Beauty takes work.
That lesson has been taken to heart by any singer conducted by Minnesota choral legend Dale Warland. To create richly textured layers of vocal color requires shaping, sharpening, taking things apart and putting them together again. And singing a piece again and again until it sounds exactly right.
Yet the consensus among former Warland singers is that it was not only worth the effort, but it was a profoundly powerful experience.
Few groups have done more to alter America's choral landscape than the Dale Warland Singers, the 40-voice professional chorus that he led from 1972 to 2004. Commissioning and premiering 270 works, the choir recorded and released 29 CDs over the decades.
Now, as Warland approaches his 90th birthday in April, 80 alumni from that group are converging on Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall for a reunion Sunday afternoon that will celebrate his work and legacy, with Warland himself watching from a balcony near the stage.
Onstage will be the Singers, a group formed after his ensemble disbanded.
"While the Singers is a distinctly different organization, we did start with 34 singers from the Dale Warland Singers, which is a pretty good way to start a choir," said the group's founder and leader, Matthew Culloton.
Only five of those members remain, but the Warland sound, style and commitment to new music remain alive in the Singers.
In fact, they commissioned a new work for the occasion, crowdsourcing the funding for composer Timothy Takach and librettist Brian Newhouse — former classical music host on Minnesota Public Radio — to compose a piece in Warland's honor.
"The title is 'Changed by Beauty,'" Newhouse said. "Dale said to me years ago, 'Nothing is stronger than beauty.' And that phrase has never left me. Because it's so audacious."
Newhouse first met the conductor while hosting a 1983 broadcast of a Dale Warland Singers Christmas concert.
"I remember standing in the outer-ring corridor around the main floor at Orchestra Hall while they rehearsed," Newhouse said. "And I could hear this wonderful sound. And I remember I pressed my ear to the door so I could hear it better. Even through a closed door at the back of the hall, I thought I'd never heard anything like this."
Seven years later, Newhouse auditioned and earned a place in that choir, touring, performing and recording several CDs.
"Preparing for a recording, that's where the full-on Dale Warland hits you," Newhouse said. "Every note goes under a microscope. He was like that every day, but, for recording CDs, it was that on steroids."
Composer Takach first experienced that intensity in 1996 as a freshman at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Warland's alma mater.
"I got tapped to do a collegiate honor choir for a conference, and Dale Warland was conducting it," said Takach, who later became one of the founding members of male vocal group Cantus. "So we all met at Macalester [where Warland taught from 1967 to 1986] for a couple of days and worked on some music.
"I don't think that I had worked that hard in a choral rehearsal. And it blew me away that there was still joy to be found in the process. It wasn't a taskmaster in the room. It was somebody who was so obviously pursuing something. And he needed us to bring that to him."
Newhouse explained the lyrics of "Changed by Beauty."
"The first movement is about a boy falling asleep in the middle of an Iowa cornfield," he said. "It's summertime, and he hears this train whistle go by. Dale once told me that story and spoke of that beautiful chord of the train.
"The second movement uses the metaphor of someone who works in stained glass. I chose that because conductors always talk about color, the vocal color of this or that piece. … And someone who works with glass has to have that same passion for the color, but also the care for the materials.
"And the third movement is about legacy, and Dale thinking about what he would leave for the next generation, his wish for a child. Like the other movements, it brings in the hands, which are such a central part of conducting. … The abiding image I have of Dale is those hands."
"Early on, I decided that I wanted to score it for choir and cello," Takach said. "That's mainly Dominick Argento's fault, I think. I knew he appreciated that pairing, that color."
Indeed, the concert is separated into four sections — each named for a CD by the Dale Warland Singers — and the first is "Argento," after that celebrated composer and longtime University of Minnesota professor, who died in 2019. Others are "Cathedral Classics" (Culloton has assembled a mass from various composers of Scandinavian descent), "Choral Currents" and "Blue Wheat."
"I have this picture above my score study table, and it's a picture of Dale at an empty Orchestra Hall," Culloton said. "He had just let the choir go. This is May 30, 2004. It's right before they let the audience into the last Dale Warland concert.
"He had two more hours to be the conductor of the Dale Warland Singers, and he's buried in his score, which is probably 'Pilgrim's Hymn' [by Paulus], something he had done hundreds of times.
"It just shows that the pursuit of beauty for Dale is constant. It doesn't let up."
Dale Warland at 90: A Legacy Celebration
With: The Singers.
When: 3 p.m. Sun.
Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $5-$45, singersmca.org
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. email@example.com