James Calhoun directs a new choral vision

Taking a break during a rehearsal for the Ann and Steve Morgan choral concert, choral director James Calhoun, with chamber singers Jennifer Ramirez and Melissa Emralino, discuss moves associated with the performance of Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder. / photo by Christopher Guzman

Taking a break during a rehearsal for the Ann and Steve Morgan choral concert, choral director James Calhoun, with chamber singers Jennifer Ramirez and Melissa Emralino, discuss moves associated with the performance of “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder. / photo by Christopher Guzman

by Debbie Allison
photography by Christopher Guzman

Had predictions proven to be true after his accident as a child, James Calhoun may never have played music again. He may never have studied sacred music and organ performance at the University of Southern California or performed at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, and he may never have ended up as La Verne’s new choir director. Lucky for the University of La Verne, those predictions were wrong.

James Calhoun was hard-wired to be an artist. “The first inkling of whether I was going to be a musician started when I was 6 years old,” he says. Turning the family coffee table into a make-believe instrument, he would play its imaginary piano keys, perhaps something not uncommon for children to do. But for James, that child’s play led to 17 years studying piano, followed by a long and rewarding music career. But at 7, his sparking passion almost ended after an accident left his arm partially severed. He was in first grade, just beginning to study piano, playing in the yard of his family’s home on Mother’s Day. From a running start, he raced into the house without realizing that the sliding glass door was closed. Shattered, jagged glass sprayed in all directions. James’ right arm was critically hurt. “People didn’t think I’d be able to play after that,” he says. “But I healed, and I continued.”

James’ music career has been marked by some extraordinary experiences. After studying at USC for all three music degrees (a bachelor’s in 1983, master’s in 1991 and doctorate in 2009), music continued to center his life. He has led as the choir director at both Rio Hondo and Loyola Marymount and has performed in prestigious artistic venues. Last year, James accompanied on piano the Gwen Wyatt Chorale at Carnegie Hall and also performed a baritone solo with the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers at New York’s Lincoln Center.

Landing in La Verne

James has now begun a new chapter in his career as La Verne’s newest choir director, and he faces the challenge of repairing a choral program that has had transient leadership. Arriving with boundless energy fall 2010, he found that not only was choir participation exceptionally low, with only 15 to 20 members, but a certain excitement was missing, due in part to a lack of consistency. “The program had been through a lot of directors for various reasons over the past 14 years,” James says. “There was no sense of stability.”

“Without the consistency, you can’t possibly build anything,” Reed Gratz, ULV professor of music, adds. La Verne has not had a choral director stay for more than four years since 1997 when Bruce Hirsch retired after 14 years leading the program. “Everybody left for different reasons,” Gratz says, noting that some left for other institutions where pay was higher, some discovered that directing choirs was not what they wanted to do, and some left the music profession altogether.

James’ arrival marks a change of tide for the music program. Those in the know say he is the right handyman to fix what ails the program and is familiar with overcoming obstacles. He has taken on the choral program challenge with an eagerness and dedication that inspires his students. Jonathan Reed, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, also believes that James’ arrival has come at the perfect time, as it coincides with the opening of the Ann and Steve Morgan Auditorium, as well as the return of performance scholarships for singers.

Inspiring change

Fast forward to February 2011, and La Verne’s choirs are thriving. There are 30 choir members, and a definite improvement in morale. “There is a sense of excitement in the music program,” James says. And his sense of excitement is contagious. When conducting choir rehearsal, there is rarely a moment when his infectious smile leaves his face. “He has a larger than life charisma and presence and a winning smile,” Gratz says. “His smile puts people at ease, but his presence inspires people to greatness.” His choir rehearsals are casual yet powerful teaching lessons. He commands his students’ attention while speaking to them like an old friend. He draws a level of greatness out of his students while still treating them as equals. It is a talent that few possess, and his students enthusiastically respond. And then there is that voice, that beautiful baritone voice that leads his students and gives them something to emulate. His warm voice, which Gratz refers to as “incredible,” can be heard like a solo musical instrument when he teaches, as he sings along with the choirs while accompanying them on the piano. He guides his students to learn their material in an easygoing and positive manner. His approach to teaching is upbeat and encouraging, and his passion for music is entirely evident in every move he makes.

“Dr. Calhoun tries to keep as relaxed an atmosphere as possible, while still ensuring that we know he expects the best out of us. If we slip up, he tells us what we did wrong, making sure that we get it right before we move on,” says Christopher Kaelberer, a business major with a music minor and four-year member of all three La Verne choirs. “I think participation in the program has definitely increased because of Dr. Calhoun,” he says. “The stability and willingness to revive this program that he brings to the Music Department is attracting more willing students, as well as a new kind of choir singer because of his establishment of the Gospel Choir.”

La Verne goes gospel

Fingers dance across the ivories of a Steinway grand piano as James Calhoun accompanies the La Verne chamber singers during a Wednesday afternoon rehearsal. / photo by Christopher Guzman

Fingers dance across the ivories of a Steinway grand piano as James Calhoun accompanies the La Verne chamber singers during a Wednesday afternoon rehearsal. / photo by Christopher Guzman

The addition of the Gospel Choir, something La Verne has never seen before, has been a source of excitement. The idea for the gospel choir grew after the dean and Gratz told James that it might be an out of the box way to attract students. “We told him, ‘Don’t be stuck with models of the past,’” says Gratz. “Part of his passion is for gospel. If you’re passionate about something as a professor, the students will be excited. This is a specialty of James’. He’s world-class in that kind of thing. It just made perfect sense.” Gratz also believes that by adding the Gospel Choir, the Music Department is carrying out the University’s mission statement by addressing the need for diversity and community.

The addition of the gospel choir on a campus with a 9 percent African American population is indeed ambitious. However, as he has proven time-and-time again, James has never been one to back down from a challenge. The gospel choir now consists of 10 student members and has performed before the University community to appreciative audiences. Their conductor is pleased with the strong start. “It was nice to bring in something different that La Verne had not had,” he says. “For students who want a spiritual outlet, it really is that.”

With this newfound enthusiasm centered on his strengths, James knows his choirs will grow in number and visibility in the years to come. “I want to show people that things are happening here.” For James, accidents are to be overcome; challenges become strengths. It is a way of life for him, and it is the new breath of energy in the department.

History of directors

Following ULV choral director Bruce Hirsch, 1983-1997, a transitory pattern developed.

• Alan Raines, 1997-1999

• Shawn Kirchner, 1999-2001

• Scott Farthing, 2001-2005

• Stephen Gothold, 2005-2008

• TJ Harper, 2008-2009

• Stephen Gothold, 2009-2010

• James Calhoun, fall 2010 to present (restoration of the choir director post to a tenure-track position)