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Bigger meaning: A history of Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy

The Oregon Bach Festival’s choral education program, now in its 25th year, celebrated last week with a performance of Penderecki’s “Credo.”

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Director Anton Armstrong leading a Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy rehearsal. Photo courtesy of SFYCA.
Director Anton Armstrong leading a Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy rehearsal. Photo courtesy of SFYCA.

Jeff Schroeder had just graduated from Centennial High School in Gresham and was looking forward to attending Portland State University in the fall. Perhaps there was a bit of wanderlust in his decision to head south to the sprawling university campus in Eugene in that summer of 1999. 

It wasn’t just a frill, after all. It was the second year of a legit new choral thing for high school singers offered by the Oregon Bach Festival (which he had never attended) and a chance to live away from home for seven days. And his friend Marcus Hathcock, who had also just graduated from Centennial, was signed up, too.  

Schroeder, who teaches theater arts at Sam Barlow High School, admitted in recent communication with Oregon Arts Watch that after 24 years he had no idea who first told him about the Youth Choral Academy. Perhaps his choir teacher, Tim Russell, had heard about it; or his former voice teacher Janine Kirstein (who still directs the choirs at Gresham High School) might have clued him in. But he was headed for a memorable experience.

He also doesn’t recall auditioning–but, according to Dr. Richard Clark, he must have. “All of the students were auditioned from the beginning,” said Clark in a recent phone conversation. And Clark has intimate knowledge of the beginnings of the YCA; he helped create it.


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“Royce and Helmuth always talked about the future development of the Oregon Festival of Music and involving young people was part of that discussion long before 1997,” Clark recalls, referring to co-founders Royce Saltzman and Helmuth Rilling and the initial name of the Oregon Bach Festival. But it was in that year, near the end of OBF’s third decade, when Festival Executive Director Saltzman approached UO associate professor and choral coordinator Clark and asked if he would be interested in starting up an OBF choral camp for youth.

“I said ‘No! I would not!’ and perhaps a few other choice words”, related Clark, adding his characteristic bass chuckle. He knew that choral camps were neither a unique idea nor did they offer enough. Saltzman–in his own characteristic style of maneuvering talented people toward “YES”–countered with “what would you be interested in?” More than singing, said Clark. Vocal production and skill based activities, conducting; more like a music academy. Ah! Und so …

A committee was formed and the “curriculum” was laid out. Choir skill building, vocal production, conducting. Then there were the non-music infrastructure challenges: registering, housing, feeding, scheduling, a plan for getting 60-80 young people where they needed to go or away from where they didn’t need to go. OBF was well skilled in these logistics after 28 years of hosting adults. But high school students? They figured it out.

As for the Choral Director, Saltzman had someone in mind. He’d seen a gifted choral music educator, then in his ninth year as the director of the St. Olaf College Choral program, in action with high school singers at national conferences. Dr. Anton Armstrong was invited to be the founding Director of the YCA.

Anton Armstrong and Jeff Schroeder in 1999. Courtesy of OBF.
Anton Armstrong and Jeff Schroeder in 1999. Courtesy of OBF.

In 1998, 73 singers from high schools in Lane County (home base for the University of Oregon, the academic partner of the Oregon Bach Festival) launched the OBF Youth Choral Academy. After that successful kick-off year the YCA expanded their outreach to the entire state of Oregon. Schroeder, Hathcock and 34 others were among the first nonlocal participants in the 80-voice choir. 

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Longtime OBF Chorus soprano Amy Adams recalled in a recent telephone conversation with OAW that from the very beginning Armstrong “created a magical experience for the young singers because he set high standards and settled for only their best.” The long-termers–those who did the Festival more than once–often recounted how they worked so very hard and were tired all of the time. And in spite of that – or because of it – they kept coming back.

Director Anton Armstrong leading a Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy rehearsal. Photo courtesy of SFYCA.
Director Anton Armstrong leading a Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy rehearsal. Photo courtesy of SFYCA.

