be at. All the minute details, including making sure we have stands, lights, and chairs – even a podium for the conductor. I have to start at the beginning, making sure we’re all there, set and ready to go in time for the performance.
S: Do you have volunteers? Does the Concert Chorale include professional singers?
J: It’s basically accomplished by volunteers. They are certainly professionals in their own right. The Concert Chorale is divided into two groups of singers. They are all auditioned, but some of them are actually professionals and paid. The Board of Directors is made up of a group who are professionals in their own field, but also volunteer for the organization and accomplish all these details. The Project Manager is the one who will see that everything is in place.
S: How about the soloists for the Mass. Do you draw from the Chorale when you can or are they generally brought in?
J: I have four principal section leaders from within the Concert Chorale who are just outstanding. Not only as choral singers, but as soloists in their own right. Three of them will be completing their Masters Degree at the San Francisco Conservatory this spring. I am very fortunate to have great talent within the group and people who are soloists. I also went beyond. In the San Francisco Bay Area there is a wonderful pool of talent to draw from. So, we are expanding our forces a little bit as we prepare for the Bach.
S: Who will be singing countertenor?
J: I’m actually not using a male voice for this part. This is one of Maestro Rilling’s choices. In the time of Bach, there would not have been such a thing in Germany. Certainly this comes from the English school and he feels that the female voice represents this particular part better than a male. So, I’ve chosen to use an alto.
S: Kind of ruffles the feathers of the countertenor, don’t you think? Here’s that one opportunity they’ve been waiting for and he gives it to a mezzo!
SAN FRANCISCO CONCERT CHORALE. Photo, Eric Hooten
J: As we know, there are many different ways in which to perform this music, whether it’s using period instruments or modern instruments. And, of course, the same can be said for the soloists – using male altos or countertenors versus using female. So, there are lots of different options. I chose to go with Maestro Rilling’s preferences this time in order that we could satisfy his style and enjoy what he has to offer through this magnificent work.
S: Are there other changes he requested to present the work in this fashion as opposed to the way you may have done it before?
J: Well, certainly I’m using his orchestra parts and the scores for the singers have been marked according to his preferences and wishes.
S: Have these changes been published or are they optional choices that have accumulated over a period of time, be drawn from and yet remain “traditional”?
J: As we all work our own specific desires into a piece of music, there are many indications that we use to put our own mark on a specific work. Certainly, I wanted to share with the public, the orchestra and singers Maestro Rilling’s preferences since he has such a great history and knowledge over these many years of understanding and knowing the real Johann Sebastian Bach.
S: When was the last time the San Francisco Concert Chorale did the work?
J: I have been the Director for fifteen years and I don’t know if before that they actually performed this. At any rate, it would be a very long time since the group has performed it.
S: So, this is an exciting thing for everyone.
J: Oh, exactly! The B minor Mass is considered THE choral masterwork that we have in our repertoire. I certainly would not have approached it before the age I’ve just become. I think you need experience and depth – and just time – before you approach something like this.
S: Do you have a favorite part in the Mass?
J: That’s very difficult to mark and answer. There is so much emotion in the score and so much variety in the text – whether we’re talking about the “Crucifixus” movement or the “Et resurrexit.” – and how Bach captured it all so well through the music. One of my favorites is the last movement, the “Dona nobis pacem”. Of course, we’re talking about peace – so relevant in our world today. It is the summation of the entire work and completely incredible.
S: It’s been a long time since I have paid attention to the B minor Mass. So, I have been re-studying it in order to have a better appreciation come Saturday night’s concert. I live near Mission Dolores Basilica and am privileged to know the resident Director, Jerome Lenk. The acoustics in the church are fabulous and I already know I’m going to have a great time.
J: Mission Dolores is my favorite venue in San Francisco. It is beautiful for choral singing and we consider it our home.
S: As a singer and vocal coach, I always ask about and discuss favorite parts. I was so looking forward to a recent broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette”. But then it took me forever to plow through the recording I had made. And I kept thinking – what if I were one of the performers? Besides a paycheck – what would keep me motivated to learn and then sing three hours worth of music that doesn’t do much of anything? I love the story, of course, and the production values were wonderful – but I was getting bored. And now comes the B minor Mass with all its intricate parts. Just as entertainment, I believe there has to be something that keeps everybody on their toes – while they’re singing this moment they can’t wait for what’s coming next.
J: For me it’s the incredible fugues Bach has written throughout the work. From the singers’ standpoint, these virtuosic places in the music take an incredible amount of study and skill to pull them off well. I would say it is in those moments – for example, when we start the “Et resurrexit” movement – it’s an incredible rush of sound; those many-many 16th-notes being the high-points of the piece.
S: Who are your soloists?
J: The first soprano is Kaileen Miller, Rebecca Beasley sings second soprano, and the alto is Elspeth Franks. Ben Jones is our Tenor and Jeffrey Fields sings bass-baritone. What is a little unusual about the Mass is that most of the way throughout the work we have two soprano lines – so, there are a total of five parts. And the choir is sometime divided into two SATB choirs.
