A Fond Farewell: Jess Wade’s Final Chorale Concert

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On May 5, Jess Wade will mark 25 years as director of the Brazos Valley Chorale with a farewell concert. This is a conversation about that milestone.

Some 25 years ago, a jet-haired Jess Wade arrived in the Brazos Valley. Soon, as well as directing choruses at Texas A&M University, Wade became artistic director and conductor of the community-wide Brazos Valley Chorale. This spring the now silver-haired Wade is to conduct his last concert of the BV Chorale before retirement. Wade looks back at his quarter century directing the chorale and forward to his farewell concert, to be held at 3 p.m., Sunday, May 5, at Christ United Methodist Church in College Station.

On May 5, Jess Wade will mark 25 years as director of the Brazos Valley Chorale with a farewell concert. This is a conversation about that milestone.

by Barbara Gastel

Some 25 years ago, a jet-haired Jess Wade arrived in the Brazos Valley. Soon, as well as directing choruses at Texas A&M University, Wade became artistic director and conductor of the community-wide Brazos Valley Chorale. This spring the now silver-haired Wade is to conduct his last concert of the BV Chorale before retirement. Wade looks back at his quarter century directing the chorale and forward to his farewell concert, to be held at 3 p.m., Sunday, May 5, at Christ United Methodist Church in College Station.

A quarter century ago, Jess came to the Brazos Valley to become assistant coordinator of vocal music at Texas A&M. The role, in which he remains, includes directing two Texas A&M vocal groups: the Century Singers and the Women’s Chorus. Soon the Chorale directorship opened up; Jess successfully applied, thus adding a third choral commitment.

Retrieving a poster from a piano bench in his university office, Jess notes that his first concert leading the BV Chorale featured Arthur Honegger’s oratorio “King David.” The second concert, in a lighter vein, consisted solely of works by fictitious composer P.D.Q. Bach.

Since then, the BV Chorale, which began in 1969 as the Community Singers, has grown in membership and repertoire. Whereas the program for Jess’ first concert listed 43 singers, the membership has now long stabilized at about 100.

Within a few years, Jess recalls, he arrived at what is now standard for a BV Chorale season: a fall concert with the Brazos Valley Symphony Orchestra, a holiday concert in December, a pops concert in February, and a spring concert with music of any of various types. An avid alliteration aficionado, Jess often has titled seasons or concerts accordingly. For instance, the 2006 – 2007 season “Magnificent Music” featured Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” followed by the concerts “Mistletoe & Merriment,” “Memorable Melodies” and “A Montage of Musical Masters.”

Has Jess had a favorite BV Chorale concert? “I love them all,” he replies. He says, though, that the concerts with the symphony stand out. The first work in which he conducted the chorale and symphony was Handel’s complete “Messiah.” Since then, he has led the combined chorale, Century Singers, and symphony in multiple major works. Among them: Brahms’ “Ein Deutsches Requiem,” Haydn’s “Creation” and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony.” A highlight for Jess was the presence of Vaughan Williams’ widow.

Whether directing combined groups, the BV Chorale alone, or the chorale’s select Chamber Singers subgroup, Jess says his goal has been to feature “examples of the best choral literature.” He states that in doing so, he has strived to “help people grow,” as well as to give the singers and audience “an enjoyable and fun experience.” Especially for the pops concerts, he says, he has liked trying to make the performances visually as well as musically appealing; he expresses appreciation for the “willingness of people to jump in and help out” with aspects such as sets.

Wade confides, however, that “you always wonder if you have enough time to prepare.” He expresses joy at “somehow making it happen” despite chorale members’ varied musical backgrounds. (The singers commonly range from students to retirees and from members with music degrees to “people who just like to sing.”)

Directing the BV Chorale has posed other challenges too, in part because of the mobility of the university community. “You never know who is going to show up from year to year,” Jess says. “You may end up losing half your tenor section.” Other challenges have included “money, of course” and “keeping momentum going and enthusiasm going” in a volunteer nonprofit organization in which much of the leadership changes every year or two.

