Tribute: Weston Noble
Weston was one of the most humble characters you could possibly meet. He was a man who dedicated his life to music, to beauty, to vulnerability. As with J.S. Bach, he lived his life with the motto of his alma mater, Luther College, where he taught for 57 years: Soli Deo Gloria (To God Alone the Glory). He was a giant in the choral world, and, I don't think there is anyone who has touched more lives in such a profound and special way. He was a beautiful soul, and one that anyone could count on for anything, whether it was help, advice, a shoulder to cry on, or even someone to joke around with.
Entering college was a major transition for me, at first. I came to Luther College in the fall of 2000 as a young boy of 18, from one of the most rural areas of Northern Wisconsin (and the U.S.). I was the first in my family to go to college. I struggled at the beginning, as I was a small country boy from an even smaller area. I went to the school because, like many, of an encounter (transformation) with Weston. I attended the Dorian Vocal Festival in 1999, and was transformed. The beauty of the Nordic Choir, the humbleness and friendliness of the conductor, and the aura of the campus encapsulated me. To paraphrase the words of one of Weston's favorite arias from Messiah, I was changed (Trumpet Shall Sound). I didn't know what it was then... it was Weston's life calling... sharing the beauty of vulnerability. My soul opened, the music rushed in, and my spirit fed!
My sophomore year provided me an intense class load, and I was only afforded an hour to eat lunch at 3:00 PM. That first day of lunch, I ate in the Oneota Coffee Shop (it has changed now), my favorite place, and following paying, I was waved over to Weston's table, where he was sitting, alone, enjoying a bowl of soup, with a half-sandwich. Turns out, it was his regular lunch time, right before Nordic Choir rehearsals. We had such a wonderful conversation. That first conversation changed my outlook on music, life, and so much more. I never got to tell him the impact of that first lunch together, but I think he knew. I made it a point to have my lunch hour at 3:00 PM for the remainder of my Luther time, about 50-75% of that eating with Weston. He was such a beautiful soul. So thoughtful, quick to listen, never judging, but rather, a person who cared. I learned so much from him, and am the man I am today because of him. Luther was a wonderful education, and the professors and classes were challenging, yet fantastic. But, it was those lunches that I learned the most. About music, about life, about love, about vulnerability, about being.
Weston guided me through the rest of college. My time in Nordic Choir was amazing. The music was transformational. The humble little man was a giant in front of the choir; of knowledge, acceptance, and love. He strived for perfection, not just technically, but emotionally.
He recommended me to continue studying both conducting and voice, which led me to the University of Southern California, studying Vocal Arts, while studying conducting privately with the amazing Paul Salumunovich, and further voice study with the wonderful Nina Hinson.
Weston encouraged seeing the world. After USC, I moved to Korea, for what was supposed to be 6 months to 1 year of experiencing Asia. 1 year turned into 2, which turned into now 12 years here. In that time, I have met my amazing wife, have two beautiful children, a doctorate in choral conducting, have taught as assistant professor at a major choral university, founded a non-profit music organization with 4 choirs, a chamber orchestra, and members from nearly 90 countries, literally thousands of amazing friends through the choirs from literally around the world, and most importantly, I am doing what I love. Because of this man!
I love you Weston. I miss you Weston. I know you are conducting the greatest angelic choirs of heaven, however, not without voice placing them with "My God, How Wonderful Thou Art" first. Rest in Peace, and know that you are always in my thoughts, my heart, and my music.
I debated whether I was going to post this below, but decided to, as these words give a wonderful overview of Weston Noble’s contributions to Choral music. It is an interview with Weston that I conducted February 12, 2014 for my doctoral dissertation, titled "The Lutheran Choral Tradition". In the dissertation, I redefined the definition of the Lutheran Choral Tradition, along with updating the historical progression of the principles, choral sound, and philosophy. Here is that interview script. For those who wish, I will have the full dissertation available soon, on this website.
Ryan: If you had to define the Lutheran Choral Tradition into words, how would you define it?
