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The Beehive Interview: Roy Klassen of the San Joaquin Chorale

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In Friday’s 7 section I highlight the spring concert of Fresno Pacific University’s San Joaquin Chorale, which performs 7:30 p.m. Saturday at First Congregational Church. I caught up with conductor Roy Klassen via email to talk about the concert. Here’s the extended interview:

Question: How did you put this spring concert program together? Do you try for a wide variety of music?

I always seek for a variety of music from older, Renaissance pieces through 21st century choral compositions, including those of our accompanist, Kevin Memley. I’ve divided the Spring program into sacred and secular sections. The first, sacred, is all 20th century music and includes the William Mathias piece written for Prince Charles and Diana Spencer’s wedding in 1981. The second half (secular) begins with an homage to pieces written about the theme of ‘music’. We open with a madrigal by Gallus and end with an American Folk song arrangement by Ken Berg.

One of the works is by a composer named Johannes Klassen, who wrote the piece in the year and month of your birth. Tell us about the piece. Are you related?

No, we’re not related but I found the piece two summers ago when going through music at Doblinger’s Music Store in Vienna. The piece is richly chordal and moves in the style of a romantic era motet, even though written in 1944. Below is the bio I have about him from the program.

Klassen was born in Wallenborn, Germany and attended the gymnasiuum (the highest form of high school education) in Trier and was a singer in the Cathedral. He studied musicology at the University of Bonn under the tutelage of Schmidt-Görg, Rothacker. In 1934, he was appointed music director at the Dome in Trier and also was vicar and music docent at the Seminary and Church Music School in Trier. A large amount of recordings for the radio in addition to records resulted from Klassen’s high artistry, including traditional polyphony, which were produced for pedagogical purposes at the universities of Bonn and Hamburg. He won three prizes with the Trier Cathedral Choir at the international choral competition “Guido d’Arezzo” in 1953.

Tell us about the work by your pianist, Kevin Memley.

Kevin wrote this particular piece for the College of Sequoia choir under the direction of Jeff Seaward. They premiered it last semester and we’re the second choir to sing it. Keven’s religious works are best known for their gentle chordal and melodic movement. This one isn’t as difficult as some of his works but the polyphony is strong and easy to follow. The piece we commissioned for premier next fall is a setting of “Gloria” and will be much more difficult and varied.

You’re even doing a piece with a “royal wedding” theme. Tell us about it.

I selected “Let All the People”, by William Mathias before I knew that William and Kate were going to get married this weekend. But, what a coincidence that I should sing the piece written for Charles and Diana’s wedding a day after the ‘other’ royal wedding. Many people probably watched the 1981 wedding but may not remember the anthem. It will be accompanied by the wonderful pipe organ at First Congregational. The style is very melodic and rhythmic. The most obvious musical aspect of the piece is that it is quite victorious and ends with full choir and organ.

What do you consider to be the most difficult piece on your program and why?

From the standpoint of balance, the Klassen piece is the most difficult. It divides into five parts in the men’s section. We had a death in our bass section this semester and one of our basses is currently out because of cancer treatment. So, making the entire piece balance off the lower end of the choir has been a challenge but I believe we have achieved the balance by asking the other sections to sing at a volume only loud enough so they can still hear that lower moving line.

Rhythmically, the Mathais ‘royal wedding’ piece is the most difficult. Fortunately, the organ is helps as it is also very rhythmic.

For those who aren’t familiar with the chorale, give us a brief history.

The San Joaquin Chorale is an auditioned Fresno-area community choir dedicated to the performance of quality literature of sacred and secular repertoire in a concert setting. The choir’s membership is drawn from communities throughout Fresno and Tulare Counties. It was founded in 1994 by conductor and musical director Dr. Roy L. Klassen, and performed for several years as the Fresno Pacific Chorale.

How many singers are in the group?

This semester we have 40 (10 in each section). Last semester we had 52. It varies on people’s schedules during any given semester.

How many of them are former students?

This semester, 50% are former students, going all the way back to my very first years of teaching to those who just graduated last semester.

Has your recent retirement from Fresno Pacific University affected the structure/organization of the group in any way?

No, it hasn’t. I’m still under contract with the university to adjunct this particular choir. In previous semesters, it was one of the four choirs I conducted. Now I only conduct the San Joaquin Chorale.

Anything else you’d like to say about this concert?

This is a wonderful ensemble of singers dedicated to making audience feel and touch the music. They do this because I am constantly asking them to consider communication as their primary focus. The music we have is celebratory and, in my estimation, needed in these days unhappy news. We are also dedicating our performance of Kevin Memley’s “Stabat Mater” to the memory of our recently deceased bass, Louis Bennett.

I believe the variety of literature we have to offer will also be something audiences will appreciate and enjoy.

Responses to "The Beehive Interview: Roy Klassen of the San Joaquin Chorale"

Sarah Carter says:

Thanks for the write-up and interview with one of my favourite people. The concert on Saturday is going to be fantastic!