Scott Tucker is leaving Cornell after 17 years as Cornell’s beloved Priscilla Edwards Browning Director of Choral Music to serve as the Artistic Director for The Choral Arts Society of Washington, one of the most highly acclaimed choral organizations in the United States. At Cornell, Tucker conducts the Cornell University all-female Chorus, all-male Glee Club and World Music Choir. Both the Chorus and Glee Club choirs regularly tour nationally and internationally. He is also the American Choral Directors Association Eastern Division Repertoire and Standards Chair for Male Choirs. Tucker has one more competition before leaving Cornell. With the Glee Club, Tucker is competing this summer for the Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod in Wales.
The Sun: How did you first get interested in music? When did you know that you wanted to pursue music as a career?
Scott Tucker: I first got interested in music because I started playing the trumpet when I was nine years old. I heard a guy playing actually the cornet and I really wanted to play. I was the youngest in my family and my parents had had it with trying to get my siblings to play instruments. So they said no actually. They didn’t want to go through it. I had to beg for a couple of months before they buckled and let me take lessons. I really dove into it. I really loved it.
Sun: When did you realize that choral conducting was what you wanted to do?
S.T.: I was first a trumpet player but I got into conducting when I was 15, in the summer time in my hometown in Western Massachusetts, in a drama workshop, which was a big deal in the town. They put on musicals and things in the summers. There was a children’s musical and somebody said to me, “Would you like to conduct the children’s musical?” I desperately wanted to conduct and I wanted someone to ask me, but I never said anything to anyone. I was shy about it. It just dropped out of the blue for me. I started conducting musical theater, really starting when I was 15. I went on doing that for a long time. As I was a trumpet player, I was also conducting shows. Sometime later, after I graduated from the [New England] Conservatory as a trumpet player, after a little while, I started a choir of my own and that’s when I really got into choral music. It was in my mid-20s I started conducting this chorus and then I really wanted to learn all about choral music.
Sun: Did you find it challenging switching from trumpet to voice? Do you have to study voice as much to be a choral conductor versus a member in the choir?
S.T.: Studying voice is a lifetime pursuit. Singing is both the simplest thing you can do and also the most difficult thing. You have to train and train to let go. I’ve been studying voice for years and years. It was a big transition for me. With trumpet playing, though it has a lot to doing with breathing, the breath comes under great of pressure, and that’s exactly what you don’t want as a singer. So I had to un-train a lot of things when going from trumpet to voice.
Sun: What are some of your fondest memories during your time here at Cornell?
S.T.: There are probably too numerous to mention. Most of my fondest memories have to do with the students. But of course I’ve made great friends here, great, great colleagues in the music department and they will also be my lifelong friends, both my former students and colleagues. Those are the best memories I have.
Musically, one of the most exciting for me was when the tenor Peter Schreier came and he conducted and sang the Bach St. John Passion with our chorus behind him. He is an extraordinary musician. He brought so much out of the singers. That was one of my first years. It was just an extraordinary, extraordinary experience.
Sun: Any funny stories?
S.T: Lots of funny stories. I have a particularly bad sense of direction. One of the problems I have is coming on and off stage when we’re on tour because I can’t often remember at the end of a half, which direction we had come in from. One year, we were in California and we were singing in this museum. We did the first half, and I bowed, indicated the chorus and everything. I went off to my left, which was the wrong way. I went out this door that was in front of me, I open the door, and I realized that I was going outside. Not only that, but it was raining, and I stepped right in a flowerbed halfway up my calves in mud. I’m out there in the pouring rain. The thing is that the entire Glee Club followed me one by one out this door because that’s what they’re supposed to do, follow me. So one by one everybody steps in the mud halfway up their calf into the outside. We spent the entire intermission trying to clean the mud from our tuxes.
Sun: What aspects of the Glee Club and Chorus do you hope will remain after you leave?
S.T.: I think the new director will have his or her own priorities. That is great and that has to happen. Whatever direction they take them in will be exciting and the right direction. The stuff I hope remains is the strong tradition and connection that these groups have here. There’s a way in which the members of the Chorus and Glee Club particularly are so connected to the alumni who have come before them. They feel very devoted, not only to each other and to the music, but to the whole large picture of what these large organizations are. They come back and they sing with the students as alumni. It’s a very powerful experience for the students to be part of something that is so much bigger than themselves. I hope the level of music is the highest it can be because the students here are capable of excellent music making and they should be held to the highest possible standard. In terms of what repertoire they do or what the emphasis of the conductor is, that always changes. The things that should not change are high quality excellence, community and camaraderie. Those are the two most important things. Of course all the little traditions that happen, it would be nice if they would remain.
