Reinventing the Classics: How conductor Marie Bucoy-Calavan ‘sells’ UAkron’s choral program

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Marie Bucoy-Calavan, the University of Akron’s choir director, is destroying stereotypes that are normally associated with millennials, the arts and choral music. Through passion and hard work, she is reaching into the past to grab music from as far back as the 15th century. Better yet, people are jumping aboard this bandwagon to go for the ride.

by Roger Riddle

(Photo by Svetla Morrison)
UA choral conductor Marie Bucoy-Calavan (Photo by Svetla Morrison)

Growing up between Los Angeles and Orange counties in southern California, Marie Bucoy-Calavan’s first musical memory was of her as a toddler turning a chair over and using the legs as a microphone. She says her parents still have a picture of that moment. And though they may find it amusing now, it was probably the first sign that her parents would have some concern about their daughter’s future ambitions.

Her parents were both chemists. As Bucoy-Calavan grew, she leaned more and more towards music. Although they supported her passion, allowing her to take flute lessons through high school and dabble in the French horn, they dreamed of a future for their daughter in the fields of science and technology. So much so, that they sent her to a technical high school.

It only intensified her pursuit of music.

You would think that someone who has become so entrenched in classical music would have that style as the foundation of her musical tastes, but that’s not what she listened to growing up.

“My colleagues in my doctorate said their parents brought them up on the Mahler symphonies and the Beethoven symphonies, and I did not grow up that way whatsoever,” she said. Her parents played ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s pop music, and she lists ABBA, the Mamas and the Papas, and Michael Jackson among her early favorites.

The transition to classical music began when she joined the choir in high school. Because of her interest, the choir director started giving her conducting and music theory lessons on the side.

By the time she began college at California State University, Fullerton, she was placed in the graduate choir due to her ability to read music well.

“Once I sang and I felt my voice get lost in these really mature singers’ sound, I went, ‘This is it, right here’,” she remembers of the moment that set her firmly in the world of classical music.

“I think it’s so cool that when you sing in a choir and everything is so perfectly in tune and so perfectly blended that the sound that comes out is not just your own. You’re an intricate part of this fabric that’s so much bigger than yourself, creating a sound that only a group of people can make.”

And this was just her first day of classes as an undergraduate freshman.

Surprisingly, she almost quit the program in her last year of studies. She had been competing as a ballroom dancer and received a job offer as an instructor. On top of that, she was a vocal major but really didn’t enjoy singing solo.

The memory of singing with the choir was still strong in her mind, and when she told her professor and mentor, Robert Istad, of her plans to leave the program, he convinced her to stay in school and do her thesis as conductor instead of as a soloist.

Istad was young, talented, and brand new as the director of choral studies at the university. After convincing her to stay and complete her undergraduate degree, she became his first conducting graduate student taking on a Master’s degree in choral conducting. Since Istad was so new to the program, there was a sense of the blind leading the blind, however he promised her that she would learn a lot about how to develop a collegiate choral program really quickly.

Bucoy-Calavan stresses how important those days were once she took on the position of concert choir director at the University of Akron. Now she has a sense of history repeating itself as she takes on her first graduate student while she is building the program.

When she started with the university, there were 22 members in the concert choir. It had grown to 41 members by the end of her first year. At the start of this semester, there were 86 members.

Marie Bucoy-Calavan in her element. (Photo by Svetla Morrison)
Marie Bucoy-Calavan in her element. (Photo by Svetla Morrison)

When people see those numbers, she is typically asked, “How do you sell a choral program?” She says you sell excellence and musical integrity. She holds her students to a high standard and they all jump to exceed it. She now sees students meeting at 9 am to practice on their own, and when she ends rehearsal, they break into groups and practice more. Her passion is infectious.

Because of the students’ passion, they have formed a chamber choir that has been invited to sing with the Cleveland Orchestra during its Christmas performance, and award-winning composer Daniel Elder was commissioned to compose a work for the University of Akron choir.

With all the bad press the university has received of late, Bucoy-Calavan hopes Akron’s arts community will take note of the great story unfolding around her students.

“The concert choir has quadrupled in a year,” she points out. “Not only has the choral program burst open at University of Akron, but the students – these millennials – are showing the community, through the quality of their music that they’re not the stereotypical millennials.”

The Summit Choral Society asked Bucoy-Calavan to guest conduct their spring concert last year based on the success of the work she had been doing at the university. She chose to perform Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass” and shortly thereafter, they approached her about becoming the artistic director of the society. The fresh ideas that she brings to the table help produce concerts that captivate all ages.

She has one of these fresh ideas coming in April. A concert entitled “Dance With Me” will draw upon her experience in conducting and her passion for ballroom dancing. “We are engaging the University of Akron ballroom dance team, and two professional couples from Viva Dance in Cleveland and we are going to do choral waltzes by Brahms.”

While the choir sings the dancers will waltz and when the concert concludes, the director of Viva Dance will teach a small ballroom class so that the concert goers can immerse themselves in the experience. It is this type of creative thinking that the Summit Choral Society is banking will shine a new light on a music that has come to be perceived as stuffy and uptight.

“It’s not 1860. I realize that, but the music from 1860 can absolutely still be relevant today,” Bucoy-Calavan said. “I think the music that was written back then is just that good. Only good music can be preserved that long. It’s just as relevant as Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad.’ It’s still around. The Beatles, their music is still around. ‘I’m A Barbie Girl’, people know but I don’t think it’s going to last.”

 

Roger Riddle does cool things.

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