Schroeder agrees. “Getting to work with Anton Armstrong was a great opportunity and prepared me for what it might be like at PSU,” said Schroeder. “And every morning, we danced. I remember how musical it was, really feeling the music.” Indeed, some of the most memorable experiences at the Choral Academy were the “body singing” classes taught by Dr. Therees Hibbard. Singing and conducting with a twist – or a hop and maybe a mountain pose.

“Therees was a doctoral student at UO,” said Clark. She was pursuing her degree in voice and choral conducting and she was a dancer. Clark invited her to participate in his university choral conducting classes and knew that her valuable perspectives on body singing were the perfect fit for the new Academy. Hibbard, today a renowned expert on the enhancement of the choral experience through movement, is now on the faculty at St. Olaf College. Watch this video to understand how Hibbard teaches movement to students at the YCA:

What does Schroeder remember about his first singing experience under Helmut Rilling? “I just knew he was famous. And I remember that first time, working with him in the Hult with the orchestra–his thick accent and the detail with which he talked about the music.” That year the choir learned Bach Cantata 172.

He also remembers the experience of sitting between two adult OBF Chorus basses. 

The names of some of the Oregon music educators in that 1999 adult choir might sound familiar: Paul Klemme, Susan Hale, Dwight Uphaus and Solveig Holmquist. Also Josh Haberman, conductor of the Santa Fe Desert Chorale. Outstanding mentors, yes?

Amy Adams recalls OBF Chorus Director Kathy Saltzman Ramey often reminding the adult singers, “these are young voices; we don’t want them to try and match your sound.” Not an easy ask when you are singing a Haydn oratorio.

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Yes, The Seasons, numerous Bach cantatas and the B Minor Mass are a few of the larger masterworks performed by the young singers in twenty-five years. Golly, in the third year of the YCA, when enrollment was open to all Northwest students, they sang the St. Matthew Passion. In each Festival they perform their own YCA concert and sometimes make a special appearance at other OBF events. 

In their own concerts the young singers have been challenged and enriched by the music of Rene Clausen and Kim André Arnesen, Moses Hogan and Rosephanye Powell, Mozart, Brahms, and of course Bach. Oh, those wonderful Bach motets – they performed Komm, Jesu, Komm in 2006. The music that Armstrong entrusts to his young singers is representative of the greatest variety of high caliber choral repertoire. Armstrong is an educator who offers and inspires the best. 

Choirs that sing with Armstrong sing “together.” And not just in the same vowel placement or ending consonant, although attention to those details is an Armstrong choral hallmark. But “together” in the bigger meaning: teamwork, mentoring each other, the responsibility of being your best to honor yourself and fellow performers. This year the SFYCA is performing Bach Cantata 147  (Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben) (“Heart and mouth and deed and life”).  Listen and appreciate the complexity of that beautiful work, performed here by the Netherland Bach Society and Jos van Veldhoven, an OBF guest conductor this year.

Family business

“Bigger meaning” is what Eugene landscape architect, longtime OBF supporter, and past Board member Brad Stangeland saw in the Bach Festival and specifically the Youth Choral Academy. Stangeland said in a recent phone conversation with OAW that he recalls sitting on a deck of a board member’s house in the mid-2000s when Saltzman and Rilling revealed the dollar amount needed to make significant investments in the festival, in part to support education. There was a gasp. “Serving on the board and hearing what the needs were and my father and mother (Roger and Lilah Stangeland) having their own foundation to support education, leadership, not necessarily the arts but things that were rooted in a bigger meaning–I thought it would be a good fit, proposed it to Mom, who put a few things together, and we raised a million.”

Patriarch Roger Stangeland, a very successful and well respected grocery executive (one of his first enterprises was Vons supermarkets ) was described by his industry colleagues as having a fundamental attitude “that it wasn’t about himself but about the team with which he was working.” (Read the full tribute here). Yeah, a good fit.

