Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: ‘Some crazy questions’ for Dudley Birder

Dudley Birder_4624313159495535969

PHOTO: Music man Dudley Birder poses for a photo in his office at St. Norbert College. Warren Gerds photo

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – Over the years of observing the performance scene in this area, it’s fascinated me how some individuals stand out as leaders. They develop followers. People believe in them. The list is long, and ranking high is Dudley Birder.

Among the public accomplishments of Dudley Birder:

– Established a theatrical company in 1962 that continues under his guidance: Music Theatre of St. Norbert College.

– Established a chorus that sings large masterworks with 150 or so voices, often with an orchestra: Originally the Collegiate Chorale of St. Norbert College and today the Dudley Birder Chorale of St. Norbert College.

– Began a pop singing group that ended when he retired from teaching but continues today in new forms and with ripple effects: Birder’s group, Swinging Knights, today is reshaped as Knights on Broadway of St. Norbert College, with offshoots of the Swinging Knights in Birder alumni in key roles in Let Me Be Frank Productions (Amy Riemer, vocal director and performer) and Daddy D Productions (Darren Johnson, leader and performer, and Shelly Lahti Emmer, performer).

The St. Norbert groups account for hundreds of participants over time and audiences numbering in the tens of thousands, including at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

At age 87, Dudley Birder is still tooling along. He’s widowed. His wife of 58 years, Mary, died in 2008. On weekdays, Dudley Birder is in his office in the Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts at St. Norbert College from about 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. There are preparations to be done for the Dudley Birder Chorale and Music Theatre. For one thing, Birder maps out rehearsals for the chorale to the minute. Rehearsals take place in Dudley Birder Hall two blocks away from his office.

Dudley Birder is always agreeable to an interview. One of his classic ones started with, “Off the record,” even before I had a chance to ask a question.

This time, the interview was for a different purpose – get into the head of this guy who so many people know in so many ways and try to get a glimpse of what makes him tick.

He was given the basic questions beforehand, and his response to them was, “Some crazy questions. I don’t know if I can answer them.”

We’ll start with the corker.

Q. Why do you think people believe in you?

A. I think, No. 1, I’ve been doing it for 58 years, and they maybe just figure, ‘Well, it has to be worthwhile if it’s been going on for that long. It’s probably a worthwhile experience.’ But most of the people believe in me, I think, if they take part in one of the organizations, because we usually get a pretty good audience, we usually do a pretty good job. And they themselves are satisfied with their participation. And someone has to be the leader. They can’t be themselves. In a way, it’s the only game in town, you know? – both Music Theatre and the chorale in terms of size and whatever. I don’t know that I’ve disappointed a lot of them. They don’t all come back. It’s a selfish thing on their part. They want to be part of something that they enjoy, and they need an opportunity and they need a leader because they themselves can’t lead. So they believe that I can do it, and so here we are. I think. I don’t know if that’s a good answer or not.

Q. It’s your answer. It doesn’t have to be… whatever. It’s what your answer is. Was there a point where you realized you were a leader and people depended on you?

A. I don’t think there was a specific point. Part of the answer, I think, is the fact that I’m a teacher. I teach music. I don’t teach theater, but I direct a show; I teach staging and so forth. In music, all my rehearsals are like a lesson. It has to be because if you don’t get better, why be there? And so you’re constantly teaching in terms of rhythm, tone production, blending and all kinds of things that go into choral singing. So teaching I think comes first, and people go to school because they believe that they can learn something. So whether they believe in me or believe in the process, that’s not important. But they’re there because they want to learn – and, through learning, produce. The ultimate reason is they want to succeed personally. They enjoy it. And if they don’t enjoy it, there’s no sense of being there. I guess they believe they can enjoy it with me. I don’t know.

Q. There are so many different degrees of leadership. A person can lead but be harsh. A person can lead but have a velvet glove. You’re not always easy on people.

