The Choral Arts Society has announced the successor to Norman Scribner, who is retiring as planned at the end of this season from the chorus he founded 46 years ago. And he’s not anyone most people in Washington have heard of.
Scott Tucker, the choral director at Cornell University since 1995, is retiring from his tenured position leading the university’s choruses to take over from Scribner.
“I was craving a new adventure, a new challenge,” said Tucker, 55, of his impending career change, which takes effect at the start of the 2012-13 season.
“Conducting is educational, no matter who you are working with,” he said, “even in the professional world.” He added, “My students at Cornell are not music majors. They’re very bright, motivated students who see music as a release, more than anything, but who bring to it such passion and intelligence. I don’t see that as being so different” than the Choral Arts Society. Furthermore, he will have more consistency with the singers in Washington as opposed to a student group: “As soon as they’ve perfected it all, they graduate.”
Tucker was one of four finalists who came in this season to work with the 170 members of the amateur chorus after Scribner, now 76, announced his retirement in August 2010. The search for his successor became an international one, with about 80 applicants. Tucker applied cold, without any inside connections.
“It’s such a surprise for all of us,” said Debra Kraft, the executive director of Choral Arts, speaking yesterday after the board’s unanimous and rapid confirmation of Tucker’s official appointment. “It came from a source we never expected.”
Tucker’s experience includes fundraising (of particular interest in today’s climate), commissioning new work — he commissioned more than 30 new pieces while at Cornell, including works by Augusta Read Thomas, Chen Yi and Libby Larsen — and world music. He spent part of a sabbatical year in South Africa, learning traditional music by rote from an expert who requested that he not write anything down, saying, according to Tucker, that “those staff lines are like prison bars to the music.”
“The freedom with which you sing that kind of music,” Tucker said, “can be directly applied to [Bach’s] B minor mass or [Beethoven’s] Missa Solemnis. Maybe not the vowels, but the spirit.”
The Choral Arts Society, founded in 1965, has long been a flagship chorus in a choral-oriented city. It has worked with generations of National Symphony Orchestra conductors and other leading artists, including Mstislav Rostropovich, Christoph Eschenbach and Valery Gergiev (with whom the chorus recorded Mahler’s 8th Symphony in London in 2008). In August and September, it will be touring Europe with Leonard Slatkin in performances and a recording of Berlioz’s Requiem.
All four of Washington’s big symphonic choruses have experienced sea changes in recent years as their music directors approached retirement age. The Master Chorale of Washington shut down in 2009; two years earlier, the Washington Chorus ushered out its longtime director, Robert Shafer, and eventually hired the 40-something Julian Wachner. (Shafer promptly founded the City Choir of Washington, now in its fifth season.) The Cathedral Choral Society is seeing major staff changes this season, although J. Reilly Lewis remains at the musical helm.
In this climate of transition, Scribner wanted his succession to proceed smoothly. He presided over the search without actually involving himself in the decision-making process. “It’s been wonderful, reassuring to everyone,” Kraft said, “to know that the process had his blessing but not his interference.”
“It’s almost like a parent watching a child and hoping they’ll pick the right mate to marry,” she said. “You can’t do an arranged marriage, but you hope they’ll pick the right one.”
In a statement, Scribner said, “It is a joy for me to welcome Scott Tucker as the new artistic director of Choral Arts.” His successor’s talents, he added, embrace “an intense natural musicality, a consummate technique, a fabulous ear, and a vast reservoir of knowledge and experience in virtually all periods and styles, together with a clear vision for the future of music in our own time. . . . Scott’s appointment heralds a brilliant new era in the Choral Arts Society’s pursuit of excellence in the choral arts.”