Dale Warland turned a love for disciplined, adventurous singing into a leading voice in contemporary music with his Dale Warland Singers. He continues to inspire students and pros alike to this day.
By Matt Parish
The first time Dale Warland commissioned a new piece of choral music, he contacted world-famous Jean Berger to write for Warland’s student choir at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. The well-known composer dedicated the piece to Warland, who was then still an undergraduate who hadn’t a clue that commissions are typically paid. Berger didn’t mind – he was happy to send the promising young conductor a brand new work.
The commission certainly wouldn’t be his last. Dale Warland went on to have one of the most renowned careers in choral music, establishing new arteries of support for professional chorus work with over 270 new pieces of music from composers of all types. His beloved singing group, the Dale Warland Singers, spanned over 30 years in action (1972 to 2004) and 300 members, making unforgettable marks on the classical music landscape. They recorded 23 albums (including the Grammy-nominated Walden Pond) and appeared worldwide in concert and in annual radio broadcasts of the group’s classic Echoes of Christmas.
Though he ended his career with the Singers nine years, Warland has remained busy with a long list of guest conducting jobs, residencies, masterclasses, positions with professional choirs in Minnesota, and even composing work. Last fall, he was inducted into the Classical Music Hall of Fame alongside composer Steve Reich and the Beaux Arts Trio, among others. It seemed the perfect time to survey Warland’s career and his monumental efforts at establishing a new level of excellence in professional choral singing.
Warland grew up in a very small town in Iowa. His father, a farmer, was a self-taught trombone player, marching band enthusiast, and dedicated choir singer, and his grandfather had been a lifelong member of the local church choir. Warland followed his church’s conductor’s lead and enrolled at St. Olaf College, a lynchpin in the Midwest’s ages-old choral tradition that can be traced back to Scandinavian Lutheran churches. Warland’s leadership and conducting skills quickly earned him his own choir there, which he soon used to commission the Berget piece.
Warland went on to join the Air Force, stationed in Belleville, Illinois at Scott Air Force Base. There, he formed a choir that quickly grew in reputation, once performing for then-Vice President Richard Nixon. He earned his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota and his doctorate at the University of Southern California, going on to teach at Humboldt State College in Arcata, California and at New York’s Keuka College. He settled in as director of choral activities at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The Dale Warland Singers began at a time when professional choirs were not a common part of the arts world. Eventually, the idea caught on, thanks in no small part to the excellent sound of his developing choir. The Singers were described in the most glowing terms possible. BBC Music Magazine wrote their December Stillness album was “splendid, melting stuff.” The Oregonian called the group “peerless.” The group’s sound, which was fine-tuned year-after-year to a nuanced, rich, and beautiful wholeness, became almost instantly recognizable.
It paid off in accolades – on top of the Hall of Fame honor, Warland and the singers enjoyed the Michael Korn Founder’s Award, three separate ASCAP honors for adventurous programming, the ACDA’s Weston Noble Award for Lifetime Achievement in Choral Music and Robert Shaw Award in Choral Music, Yale University’s Cultural Leadership Citation Award, the American Composer Forum’s Champion of New Music Award, and many more. It also earned the respect of the choral community at large. The Singers performed works by composers like Stephen Paulus, Robert Shaw, Kryzsztof Penderecki, Libby Larsen, Carol Barnett, and Dominick Argento. They’ve also worked with conductors like Edo de Waart, Leonard Slatkin, Hugh Wolff, Bobby McFerrin, and David Zinman, among many others.
Throughout, Warland has remained humble, maintaining strong ties to the Minnesota arts groups that nourished him early on. Choral Director took time to talk with him from his home outside of St. Paul this winter about the careful road he’s followed on this one-of-a-kind musical career.
Choral Director: Growing up in Iowa, you must have had a pretty limited exposure to large choral performances.
Dale Warland: I grew up on a farm in Iowa, approximately six miles from Fort Dodge and about three miles from Badger. Badger was a little village of some one hundred people. It was our community and most of our social life centered in and around the Lutheran church there. I went to a one-room country school house through eighth grade and, for most of that time, I was the only one in my class. We sang every day and that was something that became part of my life.
CD: You’ve mentioned being inspired by the St. Olaf Choir, which your church’s choir director had attended. How did getting involved with their program affect your career?
