AMN mentors Talking about Music Vocal and Choral Music

A Conversation with Ragnar Bohlin: Part 3

This is the final installment of AMN founder Lolly Lewis’s interview with Singing Saturdays mentor Ragnar Bohlin. Read Part 1; read Part 2.

Our April series focuses on Verdi’s Requiem and some of his choral works. What’s important for singers to know about Verdi?

He didn’t write a lot of choral music, did he? Apart from the opera choruses, we have the Quattro Pezzi Sacri, an Ave Maria for women’s choir, and the Pater Noster for a cappella chorus. That’s another reason to cherish the Requiem, which of course is one of the pinnacles of the high Romantic era, one of the absolute masterpieces, and so focused on the chorus.

In the Requiem Verdi was very democratic, in that sometimes he gives the head role to the chorus—he lets the soloists accompany the chorus. The Requiem has a lot for the chorus to do, with quite a few challenges! It’s almost medieval at the beginning, very chantlike. And then it has the mellifluous lush romantic sound, juxtaposed with fast and virtuosic passages, as in Sanctus. You know, the Requiem has been called Verdi’s greatest opera, and it received some early critiques for that style. But we have to be aware that in Italy in the 19th century there was no distinct barrier between church music and opera. There was a movement started from the mid-19th century, called Cecilianism, that aimed to separate the two and make church music more “churchy.” But obviously Verdi did not pay heed to that.

And we will also be singing some of his opera choruses.

Yes, it will be interesting for us to go full opera chorus with them!

Verdi is such a master of atmosphere and mood, as if he’s developing a character. But the Requiem isn’t character driven.

No, it’s text driven, although it sometimes gets very personal, as with the Lacrimosa.

When we started the Amateur Music Network online choral workshops,  the format was quite different. The first two, in July and September 2020, were single sessions, just under an hour each. Now we have three- or four-session series, and the focus has expanded. 

In the beginning, the focus was more on vocal technique. That was good, but we discovered that people were equally interested in harmonies and theory, and in the poetry of the music. So Singing Saturdays evolved. Now it’s a hybrid of a choral literature class, a harmony class, a vocal coaching class, and a rehearsal. Also, in the beginning we weren’t sure what we were building toward: some sort of outdoor performance together? But that idea drifted away, and the Zoom workshops have become their own goal.

[Read “Virtual Amateur Chorus,” a poem by Alice Elizabeth Rogoff.]

I think it’s healthy for people to get in the habit of making music and listening to music in an active way without it being goal oriented.

It’s that hour together, being in the now. We’re not fighting the clock, not working toward a performance. We can even sing each other’s parts and learn from that experience. Even though we can’t hear each other on Zoom, the connection is very palpable. You feel the presence of everyone there.

Pictured: Ragnar leading a workshop at the San Francisco Symphony’s Community of Music Makers in November 2014.

AMN mentors Talking about Music Vocal and Choral Music

A Conversation with Ragnar Bohlin: Part 2

In Part 1 of our conversation, Singing Saturdays choral mentor Ragnar Bohlin talked about his development as a singer, pianist, organist, and chorus director. In Part 2, we look at how the pandemic has changed music-making.

It’s now been more than a year since the Covid pandemic upended our lives. For musicians it’s been a pretty devastating year. How have you been managing?

The lockdowns and lack of music-making have of course been devastating. In early March 2020, when the pandemic was announced, I was on tour in Florida with Seraphic Fire. I was supposed to return to San Francisco to conduct the Symphony Chorus in the Bach Magnificat. Instead I went to Sweden, where I’ve been ever since. 

With the lockdowns, have you been stuck in front of a screen?

I’ve been fortunate in that I have a country house, where I’ve been able to do some gardening. I also took up organ-playing again. In the city [Stockholm], I have the keys to a nearby church. I practice almost every day. I picked up all the major organ works I used to play in my 20s–the Bach D-Major Prelude and Fugue, the Widor Toccata, the Franck Chorale no. 3, and so on. I’m very happy that all I had to do was dust it off; it was still there.

What else have you been doing musically?

I’m actually quite busy! Quite early on, I started doing online things. I offered my services to the San Francisco Symphony Chorus to do one-on-one vocal coaching. After a couple months of that, we switched to online open rehearsals, which Amateur Music Network has been hosting. Those open rehearsals turned out to work, and they became the embryonic form of AMN’s Singing Saturdays.

I also work one on one with members of the San Francisco Conservatory Chorus, and I even have some “live” students who come to my home. But I have to say that Amateur Music Network is one of my favorite musical activities! 

So connection is in the air, even if it’s online only.

Next: Part 3 of our conversation with Ragnar Bohlin, on Verdi’s choral music and making Singing Saturdays workshops successful for singers connecting online.

Pictured: Ragnar leading a rehearsal with his professional chamber choir Cappella SF.

