Musicology student O’Toole conducts choral group in Boston
Published: Sunday, March 11, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 11:03
When Julia O'Toole MA '12 was 16 years old, she begged her piano teacher to give her just one voice lesson before her audition for her high school musical. As soon as she finished her first song, her teacher said, "Yeah, we're not doing piano anymore. You're a singer," recounted O'Toole, in her second and final year in the Master's program for Musicology, in an interview with the Justice. From that point on, she continued taking voice lessons before she started teaching singing and conducting choirs.
O'Toole conducts the Boston-based choral group Calliope, which was founded in the summer of 2006. "Quite honestly, I wanted to get some podium time, and it's very hard to get an opportunity to conduct people,"O'Toole said. As a voice teacher, she had access to many singers who were available during the summer, as most organizations do not have rehearsals from June to August, according to O'Toole.
"So we had a chorus, and just a couple of instruments, but ... musicians who were doing it were really psyched to be doing something in the off-season, so [I thought,] ‘what could we add that would be different?'" With this in mind, O'Toole created a board of directors and established an organization different than all the other choruses in the Boston area.
"That's when we decided that we want to give an experience that most musicians [and instrumentalists] ... don't have: the opportunity to rehearse with the other," said O'Toole. "This was an opportunity for musicians from both fields to rehearse together for the entire season, and so we decided that this would be the number one piece of our mission, that it would be very collaborative."
Another major factor that sets Calliope apart from other groups is that its members give back to the community through benefit concerts. They choose lesser-known organizations to support and do not pick the same group more than once. O'Toole then coordinates the program based on the organization they are supporting. "The music that we select for the concert, we try to have reflect the mission of whatever the organization is," she said.
On Feb. 4, Calliope chose to give a benefit concert for the Armenian Heritage Park that commemorates the Armenian Genocide, still under construction and expected to be revealed in Boston's North End in a few months. O'Toole learned of the memorial through an Armenian member of Calliope's board. "We usually plan the benefit a couple of years in advance ... because we like to work with the organization before we actually present their performance," O'Toole said.
O'Toole stressed that this most recent February concert consisted of a complex program that required singing in several other languages because the song choices represented so many different groups. The choir is accustomed to performing in multiple languages, but they still bring in people who fluently speak the language in which they are performing in order to help the singers with pronunciation, tone and phrasing. "Singers in general at this level, which is serious amateurs to professionals, most of them have done Latin, most of them have done German, French, Italian, as well, so it is a little bit of a struggle, so it just kind of depends on who you have in front of you," O'Toole said.
And while this program wasn't solely Armenian music, it was the majority of the program. "One of our members is Armenian and so he made suggestions, and actually the board member made suggestions and when we met with the [Armenian Heritage Foundation], the chair of their board [also] made suggestions ... In general, the way that Calliope comes up with music is all the members are asked for, ‘is there anything you would like to do that you think suggests … what we are looking at as a program structure—in this case, it was music about immigrants."
O'Toole believes Calliope really focuses on young musicians, especially high school students "who need more of a challenge than their school music program, and a lot of those have even been eliminated, can offer," she said.
O'Toole chose the name "Calliope" for the group, because she is the eldest of the nine Greek muses, goddesses that represent the arts, and the one that is associated with epic poetry and combines text with music.
The group performs twice a year "because we really want all of our members to belong to other organizations because it makes them better collaborators, so we deliberately meet sort of off-season from everybody else," she said. Their season begins in June, with auditions held in March and April. Rehearsals start in the beginning of June and continue throughout the summer, concluding with a concert on the second weekend in September. The whole process is 14 weeks, longer than the common 12-week rehearsal period for choirs, according to O'Toole.
The audition process for O'Toole's group is elaborate. Musicians can be invited to join for one to three seasons, determined by how much potential they have and what they need to work on before they re-audition. O'Toole says that most people do both annual concerts.
The board looks first for musicianship in potential members. Members "have to be at a certain level in order to learn music on their own, to know how to take care of their instrument well, whether it's a voice or whether it's a trumpet," O'Toole said.
Almost as important is "the ability to collaborate: the ability to communicate about what [members] are doing, about what they hear from other people and to do it in a constructive way. We had people who have auditioned who I have not accepted because even in the audition, it felt like they were kind of combative, that they wouldn't be a positive team player," she said.
"They may have been a fabulous singer, or whatever, but … when you go into a situation with 75 musicians and anyone can say anything about you, and you can say anything about anyone, you know, it has to be a safe environment," O'Toole said.
Calliope currently has about 90 active members. Only 75 perform at any given concert because some performers are not available for both seasons.
O'Toole says her experience at the University has enhanced her musical involvement, especially her involvement with the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Living Institute, which "offers a broad range of noncredit educational activities for retired, semi-retired and other adult participants ... [and] emphasizes peer leadership, individual and group participation and research, and an atmosphere of sociability and mutual encouragement," according to its website. "It is basically for people … adults, older people … who want to keep learning and they offer all kinds of programs there, everything from arts to history to religion and all kinds of things; but they're college courses," O'Toole explains. She had the chance to teach a class for one day as a graduate student. The class she taught was "Why Sing Plays? – A Second Collection" in collaboration with Arthur M. Finstein. She loved that she could "interact with people from a variety of different backgrounds, people who are retired lawyers, doctors, musicologists, administrators, all kinds of things, ... and their perspective on things is so varied."
While O'Toole hopes to continue in school and earn her Ph.D. in Musicology, Calliope is not something that she will soon leave behind.
"Long term, we'd like to continue to grow, to a certain level. We don't want to become so big that the collaborative process is hampered by the number of people. We want to continue to raise the bar on our music, which we have successfully done since the beginning," she said. Each year, O'Toole increases the musical difficulty. For the first concert of the season in September, the goal is to maintain the level of music, while the second concert in February also entails paying more attention to detail and being more expressive.
O'Toole recognizes what each member has to offer. "Everybody has a voice in what we do, you know, people are asked because everybody has just such a huge variety of experiences, that they all have something to offer, whether it's a professional, because we have professionals, we have serious amateurs and we have music students and we have scholarship students, so everybody [has] a very different perspective."