A. No. But I think I make sure that I don’t offend them. I don’t take what they do personally, certainly in a rehearsal. And if they do things that annoy me, I tell them, either if it’s musically or in behavior. I have standards, but they expect standards. Nobody wants to be there unless it’s run well. That one person can ruin if they don’t put them in their place. If I don’t do it, someone else will probably. But I can be tough. I can yell. I’m quite demanding, artistically, musically. But certainly I like to think I’m a nice guy, and I like to think that I respect people for what they are. And it’s not my place to discipline them. The discipline comes with purpose as a musical discipline.

Q. For the chorale, people come from all over Northeastern Wisconsin. You say, “only game.” What is that only game?

A. Well, there’s no other big choir around. There’s no other choir that consistently performs with orchestra. We don’t always. We do big works which most choirs can’t do. Most choirs can’t do the Mozart “Requiem” or the Brahms “Requiem” or the Verdi “Requiem” or whatever just because they don’t have the tools, they don’t have the orchestra. Some of them don’t have the space. Walter Theatre (St. Norbert College’s main theater) is quite good at times and certainly the Weidner (Center at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay) is wonderful. So they come because we do the kind of music that they’re looking for, I think. I change the program. We always do ‘America Sings.’ That gives them the opportunity to relax and show off their own personal performing skills. They do a lot of solos in that concert. But mostly it’s things like the masterworks that draw them to the chorale, I think.

Q. Is it somewhat a test, a challenge or maybe a verification of their ability – that they have a good voice?

A. That’s a good question. Yeah. To sing the tough stuff, the masterworks, they have to be able to sing, they have to be able to sight read to a certain extent. If they can’t sight read, they have to be able to go home and learn it on their own. Most of them read pretty well. I don’t insist that they all sight read, but I do insist that they sing in tune and they have a good range and a good sound so that they don’t stick out. It’s the type of music that we do I think that principally attracts the singers. If you want to sing Mozart or if you want to sing Bach or whatever, you have to have a choir that can do it. Church choirs can’t do it, and there are very few large choirs in the state. There’s one in Sheboygan, there’s one in Milwaukee, there’s a smaller large choir in Appleton, and they do it. We draw people from Appleton, Shawano, Door County, Sheboygan, along the lake, Algoma. Most of my people are from the Green Bay area, but I bet we have 15 percent from out of the Green Bay area.

Among the chorale’s concerts, the “Holiday Pops” in December at the Weidner Center is a popular showcase. It’s impressive in participation (280 performers), scale, sights and sounds. While much of what Birder does is behind the scenes, conducting gives him visibility.

Q. When you are conducting, where are you mentally?

A. I’m in the music. I’m dancing. A good conductor, and a good dancer, leads the music. You don’t follow the music, you lead the music. Your beat has to be ahead of beat, kind of. It’s not ahead, but it’s there. You have to know the music so well that it’s part of you. It’s really like dancing. I really think – I never pursued it – I could have been a very good dancer. I was a jock growing up, and that was my life for about 21 years. Anyway, physically, I’ve got a good body in terms of movement – just I’m blessed with it. When you conduct, you’re dancing through the music in your mind. Certainly the hands and the arms reflect that and lead it. Also, I’m thinking of interpretation of the music – melody, phrasing, dynamics, entrances, everything that is musical. If you listen to it and you can concentrate absolutely on it, you’re not aware of anything else around. You look at people and say, ‘Your moment’s coming,’ but you know you’re moment’s coming because you know what’s happening. It’s, I think, almost total emersion in the music in your mental process. That’s the only way I can express it, I think. You have to really know what you want, and then you have to let your body reflect that.

