Kent Hatteberg has built an elite choral program at the University of Louisville, and now he’s making sure the world gets to see it.
By Matt Parish
As his choir marched down the street in a Vietnamese city last spring, Kent Hatteberg took note of the faces of locals of a certain age and felt something impossible to get anywhere else. He’d brought a group of college students – the University of Louisville’s Cardinal Singers – halfway across the world to a place that echoed a war none of them could remember. As they waved American flags down the street, Hatteberg felt an undeniable mix of discovery, brotherhood, tumult, and renewal that only traveling outside of one’s comfort zone can bring.
Thanks to Hatteberg, the Cardinal Singers are no strangers to the life of the traveler. Many of his current students have already taken five or six international trips with the group, a pace that he suspects might not even sink in for the students for years, even decades. Hatteberg has led his ensemble to performances in Cuba, Germany, Korea, Estonia, and Spain (not to mention a continuous series of invites to the ACDA conferences).
During a recent trip to Vietnam and South Korea for the 2013 Yeosu International Choir Competition & Festival and the third Vietnam International Choir Competition of Hoi An, the group won four gold medals and was named best choir in the show. As the traveling continues, the group’s horizons are continually broadened. “They have humility and compassion and an understanding of the diversity of people of other cultures,” he says. “I also think they’ve built an appetite for this.”
The story of the Cardinal Singers is remarkable for that appetite, which is exercised not only through its extensive traveling but through an ambitious approach to programming brought on by Hatteberg since his arrival at Louisville in 1996. The music program is very friendly to new music, and Hatteberg’s tastes fit in line with that from the beginning. An advocate of both finely tuned solfége skills and open-minded approaches to diverse types of material, he’s transformed the community into one of the nation’s most respected wells of choral talent.
The interest in travel didn’t come out of nowhere. Hatteberg has long been somewhat of a wandering soul. His first teaching job was at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he led a high-level show choir, as well as groups doing very advanced choral works. After a few years there, he left to work as a Fulbright fellow in Berlin, Germany, where he studied the early works of Felix Mendelssohn and orchestral conducting. Hatteberg remembers hearing a refrain from his parents that was similar to what he had thought to himself when visiting Vietnam: “After the wars that our generation went through, why would you want to go there?”
He took his wife and three children along for the ride, though, and still considers the year in Berlin to be the most exciting opportunity of his career. Upon returning to the United States, Hatteberg found his first college teaching position at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, where he worked from 1991 to 1996 rebuilding their program into a real force in the already competitive Texas collegiate music scene.
In 1996, he took his current position at Louisville and began work on an extensive expansion of the school’s choral program as part of an overall retooling of the school’s music department (new directors of bands and orchestral studies were installed within two years of Hatteberg’s arrival). The result is a clean, confident sound from groups of singers comfortable with everything from Bach motets to gospel works and modern shadowing techniques. “I just dug in and worked a lot of hours,” says Hatteberg.
Choral Director spoke with Hatteberg from his office in Louisville for an in-depth look at how he’s turned the Cardinal Singers into an elite group renowned across an ever-growing segment of the world’s choral scene.
Choral Director: Congratulations on the great showing in Korea and Vietnam! How was that experience?
Kent Hatteberg: Although I’ve taken choirs to Korea three times now, and also to Taiwan, China, and Japan, I was a little naïve about Vietnam. I’d traveled extensively both with ensembles and on my own as an adjudicator, lecturer, and guest conductor. Going to Korea was the focus of our trip this time – that competition looked exciting and I knew Lee Jae-jun, organizer and artistic director of the Yeosu International Choir Competition & Festival. Maestro Lee is a marvelous conductor and a wonderful man. It was great. But since we were traveling to Asia, I thought “Maybe there’s something else we can add on.”
The experience of being in Vietnam was one of the most incredible things I’ve done. The culture and the beauty and the food – the way people work and live was just incredible. Everything about it. Just as incredible as Cuba was the year before.
CD: How did the experience go for you?
KH: I was curious about going to Vietnam. I had these weird feelings due to the war there and the draft – my brother was almost drafted and I was almost of draft age when the war ended. So there was some intrigue, but I also had the feeling of, “Do I really want to go there?” In the end, seeing an incredible place like that is just hard to describe in words. I’m not sure if there had been a western choir previously at the Vietnam Competition, which was put on by Interkultur, a company in Germany that sponsors numerous competitions throughout the world. It was our fourth time to compete in an Interkultur event. Incidentally, we are hosting Sing’n’Joy Louisville, an Interkultur competition in Louisville in November for which I’m serving as the artistic director.