Weston: How do you define the Luther choral tradition? First is its uniqueness in that F. Melius (Christiansen), when he went to Leipzig and heard the Leipzig Men and Boys choir, he was so enamored by the beautiful tone of the boy sopranos, its purity and its pitch. So when he returned to St. Olaf (College), he announced to the sopranos that from now on “You’re going to sing like boys!” That is the uniqueness that set them apart.
Ryan: You said this uniqueness set them apart – how would you characterize that?
Weston: Well, they were the only choir in the country that sings with a straight tone.
Ryan: Great. Now, that was the one question that I wanted to ask about general Lutheran Choral Tradition, and most of what I’d like to ask is specifically related to you and your work here at Luther (College), because you worked for 57 years with Nordic Choir. So, one of my questions is how, when you were first starting at Luther, how would you define the sound of Nordic Choir, how would you define the Lutheran Choral Tradition here at Luther, at the beginning? If we think about it in three stages, maybe your beginning stage, your middle and your late stage.
Weston: There wasn’t a beginning stage in the sense that Luther was co-ed only in 1936, and so when I came it was the Scholacantorum (conducted by Theodor Hoelty-Nickel) which was the men’s choir, and Women’s Chorus (conducted by Clara Hoyt). So that’s when I started to understand there had been two year choral tradition under (Sigvart) Steen who graduated from both Luther and St. Olaf and I was going to think to tie it in to your earlier question.
Ryan: I know you’re heavily influenced beginning with Fred Waring and Pennsylvanians. How did that evolve and change from your beginning to your middle stages and later on to your later stages at Nordic?
Weston: I heard Robert Shaw Chorale sing at the University of Northern Iowa and the added vibrancy and incredible sense of rhythm was a compelling factor. And at the same time I realized that we’d be going out and singing to audiences that had heard St. Olaf and Concordia (College), so that was always at the back of my mind.
Ryan: By having that in the back of your mind, how did that affect you and your style of teaching at Nordic, and your preparation?
Weston: I think it always gave me a sense of reserve. I was affected by the early years at St. Olaf. F. Melius had to pick his ideal soprano and the other (sopranos) who came the closest were in, and I just thought that opposites, the right opposites put together, end up making a warm, more natural sound.
Ryan: When did you develop your style of voice placement?
Weston: Day one.
Ryan: So right away at the very beginning of Nordic?
Weston: Yes. I realized that I didn’t fully understand the approach that Paul (Christiansen) and Olaf (Christiansen) were using, but I knew the end result. And it was pleasing.
Ryan: Since you brought up Paul and Olaf Christiansen, how did your teaching style, how did your musical sense, how was it similar to theirs, and along those lines, how was it different?
Weston: Well, it was similar in that I naturally, I found voices who did not have to be manipulated. My first year there were two altos and so I asked Gertrude how do you blend with Gwen, and her answer was “I don’t know, I just try to sound like her.” I knew that was wrong because it was denying the individual voice. The reserve of the Christiansen style was always holding me in check from being as individualistic, yet vibrant as Shaw. Am I making sense?
Ryan: In your opinion, how else did that benefit the choir and the singers? Are there any other factors that would contribute?
Weston: Well, it was to a degree of an (individualization) that I would allow, that’s getting there? And it was my inner ear with the Fred Waring’s beautiful rich sound that was always present, but there was always the struggle in my mind. My inner struggle...
It was about 1960 I sat in on one of (Olaf) Christiansen’s workshops and I was affirmed at what I felt his goal was to be, but I just couldn’t shake that natural Fred Waring sound. And I definitely approached rhythm quite dramatically differently.
Ryan: Dramatically differently from the Christiansens? How so?
Weston: Yes. The necessity of the upbeat is the basis of the phrase. Not just the downbeat. The magic of music lies in the upbeat.
Ryan: If you had to put your definition onto rhythm, what is it?
Weston: Very simple, the magic of music lies in the upbeat. That’s it.
Ryan: Going along with your definitions, what would be then your definition of blend?
Weston: Blend is the unified sound without robbing the natural richness. That could be it there.
