Gisele Becker has sung with or conducted most of the big choruses in Washington — often at the same time. When she took over the Cantate Chamber Singers in 1994, it was, she jokes, her Tuesday night gig — other gigs have included singing with and conducting the Washington Bach Consort (27 years), the Washington Chorus (17 years) and the Cathedral Choral Society (10 years). But Cantate Chamber Singers, with its unusual mix of new music, less-known work and Becker’s favorite, Benjamin Britten, has been her baby for 25 years, and now, she’s leaving. As the 59-year-old Becker prepared for her last concert with the group on Saturday, we spoke to her about her career and why she’s leaving. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Q: Did you found the Cantate Chamber Singers?
A: A lot of people assume that. Another woman founded it: Phyllis Isaacson. She’s still alive. It was a community group. They would mainly do lighter music. Once in a while there would be a Messiah, which back in those days was not as usual as it is now.
I am thrilled that my successor, Victoria Gau, is also a woman. I really like her and I like her thought process, I like her programming. [I’m happy] to feel it’s in good hands.
Q: Why did you decide to leave?
A: It’s mainly because I’ve been doing it so long. It’s not that there’s not more one could do — commission more pieces, primarily. But I just feel like it’s somebody else’s turn. I can support things by going to concerts instead.
Q: What led you into choral conducting in the first place?
A: I was a sophomore in high school and I came down with mono, so I was out of school for two months. I had been targeted as a gifted person in math, which is laughable now, but I was in Algebra II/Trig, and I had to drop it [and find another class]. I was already playing in the orchestra, and I said, “Well, maybe I’ll join the choir.” I’d never sung. But the high school director at Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia, was Robert Shafer [who led the Washington Chorus for 35 years, now director of the City Choir of Washington]. I was petrified, because Mr. Shafer in those days was thought to be something of a monster. If you were walking down the hallway in school and you saw him coming, you would duck out of the way. But the first concert we did when I came in was Aaron Copland’s “In the Beginning.” With the National Symphony Orchestra. With Aaron Copland conducting. It was definitely one of those moments that I will never forget, and that has informed most of my career.
J. Reilly Lewis [who founded the Washington Bach Consort and led the Cathedral Choral Society until his death in 2016] used to come to my high school. He tells the story about driving on Route 66 and hearing some amazing choral music on WGMS and, at the end of it, hearing it was the Madison Madrigal Singers. He contacted Bob Shafer and said, “Can I come see how you’re doing what you’re doing with these high school kids?” He would come out to the high school, riding his motorcycle in his black leather [jacket]. He was a hottie. Then I ran into him at Olsson’s Records in Georgetown when I was a sophomore in college, and [he said], “Oh, you should come audition for the Bach Consort!” So I did, and I was with them for 27 years. Reilly really taught me what Bach was.
So I had two very different mentors. Reilly was touchy feely, and Bob was [strict]. I got to figure out what worked for me. But I owe them both so much.
Q: You spent years juggling positions with various choruses, including a 20-year stint at Arlington Presbyterian Church, and teaching jobs, all while raising your four children. How did you come to Cantate?
A: Phyllis had retired, and they had brought somebody in who didn’t work out, so they were suddenly looking, and I applied. Then after three rehearsals [as interim director], they asked me if I wanted to stay on. To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. I had always immediately connected with the group that was in front of me. And I didn’t have that with them. It took me a little while, and it took me some finagling to make it work.
They didn’t have a board, they didn’t have a budget. They had never had a season subscription or anything like that. We were definitely working from the ground up. Not that we have a huge budget now; it’s around $160,000. I’m very proud of the fact of how much we do with that small of a budget. We’ve done almost 30 commissions. One of our finest was by Andrew Simpson, a professor at Catholic U. We commissioned him to write a score to a silent film called “The Wind,” with Lillian Gish. That was just so hard. It was for a 10-piece chamber orchestra and chorus, and I was directing it to the film; there was no click track. I loved that kind of challenge. I don’t want to be that challenged anymore.
Cantate Chamber Singers presents “It Is Time” on May 18 at St. John’s Church, 6701 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda.