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Last updated: Saturday, 14-Mar-2009 19:11:14 Central Daylight Time

Wold Leaves Legacy in Music Department

June 12, 1998


At first view, Elliott Wold is the epitome of a tweedy collegiate choral director: silver hair brushed back in the style of a concert maestro; an ever-present tuxedo during performances that is replaced by a camel colored cordury suit coat off-stage; the pungent aroma of vanilla-scented Smokers Pride pipe tobacco.

But a booming voice often punctuated with humor, sparkling eyes surrounded by wrinkles etched from decades of smiles and laughter, and a gentle manner create an aura of genuine warmth that have made him admired by the tens of thousands who have heard his students in concert.

It has made him one of UW-River Falls' most beloved professsors to thousands of alumni who have performed during his stewardship directing the Concert Choir and Chamber Singers, earning that group critical acclaim through dozens of international and regional tours. So great is the tie that many of those former students over the years have returned as members of Wold's Alumni Choir.

Their most recent performance came on May 16 when several hundred alumns returned to their alma mater to honor Wold in a retirement gala. They joined with the Chamber Singers and Concert Choir, along with family, friends and the public at large, to fill the stage and the seats of the Abbott Concert Hall to thank Wold for his gift of 35 years of music.

It was the conclusion to a career that brought Wold to the music department in 1963 after earning his bachelor's degree from Concordia College and his master's degree from UW-Madison. He did additional post-graduate work at Northwestern University.

"It seems to me that I just started here," Wold reflected in an interview. "It was a whirlwind, and here I am. It's gone by so quickly that you don't notice it yourself."

Wold's accomplishments during that time are legendary: seven tours to Europe, three to Canada and four to the Far East; three European tours by the Alumni Choir. An educator as well as a conductor, Wold says he thinks those tours were crucial to his students learning that people are the same throughout the world. Those experiences also pushed them to take risks and "be brave."

As a voice teacher and choral director he guest conducted or lectured to thousands of high school choirs during visits or at festivals across Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana and Iowa. He also developed the annual Medieval Banquets held for more than 25 years each December. His singers also participated in the premieres of 16 works of the UW-RF Commissioned Composers Series.

"I've always been at ease with people," Wold says of his performing career, and adds with a trademark chuckle: "But maybe that's because I always have my back to them."

Music has always been a part of Wold's life, from the time he grew up on a dairy farm in Barron, Wis.

"I grew up in a family that had a fascination and a deep committment to music," he recalls. His uncles farmed and then on Sundays performed in church as singers of conductors. His mother played the piano, and "a lot of our social life was singing and playing instruments."

In high school he was encouraged by two teachers, who, when he graduated, had so inspired four of his fellow classmates that they too eventually become college choir conductors. Most importantly, he also participated in operetta where he played the role of a prince and the young woman who played opposite of him as a princess later became his wife, Jeanne.

Wold continued his musical pursuits, becoming the first freshman to sing with the Concordia College choir. He played in a jazz band during his Army years, and in graduate school at Northwestern he earned extra money by performing at church services ranging from Episcopalian to Jewis synagogues, and even performing in Yiddish operas.

"They were all more beneficial experiences than my classes, and I brought those experiences back here," Wold says.

Finding music in every circumstance of life, and of wanting others to experience its joy, was inspiring to his students.

What they remember most vividly about Wold is that all of the Chamber Singers and Concert Choir's accomplishments were by some 72 members of whom only a quarter were music students. For some that would have been a challenge. For Wold it was expected in a student body with a diversity of majors. Over his career it became his hallmark to teach others to sing through training, encouragement and humor. His former students note that hwile some concert directors used intimidation to motivate singers, that was never part of Wold's style.

"Some of the best singers aren't in music," Wold explains. "They just don't know how to do it when they begin. I am a strong believer that people need to be pushed and complimented. They have to learn to make their voice an extension of their brain. I don't give up until I get it.

Wold is quick to note that his students' success came through their hard work, at least six hours each week for an entire school year rehearsing Wold's favorites-a capela pieces-as well as an eclectic mix of spirituals, blues, jazz and other genres. "If you are going to be good then you have to give to it," he says.

Their efforts created a "big" sound that was appreciated by audiences and orchestras. That sound was especially sought out by the Minnesota Orchestra which regularly asked the Choir to perform, because as conductor Henry Trowell explained, "they can carry over our orchestra."

Wold says that his greatest accomplishment was "taking the most students and trying to make them take a piece of good, strong, artful music and bring it to an audience in a way the audience can understand. If you are dealing with truly great music and you get inside and learn every aspect of it, I believe they take on some of that greatness themselves. They take it inside of themselves. They may not see that right away, but eventually they do."

When that happens, there's magic for the audience and for Wold. He recalls two particular events over his career when that happened.

One was a performance for Alberto Genaspira, one of South America's most famous composers. As the composer listened, Wold led the choir through a rehearsal of Genaspira's demanding "Lamentations of Jeremiah." The work ran the range of emotions of his interpretation of the dictatorship of Juan Peron on Argentina's people.

After the rehearsal of four movements, Genaspira told the choir and Wold, "You do this just like it should be."

Hearing those remarks, Wold said, "was a special kind of time in my life. The students felt it, too."

Another deeply-etched memory came during a European tour in the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, before concert-goers trained to listen to music with a critical ear. As the 80 students performed, they became one with the music and earned the accolades of the audience and took so many curtain calls that they ran out of music to perform.

Pursuing such perfection is what motivated Wold throughout his career:

"When you take a piece of music and it comes forth, it gets to you a little bit. It gets inside of you. When 60 or 70 people get music to speak in the manner you intended-it gives you that lift that you needed to experience. It is something you had to have."

Through the years, Wold has built a remarkable legacy of students who have gone on to musical success with such renowned organizations as the New York Metropolitan Opera, the Wurzburg Opera in Germany, the Chicago Lyric Opera, the Minnesota Opera and the Minnesota Chorale and many othe professional companies. Just as importantly, hundreds more have kept music an integral part of their lives through church choirs or community organizations.

"I've had a deep love for this school. I hope I've shown a commitment for it. I think the most important thing is the relationships between students and teachers. My feeling is to try to give as much as you can and just do your work and do it as well as you can. We really have good students here. People have asked me where we find all the good students. Well, we have them right here."


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