CD: What was it like observing the generation gap with your students?
KH: I was in the same boat as those students when I was studying in Germany years ago. My grandfather had fought in World War I, and my parents asked me, “Why would you ever want to go there?” I had similar feelings with this trip – I knew people who were drafted and we had a family friend killed in the war. I was just old enough to be aware of all those reports at the time and all the turmoil in this country. So the feelings were very strange.
But during the trip, we had a parade of choirs through the town of Hoi An and I’m marching through a Vietnamese city in 2013 as the American director, holding the American flag. That gave me all kinds of inner turmoil. But as I marched down that street, I watched the eyes of people who are old enough to remember – I watched how they observed people, amidst all the waving and smiling and picture-taking. I watched those people in their 60s and 70s. I didn’t see hatred or anything, but I did see people who had probably lost family, just by the look in their eyes. The depth in their eyes showed they had lived a hard life.
CD: What do you think the students brought back with them from that experience?
KH: I think there’s a sense of awe and wonder that they all have. I think it’s really changed them. They’ve become more humble and more aware. They have humility and compassion and an understanding of the diversity of people of other cultures. I also think they’ve built an appetite for this. We’ve had these opportunities so far – can we do more?
CD: A lot of this focus on traveling could be traced to one of your formative experiences on a Fulbright scholarship to Germany early on in your career.
KH: It was the most exciting opportunity of my life, maybe, on many levels. At that time, Berlin had a September Music Series, where all these great performers and conductors were coming in. I also attended many rehearsals and concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as other Berlin orchestras and choruses. Seeing so many high-level professional organizations perform along with singing in the symphonic choir, doing major works every four to five weeks and studying with the conductor of that group, and the study of the Staatsbibliothek in former East Berlin was just incredible. I would spend hours and hours looking at scores, studying Mendelssohn.
CD: What was it like coming back to the U.S for your college job at Sam Houston State?
KH: We got to experience a reverse culture shock! Because we’d grown up in Iowa, moving to the piney woods of East Texas was quite a change in terms of the language and the environment. We loved it.
CD: Did you approach music any differently once you were installed there?
KH: Maybe yes and maybe no. When I moved to Texas, I started a symphonic choir to do more of these works. The choral program had been led by a strong personality in Bev Henson, who had left two years before I came in. They had been used to some really seasoned veterans in the past, and I was 36 at that point, I guess, and unknown in the collegiate ranks.
CD: How did that compare with your introduction to Louisville, where you moved to five years later?
KH: I think everyone would say that the program was not strong. There were some strong, talented singers there, but the choral program was not strong. It was a bigger rebuilding project than Sam Houston, as I recall. It wasn’t even rebuilding – just building the program. Everyone who was here would say that.
CD: What was your plan of attack?
KH: I just dug in, went after building a program, and worked a lot of hours. I let them know on the first concert how I went about things – a lot of use of solfége syllables, a lot of a cappella work, a lot of quality literature, and much more literature in general than they were used to. I think it was a huge culture change. The dean wanted to build strong ensembles in every area. In a period of three years, there was a new director of Bands hired, a new director of Orchestral Studies, and a new director of Choral Activities, all in succeeding years. It was an overhaul of all of the large ensembles.
CD: What convinced you to take on this challenge in the first place?
KH: One thing that changed my mind was that they have student convocations, and I heard a few singers and it turned out they had some really beautiful alto voices in the program. I thought, “That’s some nice vocal training.” Then I started reconsidering, thinking, “Maybe I shouldn’t write this off.” I saw potential.
CD: How had those singers developed at that point – recruitment? Different vocal instruction?
KH: There was interest in opera. It’s very much an opera focus here, so there were some strong solo singers. The top ones were very good. But as far as the discipline of choral singing and sightreading in a choral ensemble, that wasn’t yet a very strong area.
CD: What are some of the first things that you did that you found to have a substantial effect?
KH: I started with a really hard program. [Laughs.] We did Brahms and Bach, Berlioz, and Bernstein – all composers whose names started with “B.” I can’t remember if the other was Britten or Barber. I started off with a Bach motet because the voices were not agile. They were operatically trained voices, but to do a Bach motet? That was not a capability they had yet. So I did “Lobet den Herrn” the first semester here. I used a lot of solfége syllables and worked much more a cappella in rehearsal, even though they had assigned me an accompanist. I don’t use one regularly – we work almost entirely a cappella except when preparing a large work with orchestra.
