Jennifer Rodgers has been selected as the Everett Chorale’s new artistic director and conductor, the first woman to hold that title in the Snohomish County community choir’s 53-year history. Her first concert will be at the group’s December concert.
Here she talks about the impact music has had on her life, why she didn’t pursue a career in opera despite getting her master’s degree in it, and how she hopes the chorale can not only perform for the community, but have an impact on social issues as well, such as homelessness.
How did you experience music as a child?
I was singing before I could talk. Our whole family sings and we would laughingly be called the “Von Rodgers Family Singers” when we sang together. This is a “Sound of Music” reference. (I have two younger sisters, so a total of three girls.) We would sing in the car. My parents sung in choirs their whole lives. We were singing in children’s choirs. We have a whole repertoire of camp and church songs. We’ll sing “I Love the Mountains,” and Alleluias.
Did you initially go to college with idea of pursuing music?
I did. I went to Ithaca College in 1989 as a vocal performance major. I had taken voice lessons since eighth grade. I was lucky to have good teachers. When you start taking voice lessons, you start going for classical music. That means you’re headed for opera. All of a sudden that’s what I wanted to do.
My parents talked to my teachers and made sure that was a feasible thing for me to do. Then on to the University of Maryland and a master’s in opera theater.
But then the direction of your musical career changed?
I headed off to be an opera star. I found out pretty quickly that I might be capable, but it didn’t match my personality at all. It was very hierarchical. A lot of ego and a lot of jostling for position. When I got into the professional world of opera, it was kind of dog-eat-dog. It wasn’t that I couldn’t compete. I had no interest in doing that.
What did you do instead?
At the time I also was singing at a piano bar in a jazz club. At the opera, you couldn’t see past the footlights. I would go to the piano bar and I would stand up and sing. You would watch the people in front of you cry, de-stress or energize. You knew you were having a really tangible impact on them.
I’ve also led choirs since high school. I had a string of conducting positions all the way through my master’s degree.
Why sing in a community choir?
There are countless studies that talk about the incredible combination of needs that music alone meets. Physiologically it lowers our blood pressure and engages our mind. They use it with dementia patients to help them retain agency. Music can trigger specific memories and using music can help people with retaining and recalling memories. That is a sense of self that they can recognize and hold onto and something that can help them engage with others.
Making music with other people activates every single part of your body. It’s a challenge for your body, and your breath, and brain, your emotions. And you get to do that in an atmosphere where you all share the same love, all doing that together.
Tell me about your position with Vienna Choral Society in Virginia.
In 2007, I had been teaching adult voices and leading choirs. One of my students sang in a large community chorus that was in a time of crisis and looking for an artistic director. I got that job. I was with them seven seasons. The only reason I left them was to come out here and get a doctor in Musical Arts at the University of Washington.
How will you approach your job with the Everett Chorale?
The No. 1 thing that’s important to me is that what we’re doing feels relevant. It’s great people want to come and sing and have that in their life. I want the singers to take that and do something for the community besides entertainment. It needs to have impact.
With the Vienna Choral Society we had a concert for a cause every year. I’ll do that with Everett. As I meet people in the community I ask what needs attention and what people care about.
I’m going to start with one of the biggest ones — doing something with the homeless population. I created a music program for one of the tent cities on the University of Washington campus. Tent City 3 was one of their 90-day residencies. It was the first time the UW made that possible.
It happened in January, February and March of last year. It was cold, wet weather. The residents are transient. I’d bring a group of three to four people down every week, and we would sometimes sing and sometimes they would sing with us.
Any particular piece you look forward to performing?
I want to introduce them to some of the newer choral composers that are out there. I’m an extremely eclectic choral music lover. I love that in a community choir you can sing the classic masters, jazz, coffee house favorites and new stuff.
How does it feel to replace conductor Lee Mathews?
I am very cognizant of the fact I’m coming in after an era. For Lee Mathews to be there 25 years is an era. Without all the work he has put into this group, it would not even exist for me to come in and do what I find to be exciting.
You have a really busy schedule. How do you like to relax?
My wife, Nancy Gregory, and I love to travel and love local travel. We can be on a new street and it’s new territory for us. In the Pacific Northwest we’re just in a complete playground with the scenery, hiking and the wildflowers. Anytime we can get out a mountain or ferry all the better.
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org.