The people that know Joe Jennings well say that he isn’t given to voluminous outward displays of emotion. The few times I’ve spent in the company of the great American chorus conductor, interviewing him for articles about Chanticleer, the world-famous all men’s a cappella ensemble he’s been directing since the mid-1980s, or on more general vocal music subjects, he’s remained piquantly understated to the point of terseness.
Jennings is, in fact, one of the most soft-spoken and taciturn interview subjects I’ve ever come across. But while his iterations are compact, they’re often profound, so you have to get in close and tune in your ears to listen.
This was definitely the case during most of the past five days which I spent singing with Chanticleer and around 60 other choral music enthusiasts at the annual adult singing workshop which the ensemble holds in conjunction with Sonoma State University up in wine country.
During our daily afternoon rehearsals, Jennings, who is officially retiring this summer, cut an almost spectral presence. The choral director would shuffle into the room very quietly and painfully slowly behind the walker he now regularly uses to get around owing to an illness that is slowly but surely taking a toll on his mobility. Taking his place before the assembled choir, he would mutter a couple of words under his breath. The people sitting nearest him seemed to catch his drift and this would set off a ripple effect of communication until we all figured out what piece he wanted us to work on, at what measure he planned to start and what exactly it was that he wanted us to do with the music once we had it ready before our eyes. On occasion, though, the Chinese whisper mechanism didn’t work and he’d end up repeating himself several times, each with more volume and better articulation. Then, after a couple of hours of concentrated effort, he would say something like “mmm-hmm” or “that’s all” and shuffle on out of the room on his walker without further comment.
The hushed, self-effacing demeanor belies the sonic miracles that Jennings creates on stage. Chanticleer itself of course gets as close to nirvana as a choral ensemble can get. But what he managed to pull out of the workshop choir at yesterday’s concert was profoundly moving — not just because of the music which we performed, but also because of the powerful emotions that welled up and surfaced in this amazing and outwardly reserved conductor.
We had caught a glimpse of Jennings’ secret superhero nature at rehearsal the day before, when he led the Moses Hogan spiritual, “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” with such ferocity that he seemed demonically possessed. He threw his arms up in the air, he gyrated, his conducting roared. At one point, Jennings leapt carnivorously at the piano and played the entire score from memory thumping the keys on his feet like Jerry Lee Lewis going at “Great Balls of Fire.”
I’m sure the members of Chanticleer, who were all present throughout the workshop, have experienced this side of Jennings on occasion before. But it was electrifying for someone like me, who’d only ever encountered him sitting before a tape recorder in an interview room or sitting statuesquely in the front row of a concert hall while watching Chanticleer perform, to see the music course through the conductor in this way.
When it came to yesterday’s afternoon concert, the explosive outburst of the previous day’s rehearsal mellowed into something quite different. During our set, Jennings face started changing. The poker expression he so often wears, with eyes blinking impassively from behind glasses, softened. His lips, which are usually pursed in an expression of vague disapproval, opened slightly. Jennings looked — surely not, but, yes, actually, yes — like he was on the verge of crying.
By the time we reached the last song in the set, Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria”, the conductor’s eyes were full of tears. They trickled down his cheeks as he moved his body to shape our singing. And all around the stage, the chorus responded to his gestures, in turn giving voice to Biebl’s angelic music and the spontaneous surge of his emotions.
This was Joe Jennings’ final official appearance on a podium with Chanticleer. And no one in that concert hall yesterday afternoon will forget it in a hurry.