Betsy Cook Weber
It was a dark and stormy night (actually, morning). I couldn't find my hat, and the wind constantly turned my cheap umbrella inside out. Not an auspicious start to the day.
But then, things turned around. I found my hat safely tucked into an interior pocket of my jacket, the wind calmed down, and we heard singing coming out of the open doors of a church. It turned out to be the "junior varsity" choir (as we call such groups in Texas) of the High School for Music (Musikgymnasium). They were rehearsing for their first concert in 18 months. They were excited, and they were also very good. We sat and listened for a while, rejoicing with those kids and their teacher that they could sing together again.
Then we headed out to see Hallie Reed Slettengren. If you know the dynamic Michigan State University choral duo, Jon Reed and Sandra Snow, then you probably know Hallie, Jon’s daughter. It was in Houston that I got to know Hallie because she chose to come down to the area (Cy-Fair ISD) to teach after completing her degree at MSU. By all accounts, Hallie was a fantastic high school choral director. Travel and history are in her blood, however, so she applied to dozens of positions at various International Schools around the world and landed in Stockholm.
Jon urged her to contact Gary Graden (my Expat #2); he and Gary were at the Hartt School together. So, while still jet-lagged, Hallie sang some Bach for Gary and found her choir home in addition to her wonderful teaching job. “It was fate!” (In addition, she found her husband, who also sings for Gary, but that came later. :-)
My husband, Rick, and I had fika (coffee and pastry) with Hallie in her beautiful, light, bright apartment at the top of winding stairs in a grand old building. She is on the twelve-month maternity granted to parents in Sweden. (Yes, that’s right. Twelve months.) Hallie agreed that the choral scene in Stockholm is fantastic. Covid and a new baby have put her singing on hold for a while, but choirs are back in action here in Stockholm, and Hallie soon will be as well.
Later that evening we met Gary Graden at the Cathedral. He showed us his rehearsal space, which is beautiful visually and aurally. I mean, who doesn't have chandeliers, marble, and framed oil paintings in their rehearsal room?
We then walked around the corner for dinner at a tiny restaurant that specializes in Swedish fare. Rick ordered the reindeer, but, just as I can't get Peter out of my mind when seeing rabbit on a menu, images of Rudolph appeared when looking at the word, "reindeer." Venison, yes; reindeer, no. Gary and I had the fish.
Gary is one of the most celebrated, active choral conductors in the world. To mention a very few highlights of his storied career, he is the recipient of the "Johannes Norrby" medal for his contribution to Swedish choral music, and was elected Sweden´s Choral Conductor of the Year in 2005. His choirs have won numerous international prizes, including the Europoean Grand Prix. In 2009, he and his choir were awarded the Guidoneum Award from the Fondazione Guido D´Arezzo in Italy.
Gary left the U.S. after completing his Masters at Hartt. He was hoping to find a teacher and had his sights set on Eric Ericson, Helmut Rilling, and Nicholas Harnoncourt. (What a list!) He arrived in Stockholm first, connected with Maestro Ericson, and looked no further. After six months of preparation, he auditioned and was accepted. He said that he liked the program because it was "hands on." He also said, "I was a tenor who could sing, and that opened many doors for me."
I sometimes worry about students who have mentally locked a career path into their thinking, with various "hurdles" (teaching K-!2 for a few years, earning graduate degrees, etc.) to negotiate along the way to a four-year collegiate or professional conducting job. I mentioned this to Gary, and he agreed that he never worked from some master career plan. Instead, he allowed his path to evolve organically and naturally. He taught part time, then full time at the Musikgymnasium, started that school's chamber choir, accepted a position at St. Jacob's Church, started its Kammerkör, and added a part-time, then full-time position at the Cathedral. I loved the way his eyes lit up when he talked about working with high school singers. For him, that job was not a"hurdle" to overcome on the way to a better job. It was an important part of his career that he cherished at the time and is grateful for today.
There is much to learn from Gary and Hallie, but for now I would just like to leave the reader, especially my students, with the value of thinking outside the box when looking for musical and educational opportunities. There is much to say for following the traditional course of study. I run one of those programs at the University of Houston, after all, and I stand by our contributions to student learning. Still, there can be other paths to the same or equally appealing goals.
St. Jacob's Church, Stockholm