This man was famous for the manner in which he generated choral excellence. Of course, some of his behavior was severe and harsh which he addressed in later life. In fact, he made specific comment on his harsh manner in the interview which we published in a recent tribute "festschrift" (Thomas House Publications.) But there is a plethora of stories about Roger Wagner which we would like to collect. We request your assistance. Most stories would come first-hand. Please indicate your personal involvement. If the story is second-hand please indicate that as well.
All replys will be posted for the pleasure of readers. Thank you for any contribution you might be able to make.
Dr. William Belan
Roger Wagner Center for Choral Studies
California State University, Los Angeles
5151 State University Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90032
I have some fond personal memories of Roger Wagner from 1968, when I attended the church music conference at Boys Town, Neb. I think he used to be there every year with his entire chorale and, of course, was one of the biggest of several major names to participate.
He conducted the conference in performances of the Bloch Sacred Service and the Bach St. John Passion, among other works.
His personality was very strong and colorful. He was passionately outspoken but also had a marvelous sense of humor. There were many troublemakers at this conference who wanted various types of liturgical trash in the name of "the spirit of Vatican II" and seemed determined to throw sand in the gears when it came to the conference's purpose of promoting the finest music. I understand there was even an unauthorized celebration of mass in one of the chapels one evening by a bunch of guitar-strumming renegades. Incidents like that probably contributed to this being the penultimate church music conference of the long series at Boys Town, and their being discontinued was a great loss to American church music.
I remember his efforts to get certain sopranos to sing with less vibrato. He told one after briefly hearing her, "you're ready for the Met!" (which was not meant as a compliment). He disliked the English mass ("Lord-have-mercy-lord-have-mercy-lord-have-mercy Christ-have-mercy-Christ-have-mercy-Christ-have-mercy Lord-have-mercy-Lord-have-mercy-Lord-have-mercy", he gasped, all in one breath, and then panted for about five seconds.) He could also be very severe with his own Chorale singers if he suspected that they had not done their assigned individual practice to familiarize themselves with new music.
In a number of discussions in which revisionist conferees challenged the standards he stood for, he often invoked "Pope Pius X, SAINT Pius X" in his encyclical Motu Proprio. Someone denied that it is any longer possible to hold up universal standards of beauty and excellence because various people find various music beautiful. His response to this was especially memorable. He retorted, "You wanna bet?" and then likened the pure counterpoint and harmonies of a Palestrina mass to a brilliant sunset, whose beauty is self-evident to all, regardless of their level of education, their understanding of what makes sunsets, or experience of sunsets being used by artists. What is less universal, he said, than recognizing beauty is desiring beauty. Personally, I think he was more right than wrong in this. In her book The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand said something rather similar. She observed that if you ask various people to describe the emotions evoked by a piece of music, there will be a great deal of agreement in their analyses. Yet there may be great disagreement as to whether the listeners enjoy the music and the emotions which it represents. And in a discussion about the function of art in a Bitnest list in which I am active (not made up primarily of artists), I opined that the purpose of art is to capture and transmit beauty. Many people disagreed, some saying quite baldly that their favorite art is deliberately ugly.
I also recall a wonderful anecdote, apparently true, about the boychoir school he used to have in California. A British "adjudicator" was visiting, who told Roger that the best choir he ever heard was that of Westminster Cathedral, and was particularly impressed by their ability to sight-read a polyphonic mass in performance.
It so happened that a package arrived on Roger's desk that day. He opened it in the visitor's presence, saying, "Oh, what have we here.... a new mass! We have been waiting for this music a long time. Why not sing it tomorrow?" Actually, these were replacement copies for one of the choir's most familiar settings, such a staple in their repertoire that they had worn out the original copies from long use and the characteristic pranks of the boys such as cutting out the letter "M" from "Mass" on the cover. But, not to be outdone by the choir of Westminster Cathedral, he would not inform the adjudicator of this fact.
Sunday morning, he passed out the new copies to the choir with instructions to read this beautiful new mass very carefully and do it as much justice as possible. And the performance indeed went well. Roger noticed the guest taking a particular interest in the ravishing singing of a solo boy during one of the movements.
Afterword, the adjudicator gave a glowing assessment of their accuracy, attention to dynamics, and spirit and declared that their performance was just as good as what Westminster would have done sight reading a new mass. And then he continued, "But one of you has done even more. Never in my life have I witnessed the astonishing feat of a boy sight-reading a difficult solo with the music held upside down!"
