When Vance George, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus,
conducts J.S. Bach's "St. John's Passion" at Goshen College
on April 4 and 6, he will be continuing a relationship with Bach
that started in adolescence.
"As a 12-year-old kid I earned some money planting mint, and
bought a metronome and the Bach 'Two-part Inventions,'" said
George from his home in San Francisco. "I've just kept working
at performing Bach all my life."
The performance of "St. John Passion" will be an exciting
one and will also link George to his past. Professor Emerita of
Music Mary Oyer will conduct the audience in singing the Bach chorales
interspersed in the work, reminiscent of the hymn sings that George
said were some of his fondest college memories. He still sings hymns
every week at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
The three-time Grammy winner has conducted all of Bach's major works.
In January he prepared a chorus of college choir directors for a
performance of the storied "B-minor Mass" at Carnegie
Hall in New York City. As expected, his chorus received rave reviews
- Newsday of New York heralded the chorus as "avid and burnished
had George's palm prints all over it."
George said he began developing the nuances of his unique musical
imprint at Goshen College, under the tutelage of Oyer.
"Being in her courses was really something," said George.
"They are really the basis of how I work today." From
Oyer, George learned to appreciate musical form and developed an
eye for detail. Then he began to sensing how to translate form into
"I remember sitting in a class - I think it was one of the
very first classes I can recall - and she was playing and singing
from Bartok's 'Microcosomos,'" George said. "I was moved
to tears. I wouldn't have been able, then, to figure out why; but
I know now that it was her depth of musicianship that moved me."
Oyer recalls George as revolutionary in Goshen's music scene. "He
was one of the most creative persons I've ever had as a student,"
she said. "I learned a lot from him."
Most significantly, said Oyer, he conducted the first opera at Goshen
College - a performance of Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors."
Said Oyer, "It was the right time for a student like him to
come along. We weren't allowed to do opera in those days."
It was also a formative experience for George - one that illuminated
a vocational path in conducting.
George, who grew up near Napannee, Ind., came to Goshen as a 17-year-old
to study music. "I was so naïve," he said. "I
thought I could be a concert pianist and an opera singer. But what
did I know?"
Despite his lofty ambitions, George said he was not "a stellar
whiz kid." In fact, he was still learning to read music when
he entered college. But he learned fast, and worked hard. George
graduated in 1955 with a degree in music, having completed a double
major in piano and voice.
His spiritual life also began to take shape during his years at
Goshen. "Certainly my spiritual nature was enlivened and engaged
there," he said. "My commitment and attitude toward peace
and spirituality was something that was deeply influenced at Goshen."
years after graduating from Goshen, during the Korean War, he spent
three years in alternative service in India, teaching music with
GC music faculty Lon and Kathryn Sherer at the Woodstock School.
He returned to northern Indiana and taught for two years at Northside
Junior High School (Elkhart, Ind.) When he decided to pursue a postgraduate
degree at Indiana University, he intended to focus on middle school
education, but chose to study conducting instead.
Following graduate school, George taught at University of Wisconsin
at Madison and then spent seven years as assistant conductor with
the Cleveland Symphony until he was recommended for the choral conducting
post in San Francisco. This year, he celebrates his twentieth season
with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Under his tenure, the chorus
has been awarded three Grammys and is lauded as one of the world's
George knows that his résumé doesn't read like that
of a typical musician in his position - he didn't grow up in New
York City or attend the Julliard School of Music as might be expected
for someone of his distinction. Instead, George stayed in Indiana
for all of his training. But for choral conductors, he said, that
"Many, many choral conductors and a very strong choral movement
is found in the Midwest," he said, "and more so than the
East and the West. I don't know why."
The door to the music world may be hard to open, George said, but
in order to succeed, "you must persevere." As a young
conductor, George deliberately sought out great maestros, such as
Robert Shaw and Margaret Hillis, and spent countless hours watching
them rehearse choirs and orchestras, absorbing their techniques.
The most important advice to anyone - in any career - is to follow
your heart, he said. "It's by doing and by being musically
and spiritually honest with yourself. Your heart knows and will
tell you," he said.
The San Francisco Symphony Chorus is comprised mainly of volunteers
who sing because it brings them joy. For George, this choice represents
the best of musical experiences.
"It doesn't really matter where you're making music,"
he said. "It can be very, very humble and simple music making.
But if it brings joy to you and to others, then you're on the right