Finding the balance as a ‘servant of the music’

New Haven Chorale director Edward Bolkovac sees music as a vehicle for transcendence

The New Haven Chorale performs under the direction of Edward Bolkovac. Photo by Kevin J. Andersen.

The New Haven Chorale performs under the direction of Edward Bolkovac. Photo by Kevin J. Andersen.

For Edward Bolkovac, music director of the New Haven Chorale and a professor at the Hartt School, performing music isn’t about ego. Musicians must each be “the servant of the music.” And if they can master that, then perhaps they can communicate something deeper to the audience—spiritual transcendence.

The New Haven Chorale has three signature events programmed for the upcoming season: a Halloween-oriented performance geared for children at Trinity Church on the Green the afternoon of Sat., Oct. 26; a festive holiday concert of baroque choral and orchestra works followed by holiday favorites and sing-a-longs at East Haven High School on Sat., Dec. 14; and a wide-ranging spring salute to American music at Battell Chapel on Sat., May 17. Bolkovac took artistic leadership of the chorale, a community-based oratorio choir with about 80 singers, in 2003.

“They are extraordinary, intelligent, wonderfully busy professionals who make music for all the right reasons,” enthuses Bolkovac in an interview at his Hartt office.

Balance and eclecticism are key concepts for Bolkovac. As relates to the chorale, Bolkovac notes that finding the balance between having fun and working hard is essential for effective rehearsals. And balance is essential to developing the chorale’s repertoire and programming.

“Their repertoire has to be very broad. We try to touch bases on all the various time periods of music and try to keep rotating styles so they get experience with all sorts of different things,” says Bolkovac. In addition to programming a broad repertoire of music, Bolkovac also tries to involve the chorale regularly in collaborations with other ensembles, including ones composed of Hartt students.

A choir conductor, Bolkovac says, needs to know “how to coach and lead people to sing better. Sometimes the people who are good coaches and teachers are not necessarily the ones who have the most mellifluous voices on their own.
“You have to have good ears to hear the sounds coming at you. You have to have a burning desire to communicate with people—the people you’re working with and the potential audience,” declares Bolkovac.

As a conductor, Bolkovac says his goal is to spur the ensemble to sing “the meaning behind the words.”

“You have to have a vision of the text and the music and how it comes together,” he explains. “You also have to love what you’re doing because they’ll see right through it if you don’t love the piece.”

Bolkovac feels classical-music ensembles too often coast on the reputations of the works they are performing. But to really speak to an audience, performances have to be “instilled with the enthusiasm, desire, and meaning behind the words.”

Edward Bolkovac conducts the New Haven Chorale. Photo by Kevin J. Andersen.

Edward Bolkovac conducts the New Haven Chorale. Photo by Kevin J. Andersen.

“If you look at people in the rock field, you may not like what they have to say, but they give 150 percent,” says Bolkovac. “My attitude is that we should do the same with the music we present.”

Bolkovac offers the example of his father. While his father “doesn’t really understand classical music,” he is attuned to the “important things/f—/fthe psyche behind the music, the drama, the poignancy, not getting lost in the details and program notes. I always tell the choir you have to communicate to those people in the audience. And if you’re not committed psychologically and spiritually, then communication is not going to happen on the most fundamental level.

“I spend a lot of time telling the kids, ‘It’s not about you. It’s about the music.’ I would tell the chorale that, too. Happiness becomes a by-product,” says Bolkovac. “If you get to that point—if you are a servant of the music—then I hope at some point you realize it’s not about the music. It’s about a temporary, ephemeral glimpse of transcendence.”

Bolkovac moved to Connecticut in 1999 to teach at Hartt, which is part of the University of Hartford. Prior to joining the Hartt faculty as the Primrose Fuller Professor of Choral Music—becoming the leader of its vocal division in 2001, an administrative position from which he just stepped down—Bolkovac had a distinguished career teaching in the Bay Area of California and at the University of Queensland in Australia. Bolkovac has traveled extensively throughout the world to teach and conduct. Recently, he signed on as choir director of the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Hartford.

Trained as a keyboardist and pianist, he wanted to be another Arthur Rubenstein but realized during college that it wasn’t going to happen. On the advice of one of his mentors, a piano teacher, Bolkovac pondered other options to harness his natural musicality.

“I always liked the sound of voices, the sound of choirs and of voices singing together and the tuning. It was like a second turn in the road,” Bolkovac recalls.

Bolkovac notes that one of his mentors, the late Thomas Dunn (a conductor and musical director of the Handel and Haydn Society), told him, “Don’t get boxed in.”

Bolkovac tries to find a balance in his own professional career. When he taught in the Bay Area, he concentrated on early music, becoming the artistic director of the California Bach Society. Coming to Hartt, he says, “provided different opportunities for a different repertoire.”

“When an opportunity arises to conduct an orchestra to do a Mozart symphony, I will do it. I try and program some instrumental pieces at the cathedral,” Bolkovac says. “It helps to keep things fresh. I like the idea of being eclectic.”

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