Bradley Wells leads Williams Chamber Choir to new heights

The choir that performed at Monday’s MLK Inter-Faith Worship service in Chapin Hall had the audience’s attention for only a few minutes. However, the performance was a sneak preview of changes on the way for the world of singing at Williams in the next few years. That’s because the group was organized by Bradley Wells, the new Chamber Choir director who has been working since his arrival at Williams last fall to revitalize the choral program on campus.

The MLK festival choir drew members from the Williams Chamber Choir and from several student a cappella groups – a cooperative effort unprecedented in the memory of current students. Wells said that he hoped the performance would be “an opportunity for singers from a lot of different groups to enjoy singing together and to contribute in the spirit of community to a celebration that is largely about community.”

Before Wells’ arrival this year, the Williams choral program was directed by Dr. E. Wayne Abercrombie, who commuted from Amherst to rehearse with the choir on a part-time basis. Richard Giarusso ’00, the Choir’s student director, said that Abercrombie was well-liked, but that “the situation was not an ideal one for the choral program. [It was unusual] for a school like Williams to have just a part-time director.” Not until this year was the music department able to put together funds for a full-time resident director position.

The benefits have been immediate. “In one semester Brad has already become far more integrated into the Williams community than [Abercrombie] could ever be just coming in from U. Mass,” said Chamber Choir member Grace Pritchard ’00.

Wells’ official debut came with the Chamber Choir’s fall concert on Dec. 3, a performance that chair of the music department David Kechley called impressive. “Musically he’s already shown he’s on the ball. He’s got all kinds of great ideas,” he said.

The program included a wide variety of music, ranging from late medieval and Renaissance sacred music to a contemporary Mongolian piece, and featuring overtone singing and Zambezi Marimba Band drumming for pieces from Australia and Nigeria. Record arts editor Judd Greenstein ’01 wrote in his December 7 column that he was “totally encouraged by this first effort, both in the quality of the ensemble and the risks that they seem to be willing to take.”

Wells has been leading choirs since he was in high school, and has directed college groups across the country, from Yale and Trinity to Berkeley and most recently California State at Chico. “The educational aspect of music-making is really appealing to me, and always has been. When things are new to people there’s an excitement, an inherent thrill about music-making at that level. And I like the student-teacher relationship.”

Wells’ position is not tenure-track, but his contract is indefinitely renewable, according to Kechley. Wells says that he hopes to stay at Williams for at least several years. “I’d like to show that choral music can really thrive at a school that’s both as small but as richly talented as Williams…. If there’s enough attention and hard work given to the program we could really excel.”

There are high hopes for what Wells may do with a choral program that has struggled in recent years. “The primary challenge is simply building the program, getting the numbers up,” he said. Kechley expressed his desire for Wells “to build it to the point where it’s got a life of its own. Last year was a low year, in terms of numbers. From this point we build.”

This fall the College announced that, for the first time, half-credits would be offered for individual instrumental instruction. However, Music Department ensembles still operate on an extracurricular basis. Giarusso said that during the interviewing process for the new Choir director, “all of the candidates, including Brad, were kind of astonished by the idea that people did not get credit for singing in choir.”

Wells spoke in favor of offering credit for choir. “I’m hoping that the school will be ready for it in the next few years.” He added, “in a performance group you learn both skills and literature. One way you show your knowledge of a piece of music is to perform it musically. I would argue that that kind of knowledge is actually closer to the heart of the work than looking at it from a distance.”

Although a number of issues are raised by the question of offering credit for ensemble work, there is support for the idea, and the Music Department may propose it in the future. Prof. Kechley commented, “As [Music Department] chair, I think it’s a good idea and we should work on a way to do it. We’re so careful about getting the best people [to direct the ensembles]. These people are teachers. We have to support them in their teaching by making sure there’s a class to teach and everyone’s there.”

The Chamber Choir itself is only two years old. Through the spring of 1998 there were two choirs at Williams: a large Choral Society that included singers from the local community, and a smaller, all-student Chamber Singers group. This year, Wells is focusing his attention on the students in the Chamber Choir. “The door isn’t closed to the community [forever], but it’s important to pay attention to what’s going on with students first,” said Kechley. “[Wells] is letting it evolve on its own.”

However, there has been speculation about expanding the program in the future, something that Giarusso said is “very possible, and within three or four years I don’t think it would be unrealistic to see it.” Wells agreed, and expressed his hope that the choral program might eventually comprise three choirs of different sizes, the largest of which would draw singers from the community as the former Choral Society did. “With the history of the community being involved here it’s important to get back to it and maintain it if we can.”

In addition to his duties as choir director, Wells is also part-time lecturer and artist-in-residence in choral and vocal music. This fall he taught a course in conducting, and provided individual instruction in voice. A singer himself, Wells has worked with groups such as Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and the California Choral Company. He hinted that in future concerts he might include works of his own composition or arrangement.

For next year’s concerts Wells is considering works by Holst and Howells, in addition to more international choral music. With a European tour possibly on the horizon for next spring, Wells said the Choir would work on “demanding, impressive” pieces all year long, and might include a set of American music.

Auditions for the Chamber Choir are held at the beginning of each semester, and Mr. Wells invited all interested students to try out. “[Chamber Choir singers] work hard and are earnest about their pursuits. They’re open-minded, they get excited about what they’re doing, and they’re the core of a program that’s going to become a big, exciting choral organization.”