DW: My life dream was to become a member of the St. Olaf Choir, but I never made the final cut. In my junior year, I was appointed assistant director of the Viking Male Chorus on campus and that really launched my conducting career. My senior year, I was the only conductor and did all the programming and rehearsing and touring. It was a great experience. I had my own college choir when I was 21 years old.
CD: Did your interest in both Early Music and 20th-Century Music begin to develop at that time?
DW: I was pretty interested in New Music very early. In fact, when I led the Viking Male Chorus as a student, I heard a work by Jean Berger, who was very famous in his day. I wrote him a letter, never having met him, and asked if he would write a piece for my Viking Chorus. He did. I never knew that you paid a composer, so he did this commission for nothing. It turned out that it was his first commission in the United States! He was a refugee, having fled the Nazis and coming to the United States by way of South America. It was his first commission in the United States, but without pay! That’s how naïve I was. I just asked him and he wrote the piece. That’s what you do when you’re naïve and don’t know any better.
CD: A major theme in your career was your desire to develop a culture of professional choruses. What was it like when you started out?
DW: My dream in life, after graduating from school, was to be a college choral conductor. But I soon realized that I lost many singers every year when they graduated. I also wanted to do music that would be much better performed if we had mature voices than those of undergraduate singers.
CD: Did that sort of situation just not seem to be happening for anyone at that point?
DW: There were a lot of community choirs, but as far as I know, no one was paying singers in choir. That was unheard of. Maybe soloists in churches were paid, but no choirs had any kind of an ongoing fee. When I started, what we could afford was very small. But as soon as we could, we did start paying a small amount for each service. That meant so much for rehearsals and so much for performances. However, it took a number of years before we even were able to do that.
CD: Did you have a certain strategy for raising funds ahead of time or for playing certain types of concerts to target your financial goals at the time?
DW: Just singing. [laughs] Corporations and foundations were very helpful but, compared to the instrumental and opera world, our grants were small. The general public just wasn’t used to the idea of paying singers. That’s a whole education in itself, even paying for concerts, for that matter. On top of that, my main interest was New Music. People would stay away from performances when they heard you were performing New Music until they realized how wonderful it could be and learned to trust you and believe that the New Music you did might exciting and beautiful.
CD: So you had a whole separate challenge of convincing that New Music could be palatable.
DW: Right. I essentially simply gave it time. The choir, first of all, had to learn to enjoy it and do it well. It’s a challenge because not all New Music is quality music. If anyone heard the term “12-tone,” they would stay away. In not too long a time, we became well-known for our commitment to commissioning and our performances and recording of New Music. That really helped us make a name for ourselves – the 270 commissions we did. It’s amazing that if you believe in something and you can do it well, you’ll eventually gain support of people who are sensitive to those kinds of challenges.
CD: Did you have a concept for a group “sound” early on?
DW: Any concept of sound that I had at that time was totally embedded in my subconscious. I certainly had “a sound” in my head, but was not really aware of that being unusual. I realized that the big challenge was to take the raw material I had and, with effective conducting gestures and the right choice of words, somehow develop “a sound” that would be aesthetically appealing, beautiful to the ear, and also appropriate for most all repertoire.
CD: Was there a certain type of impact you were hoping to have on the choral music world with this group?
DW: I simply wanted to develop a professional choir that could sing anything and sing it at an incredibly high artistic level. I knew that, with half a chance, I could make that happen, even with little funding or a public that really didn’t think there was a difference between college or volunteer adult choirs and a professional choir. One of our missions was to inform the community that singers who have pursued advanced degrees in music and who had extensive performance experience should be paid for their work, just as a violinist or timpani player in a professional orchestra.
CD: What was your approach to the composers from whom you commissioned works?
DW: I laid out no specific criteria for the composers that we commissioned over the years except general practical matters of the event or concert: where and when it was to be premiered, a suggested approximate duration, instrumental forces to include, if any, and made it clear that they must keep in mind the amount (exact hours and minutes) we would be able to devote to its preparation. I encouraged each composer to be as creative and unconventional as they wished. Further, I looked for composers who had written mostly or exclusively for instruments, and wanted to encourage them to write for voices. I also felt it was important to seek out writers who would bring a fresh touch to the choral repertoire. Eric Whitacre is a good example of that. He was still an undergraduate and had written very little when we commissioned “Water Night.”
CD: You’ve pointed at local relationships as being extremely important in sustaining the group.