Q. During the most recent “Holiday Pops,” at a couple of points you put down the baton. You just did that?

A. The music comes from the singers. The conductor, fortunately, doesn’t have to sing. Nobody wants to hear the conductor, nobody really wants to see the conductor, I think; it interferes with what’s happening. I put the baton down just because the music was slow and I established a tempo, and they were really with it. And so I thought, ‘Okay, let ’em go.’ And by letting them go, they become much more involved in it, just like the conductor should be. Even something slow still has a rhythm and has phrases. I want the music to come from the singers more than from me. I did not plan that ahead of time. I did not do that in rehearsal. The music comes from the singers; it doesn’t come from the conductor one bit. I’m an interpreter and I’m an enabler perhaps and certainly I suggest what should happen with everything I do, but they have to make it happen.

Q. You are an enabler, but also you are a chooser. You choose what this chorale will be singing.

A. I choose it because I want to do it. It’s a selfish thing, I suppose. I like music, and there are certain things that I really, really like, but you also have to program so you choose things that they can do and that they would enjoy and that the audience will enjoy. They have to go away saying, “Hey, I really like that.” And there has to be something musical they like, not just the virtuosity of the piece.

Q. You’ve had your nose in a score for a lifetime.

A. It’s like a book. If you read a book – unless you are studying and trying to learn something that you don’t know – you’re reading for enjoyment. I think all music has to be enjoyed because there’s nothing you can take with you. It’s what you hear, and it’s gone, so it’s nothing that you can even say again. But in a book, you can hold something. With music, it’s here and it’s gone, so it has to have a real purpose for being. So as I study a score, it has to have a melody, it has to have a melody that I will remember, that I enjoy listening to. Certainly it has to have a rhythmical organization that gets you a little bit. And then more than that, it has to have structure. It has to have form – A, B, C, D. If it loses you along the way, you’ve got a problem. But I don’t read music like I read books. Some people – my mother, specifically – could look at a piece of music, look at six or eight measures, put it down and go play it on the piano. That’s out of sight. Mozart. Way out of sight. Not many people can do that. Certainly I can’t. But when I read music, I have to really concentrate because if I want to hear – if it’s fresh for the first time – I have to hear where it’s going. I can sight read a melody, kind of; certainly I can do rhythms easily, no problem with that; harmonically, I can kind of look and kind of hear, I can hear the bass line. I spend a lot of time looking at music, but it’s for music, not for enjoyment. It’s work.

Q. Among composers, do you prefer to perform some more than others?

A. I’m old fashioned. I’m not on top of the modern stuff. I’m 87 years old. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, I guess. Something like that. I was raised on classical music. My mother and dad both were musicians, and they would take me to the Minneapolis Symphony on Friday nights if one of them could not go. They had season tickets. (Eugene) Ormandy was the conductor, and I was the one in the family who wanted to go. So I was always listening to big things. But it follows, I think, that for the most part I really like the traditional 19th century music. I don’t mean to say I don’t like modern music, but I like modern music that is somewhat romantic. Dissonance leaves me cold. Dissonance for its own sake. Arnold Schoenberg, you know – he changed the world. I’ve never done Schoenberg and probably never will because he doesn’t have any traditional tonal organization, and I just don’t understand it. I studied it at school and I could write something in the style of Schoenberg, but it wouldn’t sound like Schoenberg. To me, that’s awful. (Laughs). I love Brahms and Bach and Beethoven and Mozart and Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams – some of the moderns were romantic. And John Rutter. He’s a romantic, he’s a traditionalist. That’s the kind of music I like and also, I think, for the most part that’s the kind of music most people like because it’s easily understood when you hear it, even for the first time. You can follow it. It’s got melody and rhythm and structure.

Q. You make it sound simple. Why don’t modern composers do that then? If the organizations are crying for audiences, why?

A. Partly I think because many modern composers – and probably writers – want to be noticed. They want to do their own thing. They don’t want to be traditionalists. They have something to say that they believe in. Many modern composers are very, very good, but they’re only understood by a few. But they pave the way, you know. Beethoven paved the way. Bach paved the way, but it was more of a traditional school, but it was still new.

