‘I am here to make some music’
One phone call was all it took for former professional singer Ron Campbell to accept the role of music director and conductor of the Bermuda School of Music's Bermuda Chamber Choir.
His debut concert, 'Eternal Words, Eternal Music', takes place tomorrow and Wednesday night at St Paul's Church in Paget.
Mr Campbell is no stranger to the local music scene, having previously performed with the Bermuda Philharmonic Society and the Gilbert & Sullivan Society.
Asked what led him to accept the leadership of the Bermuda Chamber Choir, the singer said that since his children were now older and more self-sufficient, he had more time to devote to what promises to be a busy appointment.
“The advantage for me is that I am not really out to build a musical career for myself anymore. I had a musical career from which I retired before I [returned] to Bermuda, so now I am here to make some music.”
Mr Campbell aims to take the choir to new heights, and stamp his own seal on its already enviable reputation.
“As a Bermudian, I am excited, honoured, and deeply gratified to be leading this fine musical organisation that is an important part of Bermuda's cultural fabric,” he said.
In terms of repertoire, there will be changes which the music director/conductor believes will prove popular with singers and audiences alike.
The upcoming programme, for example, is devoted to poems by such literary legends as Shakespeare, Shelley, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, and Longfellow, whose words have been set to music by various classical and contemporary composers.
If that sounds potentially dry and boring, think again.
“I am a sucker for melody, and I think any song has to be memorable to be remarkable,” Mr Campbell said. “I like my audience to leave the concert hall humming something. It is the same way in musical theatre or the opera you always leave humming a great song. I don't think music for a chamber choir has to be stuffy, pretentious or high-brow. At the same time I think the programme should contain a certain level of sophistication, so you may find some interesting harmonies, or, in the [case of the] upcoming programme, some very interesting text being expressed, and some very engaging new melodies.”
It is sometimes said that Bermuda audiences prefer to stick to what they know rather than being exposed to new avenues, but Mr Campbell disagrees.
“Bermuda is a very well educated island, so I think people are able to grasp new and fresh ideas, and even be exposed to some of the more classical composers that they may not have heard before. So what I want to do is educate give them something that they have not heard before, as well as things with which they are familiar.”
Once he had decided on the programme for 'Eternal Words, Eternal Music', Mr Campbell's next task was to ensure that the singers were “singing like a chamber choir”.
“A chamber choir is very different from a symphonic choir, an oratorio society, or any other of the numerous choral organisations you might have,” Mr. Campbell said. “It limits itself to song. You sing very differently. It is not about how loud you can sing, but how beautifully, and how well you can sing with each other.”
In pursuing a different path, Mr Campbell is not only aware of the choir's well-earned reputation, but also, as the “new broom” in ensuring that the members share his vision and continue to enjoy their love of singing.
“For the Chamber Choir that means looking at the best song literature from not only the great composers but also from the great contemporary composers. I really, really believe in supporting contemporary artists, whether it is in art galleries, the theatre, or in music. I love and adore Handel, Bach, Mendelssohn, and everyone else you can name who wrote great choral literature, but I am also really interested in doing some new contemporary music as well.
“The choir has performed to a high standard, particularly for people who are not professional singers. Until a couple of years ago, when I accepted the post of choir master at Christ Church, Warwick, I had always worked with professional singers. Just as the members of that choir love to sing, so too do the members of the Chamber Choir all of whom have different strengths.
“Some have a lot of singing experience in a choir, and as soloists, while others don't have that much singing experience at all. As long as they can produce a good sound, and find a way to learn their music, I am happy to have them.”
Certainly, the singers have been challenged in the past, and that is set to continue under the Campbell baton.
“When you give people a challenge, you give them some pieces which are easier and a little more tuneful and easy to grasp, so the concert will be enjoyable to them. Some parts are very challenging and some are a beautiful sing. I have to make sure that the whole programme works together, and to convince the choir that the concert is going to be successful. When they are tackling new music everything sounds rough, but when it really starts to come together you can see that moment when they have finally made the artistic connection.”
As to how he sees the future, Mr Campbell is unequivocal: “My dream is for the Bermuda Chamber Choir to be the hottest ticket in town.”
Tickets, adults $25; children $15, are available at C-Travel on Burnaby Street, the Bermuda School of Music (BSM) on Berkeley Road, Pembroke, from choir members and also at the door. Curtain time for both performances is 7.30pm. BSM faculty member and pianist Oliver Grant will be the accompanist, while Toni Davis (flute) and Alison Johnstone (cello) will feature in two of the pieces.
Ron Campbell, baritone, began his professional singing career at age 19 with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, one of America's most notable choral music organisations.
He toured and recorded with them for more than two years before enrolling in the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, from which he graduated with a bachelor of music degree in vocal performance. He served as assistant to Earl Rivers, chair of the Department of Ensembles and Conducting.
Mr Campbell sang in the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus under the direction of James Levine and the late Robert Shaw. He was also a member of the Cincinnati Opera under the batons of many leading conductors.
The singer continued his studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where he was awarded a master of fine arts degree, and honed his skills as a solo artist at the Brevard Music Center.
His professional performance career included concert engagements with choral societies, opera and music theatre companies, and orchestras in 49 American States, and he was also North Carolina's visiting artist for four years.
Mr Campbell first performed as guest artist with the Bermuda Philharmonic Society under the direction of Graham Garton. In 1998 he starred as Jean Valjean in the Gilbert & Sullivan Society (G&S) production of 'Les Miserables'.
In 1999 he sang the roles of Morales and El Dancairo in the Bermuda Festival production of Bizet's opera 'Carmen', and later starred as Tevye in the G&S production of 'Fiddler on the Roof'.