Lorna Cooke deVaron

Lorna Cooke deVaron

Boston Singers' Resource News Bulletin, December 5, 2006
by Joe Stroup

In a career spanning six decades, Lorna Cooke deVaron has known and worked with many of the 20th Century’s leading orchestral and choral conductors. As a member of the Choral Department of the Berkshire Music Center in the 1950s, then as Chair of the Choral Department of the New England Conservatory for 41 years and, most recently, as a faculty member of the Longy School in Cambridge, she has taught countless students in the craft and art of choral conducting. She has led choruses on tours in North America, Eastern and Western Europe, and the Far East, often premiering important choral works, some written specifically for her.
Today she continues to find new challenges and to influence the way people think about music. Since her official retirement, in May 2005, she has helped to found and now leads The deVaronistas. “The group isn’t out to set the world on fire. But,” she explains, “we want to enjoy an eclectic mix of all the best music for a small ensemble.” And their musical standards are high.

For a concert this Friday evening, December 8, at 7:00 at the Pleasant Street Church in Arlington, MA, Mrs. deVaron has prepared a seasonal concert that includes, in the first half, music of Machaut, Dufay, Vittoria, and Poulenc. The second half of the program is devoted to songs appropriate to both Hanukkah (“music I brought over from Israel; wonderful songs honoring Hanukkah, though not specifically for Hanukkah”) and the Christmas season.

The ensemble of seven women and seven men came about because each of the members, all of whom have busy lives in various professions, has a strong desire to sing and work together and with Mrs. deVaron. The membership, with ages ranging from late 20s to mid-60s, share a connection either with Longy or NEC, though not all of them have been a student of Mrs. deVaron. Some are semi-professional musicians or have been very active in choral music or are in paid church choirs. But it is the non-musical side of their lives that Mrs. deVaron finds note-worthy. “These are mature, active people. One man is a pediatrician; another man is the head of Harvard Dental School. One woman is the psychiatrist for musicians who play in pop bands, one is being groomed to become the CEO of a robotics company and another is the manager of a new theater company.”

Concert venues for the group are found by the membership and reflect its willingness to sing wherever people want to hear them. Last year’s inaugural concert was in the upper level of a renovated barn in Medford, MA, that is owned by a harpsichord maker. They have performed at the Swedenborg Church in Cambridge and at several retirement homes. The group plans a season of four concerts, ending each May, with additional venues added as opportunities come about.

Throughout her long and influential career, Mrs. deVaron has been a vigorous advocate of new music; particularly music considered “modern” – a word she uses, she says, for want of a better one. We asked her whether, with The deVaronistas, she will look for opportunities to continue this effort. The simple question led to some fascinating musings.

“Now that is a very interesting, that is the ‘A’, question. This is something that I’ve been wresting with. The whole picture of music has changed so radically from what it was in the mid-20th Century. I taught at Tanglewood for 12 years, in the 50s and 60s. One of the things that was so exciting there was that we were singing new music all the time; music that was difficult and very experimental. Some of it was absolutely wild, without any meter at all, jumps all over the place in the music, all kinds of combinations of speech and whistling and singing, etc. Even in the 70s and 80s we were performing music by Ligeti and Messiaen (at the New England Conservatory). People don’t do this anymore.”

In contrast to this, the music being written today by musicians such as Lauridsen, Pärt, and Tavener is, she feels, not so modern. “Even the cluster chords found in the work of Eric Whitacre (he is very popular right now, in the choral music in America), although they are very beautiful, are repeated so much that his music shows instances of minimalism and is less challenging than many works of the twentieth century.”

How had this trend come about? “I think it’s because people rebelled against the 12–tone, the very difficult music. And then, you know how the circle’s bound to go around, there was the music of Glass and Reich and John Adams. Now, with the music of Lauridsen and the others, it’s more appealing to an audience because it’s so very consonant.”

