Charles Sundquist appears at Princeton’s All Saints Episcopal Church conducting Cantus Novus, a Yardley-based choral ensemble on Sunday, May 15, at 4 p.m. He is no stranger to Princeton though this is his “debut” appearance with Cantus Novus here. For 16 years, ending in 2008, he appeared Monday through Friday as director of Princeton High School’s choral department.
The concert, titled “The American Heritage — A British Legacy,” presents music from the 16th to the 20th century, beginning with motets and ending with Leonard Bernstein. The program is a cappella except for two pieces, one accompanied by organ, one by piano. Mark Dolan, organist of Yardley’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, is the keyboard collaborator.
Cantus Novus is an auditioned group of 30-some singers ranging from young people to seniors. The demanding ensemble carefully screens potential members for extensive musical experience and top-flight musical skills. Singing in the shower is not enough.
The audition calls for singing a short prepared solo; the piece may be an aria, artsong, or folk song. Pop songs, show tunes, and contemporary religious songs are not acceptable. Candidates must demonstrate that they can manage ascending and descending scales within a two-octave range and be able to identify notes sounded in a three-note chord.
Sundquist is guest conductor for the trio of concerts in May, taking over for W. Edward McCall, the ensemble’s former artistic director, now director of the St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto. The Cantus Novus 2010-’11 season was planned by McCall before he left for Canada in December.
In a telephone interview from his Bucks County home, guest conductor Sundquist says, “When I was given this concert, I made a few changes and substituted pieces that I felt a connection to.” Briefly, he outlines the upcoming program. “It will be in historical order. We’ll do the British pieces first.” Eric Whitacre’s “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine” ends the first part of the program. “He wrote what he thought Leonardo might have been thinking,” Sundquist says. “The intensity builds as Leonardo is about to leap off the cliff. It’s a great closer piece [for the first half] with interesting text and rhythm. It leaves you wanting more. You are in suspense, thinking, ‘What’s in the second half?’”
The American conclusion of the program ends with Leonard Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow.” “There’s not much you could do afterward,” says Sundquist. “It’s a big piece.”
Trained as an organist, Sundquist has, nevertheless, spent more than 30 years as a choral director at schools and universities. He began collecting sterling organ credentials in 1979 when he earned a bachelor of music degree in organ performance, magna cum laude, from the University of Minnesota, Duluth. In 1981 he harvested a master of music degree in organ performance and literature from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He won a Prix d’Excellence in organ performance from the Conservatoire de Region Rueil-Malmaison after studying organ performance with Marie-Claire Alain in Paris in 1985 and 1986. Eastman awarded him a doctorate of musical arts in organ performance and literature in 2000.
“Being an organist and being a choral director go hand-in-hand,” he says. “There are a few concert organists; but many of us do church jobs or teach. Being an organist is not a profession in high demand.”
Sundquist’s career path is a blend of knowledgeable insights and opportunism. Enthusiasm, charm, and charisma lead the way. Flexibility and imagination are among his tools. Given lemons, he makes lemonade.
His formula, in his own words, selected from our interview goes, “I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I never pin myself down.”
Born in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1956, Sundquist recognizes that his background is a model of Garrison Keillor fictional Lake Wobegon. “My mother was a pianist and Lutheran Church organist,” Sundquist says. “She taught piano. All four of us children took lessons from mom. Eventually, she sent us to others in Duluth. We were required to study piano until we were in high school. She kept us interested.” When I inquire about how his mother kept up her children’s excitement, Sundquist says matter-of-factly, “By being Norwegian. She took us to concerts. We grew up in a rural area. We went down to St. Paul to see Garrison Keillor.” His father, now retired, was in banking.
“My piano teacher retired when she was 93. But there was a new organist in town, so I switched to organ,” Sundquist says. Church music has been part of his life since he was a senior in high school.
In 1981 when he finished his Eastman master’s degree, Sundquist wrote to French organist Marie-Claire Alain, seeking a place in her class in Paris. Much sought after as a teacher, Alain was famous for her massive recording career and the small size of her studio; she recorded the complete organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach three times. In the absence of Alain’s response, Sundquist devoted himself to class work for his doctorate until 1984. “I didn’t take the written or oral exams,” he says “because Alain accepted me for her class of 1985 to 1986. I had forgotten all about writing her.”
