Friday, November 18, 2016

New SMC/SWC Artistic Director Paul Caldwell introduces himself to Seattle

Paul Caldwell (Miryam Gordon)
Silver and Soul
Seattle Men’s Chorus
Benaroya Hall
December 4-22, 2016

You’ve probably heard by now, if you pay attention to the Seattle Men’s and Seattle Women’s Choruses, that iconic artistic director Dennis Coleman retired and that the Choruses are now being led by Paul Caldwell. If you were lucky enough to have attended the recent concert by the Women, you already know that the Choruses are clearly in great hands and ready to Sing Out, loudly and proudly, into the future.

SGN had an opportunity to interview Paul on the eve of concert series #2 for him: the Seattle Men’s Chorus annual Christmas-time holiday extravaganza. We sat down with him and Executive Director Steven Smith for a chat.

Silver and Soul is described as having, “All the ingredients ... for Seattle’s biggest holiday extravaganza: start with 250 joyful voices singing favorites like “Sleigh Ride” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Add a tender David Bowie tribute, mix in a clever karaoke sing-along, heat things up with gospel harmonies and top it off with a disco Santa finale.”

We wanted to peek inside Paul’s head to find out how he thinks about programming for the Choruses and how one comes to an organization that has been around for more than 30 years and begins choosing material, while recognizing what’s already been done.

Paul started off answering by addressing the huge change the Choruses faced in Dennis’ retirement. “Separation anxiety is a real thing. Relationships change and there is emotional charge with that. There’s also emotional charge with uprooting your life and moving across the continent (Note: Paul and his fiancé moved from Chicago to Seattle this summer).

“I think the thing that has made it an easier transition for me and the Choruses is that I knew that and have tried to be emotionally available to them and I’m not trying to move on from Dennis. I honor Dennis and he’s a very beautiful person. But I’m here and let’s have a beautiful relationship, too!

“I don’t think as much about the legacy and the past as much as everyone else does. What I care about is meeting a bunch of people that have come to make music with me or hear the music we make. And sharing with them as quickly as I can and as openly as I can, ‘This is who I really am. This is what I care about, excites me, makes me cry, or incredibly happy.’”

When Paul spoke about the programmatic trajectory, he said he hadn’t thought about the “how” until asked that question. Then we ended up with a great “food” analogy – maybe because we were in a coffee shop!

“I think people assume that there is a recipe (to programming), like Better Homes and Gardens,” Paul said. “Maybe for some people there is a recipe. For me, I’m more like I go in the (musical) kitchen and play with ingredients and I don’t know what this spice is going to do with this vegetable.”

“The programming issue is more of an opportunity to disclose to people who I am in a relationship that is by nature very vulnerable to me,” Paul said. “I believe that music and art are at their best when they are placed in the service of humanity and peace. I never said that from the stage (when conducting the Seattle Women’s Chorus concert), but I think the audience might have said. ‘Oh, yeah. He does think that.’  

“I think that choral music – my art form… someone else could say metalwork…  is a tool, a window through which we can crawl to learn about things that matter more than music: people and their experiences, hopes, dreams, heartbreaks, injustices. The ways people have triumphed over those injustices. Choral music is just the way we learn about people and their experiences in an intimate way.

“No one showed up to the Seattle Women’s Chorus concert expecting they’d leave that concert thinking about an indigenous people with a dead language (Note: one of the beautiful songs Paul chose). But it’s an interesting topic. I assume our audiences are not unwilling to think about all these myriad of things.

“I assume that someone who attends a concert is willing to be engaged and think about things that are off the beaten path or even painful. We can sing about something that matters, even if it’s a moment of frivolity! We need that.”

Paul did engage in some nuts-and-bolts discussion about choosing a concert’s content. “There are some rules I don’t break,” he said. “I am very dogmatic about timing. Conductors often ask audiences to sit too long. I work hard to limit the number of minutes and sometimes I skip what I want to say artistically because it’s too many minutes!

“I decide what the protein is (first) and how to present it, season it. That’s all up for discussion, but you have to decide early on what the protein is. In the Women’s concert, the protein was the Brazilian piece (“Tres Cantos”). I knew it would be bracing, a memorable moment and that it would do something important for the singers, take them to a new place technically and cause them to realize that, ‘I don’t have to like the piece in order to learn to love it.’

“I have done that piece all over the world and people love it. But when the women first saw the sheet music, they probably thought I was crazy! That and the Emily Dickinson setting (composition) of “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” (which Paul composed for choral music), because I wanted the singers and audience to experience me as a composer. That was an important anchor for them to experience right away.