But, we wondered, does this then mean that the choral music of the mid-20th Century has lost its audience? Mrs. deVaron doesn’t quite think so. “There are some wonderful things that are going to live. There is ‘The Hour Glass’ by Irving Fine (which, by the way, he wrote for me) and there are the ‘Reincarnations’ by Samuel Barber. Those are classics. Also there are motets by Stravinsky, the ‘Six Chansons’ of Hindemith, and the ‘Five Slovak Folk Songs’ by Bartok. Those are pieces worth keeping in the choral repertoire. Also, the ‘Lux Aeterna’ for 12 voices by Ligeti, and the ‘Cinq Rechants’ of Messiaen; that music is marvelous. I started a small group, 16 to 18 singers, at the Conservatory. We spent a long time on the Ligeti and the Messiaen, but it was worth it.”

Our conversation turned to her years at Tanglewood, when her work as a musician of international stature found its first roots. She had been making the trip to western Massachusetts each summer since 1946 to study choral conducting with Robert Shaw. Then, in 1953, she was appointed to the Tanglewood faculty. Was this appointment something of a coup for her?

“Oh my, yes. It was thrilling. When I first went there as a student it was the second year after WWII that they opened The Berkshire Music Center (as it was called then). Robert Shaw was a young man that they had picked as one of the choral heads of the Choral Department and the other was a man named Hugh Ross from New York. I wanted to study with Shaw because I had heard great things about him. I was a graduate student at Harvard. And, well, Tanglewood that summer just blew me away. We sang six hours a day with him, and often sight read Bach Cantatas around the piano after supper. It was so exciting, you have no idea. The whole school was fabulous. There were people like Eunice Albert and Phyllis Curtin in the Opera Department, and Leonard Bernstein was an assistant conductor with the conducting class with Koussevitsky. I worked with Shaw for several years. Then I became assistant to Hugh Ross before becoming Department Head. Shaw had left by then because he wanted Koussevitsky to let him have his own orchestra with his own chorus, but I think it was too expensive.

“We had quite a few people who were scholarship singers at that time so that the small choir was really quite a wonderful group. It was the nucleus of the Tanglewood Chorus which always then included local people who wanted to sing.”

The Tanglewood experience in the 1950s was a time of great, artistic experimentation. People came to this out-of-the-way place from all over the world to learn their individual crafts and to learn from each other. Mrs. deVaron remembers it warmly. “It was tremendous; hard to find the words to describe it. Young composers would want their choral pieces sung so they could get an idea of whether the ideas on paper sounded right. Were they practical for a chorus? Was it really what they wanted it to sound like? It was very valuable for the young composer and it was terrific for singers. Very difficult stuff, but we learned a lot about how things were composed and how they were put on paper. We learned to read anything.”

We asked Mrs. deVaron why it was that such an open and energized learning experience was possible at that time. What forces came together to make Tanglewood and, by extension, her career possible?

"First, I think that Koussevitsky had an incredible dream which was realized. Then, second, I think that after the war music and art blossomed. People came back after the war and they realized, I think all Americans realized, how fortunate they were to be born in this country. There was great enthusiasm for cultural enrichment, especially for art and music. And the men and women who had survived wanted more than anything, if they were musicians, to compose or perform. Even women were given, finally, good opportunities. I got my start in conducting because of the war, you might say. There weren’t many women conductors but because of the war, and so many men being away, I got these conducting jobs. I don’t think that I would have gotten them otherwise.”

The work Mrs. deVaron enjoyed while at Tanglewood often involved the preparation of the Tanglewood Chorus for performances that would be conducted by other conductors. We wanted to know how she learned to rehearse a chorus that was to be led by someone else.

