The man with the bionic ears

The Rochester Oratorio Society (ROS for short) sings A Sea Symphony with the RPO this Thursday and Saturday nights. I’m thrilled to be part of it! As a member of ROS since 1991, I’ve sung under Roger Wilhelm, Mark Elder, Robert Bernhardt, Peter Bay, Uriel Segal, David Effron, and Christopher Seaman.

Last year, the ROS hired a new conductor. I wrote a profile piece that never saw the light of day. Long story. The short of it is, this seems the right place to share with you my first impressions of the new guy.

First rehearsal. If Eric Townell had bionic ears, they would have detected mutterings from the back row. The initial run through of a sixteen-part Venetian motet had not gone well. Four sopranos ducked behind their scores. One rolled her eyes.

“I’m never gonna get this friggin’ Gabrieli,” she whispered, marking perhaps the first time in history that the words “friggin” and “Gabrieli” have appeared in the same sentence.

Townell was off to a rocky start.

“I think he scared us in the beginning,” says Maryellen Giese, a member of the search committee that offered Townell the position when music director Roger Wilhelm retired at the end of the 2005-06 season.

The third music director in the Society’s 60-plus year history, Townell (pronounced “town-NELL”) came to Rochester from Wisconsin, where he conducts the Festival Choir of Madison. A Peabody grad, he also plays the tuba. Initially, his path was leading him toward a career conducting orchestras.

But he found himself wanting to work with singers.

“I’m interested in language,” he says. “Singing text is endlessly fascinating.”

For a conductor who loves language, Townell uses it sparingly. A trim, lithe man, he often starts rehearsals without a word, pulling an invisible string from the top of his head and bobbling his head like a puppet or shaking his hands over his head while the singers mirror his movements.

He follows a strict rehearsal schedule that’s published in advance. Chorus members are expected to show up already knowing the notes and rhythms. Townell rarely goes over parts. He wants to work on other stuff. Poetry.

“He has an ability that is mysterious to me,” says alto Helen Bee, who sang for Townell in Wisconsin for more than a decade.

“We’d sing a piece and it sounded good,” she says. “But then he’d tinker with it for ten minutes and we’d sing it again and it would be vastly better.”

Townell is philosophical about his approach.

“It’s all about the text,” he says, adding that singers should find the most clear and effective way to convey its meaning, which doesn’t mean simply emoting more. “They have to bring just the right color to it.”

He’s grateful to former director Roger Wilhelm for leaving the Rochester Oratorio Society in great shape to begin with. “The sound was beautifully honed.” Townell says. Taking the group to the next level is a matter of degree.

It’s a mission he’s eager to tackle, since from his point of view, the whole raison d'être for the ROS is to bring a kind of restorative beauty to the community.

“Rochester is leading the country in research and technology,” he says. “I sense that this is the moment for the creative classes - and the Rochester Oratorio Society - to show leadership as well.”

After his first shaky rehearsal, Eric Townell put down his baton and pivoted. He scanned the singers’ faces.

“This is a piece of music that changes lives,” he said.

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