Soon, Jess will leave these challenges as he retires from directing the BV Chorale and from his university position. When asked about plans for retirement, he quickly answers: “Resting up from the past 25 years.” He expects to continue residing in the Brazos Valley but also hopes to travel. He says that in retirement he will be seeking “ways to make an impact” musically or otherwise.

But meanwhile, Jess has one more BV Chorale concert to conduct…

CONSISTENT with Jess’ alliteration affinity, the BV Chorale concert this spring bears the title “Festival of Favorites.” Jess says the program will include both some pieces the group has sung before and some “I’ve liked over the years and haven’t had a chance to do.”

To allow substantial variety, the concert will consist almost solely of short pieces. Languages of performance will include Latin, German, and Russian, in addition to English. Composers will range from Palestrina and Bach, to Stephen Foster, to contemporary Texan Randol Alan Bass. Does Jess see any pieces as highlights? He says, “I want them all to be.”

Aptly, the concert will open with “How Can I Keep From Singing?” An array of other sacred pieces will follow. The concert will then move to the secular: madrigals, folk tunes and more – including a piece incorporating woodpecker sounds. A musical arrangement of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” will include “fun, crazy instruments” such as a rattle and a bird whistle.  As in the chorale’s first season with Jess, P.D.Q. Bach will surface: The Chamber Singers will perform the parody “My Bonnie Lass She Smelleth.” An Israeli folk tune and an American one will help round out the set.

Returning to the sacred, the concert will close with John Rutter’s “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” May the Lord bless you and keep you too, Jess. Thanks for all you have brought to the Brazos Valley Chorale and all you bring to the community.

For more information about the Brazos Valley Chorale, and to obtain tickets to the concert, see www.bvchorale.org or call (979) 776-1776.

 

A Quarter Century with Jess Wade

Six current members of the Brazos Valley Chorale sang nearly 25 years ago in Jess Wade’s first concert as its director. These six share recollections and comments. Also included are thoughts from Bob Fleischer, a longtime member of the BV Chorale, who for more than a decade has served as its administrative director.

The first concert was magical, not only because Jess directed us, but even more so, his choice of music. “King David” was such a powerful piece, but not a very ordinary one. We were so excited, singing in that domed auditorium at Oakwood Middle School. The atmosphere, I remember, was simply wonderful.  – Olga Cooke

Jess was a young musician bubbling with energy. He worked very hard to make the first concert “Perfect.” Of course, that is nearly impossible, but for those of us in that first concert, we became inspired with his enthusiasm, talent and true desire to make each concert the best we could do, and then improve on each subsequent event and year.  – Rod Zent

We happened to miss Jess’ first year but became consistently regular immediately after that –and, precisely because of what he did bring to the table: great, challenging, and diverse repertoire and, matching that, a demand for quality.

  – Bob Fleischer

The Chorale is not only bigger, it is much better than it was 25 years ago…Jess has brought a professionalism to the Chorale…We went from something barely more than a “church choir” to a truly fine amateur chorus.  – Sue Geller

Jess has instilled in us a sense of empowerment, in that even though he challenges us musically every concert, he also gives us the knowledge and encouragement that makes us want to do well, and he equips us with the skills so that we can do well. He is musically demanding, but . . . considerate of our…needs and abilities, with the ability to inspire our best.  – Jonathan Marner

What has amazed me about Jess is his ability to remain cool, calm, and collected under all sorts of pressures stemming from both inside and outside the chorale. He is seemingly unflappable! He has also an amazing degree of patience [with the Chorale].

Trish Peddicord

What he plans he executes, and he does it really well.  – Sue Stecher

We have all been so fortunate to have Jess as our director. Firstly, he always chooses great music. He inspires us to sing better. And he always reminds us to have fun, and we do!  – Olga Cooke

Having been with [Jess as director] for 25 years, it is like losing a close relative to think Monday [rehearsal] nights are about to end as we know them. My hope is he will stay in the community and continue to be involved in the arts …He is a fantastic guy, and both the Chorale members and the general community are the better for his work here. 

Rod Zent