FULL CIRCLE – Dr. David Puderbaugh, Drake Choir alumnus; now Associate Director of Choral Activities, The University of Iowa

The older I get, the more I notice situations that have circular significance to them—instances that connect to previous, singular experiences in various and meaningful ways.  While each moment is unique in its link to the past, in all of them I sense the vast expanse of time that has passed since the first instance and, at the same time, the emotions common to both, deepening my awareness and appreciation for the opportunity I have been afforded.  Yes, I am reminded that I am much older now, but I also gain a heightened appreciation for the full life I have been given.  The Drake Choir’s tour of Latvia, Estonia, and Finland overflowed with these moments for me.

I am a Drake Choir alumnus, and was privileged to be part of the Drake Choir’s very first international tour in 1992, with major stops in Prague, Vienna, and Salzburg.  I was a sophomore then, and the tour was my first time outside the U.S.  It is not an overstatement to say that tour was formative to my current worldview and interests.  I visited places I had only read and dreamed about before, and, more than that, I experienced them on a multi-sensory level, singing in acoustics and surrounded by centuries-old architecture that are seldom replicated in relatively youthful America.  That tour, twenty-four years ago, sparked a pretty active international career in music for me, up to the present day.

When Dr. ABC approached me about coming on this year’s tour, I jumped at the opportunity.  The Baltic countries and their music, particularly Estonia, have been a focal point of my career, and I looked forward to sharing my love and knowledge of the area with the singers.  We began our journey in Riga, touring the city center.  As we walked through the medieval quarter, I caught snatches of conversation among the singers, full of awe and excitement at their surroundings:  “I can’t believe I’m here!”  I recall thinking and saying those very words as I traipsed through the streets of Vienna many years before.

One of my most enduring memories of 1992 was an informal sing we held in the monastery at Melk, Austria.  We stood in the center of the church, under the dome, joined hands, and sang Anton Bruckner’s Os justi.  As the harmonies swirled around me and wafted upward, goosebumps infested my arms and spread over my entire body as the intense emotion of the moment overtook me.  While I’ve experienced the sensation hundreds of times over the years through music, never have I felt it so deeply as I did that day.   Twenty-four years later, I witnessed another cohort of Drake Choir singers experience a similar sensation, this time at the episcopal cathedral in Haapsalu, Estonia.  The simply adorned space, the largest single-nave church in the Baltics, resounded with the familiar sounds of Os justi as the Drake Choir once again joined hands and sang not for an audience, but simply for themselves and one another.  As tears streamed down myriad faces, my own memory came into vivid focus, and I sensed that a special gift had been given to yet another generation of the Drake Choir, one that will endure in their hearts and minds for the rest of their lives.

The circularity I encountered reached its apex at the concert in St. John’s church in Tallinn, Estonia, a joint appearance between the Drake Choir and Voces Musicales, a top-notch Estonian choir.  I have a long history with Voces Musicales; when I lived in Tallinn eleven years ago, I was a member of the ensemble, and I have sung with the group many times since then.  Most recently, I conducted Voces Musicales in a concert of American choral music two years ago in Tallinn.  On that program, I conducted the choir in a performance of James Erb’s arrangement of Shenandoah, a much-loved piece that I first sang under the direction of Dr. ABC for our 1992 tour.  To my delight, the Drake Choir’s tour program included Shenandoah this time, too, providing a great opportunity for collaboration between the two ensembles.  The sight of two of my favorite ensembles, singing together a piece that I had learned with one twenty-four years ago and taught to the other two years ago, under the direction of the person who had originally taught it to me, was surreal.  The phrase “worlds colliding” does not do justice to the moment; rather, the two worlds orbited in harmony with each other (“Music of the Spheres”?).  As an observer, it was as if I was in a time machine, flying so rapidly from moment to moment that each instance blended with the other, creating the synergistic event before me.

While I’ve used this opportunity to talk about those connections between my first international tour experience and this one, it is important, too, to talk about the evolution of the Drake Choir itself, which meant that each one of these déjà vu moments was not a precise replication.  Since my first year in the choir (Dr. ABC’s second year at Drake), I have heard the ensemble at various points throughout the years.  Each time, I was struck with the ensemble’s improvement, not only in sound but also in its culture.  Happily, this tour afforded me the chance to observe the ensemble closely over a period of several days, and I would like to say a few words about it.  Today’s Drake Choir is larger; in 1992, we numbered somewhere in the high forties, and this group was seventy strong.  In Austria, the choir was, if memory serves, perhaps 40% music majors; now 80% are in a music degree program.  As before, the non-music majors come from a cross-section of Drake’s curricular offerings.  The Drake Choir still provides a sense of belonging to Drake students of all stripes.

The difference in sound between ’92 and ’16 is startling.  While its vitality remains the same—warm and inviting—it is more polished, and it is obvious that the singers have a stronger sense of ensemble sound than they did in my time.  The balance between sections is impeccable, as is the approach to vocal production, creating a “sonic blanket” that envelops the listener from head to toe.  Equally impressive to me was the consistency with which the singers performed, night after night.  They were obviously fully prepared and perfectly coached, and, more importantly, they clearly bought into the professional ethos their leader had promoted.  In concert after concert, the Drake Choir sang with the same high quality, vigor, precision, and emotional connection.  As a conductor, I was delighted to see and hear this.  Although I have pursued further education since my formative years at Drake, it is obvious there is much I can still learn from my first mentor in choral music.  Drake students who elect to join the choral program today are, indeed, fortunate to be part of an exciting endeavor that will provide them not only with enduring memories and life-learning moments, but a top-of-the-line musical education.  Choral music is alive and well at Drake University, and I am one proud alumnus.

Now back in the States, I have come full circle.  The jet lag I am still experiencing is pretty much the same feeling I had in 1992.  The realization that it is now back to normal day-to-day living for me seems similar, too.  For me, though, my old memories have accrued a new patina of experience, not unlike the weathered green, copper church spires we encountered throughout the Baltics.  Those spires, too, have witnessed countless circular events.  For the Drake Choir singers, however, their experiences are still bright and shiny, awaiting future opportunities to deepen their significance for their owners.