Going out on a high noteBy LJ Evans, University Marketing and Publications
Marvilla Davis lifted her hands into the air in a graceful arc and held them there. Eyebrows raised, she scanned the faces of the singers who stood before her to make sure all eyes were on her. As she raised her chin and lifted her hands a bit higher, everyone in the room took a deep breath. Her hands descended, the singers' mouths opened and the hall filled with a resonant and harmonious melody.
The Alaska Chamber Chorale was working on a piece called "O Nata Lux"--oh born is light--by Morten Lauridsen, a collection of Latin texts referring to light.
It wasn't perfect. This was, after all, just a rehearsal, in a large but plain practice room at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It was less than a month before the group's final holiday concert--Davis and the 32 singers had a lot of work to do.
After 15 years of leading the UAF chorale in performances of choral music from around the world, Davis has decided to retire as director this spring. The university music department has no one to take her place, and the decision has been made to dissolve the group, leaving a hole in the Fairbanks music community.
"I have shed a lot of tears over this and I will continue to do so," Davis said after the rehearsal. "I'm not burned out in the least on leading the chamber chorale. I love working with them and teaching and making music with them. But you don't live forever and there are some other things I'd like to do, like spend more time with my grandchildren and horses."
Davis moved here in 1974, and she continues to work hard to stay on top of her craft, regularly attending conferences and training sessions Outside. Her retirement will mean the end of an era. Members of the chorale say they knew it was coming--Davis has talked about retirement before--but this time she means it.
"I feel tremendously sad because I don't see an immediate replacement for the experience of singing like this," said alto Eva Rothman.
Tenor Jim Hameister said, "For the people of Fairbanks this group is like the northern lights. You can get along without it but it would be a much duller place."
The founding of the Alaska Chamber Chorale
Davis has taught music for 41 years, in public schools in Montana and Alaska, at UAF and through private voice lessons. She and her husband, Mike Conn, moved their family from a small town in Montana to teach in the Fairbanks school system in 1974. Shortly after their arrival, Mike was diagnosed with cancer. When he died less than a year later, Davis was alone, far from family, with two young daughters.
Davis almost decided to leave after that first year. She asked friends to watch her girls and went to Hawaii alone to do some thinking. She thought she might look for a job Outside, maybe Oregon or Washington.
"It was just too hard to stay up here by myself," Davis said. When she came back to Fairbanks, she went to a concert conducted by a friend, and then to a party afterwards. That's where she met the man who later became her second husband, Charles "Chip" Davis.
"I was trapped in a conversation, and Chip came over and rescued me. We struck up a friendship." They eventually married, Marvilla Conn became Marvilla Davis, and she continued to teach music and biology at West Valley High School.
After earning a master of arts degree in music at UAF, she accepted a part-time position in general music at Weller Elementary School. She also taught as an adjunct professor at the university.
In 1992 Davis sought permission to start a new group, initially called the UAF Chamber Singers. There were about 18 in the group the first year, Davis said. After several years they decided to change the name to the Alaska Chamber Chorale.
"I thought that name was much more reflective of what the group was about, which was outreach to the community. We've had people from Nenana, from both military bases, North Pole, even Delta Junction. It's probably two-thirds community people who sing in the ensemble with about a third full-time university students."
Because the chorale is a university class, the group performs regularly in UAF's Davis Concert Hall, "which has great acoustics and suits us perfectly," Davis said. The stage walls and floor are finished in oak, which Davis said influences everything from the chorale's choice of music to their choice of concert attire--black tux and black bow tie for the men, black dress and pearl necklace for the women. For a spot of color the men add a boutonniere in a color appropriate to the season--red at Christmas, a pastel shade for the spring concert in May.
Musical standards are high
A fairly strict audition is required to get in the chorale, Davis said. Prospective members don't have to sing a solo, but she listens to them doing various vocal exercises. She also plays patterns on the piano or sings to them and asks them to sing it back to her. Mostly she is listening for the quality of the voice to make sure the voice will blend with the ensemble.
"You do not need to have the best singers in the world, but you need to know how to get the sound you want. That's what I am striving for," Davis said.
"Marvilla is demanding of the quality she knows we can produce," said bass Ken Kokjer, one of a handful of singers who have been in the chorale since the group began. "At the same time she accepts the limitations of working with an all-volunteer chorale. She sometimes chides us, but it's always in a way that makes us want to work harder for her. Rehearsals are productive and businesslike, and yet we all have fun."