In addition to studying with Alain, Sundquist pursued two of his passions. “I landed a job at the American Episcopal Cathedral in Paris, so I had a way to practice. I also did a lot of accompanying.”
Accompanying holds a long-term fascination for Sundquist. In two consecutive years he won Eastman’s competition for outstanding accompanist. “I would rather accompany than do solo piano work. It’s the appeal of doing something collectively. It’s the true sense of making music. Working with singers changes every time you play with them.”
When he left Paris in 1986 Sundquist went to California, where his sister lived. “I landed a church job and had other music jobs,” he says. From 1988 to 1992 he coordinated the middle school performing arts department at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles. “I didn’t need a doctorate. But Los Angeles got to be too much for this midwesterner,” he says. He left for New Jersey. After a season at Summit’s Kent Place School, he came to Princeton High School in 1993.
“Princeton had a well-established choral program run by Bill Trego and Nancianne Parrella [now associate organist of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in New York City] for 27 years,” Sundquist says. “They both retired and I was hired to replace Parrillo as the accompanist. When the board cut back to one position they offered me a job as both accompanist and choral conductor. I took it. Otherwise, I would have had no job at all. I got into choral conducting through my church work and through accompanying at Eastman. I had no education background. But I could show them what I could do. Choral directing is common sense.
“In 1997, after I was established at Princeton High School, I contacted Eastman about finishing my doctorate. Normally, Eastman gives you seven years to finish a doctoral degree. It had been 14 years since I left the program. I wrote a letter explaining what I had done and wondering if they would let me sit for the oral and written exams. They gave me a two-year window and said that I had to take a doctoral seminar. So I went up to Rochester every Thursday night. Princeton High School gave me a free day on Fridays so I could take a Mozart class. I studied like crazy for my one shot at the written and orals and got my doctorate in 2000.” It was a 19-year gap between master’s and doctoral degrees.
At Princeton High School Sundquist’s accomplishments were impressive. The number of students participating in choral groups at the high school exploded. The choir added biennial international tours as a regular activity. Sundquist developed a knack for fundraising. “I didn’t enjoy it at first,” he says. “But once I was established in Princeton, there were people to whom I could turn because they believed in the kids. There are a lot of angels in Princeton who pay for things that the school board doesn’t give money for. My budget in the early ’90s was $2,500; it barely paid for music.”
Unstinting in his efforts, Sundquist habitually becomes overextended. He singles out the year 2004, when, in addition to his normal school duties, he was an assistant director and pianist for a run of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” at McCarter Theater. “We did a two-piano version of the show,” he says. “I was one of the pianists. There were 65 performances. It almost did me in. I got up at 5:30 a.m. and was in school by 6:15 a.m. After a full day at school I turned up at McCarter for rehearsals at 3 p.m. and stayed till 7 or 7:30 p.m. Once the show started I was at the theater until 10 p.m. The last day of “My Fair Lady” was the Princeton High School graduation. The next day I was a zombie.”
Sundquist’s stay at Princeton overlapped with that of John Kazmark, Princeton High School’s former principal, who became superintendent of schools in Mountain Lakes in 2001. In 2008 Kazmark lured Sundquist to Mountain Lakes to direct the choral department and teach advanced placement music theory. “I was not looking to leave Princeton,” Sundquist says, “but the challenge intrigued me. At Princeton I felt that the program was on roller skates and left me little time for other things. I enjoy performing, playing, and working on organ literature but my personal practice went by the wayside. There were 1,400 students in five choirs at Princeton and I saw 230 kids a day.
“The pressure at Mountain Lakes is less. There were 24 people in the choir when I started; now there are 75. I’m excited to see these kids excited about singing. It’s a great change going from a well-established program to one that needed a lot of nurturing.”
Searching for a permanent replacement as artistic director in the fall, Cantus Novus invited Sundquist to apply. “I’m very busy in Pompton Lakes,” Sundquist says. “I withdrew my name. Cantus Novus has a wonderful board with good hearted people, and it has good musicians. It fills a void in Bucks County. It’s a good fit for somebody else, but not me.”
Spring Concert, Cantus Novus, All Saints Church, All Saints Road, Princeton. Sunday, May 15, 4 p.m. $20. 215-968-3414 or www.cantusnovus.org.