Choirmaster Norman Scribner, 6 feet 4, has got hands that a basketball player might envy, a Mount Rushmore head with a massive brow and enormous, searching eyes. Yet despite his size, Scribner cuts a less than imposing figure on the podium. Although he's played the role of conductor countless times -- and will play it again this afternoon, when his Choral Arts Society opens its 20th-anniversary season with a performance of Mozart's sublime "Requiem" at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall -- he still shies away from the "maestro" mentality.
"Being out on stage is not something I enjoy especially," he says. "I have been under so much criticism for not playing the role of the conductor. My wife just says it's unacceptable. But I just can't run out there and jump up on the podium. I realize that the audience is going to focus on what's right in front of them -- on a figurehead -- but my belief is that the concert is basically being given by the composer."
Though Scribner, 48, may play down his part in the musical process, there are many who regard him with something close to adulation. Musical luminaries Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonard Bernstein, Erich Leinsdorf and Rafael Fru hbeck de Burgos, all of whom have conducted the Choral Arts Society, have marveled at the purity and unity of the group's sound, which can be directly attributed to Scribner's basic philosophy.
"My orientation toward musical things has always been instrumental," he explains. "If you asked me to say one phrase about what I think constitutes the ideal chorus and then shut up, I would say that they must sing with the clarity and unanimity that an orchestra has. Every choral conductor has to find some way to elevate his singers' consciousness to an extraordinarily high degree. Well, I've got my needle stuck on intonation, on blend. Some choruses sound so loose and vague -- it's like you were listening to them underwater, or watching a person walking by behind one of those corrugated, translucent office dividers. And I just can't stand out-of-tune singing. It just makes me shrivel!" He knocks his fingers against his kitchen table for emphasis.
Scribner is relaxed here at his expansive home in Upper Northwest, sipping endless cups of coffee, surrounded by his beloved Bo sendorfer piano and his piles of music, his son's drawings -- uncanny copies of Monet and Lautrec canvases -- propped up on the mantelpiece. The phone jangles constantly; his wife Shirley, a piano teacher who also handles the society's public relations and box office, answers the calls from her desk upstairs, leaving him free to muse on his beginnings.
The son of a clergyman, Scribner grew up in Gaithersburg and Cumberland, Md., and attributes his musical awakening to the substantial time he spent in church. "I remember running up after each service to hang over the little panel behind the organist, and watching with awe and wonder at the way he played that instrument," he recalls. "And each Easter Sunday night, members of the Baltimore Symphony were hired to perform, and I would run up with even more eagerness to see that double bass or violin. Even today, when I stand before an orchestra, I really am the most humble person on the stage, because every single person can do something that I can't do, and to me it's still mysterious."
Scribner became increasingly obsessed with the keyboard, and his parents eventually bought him a piano and arranged for lessons. "I was really kind of crazy," he admits. "I wanted to quit high school and just practice, practice. My only ambition in life was to be a concert pianist. There was one year that I decided I even had to get in a couple hours before school. I remember getting up in the black of night and walking all the way to church, because I couldn't get up at 4 and practice when everyone was still asleep. It would be freezing cold, and I'd stick my key in the door, and go in and play scales for two hours -- an incredible ritual. I was such a perfectionist. There was even a plea made to the principal to give me time off to practice during school hours."
Did his peers think this a trifle odd? "To this day," he says, "I carry with a certain measure of childish pride the fact that my dearest friend in high school was the captain of the football team. And I had the distinction of being just about the only person at Allegheny High School who wasn't on the team that the players respected. They accepted me as a real mensch because I was moving into something really definite."
At 16 Scribner's life became even more defined, but in a harsher sense. His father died, and so, strapped by financial necessity, the aspiring pianist turned his attention to more lucrative forms of music-making: church jobs. He had picked up the organ, and soon began what was to be a lifelong commitment to choral music and all varieties of communal song. The first time he stood up to conduct, it was before a children's choir, but that didn't quell his perfectionist tendencies. "Can you imagine part-rehearsals for a junior choir?" he laughs. "I'd have these little sopranos come in at 10:15, and then the altos at 11, and on and on."
During his years at Johns Hopkins and, later, Peabody Conservatory, his vision of vocal utopias intensified. "Once a professor of mine remarked, 'I've never heard a live performance of Mozart's "C Minor Mass." ' Somehow this struck lightning in my head -- I had to do it." Thus the Baltimore Choral Society was born. Eight intrepid souls attended the first rehearsal, but word eventually spread. Scribner held merciless, exacting auditions, a practice he continues to this day in his search for that subtle mix of bland-but-accurate and colorful voices ("Luciano Pavarotti would not fit into the Choral Arts Society," he tells solo-type singers who don't make it into the group).
In 1960, after a stint in the Army, Scribner took on a position at the National Cathedral as musical staff assistant, choirmaster of St. Albans Church and chapel organist for the St. Albans School for Boys. Since then he has been immersed in the musical life of the city, forming his own small group -- the Norman Scribner Choir -- composing works, serving on the NEA choral music panel and, of course, creating and molding the Choral Arts Society.
Scribner's music-making is as spiritual as it is intellectual. Deeply religious, he defines himself as a Christian, but adds, "I'm sure that if I were asked to write an article on 'Why I'm a Christian,' nine out of 10 Christian readers would put it down and say, 'This fellow isn't a Christian at all.' " His wife is Jewish, and they have raised their four children in the traditions of both faiths.
"I for one am not caught up in the symbolic trappings of religion," he says. "I'm very responsive to them because I'm a sentimental slob. I get all weepy when I hear certain kinds of music in church, and when people reverentially bang those Sanctus bells . . . but the bottom line is that these trappings are merely tools, little windows through which we're able to get access to spiritual things."
He cites a particularly personal experience. "The first year I ever did Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion' -- my favorite piece of music of all time -- we had a dress rehearsal Saturday afternoon before Palm Sunday, and that night was Passover. I was keyed up all weekend, and hearing the musical narrative about the first Eucharist, and the last supper of Christ, and then going to my in-laws' for the Seder and gathering around the table and hearing this old man chanting in Hebrew the very words Christ himself had listened to . . . " -- he pauses for a moment -- "it caused such a profound experience in my life.
"As far as making music with people, I like to think that I work on a very wide palette of the spirit. I think I would be comfortable conducting a choir of Zen Buddhists. Whatever the spirit embraces, I like to think that I'm ready to embrace it. The important thing is that it's there, and rooted in reverence and humility and love."