Ryan: Would you please talk about your thought process behind your approach to preparing your choir for blend, for vibrancy, for rhythm, just preparing your choirs, your approach at preparing choirs, specifically Nordic Choir?
Weston: Well, the first step had to be placement. Unified but not robbed of its (individualization). The second place would be rhythm. And Shaw‘s definition of rhythm was not just timing, but it was timing and space.
Ryan: Do you agree with Shaw’s statement that rhythm is the most important idea for blend?
Weston: I’ll go a long way towards that way, yeah.
Ryan: How did Nordic Choir’s sound evolve over the years?
Weston: A lot of it was natural because we kept getting more and more better voices which then presented the problem of how to handle larger voices and how to handle greater degree of vibrato. And now that opera is so strong at Luther.
Ryan: If you had to list the most important attributes or aspects in your mind for choir, anything, what would they be?
Weston: Music must dance, and that’s rhythm. And so how do you do? A sense of space, brought about by the upbeat going to the downbeat.
Ryan: You’re talking about arsic versus thetic.
Weston: Well it’s arsis and thesis both (now he sings it). The sense is basic.
Ryan: So it’s definitely rhythm?
Weston: Well, the degree that one uses quartets. I had done a workshop at a Shaw thing and as I was telling about quartets and I said this could be tenors, this could be altos, tenors or basses or whatever, I had certain signals and Olaf came in the next day and did his and said “How did you keep them together with quartets? I suppose you had to devise some system!” and they just broke into laughter because it was just totally the opposite. But that’s where you learn.
Ryan: You’re talking about your mixed formation, right?
Ryan: What do you think the benefits of the quartets were?
Weston: Freedom. Well, the kids loved it so much.
Ryan: Now, you say freedom. In your mixed formation of quartets, what do you feel allowed the freedom that wasn’t as apparent in standard, blocked formation?
Weston: Pitch oftentimes improves.
Ryan: Why do you believe that is? Do you think it might just be because of a better awareness of all the various parts around?
Weston: Certainly. And they’re not trying so hard to blend with the same part.
Ryan: If you had to define a technique that’s in the Lutheran Choral Tradition that would be consistent throughout, say, Concordia, St. Olaf, Luther, Augustana, and maybe even PLU and Wartburg (Colleges), if you had to think of some sort of technique or common ideal, what would it be?
Weston: How you approach rhythm.
Ryan: Talk to me about the importance of the text in the music, for yourself and for the Lutheran Choral Tradition in general.
Weston: How could you ever get emotion in the tone if you don’t have a text that provides imagination? I talked quite a bit about this in Ohio (Ohio Music Educators Workshop). I had band and orchestra directors there and so we were... that’s when I had the band when Fred Nyline would go to Japan and we were learning the “Hounds of Spring”. There’s no text for anything like that. It’s an ABA, and the first part was (singing) and more predominantly woodwinds. And then the middle part was a beautiful English horn solo, very melodic, and the last part was more bright, more brilliant, more brass (singing). We had gotten it so they could play it quite well. Very well. So the president of the band came to band (rehearsal) and said can I tell you a story? Can I tell the band a story? Well I guess so. Once there was a little dog that was going to join with the hunt for the first time, and when he was getting ready for the hunt, he was jolly and full of excitement and finally, he was just a bit too young, so he sees a tree and goes over to take a nap, and then hears the foxes again and wakes up and so he just runs at the fox with new zeal. Okay, band, here’s the downbeat. Didn’t say a word. They never played it better. Why? In their imaginations, they saw this little dog. And it may not have been the same story, but that’s exactly what my point was in Ohio. There’s no way that you can get emotion in the tone except through the gift of imagination. Well, the bands have a bigger challenge, that’s all there is to it. But the choirs have the text.
You know, we were singing a very close chord one time at Nordic, like F, G flat, A flat, B flat, C and I said to Nordic “What does this remind you of? What does this remind you of? This gal raised her hand, “Oh I know, it’s Monet! It’s Monet!” I knew right away what that meant. But what did it mean to the physics major? Nothing! So we talked a little bit about what that meant. But you as a director have to know what is it that makes it right or makes it wrong. There’s two very simple things. Either the note is too long or too short. Or it’s too loud or too soft. You never get the big crescendo in the Impressionist period.