People as young as 15 have sung in the chorale and there is a 70-year-old in the group. Davis said she has encouraged that age diversity because it gives a unique vocal texture to the sound.
"When I listen to recordings I can tell you by listening--those are college students, or that's a high school group, or that's strictly adults. Voices have a color and a maturity to them. A college group can have a wonderful sound but the maturity is not quite all there yet. But taking a group like ours where you have a wide range of young, middle and older voices, you get a sound that's hard to duplicate."
The Alaska Chamber Chorale has been invited to perform at the American Choral Directors Association twice at regional gatherings and once at the national conference. "The first time we went to Portland at the invitation of the ACDA, the quality of performance was a big shock to many of the other conductors in the northwest," Davis said. "They all thought ‘Alaska really has this music program?' The executive director of the entire 20,000-person organization was the first one on his feet to applaud. I told them it's just like anywhere else, we have great singers here and wonderful choral programs in Alaska!"
After the performance, the singers received many compliments, Kokjer said. "I think it was then that we became really aware of how good Marvilla is and how professional she had made us become," he said. Davis said being asked to perform at such a prestigious gathering of professional choral directors is a really big deal--on a par to the UAF hockey team playing for the national championship and coming out on top.
Davis chooses a broad spectrum of music from many genres for the chorale but it's all a cappella, or unaccompanied, said soprano Melissa Downes, founder and director of the Northland Children's Choir. A cappella arrangements require a tight blend of voices to get the most beautiful sound, and Davis chooses her music to fit the ability and voices of her singers. Downes has studied voice with Davis for years and has also been in the chorale from its inception. "When I decided I wanted to start a children's choir in Fairbanks she was a mentor to me. I don't think I would have had the courage to do this unless I had learned so much from her."
At one of many performances around town over the years, the chorale sang for the dedication of the Rabinowitz Courthouse in downtown Fairbanks, Downes said. The group was upstairs on the balcony while the audience stood downstairs in the lobby. They sang two or three pieces, one of them in Latin, which was especially appropriate, Downes said, Latin being the fundamental language of the law. "I've always remembered that as special. We sounded really good in there," Downes said.
When the group was scheduled to perform at the national ACDA conference in Manhattan in 2003, Davis also wrangled an opportunity for the chorale to sing at St. Patrick's on Fifth Avenue. The largest Catholic Gothic cathedral in the U.S., St. Patrick's has high standards, and many groups audition for the few slots available, Davis said.
St. Patrick's cavernous size and echoing acoustics made singing there a challenge, said alto Barb Hameister. It's at those times that Davis' direction looms even larger, Hameister said, because "you can't listen to each other in the same way that you usually can. It's almost like what you hear has already happened. The conductor has to be your sole focus-- that's the only thing that's true.
"It sounded like the music was being lifted up as we sang."
The chorale as a family
Davis and several members of the chorale said the group has been a joy not only because of the music but because over the past 15 years it has become like a family. "We sing happy birthday to each other, we get cards that we all sign for anything that comes up, we have showers for babies or people getting married. Four couples who met in chamber chorale have ended up getting married," Davis said.
Major performances of the group take place during the holidays and in the spring every year, and Davis hosts a dinner at her home the week following each concert at which the group relaxes together and listens to a recording of the performance. Over the 15 years there have been 30 of these get-togethers, Davis said, which have helped to foster the family feeling.
"I have been made to feel very welcome as a newcomer," said alto Eva Rothman, who joined the chorale in January 2006. "It doesn't feel like a closed club despite how long some people have been in it."
For Barb Hameister the music and the friendships have blended.
"I sometimes have a hard time separating out the musical satisfaction I get from the personal satisfaction--the relationships, the family aspects--because both of those sides have been extremely important to me," Hameister said. "I don't know which of those things I will miss the most."
- Marvilla Davis, director - Alaska Chamber Chorale and adjunct voice instructor, University of Alaska Fairbanks Music Department, firstname.lastname@example.org, (907) 474-5419
- LJ Evans, writer/editor, University Marketing and Publications, email@example.com, (907) 474-6479
Other useful links:
- UAF Music Department
- American Choral Directors Association
- Northland Children's Choir
- Saint Patrick's Cathedral
Musical selections are from A Northern Noel by the Alaska Chamber Chorale.