Q. Here comes one of those crazy questions. More influential: Your father or mother?

A. Both. They were both professional musicians. I had to behave. My mother would read Emily Post (the master of etiquette) to us at the dinner table. I hid the book when I was about 7 years old, and she never found. My dad was a professional singer. He was a star athlete at Notre Dame (University). He was a runner. He was a very good friend of Knute Rockne (legendary football coach). He roomed with Cornelius McGillicuddy (Connie Mack), who founded the Philadelphia Phillies. He had a lot of interest in sports, and he encouraged us, although he was a professional singer. He had sung in New York. He had a law degree at Notre Dame, which was traditional. He studied in New York. Dudley Buck was his teacher, who I was named after, was a Metropolitan Opera singer. Then the Depression hit and they came to the Twin Cities, and he taught at St. Thomas College (now University. He had a big church choir, and my mother was his organist. He taught voice at home. He was working all the time. All of our relatives lived with us because he was the only one with a job. We lived two blocks from St. Thomas College. I took piano from age 5 to seventh grade. In seventh grade, I quit because I was a jock. I just wanted to play ball. I wanted to do all the things that boys do. I didn’t go away from my music. I still played the piano a little bit. I wouldn’t practice, but I’d sight read. I’d play things and I’d listen and I’d go to concerts and do this and that. At Notre Dame, I was sociology major because I didn’t want to go into music because of my mother and dad. I was not as good as my mother and dad. I believe that. So I didn’t pursue it. In my mind, I listened to it, was with it all the time, sSang in choirs, learned to play viola, learned to play French horn but not very well. Then I got married. I was working for Studebaker in factory on the night shift because it paid better. I was sociology major. Mary (his wife) said to me one day, “Birder, go back to school, you belong in music.” I said, “Okay.” This was before kids. I got married when I was still in college, and she said, “You belong there.” I said, “Are you serious?” She said, “Yes. I’ve got a job. Go back and get your music stuff and get a master’s degree.” And that’s what I did. She worked in city hall in the water works because her uncle was on the city board and she got a job. (Laughs). At Notre Dame, I had to take piano as part of the curriculum, and my teacher said, “There’s a church in Elkhart (Indiana) you could probably handle. I’d like you to go audition for it. It’s a full-time church job – playing for four Masses every morning and having a boy choir and a mixed choir and teaching the eighth graders for Friday Mass.” I got a house to live in, and I think I got $2,000 a year. That was good, so I went into music, and I guess I learned. I learned to play organ. I went from that to a similar job in South Bend, which was closer to Notre Dame. I got my master’s degree after about three years of taking graduate and under graduate courses at the same time. I was taking undergraduate counterpoint, advanced counterpoint and graduate school counterpoint all in the same semester. (Laughs). Then I had an opportunity to get a job in Canada in Nova Scotia for two years. Then I then went back to Minnesota for two more years of graduate school for a doctorate, which I never got because I had too many kids. I couldn’t take a year off to finish my dissertation. But I did all my classwork. But I had a job here (starting in 1958).

Back to my mother and my dad. I learned how to direct, how to conduct and so forth from my dad because that’s what he did. He in ways did what I am doing, but I can’t sing like he sang. He was really good. I learned discipline, I learned literature, I learned music in general because my mother was always playing. She’d make me sit down with her and we’d sight-read Beethoven sonatas. She made me take the left hand, and she’d take the right hand, and I couldn’t stop. And then we’d switch and I’d take the right hand and she’d take the left hand and we couldn’t stop. If I screwed up, she just kept going and I had to find her. And I learned to sight read. I really learned to sight read. That was because there was no choice. (Laughs). I think she was probably a better musician than my dad, but he did the things that I do, very very well. I had a very equal, very easy relationship with both. Dad loved sports, music, everything – and funny as hell. And a great actor. He was really a funny guy. My mother was very serious. Very beautiful and strict and would dust me up on Emily Post. But lots of fun to be with. She was a good, really fine mother.