So the text is just indispensible. But it’s got to have a text that has the use of imagination. And if you are going to put down the defining technique at Nordic Choir, it’s the technique of imagination.
We studied this one time at Minnesota ACDA (American Choral Directors Association) and I asked if they used mainly cognitive, you know what I mean by that, affective, or kinesthetic. 98% of their hands lit up on cognitive!
Ryan: Where do you see the Lutheran Choral Tradition heading, musically?
Weston: If Shaw were still around, I’d know what to say. When I present baroque phrasing to (conductors), it’s pretty brand new. Well of course, there will be repertoire. A little multiculturalism. And now we’re starting to do music from all over the world.
Weston: Well, I think that somebody, and hopefully your paper will... Why did the Lutheran Choral Tradition become so popular? They were hearing a choir that could sing in tune, otherwise it was Bach oratorio societies. And when St. Olaf filled the Metropolitan Opera House in 1920, they never heard such a unified sound, ever! Then in the late 20’s there was an article that came out in NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) “Don’t go to hear them, they just ruin your voice.” Well, so you read that, what’s your inclination?
Ryan: You’re going to go listen to them.
Weston: That’s exactly what happened. Just what life is. I’m going to go back to this, but I can’t help it. First of all, why did the St. Olaf’s Choir start to tour? And why did the people like to go? Because they were singing “O Day Full of Grace”, and they were singing “Beautiful Savior”, and they were singing “Praise to the Lord”. All these hymns that came out of the hymn book! And so therefore these Norwegians were hearing their music, and done well. And the next step is when they could start touring, why did the administration at St. Olaf support it so? Why did they allow them to take their exams early so that they could have more time to tour? Was it just money? It was more than that. ‘Cause they were feeding their native people. So I was asked this question one time in Pennyslvania, “What’s so special about the Midwest?” and I said, “It was tradition.”
Ryan: Now what would you say is your greatest contribution to the choral art and the Lutheran Choral Tradition?
Weston: Imagination and freedom. In everything in a sense, there’s a flagship and that is St. Olaf. The minute that they succeed in anything, or the minute that Concordia succeeds in something, or the minute that Luther does this concert for parents in September, it’s copied, it’s copied immediately. That Parent’s Day Concert in September, it’s just incredible, 3 weeks after the kids have gotten here, there’s no place to sit! (in the concert) They get such excitement. Our Christmas concerts, they can’t get away from it. And what happens is they’re just sold, you know.
Ryan: What do you think is the effect of the Luther Choral Tradition on the modern day choral sound in the United States?
Weston: I think it’s less and less. You’re going to ACDA (American Choral Directors Association) conventions more and more, you hear the community choirs. And I’m all for it, I think it’s just wonderful what they’re doing, and yet at the same time there will still be touring of the Lutheran groups.
Ryan: Do you think that the sound of the Lutheran Choral Tradition had a large affect on the choral sound of other choirs?
Weston: I don’t think so because most of them are more operatic. But be sure you go back as much as you can to what it was in the beginning, and of course it was with F. Melius - you will sing like boys! Why did that take a hold? The St. Olaf approach (with F. Melius Christiansen) had to take place, absolutely had to take place because they had to prove that choirs could sing in tune. So their’s was pitch, pitch, pitch. In that you’ve got that (precision). But then Shaw comes along and rhythm is not timing, it’s basic. Shaw just took the Lutheran Choral Tradition and just ...
Ryan: Ripped it apart almost, turned it inside out.
Weston: Yeah, for once you learned that everything didn’t have to be a capella. And rhythm is incredibly important intensity. Thank goodness I got in on that. In other words, it was different.
Ryan: Any final thoughts?
Weston: Well, the Lutheran Choral Tradition surely is not dead.
Weston: And it’s the touring that does it.