“First, learn the music really well. When preparing for another conductor you always have to sort of second guess. You have to say to the chorus, ‘Now he might .....’. For example, Charles Münch used to, from time to time, just infinitesimally, slow down the last beat of a measure so that the first beat of the next measure would be more powerful. Also, he was French so we had to work very hard on our French pronunciation. I prepared many things for him. It was important to know the beat of the conductor you were preparing for and where his pluses and minuses were. If he didn’t give cues in certain places, and this is true of almost every conductor we worked with, you had to warn the chorus. ‘Don’t expect him to give you a cue here’. And also, you had to think all the time of cutting through the orchestra in the right way without yelling. There were all kinds of vocal angles to consider.”

Beginning with her affiliation with Tanglewood, and throughout her career at the New England Conservatory, Mrs. deVaron, worked with many of the most important conductors of the time. Are there any who stand out in her mind?

“I loved working with Colin Davis. He was just wonderful. He had started out as a choral conductor and he just was wonderful with the chorus. If there was something that they lacked or he wanted more of, he knew how to get it out of them. He was a dream to work with. Leinsdorf was the toughest. The technical stuff had to be absolutely right. I think he had the feeling that if the technical stuff was really right then anything that came from the spirit or the heart would take care of itself. I think they both have to be there. I feel that the technical is the work basis. But then the expression and the heart must be always recognized.

“You know who’s fun to work with, too? Michael Tilson-Thomas. There was a time when William Steinberg who was the conductor of the BSO became ill and Michael Tilson-Thomas who was the assistant conductor stepped in. He had wonderful ideas for programs. We sang Stravinsky’s ‘Les Noces’ and the ‘Symphony of Psalms’. Also Monteverdi’s ‘Vespers of 1610’. We did ‘Daphnis and Chloe’. He gave us a lot of work.”

What about the music itself? Are there certain pieces you always enjoy going back to?

“You know, I like them all. It’s amazing. We performed some early Honegger with Münch. One of the first big pieces we did with him was the ‘La Danse des Morts’, the Dance of the Dead; a totally astonishing piece, but no one knows it. I don’t know why it isn’t done. The chorus has to cry out in these great cries. Münch stamped across the stage yelling to them. He said ‘Haven’t you ever cried? Haven’t ever been sorrowful?’ He was very dramatic.

“I love the French repertoire. Under Münch we sang lots of Berlioz and works like ‘The Martyrdom of St. Sebastien’ by Debussy. Unusual stuff. Colin Davis conducted us in ‘Persephone’ of Stravinsky. It is a beautiful work. It’s not well known but it’s a beauty.”
We were curious to know whether there were any pieces of the choral canon that she would like to do, possibly that she had not done yet, and whether The deVaronistas were the group to do it with.

“There’s all sorts of music in the 20th century that’s fascinating; things I haven’t tried. Bartok has some music that (I don’t know if it’s ever been performed here) is for a chorus of women’s voices and orchestra. Some of the music I want to do is with orchestra or chamber orchestra and that’s always a problem.

“I would love to do some Bach cantatas with this group. That’s going back, I realize. But, you see, Bach is, well, Bach is Bach. There’s a clarity as well as a richness in the contrapuntal lines which weave in and out together. And the soul in the music; there’s depth and yet you just have the feeling ‘this is right.’

“I don’t know just what’s happening with composers in this country. Things are evolving and that’s a good thing. But it’s very hard to know where things may settle. I hope we don’t settle into some sort of comfortable diatonic sound.”

And, finally, after the current concert season for The deVaronistas, what will Lorna Cooke deVaron be doing over the summer?

“Looking for new repertoire. I have a gigantic library of choral music and there are pieces in it that I don’t know. Actually, I just picked up a copy of ‘Flower Songs’ by Vincent Persichetti. It looks quite charming. It uses the poetry of e.e. cummings, and I thought, well, we might give it a try."

Upcoming performances:
The deVaronistas
Christmas Concert
Lorna Cooke deVaron conducts music of Machaut, Dufay, Vittoria, Poulenc, and music for the Hanukkah and Christmas season.
Pleasant Street Congregational Church, 75 Pleasant Street, Arlington, MA
$15 general, $10 seniors/children
Fri Dec 8, 2006 7:00 PM