AMN mentors Talking about Music Vocal and Choral Music

A Conversation with Ragnar Bohlin: Part 1

Our Singing Saturdays with San Francisco Symphony Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin have been hugely successful—thank you for joining us! We thought you’d like to know more about Ragnar, so on a recent morning (evening in Stockholm, where Ragnar has lived since the early days of the pandemic), Amateur Music Network founder and director Lolly Lewis chatted with him via Zoom. Their conversation was far-ranging and fascinating. We’re publishing it in three parts, and welcome your further questions in the comments section.

Tell us a little about your early musical life. Did you sing in choirs?

I grew up [in Lund, Sweden] with music all around me. Both of my parents were choir directors. My father was a musicologist who led the Lund Male Choir. My mother was a mathematician who changed careers and started a choral movement in Lund. Her choirs won many international competitions. She had us children sing and pay music all the time. I studied piano from age 5, and cello from age 8. When I was 13, my mother talked me into learning to play the organ. At that point I was more into pop music, but she convinced me that playing the organ would be a good way to earn pocket money.

And was she right?

She was! I started quite early working as a church organist. Meanwhile, I went to a music high school where I tried to do everything—singing, piano, organ, cello. I led my first choir when I was 16.

What kind of pop music did you like? Do you still listen to pop? 

I’m a musical omnivore. I love all styles. I grew up with classical music all around me. When I was tiny, my mother gave me a tape with Mendelssohn, Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Verdi.. I listened to it, mesmerized, from age 3 to 7 or 8. Then I discovered the Beatles, then Supertramp, Queen, Rush, jazz-rock, symphonic rock, eventually Kate Bush, Bjork. All the styles inform one another, not directly, but by being different. The specifics of each genre become more clear because you have a contrasting style. 

Let’s go back to your musical education. What happened after high school? 

I got a scholarship to study piano with Peter Feuchtwanger in London. Then I had second thoughts and came back to Stockholm in 1985—I was 20 at the time—to begin an organist course at the Conservatory of Music. I never regretted my decision, because it enabled me to keep having a broad scope that included conducting, singing, counterpoint, harmony, theory. At the time, conducting was one of my least favorite subjects! I loved singing in choirs, but I hated standing up in front of them. 

What changed your mind?

I got a part-time job in a church while I was a student, and I had my own choir there. At the Conservatory I sang under the grand master Eric Ericson, the conductor of the Conservatory chamber choir. Ericson was my main inspiration, and after I completed the church music degree I spent another four years studying conducting, and received a diploma in choir conducting. I sang in the Ericson Chamber Choir, and I’ve now conducted them, and the Swedish Radio Choir, several times. I’ll conduct them again in December, when they sing the Bach Christmas Oratorio with the Nordic Chamber Orchestra. 

When did you know you would make a career of directing choirs?

My interest in choir directing grew out of my piano playing, leading from the piano. Piano was always my main thing, although for a while I became obsessed with the voice and aimed to become an oratorio singer as a side career. I have sung the Evangelist part of the St. Matthew Passion, Bach’s Magnificat, Rossini’s Stabat Mater, and much more. I studied for five years with the famous tenor Nicolai Gedda, and I accompanied a lot of master classes, both as a singer and as a pianist.

And you lead Singing Saturdays from the piano.

It’s something I’ve done for years. There are certain things you can do better when you lead from the piano. You’re in full control of the flow of the music and the rehearsal process.

Next: Part 2 of our conversation with Ragnar Bohlin, on making music during the pandemic.

Pictured: Ragnar leading a rehearsal with his professional chamber choir Cappella SF.

AMN mentors Talking about Music Vocal and Choral Music Workshops

Meet Singer and Actress Karen Mason

On April 17 we’re raising the curtain on an online event sure to delight lovers of musical theater and cabaret: a conversation between singer/actress Karen Mason and her longtime friend (and AMN curator) David Landis. To give you a preview, we spoke to Karen at her home in Jackson Heights, Queens—“from our roof we can see the Manhattan skyline”—about her life in music.

What was your early musical life like? Did you always enjoy performing?

I was born in New Orleans, and we kept moving north when my father’s job was transferred—Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago. There was always music in the house: my mother trained as a classical pianist, and my parents took us to musicals and concerts. My all-girls Catholic high school didn’t do musical theater, but the boys’ school did, so I auditioned and was cast as a townsperson in Annie Get Your Gun. And I was hooked! I was a dorky kind of kid, and this was where I felt accepted and at home. I’d had no training at that point other than singing around the house. But I just had to do it. From there, I went on to play bigger roles: Mrs. Paroo in The Music Man, Carrie in Carousel.

And after high school?

I should have jumped in, but at the University of Illinois the musicals were more actor driven, and the music school itself was more classical, which wasn’t where I felt joy. I eventually left college and did a lot of community theater while unhappily working at a regular job. I wanted to be closer to people who were getting paid for doing what I was doing for free, so I auditioned to be a singing waitress at a Chicago restaurant called Lawrence of Oregano. And that’s where I met Brian Lasser, a brilliant musician, actor, songwriter, and pianist. We left the restaurant and started doing nightclubs and concerts, moving up the foodchain. In 1978 or 1979 we moved to New York. We worked one night a week for two or three years at the Duplex in the Village. That didn’t pay the rent, so in between shows we’d fly back to Chicago, do enough work to make three or four grand, and come back to New York. We worked together until Brian’s death in 1992. I still perform quite a few arrangements he did early in our career.

