An Interview With Robert Geary: Master of Choral R&D

Lisa Petrie on October 12, 2009

Robert Geary is expanding the envelope of modern choral music, building a body of repertoire by commissioning and performing new music with his three groups — Volti, the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, and the San Francisco Choral Society. On Oct. 18, the proud papa of Volti celebrates the group’s 30th anniversary with a special CD release and gala. SFCV caught up with him recently for a conversation.

What inspired you to start Volti?

There were a group of us singing in a chamber choir in the mid-1970s that wanted to go in a different direction and decided to form our own group. Since I had the experience, I was asked to conduct. The organization was a coalition of people who are now some of the Bay Area’s leading choristers and conductors — it was really a seminal group of peers, all in their mid-20s and early 30s.

What sorts of changes has Volti undergone in the past 30 years?

Volti didn’t have an artistic identity at its first concert in 1979. We sang Bach, which we all adored. Within a year or two, we were experimenting with the more-esoteric works of Benjamin Britten, and rather quickly we had minor commissions, composers approaching us, and composers in the group, so the new-music identity began to foster itself. Now the choir is professional and more than 90 percent of the programming is new American [music]. Our commissioning program creates an average of six to seven pieces per season, which we perform over our three or four concerts.

Where is Volti headed?

I sometimes refer to Volti as the R&D arm of the choral world. It’s not meant for mass marketing. Volti’s strength is having a program in place that provides a serious opportunity for high-level composers to write what they imagine rather than what they imagine a choir can handle. I don’t think they get too many outlets like that, and I hope we can sustain it.

That’s a luxury, to exist outside the commercial world.

You use the word luxury, but I say, if the art form is going to renew itself, it’s the essential ingredient. There are a lot of trends in music that don’t interest me at all, yet tend to interest a lot of people. Sometimes I lament the dumbing down of classical music.

How did you get involved in the East Bay Children’s Choir?

I founded the children’s choir in 1982 at the request of Susan Rahl, a friend and administrator. Over time it’s also grown to have a new-music stamp on it, as well. This year, ASCAP gave out five choral Adventurous Programming Awards nationwide. Piedmont got one and Volti got another!

Do you have these kids also sing new music?

Yes, the Ensemble sings music every bit as difficult as Volti [does]. They have had years of training and choir camps, and know discipline. After they won several international competitions with a commissioned piece by Mark Winges, other top choirs around the world, and even the San Francisco Girls’ Chorus, picked up that piece. It was fun to see that happening.

After stints conducting the Baroque Choral Guild and for several churches, why specialize in modern music?

Every choral-music person loves both Bach and the Renaissance. But if you look at the art form as a whole, yes, you have a whole bunch of historical repertoire, but what are you doing that’s reflecting our own experience in the world? What is the art that’s reflecting 2010? Philosophically, I think it’s more important than anything to create and support artistic expression in our own time, or our society falls to its excesses. It’s too decadent, not renewing itself. That philosophy drives me, to a large extent.

What are the challenges of introducing modern music to your amateur choir, the San Francisco Choral Society?

Typically, there is a wide range of skill level — a number of people have studied voice or music, but many more have not, so the composer has to write for this instrument. Because some have not been exposed to this type of music, I try to provide the energy from the podium that encourages them to focus and work hard, while still making it fun. Those members who can suspend their opinions of the music are usually converted by performance time.

Do you still work with your spouse, the pianist and composer Sue Bohlin?

Sue’s career has taken her more in the direction of composing and freelancing as a pianist, so not quite as much as we did, but when we do it’s a strong collaboration.

Why did you choose to live on a houseboat?

I’ve fantasized about living on a boat since my upbringing in New England. We were on the water a lot, sailing, digging clams, swimming, surfing and all. After my previous marriage [Geary has a 28-year-old son from that alliance], I had the opportunity. I bought it in 1988 and I’ve been on it ever since.

What’s in the boat’s name, Dancing Shaman?

It had no name when I bought it. On a tour to Siberia with the children’s choir, I happened to buy an Inuit wooden carving called “The Dancing Shaman.” I realized I had always aspired to be a dancing shaman on some level, so it seemed appropriate.

Of all your contributions to musical life, of which are you most proud?

Volti — having been able to make a contribution at that level, and establishing the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir and its Golden Gate International Choir Festival, sponsored every three years. It brings choirs from around the world to the Bay Area and creates a multicultural mix for a week. It’s the only festival of its kind in the country, and it brings some richness to our community that just wouldn’t be there otherwise. That feels good to me, too.