Ode to Duain Wolfe

Wolfe duain-1-credit-todd-rosenberg
Duain Wolfe © Todd Rosenberg

Duain Wolfe is the Grammy Award-winning director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Over the past several years, whenever a massed choir is called for in an NAC Orchestra concert, Duain flies in and works the singers to the point of exhaustion. And we choristers love him for it. 

On Saturday and Sunday afternoon Duain and 150 of us gathered in Rehearsal Hall B—a cavernous room that reflects the shape of the Southam Hall stage—rehearsing Beethoven’s famous Ode to Joy,  for the concert tonight.

The piece is notoriously difficult for singers: the tenor notes in one phrase leap from one end of their vocal range to another to an almost ridiculous degree.  Beethoven gives us altos a sustained high E; the note is a tad on the high side, but it’s the fact that it’s pianissimo and sustained over several bars that makes it so challenging.  For everyone serious stamina is required in the fugue and the breakneck-pace ending that barrels like a train toward the finish.

There is phrasing and vocal lines, and the expression of joy and brotherhood in the music, and Duain guides us on all that with passion.

But he also picks apart the bazillion moments and subtleties in every bar, right down to the consonant. 

He does this with passion too.

Sure, we put that ‘t’ on the eighth rest, but the tip of the tongue needs to be closer to the front of the mouth for the ‘t’ to ring through. 

Yes, the “Alle Menschen” passage was together, but there needs to be tone in the double ‘l’ of the word ‘Alle,’ so that the ‘l’ is, in fact, sung.

He insists on a perfect delivery of the word “stürzt,”(just count the consonants in that one) yet still keeping the ‘st’ of “stürzt” absolutely separate from the ‘n’ of the next word, “nieder,” bearing  in mind that “stürzt” is an extremely short note.

These are the kinds of details that Duain’s discerning ear can hear. His work has made a huge difference to the way we sing, and--if you’re coming tonight—I hope you'll hear it too.

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