In some towns, filling the position of choral teacher is a “meh” task.
Westport is not “some towns.”
When Justin Miller suddenly resigned as Staples’ instructor in August — after 2 years on the job — administrators were under the gun. They had to hire someone to oversee the high-profile position — teaching choral music, directing the choir and elite Orphenians, creating memorable music for the Candlelight Concert.
And they had to do it with the school year just a couple of weeks away.
Fortunately, the position was posted the same day Luke Rosenberg expanded his job search to Connecticut.
The Michigan native had moved to Brooklyn the month before. His spouse had gotten a graphic design job in New York. Neither had ever lived in the city — or knew much about the East Coast.
“I thought finding a job would be easy,” says Rosenberg, who had served as choral director in Caledonia, a Grand Rapids suburb with a great performing arts program and first-class facility he calls “upper middle class like Westport, but more spread out.”
But there was a hiring freeze in New York City, and leads proved fruitless. Eventually, a friend asked if Luke was looking in Connecticut.
“I had no idea it was so close,” he says.
He saw the just-posted position in Westport. He knew nothing about the town. But he did his research — including reading every page of the school district’s website. Photos of Staples reminded him of Caledonia High (click here to see why). When he interviewed on a Friday, he was prepared.
On Monday he met with superintendent of school Elliott Landon. (That’s proof of the importance Westport places on its choral director.) Almost immediately, he was offered the job.
Rosenberg flew back to Michigan to get his car. He drove east quickly, and saw his choral room for the first time.
There was music to order, a rehearsal schedule to arrange, a program to lead.
The Staples choral program has a rich history. In 2010, the elite group celebrated its 50th anniversary.
One of Rosenberg’s first acts was to add events. A fall “parlor concert” of choral music was added (it’s tonight in the auditorium, at 7:30). A new spring concert will include all the choirs.
Rosenberg also started learning about Staples’ music tradition. The choral program — including the 72-year-old Candlelight Concert, which flourished under George Weigle and his successor, Alice Lipson — are among the town jewels.
“Tradition is important,” Rosenberg says. “Especially in a close community, it’s important to keep links to the past.” Rest assured, Westport: the blue robes, “Welcome Yule” processional, production number — all will remain.
However, Rosenberg adds, it’s important for a new director to add his own spin.
He hopes to bring “a sense of Cambridge — like an old English candlelight ceremony” to the concert. “It’s beautiful,” he says. “You want to let the music wash over you.”
The Candlelight Concert is timeless. This shot, from 2011, was taken by Lynn U. Miller — a Staples choir member in the early 1970s.
Rosenberg plans to reintroduce downtown caroling. His singers will carol in New York too, on December 21. And he will add a performance, by Orphenians and the chamber orchestra, of Schubert’s “Mass in G.”
Rosenberg has already made a few changes. He’s opened Orphenians up to all grade levels. (It was previously restricted to juniors and seniors.)
“It’s an awesome ensemble,” he says of the elite traveling choir. “I want to bring in the best musicians — whatever their grade. The better the ensemble, the more enticing it will be to everyone.”
With 33 singers — the most in years — it’s perfectly balanced: 8 basses, 8 tenors, 8 altos and 9 sopranos.
Rosenberg is understated, but his enthusiasm is palpable. “Orphenians can be fantastic,” he says. “They have the potential to blow people out of the water.”
He recently met Alice Lipson, his predecessor. “She’s wonderful,” he notes. “She was so great and helpful, especially with Candlelight.” He has not yet met the legendary Dr. Weigle.
Michael Sixsmith, Mikell Washington and “Santa.”. The Candlelight Concert includes both traditional music and a jazzy production number. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
Lipson brought multicultural music to Staples. Rosenberg hopes to expand it. He envisions a spring concert with music from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America.
He’d also like to resurrect some of the international tours, pioneered by Weigle and continued by Lipson.
“Change is always difficult,” he acknowledges. His students are “very respectful,” but he could tell in the beginning they were uncertain what lay ahead.
“Once they realized I know what I’m talking about, they understood we can do great things together, and we started working well,” he says. “And once they heard a really good chord locked in, there were goosebumps.”
Westport audiences, he hopes, will feel those goosebumps too.