To honor the foresight and generosity of Brad’s mother, Lilah Stangeland, in endowing the Youth Choral Academy the name was changed in 2007 to Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy. Brad said one of the most meaningful gestures was when the young adults would write individual thank you cards to his mom. Perhaps that’s the “family” part coming back around.  

Brad Stangeland’s own business side, with a touch of whimsy, popped out when he spoke of the rigorous behind-the-scenes excellence of the SFYCA. “What a risk Royce took to bring those young students. Parents showed their trust sending their children. There was excellence not only in the music.”  How does he know this?

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“Oh, yeah, I stayed a night in the dorm.” He wanted to immerse himself in the student experience. “There I was, up reading in my dorm room, and one of the AD’s (activity directors) knocked on my door. I answered and was told to turn my lights out.”  

It was Richard Clark who told that story about his friend Brad (who said he’d get him for that). “He had such great affection for Royce and Helmut,” said Clark. 

How very Bach

There was a lot of affection going around last week. It’s the 25th anniversary year of the SFYCA. Fifty-nine alumni returned to join the same number of SFYCA singers in concert to celebrate another 25th anniversary – that of the 1998 premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Credo, performed at Hult Center this year on July 9.

Alums who attended last week were greeted by familiar faces like that of DC – whether it originated from Dick Clark or Doctor Clark, he isn’t sure–Clark was known to the singers as DC. Armstrong just calls him “the architect.” They might have met Brad and Colleen Stangeland, who owns NEWTWIST boutique, at a concert or event. Hibbard remains a vital member of the SFYCA teaching and conducting team, and Armstrong is there to teach, conduct, and inspire. Both would get and give many hugs.

Therees Hibbard leading the Body Singing class at the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy. Photo courtesy of SFYCA.
Therees Hibbard leading the Body Singing class at the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy. Photo courtesy of SFYCA.

Folks speak of Helmuth Rilling with awe and affection. His insights on the works of Bach and his conducting mentoring has had a remarkable impact on the musical world. He recently celebrated his 90th birthday. The life and lasting legacy of Royce Saltzman, who passed away earlier this year, was remembered at a special gathering at the Hult Center on July 7. In spirit they will always be there, yes?

Jeff Schroeder’s friend Marcus – the very same Academy companion of long ago – called him in late winter and said hey, there’s going to be a 25th year reunion, maybe we could room together again (they did)–and, BTW, auditions were still open for new SFYCA singers. 

That’s how a Sam Barlow High School junior named Camden auditioned and got into the SFYCA this year. Camden’s mom Amber is the choral director at Barlow, and his dad is a theater teacher named Jeff.  Yes, Camden Schroeder is Jeff’s son, and he and his dad sang together in last week’s Pederecki Credo. Some Festival insiders think it might be the first time an alum and child have sung together in a SFYCA event.

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But without a doubt it is the first time that a SFYCA alum and two of their children have done so. Seventh grader Bella Schroeder sings in Portland’s Pacific Youth Choir, which also participated in the Penderecki performance. Really now. Such a wonderful family music lineage. How very Bach!

Jeff, Bella and Camden Schroeder today. Courtesy of Jeff Schroeder.
Jeff, Bella and Camden Schroeder today. Courtesy of Jeff Schroeder.

And how very Oregon Bach Festival. The OBF has been creating connections for 53 years. They could construct their own board game based on the six-degrees-of-separation theory. Conductors, singers, instrumentalists, guest scholars, school teachers, board members, supporters and, of course, now nurturing another generation of young practitioners of the choral art, the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy.

Connections

Just take in one more ever so cool connection. Richard Clark’s granddaughter lives with her family in Portland and sings in one of the Pacific Youth Choir ensembles. Her director? Amber Schroeder.

Okay, enough.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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4 Responses

  1. Beautifully written. A wonderful story of an incredible musical family with strong ties to OBF.

  2. It was a truly incredible experience to be a part of… both as a bonafide YCA member and as a returning alum. What a special place. And what an incredible retelling of this wonderful story. Thank you!

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