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St. Paul, Minn. — Composer Morton Lauridsen had just written a new setting of "O Magnum Mysterium," a version that would eventually rocket its way to the top of the choral charts. But long before its ascent began, he was anxious to get the tune performed. One day before the piece had become well known he snapped on his radio and heard a great choral group.
"And I said, 'My goodness, I must send this group -- whoever they are, they are so fine -- the score,'" recalls Lauridsen.
Almost before the thought was complete, Lauridsen learned the choir had beaten him to it.
"Then, I heard to my delight the announcer saying, 'And now we'll hear the Dale Warland Singers with a new setting of the 'O Magnum Mysterium,' by Morton Lauridsen.'"
The rest is choral history. Lauridsen's new piece got a big boost and the Dale Warland Singers put another keeper on their stringer of all-time favorite choral tunes.
Dale Warland's musical roots go back to his hometown of Badger, Iowa. The farm boy attended a one-room school where the kids sang every day. Another big musical influence while growing up, he says, was Ann Severson, the choir director at his church.
"(She had) perfect pitch, could play keyboard, could sing. I'll always remember her because she could also whistle," Warland says.
After college at St. Olaf, and during a stint as music professor at Macalester College, Warland formed his choral group in l972 with a mildly radical notion. The singers would be paid.
"When we first started, it was such a separation between the musicians and the singers," Warland says. "And I would be very defensive, (saying) 'We are all musicians.'"
However, art, not money, was always the guiding force of the Warland Singers. The demanding auditions for the group were legendary. Every singer auditioned every season.
Rica Van, one of the first singers and one of Warland's personal friends, remembers taking a number, being summoned to the audition room and encountering Warland with his back turned. Van says he was listening rather than looking, so he could build an ensemble that would respond with the sound he wanted.
"(The sound is) clarity, angel-like, great attention to breath and breathing and phrasing and placement of the voice, little vibrato," Van says. "He always told us, 'You must never sound like any other choir.'"
From the beginning and to this day, Warland championed new music. The commitment pleased composers, but didn't sell many tickets. Warland struck a balance by mixing the new with old favorites.
British composer John Rutter, the conductor of the Cambridge Singers, says the formula paid off. He says Warland's vision kept hope alive among composers that their new works would be heard. And, Rutter says, blending them with the familiar kept audiences interested.
"(They were) always refreshing their approach, always refreshing their repertoire with new material, always looking for new ideas, always moving with the times," says Rutter. "That's really quite a remarkable achievement, when you consider how few choirs there are that operate on that sort of basis worldwide."
The Warland Singers faced a multitude of financial and artistic challenges over 32 years. There was, for example, the question of why the group shied away from some of the choral world's most famous works.
I feel confident that there's another life out there, so to speak. I'm not retiring, I'm not stopping my conducting, that's the good part. The part that concerns me most is I won't be conducting my own instrument. I keep saying I'm not retiring, I'm reinventing, and I'm hoping this is the case.
Never, Dale Warland thought, would the group's sound be suitable for Russian music. Still, the desire to perform magisterial pieces like Rachmaninoff's "Vespers" nagged.
Then, Warland uncovered Russian choral manuscripts saying essentially the music didn't need the sound of barrel-chested basses with voices deep as mine shafts.
"I always thought the basses had to be so big and boomy," Warland says. "But the expression I love -- and it really makes sense -- is that the bass line should be felt but not heard, and that has really stuck with me."
Many consider the Warland Singers treatment of Rachmaninoff's "Vespers" one of the choral world's best. Admirers credit the vocalists for a good share of the success of the Dale Warland Singers, but heap lots of praise on the founder. John Rutter says Dale Warland is one of a handful of choral conductors in the world able to tell singers how he'd like them to sound.
"Some conductors are quite verbal and talkative and explain what they want," Rutter says. "Others show what they want or manage to just nonverbally indicate and lead. And I think Dale has that particular gift -- which is, I think, the rarer of the conducting gifts."
The worry is that the end of the group after 32 years means audiences will no longer benefit from Warland's gift. Turns out that won't be so. Warland says he'll take a job next year at the University of Minnesota as visiting artist, working with young conductors at the music school.
"I feel confident that there's another life out there, so to speak. I'm not retiring, I'm not stopping my conducting, that's the good part," Warland says. "The part that concerns me most is I won't be conducting my own instrument. I keep saying I'm not retiring, I'm reinventing, and I'm hoping this is the case."
Still, the end of the Warland Singers leaves a big hole for fans. The consolation is there are more than two dozen Warland CDs out there, and a library full of concert recordings for future radio broadcasts.
Rica Van, the "antique alto" as she calls herself, one of the first Warland Singers, says the other good news is Dale Warland is still around.
"He's putting down an incredibly beautiful instrument," she says. "But he will be available to play someone else's instrument, or to coach someone else as they play the instrument, and then the magic can begin again."
Editor's note: An archived edition of the final concert is available online. Select the link in the right column for more.