Sun: What have been your priorities as conductor of the Glee Club and Chorus?
S.T: My priorities with the Glee Club and Chorus were to get each singer to think like a conductor. Everything I had them do was so that each individual in the chorus took personal responsibility for the sound of the whole group. A lot of conductors will have people sing in sections, for example the tenors are here, the altos are here, the sopranos are here. It was important to me to take each individual and mix them into quartets. There would be a soprano, next to an alto, next to a tenor, next to a bass so that each place within the chorus, there is a mini-chorus. Each little mini-chorus was responsible for tuning, balancing, blending and singing expressively, just within their small group. Every person is making equal effort to make music, the whole picture of music. That’s been a big emphasis of mine. I think it’s really paid off a lot. The students who come here sing extremely musically and they think not just about their own part, but also about the entire presentation of the music.
Sun: If you had the time to stop the clock before leaving, what would be the last piece you would conduct with the Chorus and Glee Club?
S.T.: One piece I always wanted to do was the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. It’s a huge work with poetry by Wilfred Owen, a World War I poet. Britten is one of the great 20th century music masters. It’s an enormous work for orchestra, chamber orchestra, chorus, tenor, bass and soprano soloists, children’s choir and bells. It’s just a huge, enormous, cacophonous sometimes, but incredible work. It’s a piece I’ve always wanted to do. I hope to do it one day, maybe in Washington. That’s something that was on my list for a long time and I just was never able to do it. It’s hard to coordinate that many schedules.
Sun: What is the piece you cannot wait to do with the Choral Arts Society in Washington?
S.T.: I like these big pieces. I also want to do [Hector] Berlioz’s Requiem, which is similarly large and grand in its design.
Sun: What inspired you to seek a new job? What made you say yes to the Choral Arts Society?
S.T.: Through the years, sometimes people would contact me and say we would really like you to apply for this job. I have never seriously applied for a job before. Here, the stage I was at was I have been here for a while, and I am very happy here. I could certainly see myself playing out the rest of my career here. But I also knew when you get to a certain point of comfort level, sometimes that is not a good thing for a musician or artist. You want to always be challenging yourself, putting yourself in a situation where things are slightly uncomfortable so that you can grow and continue to develop as a person and as an artist. That spurred me on to start to look. The Choral Arts Society was actually the only place to which I applied. It was just the perfect situation because it’s a very, very choral city they have. It’s sort of like Minneapolis where choral singing is a huge thing. There are many fine choruses there. This one is kind of established, up to now, as the best chorus in the city. It’s certainly debatable because a lot of choruses are very fine, but it’s sort of the most established. They have a really strong organization, good financial situation, staff and it’s a really great situation. They sing with the National Symphony, which I really admire Christoph Eschenbach [conductor of National Symphony] and I am really excited to work with him. The [Choral Arts Society] conductor [Norman Scribner] is retiring after many, many years. He is kind of a legend. It’s a happy situation. Scribner is an incredible man and he is a real gentleman. He is kind of passing the baton. It’s a perfect situation. It seemed too good to pass up.
Sun: What are you looking forward to at the Choral Arts Society?
S.T.: I think the chorus over time has gotten a little bit older in median age. I’m looking forward to recruiting and to bringing in younger singers from Cornell, from Harvard, from Princeton, from Yale, particularly these northeastern schools where lots of graduates go down to D.C. I want to build the youth faction of the chorus. I want to do with them what I did at Cornell, which is to take them out of the mindset of, “I’m going to sing my part really well,” to “I’m going to responsible for the sound of the whole group.” Kind of recreate some of what we did at Cornell at the scale that it can be done in D.C.
Sun: How involved do you hope to stay with Cornell?
S.T.: I don’t want to interfere with the new person when they come. I will draw away for a while. I hope after they are established and things are good and successful, I will come back, as my predecessor has, as a member of the advisory council of the Chorus and Glee Club, which is made up of alumni and former members and help the organization with their touring and their budget. I would hope to be able to be involved that way if the new director wanted that. Again, when time has gone on, I would want to go back in five years or so and see former students and just hang out.