DW: We were one of the first performing ensembles to be part of the St. Paul Sunday radio program. We produced some 12 programs for them over the years. That alone helped a great amount with our exposure on the national scene. At about the same time, Minnesota Public Radio (which is in St. Paul) began broadcasting our regular concerts and, annually, our Echoes of Christmas programs. Public radio did an awful lot to put us on the map.
In our group, there was always a fine line between how much singing time the individual singer could commit to, and what the individual’s life style could bear. The Twin Cities offered great opportunities to expand both income and repertoire opportunities with Minnesota Orchestra and the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, both world class ensembles with world class conductors and guest conductors. Other collaborations further expanded the repertoire and breadth of our musical experiences, included the Schubert Club, Minnesota Opera, American Composers Forum, as well as Minnesota Public Radio.
CD: As time went on, did you seem to find more kindred spirits in this push to make singers professional?
DW: When Robert Shaw came to town, he insisted on having the Dale Warland Singers when he was engaged to do the “Messiah” with the Minnesota Orchestra. That was a turning point as well, because the Minnesota Orchestra had never paid a chorus before and I had turned it down every time they offered it up to that point in time. One has to establish a certain performance level before one can really sell oneself as professional.
CD: Do you feel the perception of paying choirs changed relatively quickly throughout the country from that point forward?
DW: I don’t know if it was relatively quickly, but it certainly has changed. Now we have an organization that supports professional choirs – Chorus America (originally the Association of Professional Vocal Ensembles). But it’s not uncommon now to have all-professional or at least a paid professional nucleus for choirs all around the country. That’s great to see. Choirs are still not paid enough, but at least it’s happening and eventually we will get there.
CD: With the DWS, what was the typical lifespan of a singer?
DW: I don’t think there was one that we would call “typical.” Some of them were with the group 20 years. As the years went on, there was more turnover because people just began moving more. When we first started, people would rarely move out of town. Everyone was required to audition every year, and those expectations were made clear. If you were slipping in terms of musicianship, vocal skills, or discipline, you knew your position was on the line. But everyone was always excited to be a part of it. As we were all paid more, that made it even better.
CD: Was everyone typically working day jobs throughout the span of the DWS?
DW: Probably a quarter of the singers were freelancers and a good many of them were music teachers. The largest share of the memberships did have full-time jobs. Most of them had jobs, however, that they could be excused from so that when we did do run-outs or tours, they could be able to take a few days off. They all knew the tour schedules well in advance, so we couldn’t take them into the choir unless we knew they could meet that schedule. When we did extensive touring, we had a smaller group (26 voices) that I would engage. Later, we began booking our own concerts with all 40 voices. That was great because I could perform the repertoire that we wished and we could command the appropriate fees.
CD: Do you approach the student choirs that you visit now any differently than your professional choirs?
DW: No, my approach to both is fundamentally the same.
CD: What do you find to be the biggest concerns in choral education these days?
DW: In general, my biggest concert with the education of singers is a lack in the development of strong, overall musicianship along with a flexibility in performing effectively in all singing styles, including vibrato control to meet those stylistic demands. In the education of choral conductors, I see a general lack of extensive or even adequate knowledge of choral rep, along with what one would term a truly effective conducting technique.
CD: When you’re guest-conducting, what’s something you especially try to impart as an educator and choral advocate?
DW: I hope I am able to assist in getting the choirs that I encounter excited about doing good repertoire and doing it well. I’m still amazed that many don’t fully realize the importance of repertoire. That is critical. I try to instill that. I talk about three things – building the instrument (the choir), building the repertoire and programming, and building the musical leadership (the conductor). What really makes the choir what it becomes or what it doesn’t become is the repertoire. The same thing with the conductor – he or she will grow only according to the demands of the repertoire. If it’s quality repertoire, chances are that conductor is going to become quality, as well.
CD: What gets your attention when building a choir’s voice?
DW: I’m a great attention-to-detail person – where you breathe, balance, everything that goes into making really fine music. Until all the essential details are in place, you cannot really begin making music. You don’t want to waste time telling everyone where to breathe or how to pronounce any given word. All the markings should be done first, then insist that the singers follow them when you do rehearse and perform. I always send markings ahead of time. When I say “markings,” I don’t just mean only where you breathe but also exact pronunciation, dynamics changes, all the phrasing, the divisi assignments, et cetera. All of those go out before I arrive on the scene. I try to instill what I would term basic or fundamental expectations. These are essential to start with before you can even think of making great music.