I don't imagine that there will be very many such anecdotes in a scholarly Festschrift. But they are part of what has made him an unforgettable personality, at least to this delighted conferee at an impressionable age. We must certainly give thanks for his work and lament the passing of the environment in which he pursued it.
In 1967, Roger did the Meadowbrook Music Festival at Oakland U in Michigan. Wallie Collins was the coordinator. I was studying and singing there, and among other things we did the Bach "St Matthew Passion". We had a Saturday 9 am rehearsal, and since Roger had griped about singers being on time, he was "on the warpath" for anyone late. About 9:10, in came a nun [a singing nun?!] who sang in the chorus. Knowing Roger's eye for females, it should be noted that this nun was about 22, and very, very pretty. She came in, gave Roger one of her golden smiles, and sat down. Roger stopped, stared at her for awhile, and then sighed and said,"I think that we should now sing, 'For what has this been wasted?'".
As a friend, student, and friend of Roger's, I claim to have had the good fortune to have been on of the few conductors with whom he traded podiums, he to Kennedy Center and me to Dorothy Chandler. During on of our planning sesions he visited my wife and I in suburban Washington, DC.
We were sitting on the back patio having a glass of wine (my choice of wine always brought ridicule from Roger) and he his pipe. A woman walked past and stopped to ask if we had seen her dog, which had run off. We would know the dog, she said, because it had one leg cut off in an accident. Roger puffed for a moment and asked, "Which leg was it?"
My first meeting with Roger was at Meadowbrook in '68. I too was impressed by Roger's musicallity and wit. I remember the stories of his boy's choir and having to help them go to the bathroom. This was not part of our musical training! Roger could throw some tantrums and sometimes they were well deserved. But, after one of these sessions, we performed better than ever. He could elicit the most beautiful tones from the women (after getting the vibrato out). He could also make us all feel that we were truly muscians and that we could do just about anything.
I performed with Roger in LA with the Master Chorale. I remember one concert where we were at the climax of some movement. The orchestra was playing at its max, the chorus was singing majestically, and Roger was conducting with fervor. At this time, his tie and shirt buttons started to come undone. Without missing a beat, he was able to fix his shirt and move on to the next movement.
This incident occured about 1975. I accompanied a close friend, Dr. Thomas Sheets to a Chorale rehearsal one spring day. We arrived somewhat early and saw Roger with a couple of nubile female singers. Evidently he was giving them some sort of informal audition. The young ladies acted rather pert and giggly while Roger (who seemed vastly ancient by this time) had a wolfly grin plastered across his face. Then one of the young nubiles made the mistake of apologising and mumbling something about her voice lessons.
"Singers!" growled the old man. "Singers! They're all alike!" They all spend twenty years and fifty thousand dollars driving a hundred miles a week to learn Caro mio ben!
I attended an open rehearsal of Roger conducting, I think it was on the campus at UCLA. I'm not sure if it was the RW Chorale or a UCLA group. He was not pleased with the lyricism of the soprano section and he railed at them, "Sing like angels, you bitches!" . . . and they did!
Back in the 80's when I was attending CSULA, Dr. William Belan invited Roger Wagner to come and conduct the concert choir in a performance of Faure's Requiem, one of my favorite choral pieces to sing. After the performance, Mr. Wagner was to hold auditions for openings to sing in his yearly tour. Many of us were lined up to sing for the great man. I remember it was my turn to enter the hall and sing my prepared oratorio piece, "Oh Thou that tellest" from Messiah (in my mezzo days). I was worried throughout the audition knowing that I was to travel to Graz Austria that summer to take part at the American Institute of Musical Studies. I knew there was a conflict but I was told to sing anyway. As I finished my song, I silently waited for Mr. Wagner to speak.
Roger: (Voice booming from the back of the hall) Are you available between the dates of ___ to ___?"
Me: (Mouth-open but silent absolutely tongue-tied)
Roger: (Really loud this time) I DON'T CARE IF YOU SOUND LIKD LEONTYNE PRICE. IF YOU CAN'T GO ON TOUR WITH ME I DON'T HAVE ANY USE FOR YOU!"
I should have been terrified, but instead I was rather giddy to be compared to my absolute hero Ms. Price. I apologized to him and explained my situation. He growled something unintelligible as I walked off the stage.
Epilogue: When I returned from my five weeks in Austria, I learned that Roger called my parents every week (sometimes twice a week) for the entire time I was away, and demanded to speak with me. My parents got quite chummy with Roger as a result.