S: Bach assembled the Mass shortly before his death in 1750, parts of it being composed as far back as 1724, and never gets the chance to hear it performed in its entirety. In fact, the first public performance was delayed until 1859. As a contemporary musician, what is your reaction to that?
MISSION DOLORES BASILICA & OTTOBEUREN ABBEY
J: The Mass is a summation of not only the composer and his skill – but if you look at all of the Baroque era – all segments throughout the work really stretch the style to its grandest. If you think of one of the great Baroque churches, specifically the Ottobeuren Abbey in Bavaria – there is so much happening that you just have to sit and focus on one small area in order to get a grasp of the great detail and all the filigree. That is what Bach did through his work – he took all the great styles of music and took them to the nth degree. As a result – the scale of this composition is just amazing.
S: The reason then that this work would not have been performed prolifically throughout Europe was the degree and availability of qualified singers and musicians.
J: That would certainly be true. To find the forces to put this together – not only the singers, but the instrumentalists as well – would have been very difficult.
S: That would have also been true even if single parts of the Mass had been performed during an actual worship service.
J: Yes – to perform just one movement would have been significant. The “Kyrie”, for example, is divided into three sections. The first section is just two words, “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy), and goes on for quite a length of time before you get to the second portion, “Christe eleison”, and then on to the third. From a just a time standpoint, in a church service – you would have to eliminate two of the movements.
S: Given these two performances, we know that some of the ticket holders are bound to say, “I want to sing with the San Francisco Concert Chorale!” What do they have to do to make that happen?
J: For a singer to audition, it usually takes about fifteen minutes. I first vocalize them just to get an idea of the range of their voice and the color. I would expect them to bring a couple of selections in contrasting style.
S: Say you have an enthusiastic tenor who comes in, not necessarily a graduate from the Conservatory – what kind of repertoire does he need to demonstrate in order to be seriously considered?
J: It can be anything from “America The Beautiful” to a Schubert song. It really depends on their sight reading ability along with their vocal quality – the beauty of the voice. Those are very important things when looking at singers. They can be at the beginning stages of their musicianship as long as they have basic sight reading skills and have worked on the technique of their voice.
S: How often do you rehearse?
J: Once a week, Sunday evenings. The season usually runs mid-September until mid-May.
S: Where do you rehearse?
J: At the Second Church of Christ, Scientist – on Dolores Street at Cumberland, right across from the park. We rehearse downstairs from the sanctuary. It’s a large room with a live acoustic. The Mass is the finale to this season and then we start preparing for the next. In early March we combined with a couple other forces out in the valley and did CARMINA BURANA.
S: Was this the same assemblage for your recording?
J: Yes, the same group. At the end of March we went to Hawaii and performed jointly with the HAWAII VOCAL ARTS ENSEBLE and then they came to San Francisco where we did a joint concert as well. It’s been a busy and exciting celebration all season long.
S: What’s on the calendar for future recordings?
J: We’ve been working on some short choral works from the Renaissance to the contemporary. We’ve recorded some of those and will be working over the next season to finish that up.
CDs by the Concert Chorale – Carmina Burana, American Images, & In the Still, Still Night
Bach’s Mass in B minor is the musical definition of “tour de force” and the members of San Francisco Concert Chorale a defining example of musical excellence and community spirit. Take advantage of this single opportunity to experience the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach, the artistry of conductor John Emory Bush and the SF Concert Chorale, and the warm inviting beauty of Mission Dolores Basilica.
To purchase tickets on-line: MAY 31st – MASS IN B MINOR
Add these recordings to your Classical Library:
CD – CARMINA BURANA, by Carl Orff. Featuring the San Francisco Concert Chorale with the Las Positas College Chamber Choir, the Valley Concert Chorale, and the Cantabella Children’s Chorus. John Emory Bush conducting.
CD – AMERICAN IMAGES. The San Francisco Concert Chorale’s first recording of the 21st century offers a cross-section of American music written or arranged in the 20th century, drawn from the many colors of the American palette: modern choral works, jazz, folk songs, and spirituals.
CD – ON A STILL, STILL NIGHT. San Francisco Concert Chorale’s 1998 debut recording, features timeless Christmas music.
CD – BACH: MASS IN B MINOR. Featuring Dame Janet Baker (Mezzo-Soprano), Margaret Marshall (Soprano), Robert Tear (Tenor), Samuel Ramey (Bass). Sir Neville Marriner conducts the Orchestra/Ensemble of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
CD – BACH: MESSE IN H-MOLL. Featuring the Vienna Boys’ Choir with soloists Rotraud Hansmann, Emiko Iiyama, Helen Watts, Kurt Equiluz, Max van Egmond. Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt leads the Vienna Concentus Musicus.
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Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com.