You’ve also had an impressive career in theater.

I’m not just a cabaret person, or just a theater person. I enjoy the diversity, going back and forth.

This is probably an impossible question, but we’ll ask it anyway: Can you single out a highlight of your stage career?

Probably the first time I understudied the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. This was in Los Angeles, and Glenn Close was starring. I got two days’ notice—Glenn’s doctor had told her to take one of the Sunday performances off. She did the matinee and I did the evening show. You don’t get a lot of rehearsal time as an understudy or standby, but this was February and we’d opened in November, so I was ready! I’d watched from the back of the theater and gone through all the choreography. I still had to learn all the costume changes—with three dressers!—and learn the props and set. It was an amazing set—the mansion would lift up with hydraulics, and there’d be an entirely new scene underneath. It was weird the first time I rode up in it, but I learned to love it.

I stayed with the show after it moved to Broadway, and I understudied the next two leads, Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige. Over the course of two years, I did about 250 performances.

There haven’t been many live performances since March 2020. What’s your musical life been like during the pandemic?

My last performance was in November 2019, in Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. I got sick after that and wasn’t able to do any Christmas shows, and then, of course, I had to cancel all of 2020.

I was getting bored, so I decided to learn how to do self-taping and streaming. Every Thursday since April 2020 I’ve done a show, “Mason’s Makin’ Music,” where I sing to tracks. It’s been fascinating. In cabarets you have 60 to 100 people in the audience. Online I’ve had 3,000 people listening! It’s great to connect with them, but I do miss seeing eyes in an audience and feeling that energy. And singing with a piano—oy, I can’t wait for that!

I’m doing a few things this summer, though. On May 15 I’m doing a free indoor concert at the Frank Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan—it’s a beautiful historic building, and it’ll be the first time I’ve sung with a live piano in over a year.

I’ll have a new CD out this fall. My previous CD, It’s About Time, was produced by Paul Rolnick, who also wrote the title song—he wrote it for some friends shortly after marriage equality became legal in New York. I sang it at those friends’ wedding. It’s not just about gay marriage equality; it’s about all marriage equality. If people are in love they should get married!

AMN mentors Piano Talking about Music Workshops

Meet Bob Athayde, Pianist and Music Educator

“We all play together” has been pianist, bandleader, and chorus director Bob Athayde’s motto since he began teaching at Stanley Middle School, in Lafayette, California, in 1986. We’ll have a chance to bring that motto to life on March 20, when Bob leads our “Anyone Can Improvise!” online workshop. We reached Bob at his Orinda, California, home to learn more about his career and his approach to teaching.

Bob Athayde

Tell us a little about your background. Is yours a musical family?

My wife is a musician and music teacher, and all four of my kids play music. I guess they grew up thinking everyone plays music. My son Kyle, who plays trumpet, is my artist-assistant—he’s three times the musician I’ll ever be!

You’ve devoted your professional life to teaching young people. What do you find most satisfying about teaching?

The most satisfying thing is seeing that light bulb switch on in a student’s mind, whether it’s a fourth-grader or an adult. When I can get people to feel joyful about what they’re engaged in I know I’ve gotten the concept across!

You’re teaching remotely now. How is that going?

We closed the school, of course, so I’ve been teaching remotely for a year. But I still go into my classroom, because it makes me feel more businesslike. I have a Steinway grand piano there—it’s in mint condition—plus two computers, an extra camera, and a state-of-the-art microphone with audio interface. I have a big screen and put all the kids’ faces up there.

Do you have any tips for Zoom learning?

I’m used to being in person with large groups of people, so at first, Zoom was strange. After a year of Zooming, I’ve gotten used to it, and am grateful to have that platform. I keep track of teachers around the country who are doing great things with Zoom, and I learn from them.

Besides teaching remotely, what else have you been during during the pandemic, musically and otherwise?

Before Covid, I had a weekly gig playing piano at La Finestra Ristorante in Moraga. That went away, but I now stream a set via Facebook Live every Friday and Saturday from 6 to 7 p.m. I’ve attended a lot of online master classes and listened to [jazz pianist] Herbie Hancock’s Harvard lecture series. And I’ve walked our dog more—and met a lot of neighbors on my walks!

For some classically trained musicians, improvisation can feel a little scary. What can you tell them to make it less daunting?

I’d tell them to be more like kids. To remember that this is your expression—that just as no two people have the same fingerprints, no two people play music the same. You’re making a contribution to art, to music.

Sometimes I look at the piano and tell myself to play something I’ve never played before. Of course I’m filled with ideas of things I’ve done before. But then I might come out with something new and interesting. Listen, I make so many mistakes that if I were leading a band I probably wouldn’t hire me! But I don’t care, because I’m batting .500, which would get me into the major leagues.

And remember: it’s playing music, not working music!

Photo of Bob with students: Kerwin Lee