Silver and Soul is less about me making statements. People go (to the Seattle Men’s Chorus) because it’s part of their holiday tradition and it has to be that. We commissioned a piece which is very beautiful and I love it. It’s not a holiday piece and will need framing to make sense for the audience, but it’s like putting something on plate that doesn’t make sense, but can be arranged by a chef.

“I can do that every concert: put one thing on that plate that doesn’t fit. But I can only do that once. (This new piece) is not a holiday song, but it will fit beautifully and it might be the piece that people remember the most. For the (rest of the) holiday show I thought about what I could bring that is me. I grew up an Evangelical in the South. Gospel is me. I wear it as easily as I wear red tennis shoes. There are a couple of pieces that show that.”

SGN had to address the prospect that Paul might never have been able to move here from Chicago! As Paul narrated during the Seattle Women’s Concert, just after he accepted the position, he was run over by a felon, evading Chicago police, speeding up Sheridan Road! His injuries were very severe and Steve Smith and the administration of the Choruses didn’t want to advertise that it had happened. Everyone was holding their breaths!

Paul said, “On April 3rd at 11:12 pm (just days after I had accepted the job in Seattle), I began to cross my street in the crosswalk in front of my house. I parked my car across the street a lot. I had been to my fiancé’s place for dinner where he had made a chicken pot pie with a lattice crust.

“I got halfway across the street when I heard the squeal of tires and saw headlights and felt the car hit my body. Calvin Lee Walker, the driver, had previously been convicted 38 times of some petty and some not petty crimes.

“I never lost consciousness, just lay in the street and screamed for help. Once I got to the hospital, (later) I asked the orthopedic team if I was going to die, and a physician’s assistant said, ‘You’re not going to die, but you’re going to have a really hard time.’ They knew, by that point, that the injuries were to my limbs and there was no internal damage.

“I had been at (a Chicago chorus) rehearsal and had my leather satchel full of music for my chorus. That satchel flew onto the pavement and cushioned my head when I landed. It broke my nose, but if that hadn’t happened, my head might have broken (and that might have been “it”)!

“About 3am, I went into my first surgery (of three, so far). I thought at that point, even when I was getting out of the hospital and transferring to a nursing home, that I would be cured six weeks later.

“I had no way of understanding how long the road would be. That things would never be the same. The right arm won’t straighten or flex all the way. I’m lucky that I can turn the arm upside down. Thanks Dr. Chen! How the left leg does is still up for grabs. I have PTSD. There are brain effects and I live in a state of alert and startle reflexes.

“The nursing home (Note: where he spent four months) was the worst, like being incarcerated and knowing the rest of the world is getting coffee with their boyfriend and mowing their lawn… that was a desolate experience. If you know anyone in a nursing home, go visit them! There was no one there my age.

“(But) I was the rock star in there and it was like the gay pride parade coming down the hall to my room. I don’t know what the nursing staff made of my visitors. There was an old Jewish man next door and they had decided I was a young rabbi and my congregation was visiting me. They called me the young rabbi.

“You learn to live in the moment. We never said I wasn’t going to come to Seattle, but we couldn’t know when.” Steven Smith interrupted with, “Our (terrible) joke in the office was that we ordered a conductor but he came broken in the box.” Paul continued, “But you didn’t return him. And I’m grateful for that!”

Paul got teary-eyed when he said how grateful he was for, “The moments and beauty and gratitude that would come out of that. The various kindnesses that would need to be shown me and how special and meaningful they would be. Getting run over by a car changed me, but I also think the way some people have been with me after that has changed me more. The SWC women were so proud of me! They saw me getting out of a wheelchair and getting to stand up and conduct them. They couldn’t believe I was doing it! I couldn’t believe I was doing it!

“For a long time I thought I would be conducting with just one arm. It’s still an experiment every day. For the Women’s Chorus, I did stuff I wasn’t sure I could do each performance, each day. It’s a moving target.

“I think I’m the luckiest man in the world because I transitioned to the Choruses. Who moves to a new place and has an army of people to do the grocery shopping and cook or be there for me if I’m lonely and frightened? The way they have treated me, I’m completely in awe. I love them!”

What is clear already is that Paul Caldwell has earned the love he’s getting, and has proved that he was a terrific choice for the Seattle Choruses and we look forward to the many exciting concerts he will help create! For tickets to Silver and Soul, go to