As a new member of the Swarthmore College Chorus, I was looking forward to joining the ranks of an already established community. I was surprised to find, however, that students were not the only new members in this year’s Chorus. The Chorus director, Joseph Gregorio, is new this year as well.
I recently sat down with Gregorio on a noisy evening in Sharples, his first visit to the dining hall, to ask him about his expectations for his first year at a new school. I could not help but feel a parallel with my own experience so far as a freshman joining a new community.
Daniel Banko: What made you decide to be the chorus director at Swarthmore?
Joseph Gregorio: The job kind of fell on my lap because I had a personal connection with Andrew Hauze. He is a friend of mine through my sister who was a student at Swarthmore College at the same time that he was a student here too. I also used to visit him a few times when he was the director of music at a church in Westchester.
I got a note from him out of the blue in March asking if I was interested in applying for this job at Swarthmore. I had always envisioned teaching on a college campus, and I had done that before, but only in the context of music theory and musicianship classes.
At the time Andrew contacted me I knew I had another child on the way, and I was in my second year of doctoral work for a composition Ph.D. at Temple. But I asked my wife if I should apply and she said yes, I absolutely should. And so I did, I performed an audition, and was lucky enough to get the job.
DB: What is your past relationship to music?
JG: I have a lot of background in choral music. It has been near and dear to my heart since high school. I took piano, flute, and voice lessons as a child, but what got me really excited was in 10th grade I participated in a Pennsylvania Music Educators Association Chorus Festival, where about 200 students from the region rehearse for three days and then put on a concert on the last day. For the first time, I was among a group of students who really enjoyed choral music and the experience was absolutely electrifying for me. I sang in college as well and had another life changing experience there. I was in the Glee Club, and I felt like I truly belonged among this tight-knit group of singers. To this day, those people are my really close friends.
DB: I understand you compose as well. Do you compose choral pieces only or orchestral pieces as well?
JG: I compose both types of music pieces, but I predominantly write choral pieces for different ensemble sizes.
DB: Why the voice versus another musical instrument?
JG: Well I love all instruments, but the voice has a really special place in my heart. It has to do with the way that the voice can connect words to music. When you listen to a good piece of vocal music, the performers are taking you on a journey in two ways at once: they are taking you on a musical narrative and they are taking you on a textual narrative. Sometimes those parameters work in sync or work against each other. It is this dual narrative that I really like. And you do not have to be a professional in order to sing. While you have to achieve some proficiency with other musical instruments in order to play orchestral pieces, this is not true with vocal pieces. In fact, you can really sing any of the masterworks of choral pieces with just a little bit of time and effort.
DB: What is your view of the Swarthmore Chorus now, and do you have any changes planned for it in the future?
JG: It is in a period of transition right now. John Alston was the previous director for over 20 years. There is always a few years in a transition where the ensemble and the new director try to meet each other on a new direction. While it is a period of change, I also feel it is a period of growth. At the end of last year, the chorus had 45 people. This year we are now at 60, and I hope to see it grow even further. It would make me very happy if we were 100 or 120 singers some day. Another thing that is in transition is the chamber choir this year. It is a more select group, more tight-knit, and does slightly more challenging repertoire. I am hoping to expand that group to a size of 24 people. Also different this year, the chorus is meeting for only 1.5 hours a week, instead of the three hours in previous years. As a result, we only have time to practice works of a medium scale rather than pieces of a larger scale.
DB: Although I think that the smaller time commitment would make the chorus seem more favorable for people who are uncertain about joining it or not.
JG: Well that is true. I haven’t thought of that. But the long-term goal is to have the chorus return to a weekly three hour rehearsal time and have the chamber choir rehearse on a separate day rather than back-to-back with the chorus as it does now. Another change I would like to implement is to add some student leadership positions to the Chorus. I hope to add a student president and vice president position, and maybe some other positions, in order to help share the workload and to give students the opportunity to grow as leaders. I also would like to increase the online social presence of the chorus by creating a Facebook group and other social media profiles. It would be a great way to raise publicity about the chorus.
DB: Are you excited for your first concert?
JG: Absolutely! I cannot wait. Right now we are still in the early stage of learning the notes, but once we finish that we can start to really dig in and make some beautiful music. We are going to be performing with a small ensemble of student string players, and Andrew will be playing on the organ. So it should be a really great concert.
DG: Do you have a favorite piece?
JG: My favorite choral piece is probably the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet as set to music by Orlando de Lassus, a renaissance composer. I heard a recording of it in 10th grade. My dad was playing it one day and I came downstairs and listened to the whole thing. It was one of those moments that just stopped me in my tracks.
DB: Finally, how can a student who is interested in the chorus get involved?
JG: Get in touch with me at the beginning of each semester. I will set up a time for you to meet with me and audition a one minute solo piece. I would love it for more people to join. And no prior experience is needed.
Photo courtesy of Joseph Gregorio
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