Chorale Director Adds His Voice for Harmony
Members of the William Grant Still Chorale were “real tickled” to sing the ode to universal brotherhood at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony last year, said chorale director Paul A. Smith.
“The German word for brother is ‘Bruder.’ But that’s (also) a slang Afro term-- brother ,” said Smith. “We had a lot of fun with that, just dialoguing. And having the opportunity to sing with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Korean Chorale was a chance to demonstrate (racial) harmony through music.”
The chorale sang Beethoven’s Ninth in October with the other choruses and the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The chorale will sing works by Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein with the Pacific Symphony conducted by Carl St.Clair on Saturday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre and again on Sunday at Pearson Park Amphitheatre in Anaheim.
Such programs indicate that despite being named after the dean of black American classical composers, the William Grant Still Chorale does not restrict its repertory.
“Our focus is on Afro-American music or on music that doesn’t have a voice on major concerts, but certainly we do not do that exclusively,” said Smith. “We sing Bach and Brahms and other composers of the Western tradition. We expand and grow.”
The chorale is part of the L.A. William Grant Still Performing Arts Society, a branch of the National Assn. of Negro Musicians, founded in 1919 “to promote black musicians, usually trained in classical music, who normally would not have their works or artistry shared,” he said.
“The chorale encompasses not just vocal music, but all areas of music: composition, research, all of that. But it’s been the choir that has taken off.”
The society was founded in 1986 by Jane Tayler, who died in 1992 of cancer. “We were mounting (Still’s) opera, ‘Costaso,’ which is something she really wanted to do. During the opera, Jane had a cough. We knew she was pushing herself. Immediately following the opera, she went into the hospital with pneumonia. She came out, but then they found she had lung cancer. She was 62 or so when she died.”
Smith, who declined to give his age, became involved with the group when Tayler invited him to give a workshop on spirituals in 1986. “From that point on, I was there,” he said. He became artistic director a year later.
Born in San Francisco, Smith grew up in Los Angeles, attending Dorsey High School, “which still had quite a music program then. I’ve always been involved in music. I studied piano as a youngster with Margaret Bonds, a noted black composer, arranger and pianist. She made her debut with the Chicago Symphony at (age 9).”
He sang in the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers as a student. “I did my first tour with them at the age of 16,” he said.
Smith studied conducting with William Hall at Chapman University in Orange. “I did my student teaching at Laguna Beach High School and later taught at Santiago High School in Garden Grove.”
Although he still sings--he’s a tenor--Smith finds that “I sing less and conduct more now. I do what is called for. I pride myself on being a versatile musician. I think that’s very important today.”
There are about 40 singers in the chorale, although the size depends on the engagement. “We have teachers, we have an assistant principal of a high school, we have the commissioner of public works, we have fund-raising professionals. The chorale has quite an array of folks. It’s a very resourceful organization.”
It needs to be, because it operates on a shoestring annual budget of between $20,000 and $30,000.
Smith said: “We’re a nonprofit organization. The money that we bring in goes to our general account. We use it to offer scholarships for our youth outreach programs and to support ourselves.”
Smith teaches choral music at Santa Monica High School, which “boasts five choirs and a full-time accompanist.” He sings with the Jubilee Singers, conducts the Still group, and on Tuesday, he embarked on a new venture: entering the master’s program in choral conducting at USC. He plans to finish in about 1 1/2 years.
“I get a chance because of my professional affiliations to see the impact of cutbacks in the arts in education. I know this: If we do not educate our kids, we will not be developing the audiences for tomorrow. That will be real critical.
“When I was in school, we would be taken in busloads to the Shrine (Auditorium), and we would all see opera. It was important for black kids as well as white. It wasn’t a racial thing. You just did it. You learned to be exposed to classical music. Now they don’t have that. So why shouldn’t kids think rap is music? They don’t have an opportunity to be exposed to music when it’s important to be exposed to it--in grade schools and middle schools.
“I don’t understand what we think we do when we cut the arts,” he added. “We keep talking about multiculturalism. What better way than through the arts? Music is one of the places where harmony can be displayed, which is another reason not to cut music programs in the schools. I think we’re going backward.”
* The William Grant Still Chorale will sing with conductor Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony in a program of Gershwin and Bernstein on Saturday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. 8 p.m. $12 to $48. (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster) or (714) 855-6111. Also Sunday at Pearson Park Amphitheatre, Harbor Boulevard and Cypress Avenue, Anaheim. 7 p.m. $15. (714) 755-5799.