CD: Was there a particular turning point?
KH: We were getting ready for a concert in February or March. The final dress rehearsal was the day of the turning point. I said to some of them, “Some of you are singing way too loud for a choir. If you want me to tell you who, I can do it right now or I can do it during the break. But we need to have a more uniform sound. There’s no ego involved – we just have a bunch of voices that are sticking out.” They immediately asked, “Is it me? Is it me?” I said, “Yes, no, yes, yes, no…” I went right through the group in the rehearsal. We gave the concert the next evening, and I brought in the recording of the concert a few days later. As we listened to it, one of the baritones – one of those very good singers – asked, “Is that us?”
CD: It just knocked them off their feet?
KH: I think so! They’d never heard the choir sound that good on a recording.
CD: Did improvements come pretty quickly after that?
KH: Particularly with that spring rehearsal, it was almost an overnight experience. That was really with my Collegiate Chorale, which is considered the top choir here. I didn’t have what’s now known as the Cardinal Singers – that was then called the University Singers and they were directed by someone else. That teacher retired and I took over the group the next year, in ’97. In ’98, I changed the name of the group to Cardinal Singers.
CD: Would you like to just see more solfége in general?
KH: I’d say that’s one of the big differences in our choirs compared to other choirs in the States is that we don’t sing in tempered tuning. I think the manner in which you rehearse – if you get kids more aware of their surroundings and matching up with each other rather than latching onto the piano – you develop better musicians. When you hear our choir, compared to many other college choirs, you hear a real difference and it’s largely because of that: using solfége syllables and learning the music without the aid of the piano.
CD: You have a really diverse repertoire – what’s your philosophy behind selecting works to perform each year?
KH: We do a new music festival here every November. It’s between four and six concerts and we have a night for the choirs so I’m always looking for new things for that. Louisville is well-known for its emphasis on new music, as the Louisville Orchestra made numerous recordings of new works, and the University of Louisville is the home of the Grawemeyer Award, which I believe is the largest monetary award for new compositions in the world. We also have four composers on the School of Music staff. Composition is a very strong area here and new things are encouraged. That fit in with my liking to do what is at times some odd repertoire.
CD: What’s a stand-out piece that you’ve done recently?
KH: Someone that comes to mind is Eriks Ešenvalds, a Latvian composer. He’s written some wonderful pieces, including “A Drop in the Ocean.” It’s a stunning piece that incorporates the Lord’s Prayer (Pater noster), the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi (“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace”), three verses of Psalm 55, some lyrics written by Mother Teresa for a song, and her famous quote about her work on earth (“My work is nothing but a drop in the ocean, but if I did not put that drop, the ocean would be one drop the less.”). It combines those and it’s really quite moving. Another piece that we did by him a couple years ago is “Long Road.”
They definitely go outside the lines. In my earlier years, I did a lot of really out-there music, lots of experimental types of pieces, lots of extended vocal technique. These are really beautiful pieces but they’re not going to be done by too many advanced high school choirs. “Drop in the Ocean” has a shadowing effect in the beginning, where you have a soloist and then two or three sopranos shadowing her just slightly behind the behind the beat with her. It adds a really eerie electronic effect though it’s all done with voices. Then a little later, it splits into 10 parts and the ranges are kind of extreme at times, so there’s a lot of diversity in the piece itself. It’s a wonderfully crafted piece by Ešenvalds.
CD: It seems like you might have more styles and tendencies that you have to corral into your groups.
KH: Singers have to be versatile. In the studio, they’re studying arias and art songs and being trained that way. The focus of choral singing is not so vastly different. And then there’s a pop or jazz group. If we can train singers to adapt to different styles, I think we’ve won.
CD: Is there something that you’re hoping these students take away from your program?
KH: For the students that are fortunate enough to do all this traveling, it’s great to take those experiences of broadening one’s world and one’s perspective: just that sheer knowledge that it’s such a big and diverse world and that music is a part of that. It’s a broader humanitarian thing that I want them to appreciate.
We started traveling in 2003, going to the International Brahms Competition in Wernigerode, Germany. We went to the World Choir Games in Bremen in 2004, then in the summer of 2005 we spent three weeks competing in Germany and then we performed at the World Choral Symposium in Kyoto, Japan. In 2006 we were going to the Baltic nations, I think. And a soprano singer finally said, “Yup, just another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” And they started joking about that because they’d had a string of them and it was really very nice. They were beneficiaries of a really diverse and extensive amount of travel.