Theater & Arts

With final concerts of season, Roy Klassen ‘hangs up’ his arms

The San Joaquin Chorale, under the direction of Roy Klassen, far right, performs May 6 in Reedley and May 7 in Fresno.
The San Joaquin Chorale, under the direction of Roy Klassen, far right, performs May 6 in Reedley and May 7 in Fresno. Special to The Bee

After more than 50 years conducting choirs, Roy Klassen is about to give his last downbeat as musical director of the San Joaquin Chorale.

“This is going to be my conducting swan song,” he says. “The idea of hanging up my arms, as it were, is daunting.”

The Fresno Pacific University music professor retired five years ago from teaching and conducting student ensembles, but he retained his position at the helm of the community-based San Joaquin Chorale, which he founded. Now he’s stepping down from that as well, with Dan Bishop taking over next season. Klassen is conducting a final series of concerts in Fresno and Reedley this weekend.

We caught up with him via phone and email to talk about the Chorale.

Q: The San Joaquin Chorale grew out of a recording that you made celebrating the 50th anniversary of (then) Fresno Pacific College. Tell us how that happened.

A: We recorded the CD in 1994. Before that, in 1989, I founded and directed a community-based choir under a different name. After the recording I changed the rehearsal and audition expectations and the San Joaquin Chorale was born. The Chorale rehearses at least twice a month and continues giving four concerts a year, two in the fall and two in spring.

Q: Over the last 22 years, is there one concert or a particular song that stands out as your favorite?

A: Since its inception, the San Joaquin Chorale has performed over 2,000 separate octavos. We don’t focus on large choral works and the variety has covered everything from plainchant to jazz. Certainly some years have proven to be more successful than others but I try to focus on the total experience rather than particular pieces or concerts. The overall experiences have exceeded all of my original expectations. Performing and infecting listeners with the beauty and joy of choral literature has been my main goal.

Q: One piece that will be special to you on the concert program is Antonio Lotti’s “Crucifixus.” Why?

A: Simply put, this choice was made because I sang it as a student in the Occidental College Glee Clubs under the direction of Dr. Howard Swan. Anyone who knew Dr. Swan can visualize his passion. It’s always been a favorite and now, as I conduct it, I “see” Dr. Swan and shiver when I think about and hear the reality of the piece coming off the page.

Q: Over the years you’ve followed more of a collegiate choir programming model in terms of singing a greater number of shorter works rather than a smaller number of major (and longer) works. Is that a personal preference? Do you think this benefited your audience and singers?

A: Yes, it’s a personal preference. Since we already have an excellent choral organization in Fresno specializing in larger choral works, I wanted to offer an alternative to singers who might prefer more varied literature. Singing a variety of styles, languages and musical quality is difficult, but it teaches the singers to be more musically flexible. For instance, singing Renaissance polyphony needs to be sung differently than a Brahms motet. It’s not only difficult for singers to make the transition but the director also needs to approach each piece separately, encouraging the singers to ebb and flow in their vocal abilities.

For the audience, I believe the challenge is the same for either type of literature approach. Audiences may go to a given longer work performance because of their knowledge and experience with that piece. With a varied literature, the challenge is to program in a way that will keep the audience interest from piece to piece. My mantra is to make each piece so attractive (beauty of tone, excellence of style understanding, articulation of text) that the listener will be touched in a way that may never have been experienced had they not attended our concert.

Q: Your number of singers has grown recently – you had as many as 80 last year. Do you think that’s because people want to sing with you during your last season?

A: I suspect it may have something to do with it. Some have said that is the case, especially those who sang with me as students at Fresno Pacific University. Generally, almost 50% of the Chorale membership are former FPU students. Most others have been committed for so long that they plan to continue after I leave as artistic director. There is a special bond that happens when people can join together to sing high quality literature with like-minded musicians. In the words of Robert Shaw, “If arts have a place in society, they must be a part of a community. To be an artist is not the privilege of a few, but the necessity of us all.”

Q: The chorale has had a strong connection to Reedley over the years. Why?

A: As director of the Concert Choir at Fresno Pacific for 33 years, the Reedley First Mennonite Church has always been one of my favorite venues. Two long-term members of the Chorale, Richard and Karen Peterson who also attend the church, approached me to ask if I might consider giving one of our San Joaquin Chorale performances there. We began performing one of our Christmas concerts there and, for the last five years, also one of our spring concerts. Admission is always free there because the Petersons have chosen to financially support our concerts.

Q: You’ve conducted choirs for 55 years. What do you think you’ll be feeling when you get ready to conduct your last piece at your last concert?

A: When talking about retirement with my pastor, he asked me what I would do to “feed my soul” in the future.“ I had never been asked that before and must admit I’ve thought about it more in the past weeks. I still don’t know the answer, but I firmly believe that my career has spoken for itself and that someone new should have an opportunity to either begin or continue on the same path I have trod. It has been an amazingly memorable and gratifying career. Having been a church and/or school director for over 50 years and teaching at least 10,000 students and adults, I sense that I can hang up my baton feeling gratified by the larger picture. For me, the positive influence given to me by those students and adults far exceeds what I’ve given them. I’m satisfied and tremendously grateful.

San Joaquin Chorale

Concert preview

  • 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 6, First Mennonite Church, 1208 L St., Reedley. Free; donations accepted.
  • 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 7, University Presbyterian Church,1776 East Roberts Ave., Fresno. $10, $5 students and seniors.