Q. Why did Mary think that you should go into music?

A. Because I was always singing in a choir if I could. I got involved in a group called the Limits, which was a church CYO organization before we were married, putting on shows. I somehow got into a position where I started to direct them and conduct them such as they were. I just liked music. She recognized that. She came from a family that liked music, so it was not strange to her at all.

Q. There was a price to pay.

A. First, I always had a job… I probably inferred (about going into music). I don’t remember doing it. But when you live together, you pretty much know what’s going on in each other’s head if you have any kind of communication at all, especially if you get along.

Q. So she kind of went along for the ride but it was something she wanted to do.

A. That’s a good way of saying it. She went along for the ride, but she took care of the horses. She had to pay the price, but she enjoyed it. She enjoyed the fact that we were going some place. We went together. I would be nothing without her. I’d probably still be working in a factory or doing something in social work or something. My degree was in sociology.

Q. (Two of his children) James P. Birder and Alicia Birder are thick into things, and that’s their wish, I gather.

A. Yes. All my (six) kids grew up with Music Theatre. They all grew up with my interest in music. They all were given piano lessons. My girls were all quite talented – all sang, all played, but they didn’t choose that way. Alicia was always into performing, and Jim was building sets when he was 8 years old because I built the sets for Music Theatre originally. There’s that picture (next to Birder’s desk in his office). That’s our old light board. He’s about 10 years old there. That wasn’t posed. He probably was working the lights. Jim was a very good musician, but he never pursued it. Good actor, good singer, played oboe very well. Alicia’s extremely creative – why I don’t know – much more so than I am.

For Music Theatre, Dudley Birder is artistic director/producer and music director for some shows. James P. Birder directs one production, and Alicia Birder directs/choreographs one production. There’s a lot of byplay between the three.

Q. Music Theatre has its own belief system. That’s a whole different army of people.

A. While there is not the same continuity with Music Theatre as there is with the chorale, there is some continuity. It’s a big time commitment. So they have to really want to do it (be involved in perhaps two months of rehearsals and performances) if they’re going to commit to being in a show.

Q. Dudley Birder Chorale is one thing, Dudley Birder Hall is another. What do these names mean for you?

A. The hall – That was a big surprise. I didn’t see it coming. The chorale – That didn’t bother me so much because it was my chorale. I had it for about 40 years. Ten years before Dudley Birder Hall came along, we (the chorale) outgrew our space here (in the Hall of Fine Arts). The fire marshal decided we outgrew our space here, so we were all over the campus rehearsing. We’d be in the union upstairs one week, the Bemis Center another week. St. Boniface Church was purchased by the college (and it) made a bookstore out of it, and then the bookstore was moved. It was echo-y and noisy, but I went in there and purchased some risers and used the stage and made a rehearsal space out of it because nobody else was using that building at that time. We rehearsed there for two years and intended to continue to rehearse there, and then the powers that be decided that they were going to make a chamber ensemble space for concerts and for rehearsal, I guess for me, too, and they announced at one of our concerts that this was happening and it would be called Dudley Birder Hall. I was completely surprised. I had no indication it was coming at all. That really was a little embarrassing because I did nothing for that building. For the Dudley Birder Chorale, that was my choir and I made it what it is. Good or bad, it was mine. The hall, good or bad, is not mine. It’s just that now I get to rehearse there, and that’s nice. Almost always buildings are called what they are because the person’s name who is on it gave them money. I didn’t give any money. I gave my life. (Laughs).

Q. I’ve seen advertisements or articles in magazines about ways for senior citizens to make their mind work better and improve memory. That’s kind of funny in a case like Dudley Birder.

A. Boy, I tell you, I forget the things I forget – I’ve got so many of them. (Laughs). The immediate is the difficult part as you get older. I have no trouble learning music. No trouble. I have to struggle remembering names and faces and places and important events. (On the other hand), nobody tells me what to do. I do what I want to do, so what happens is all Dudley. I get paid by the college on a scale. I have Social Security. That helps. I’m retired. I’m old enough. (Laughs). I get along pretty well. I’m working.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air segments on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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