Fifty Strong Voices

Photo by Tim Robison.

Photo by Tim Robison.

He’s a lifelong musician, the majority of years spent rooted in choral music. Yet it is the words that seem to affect Lawrence Doebler the deepest. “That’s how I choose my music,” he says. “I find text that I really enjoy, and that I know the people that are singing with me could stay with for a long time, and never tire of the answers that it provides for them.

“If I find several musical settings of that same text, then I choose the one that I think is written the best, that expresses the text the best.”

Doebler recently retired after 35 years as director of choral activities at the Ithaca College School of Music, and he and his wife Patty moved to North Carolina to be closer to their children and grandchildren. Meanwhile, the Carolina Concert Choir had just completed its 35th season and an 11-year run under the direction of Bradford Gee.

Doebler heard that the choir was seeking a new director. And so, like many others who move here with the idea of retirement, he found a new creative outlet, and a chance to un-retire.

He and the choir, this season 50 voices strong, seem to be a good fit.

Doebler’s mother was a piano teacher and choir director, and Lawrence was playing half a dozen different instruments, from organ to low brass, by the time he was in high school. “She directed the choir at our local church and played the organ,” he recalls. “And then my brother and I have both done that as well…for our entire lives.”

Doebler sees his job as conductor differently than some. “Our goal, as the conductor and the people that are singing it, is to put those two art forms together, the text and the music, and make it our own,” he explains. “To enhance their knowledge of the text and make it speak to them, through discussion, through all sorts of exercises, so that they can then make it speak to an audience. When I first started, I was told that the conductor’s point of view was the only one that really mattered, and I didn’t like that. I was told to be more of a dictator, and I thought, there must be another way to do this.”

Important to Doebler is that his choirs make eye contact with the audience. “My goal is to saturate the audience with the stories that are coming at them from 50 different people, as opposed to channeling from one conductor their ideas and feelings,” he says. “Giving that to the singers and having them portray that same meaning.”

According to the director, a good choir depends on the members’ willingness to invest themselves in the words they’re singing. “It’s their depth of understanding of the text, and what it means to them through that music,” he says. “And then to portray that in their faces and in their bodies.”

There’s more to being a good choir member than a wide vocal range, Doebler insists. “Musical abilities and the ability to listen well. Some people learn better by ear actually. Some are terrific readers. And I’ve found over the years that it takes a combination of those people. Sometimes the readers read really well, but don’t go into depth, or don’t listen so well, because they can sing the right notes, the right pitch. Some others without the reading skills, their ability to listen and to tune well is equally important. So it’s a combination of those two gifts that really make a good singer in a choral situation — one who can listen to others and react to them, not sound like them, but pronounce the words the same way and have the same intent for musical line, where that line is going, how they should portray the text through that line, and how that will impact the greater good of the whole. It’s a really synergistic effect.

“You try to keep the inspiration, a sort of cloud of inspiration that the composer must have. They try to write it down as best as they can, given its notation limitations, and if we don’t come back with that same sort of sense of wonderment, at the text and at the music, and try to get that same bit of spontaneity in their sound, then people could just go listen to a perfect recording of somebody.”

One of Doebler’s most influential conducting teachers was Robert Fountain, at the University of Wisconsin. “He would say, ‘What do you hear? What are you going to do about it?’ So there’s a bit of techniques of getting that back, but in simplistic terms, when in front of people, ‘What do you hear? What are you going to do about it?’ And his other was, ‘If it works, use it.’ Meaning, rehearsal techniques that people work with are all well and good, but what do you hear?”

Fountain also had an influence on Doebler’s conducting style. “He showed, in his gesture, such an intense musical line, that you never felt it broken,” he says. “You felt that he was actually connected somehow to the soul of the composer. And that once he began a piece you would never break the line, you could never escape, you would never be allowed to leave the presence of the music that he was making. Incredible ears is actually what that entails. Hearing music come to you, and letting it go through you and to your ensemble, and they create what they see in you.”

For his first performance with the choir, Doebler has chosen a globetrotting repertoire, three beloved carols for sing-along, a section of Handel’s “Messiah,” and a favorite Renaissance motet. “There are Christmas carols from all over the world,” he says. “Folk songs that have evolved into carols. There’s a motet by Victoria, “O Magnum Mysterium,” describing the actual scene of the birth, the animals coming to see this incredible birth, a very sacred piece, a very jubilant piece.”

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