Editor’s note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.
Back in 1962, when he was a senior at Rockford West High School in Illinois, Richard Severing already knew he wanted a career in music.
In the nearly 60 years since, the longtime conductor for Choral Union in Janesville has gone on to leave his mark in countless ways.
After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in vocal music education from Milton College, Severing went on to earn his master’s in music theory and composition/conducting at UW-Madison. His professional resume includes co-founding and conducting the Northern Wisconsin Summer Music Festival; co-founding and conducting the Lake Mills Civic Chorus; conducting both the Beaver Dam Oratorio Society and the Harvard Choral Society; and founding and co-conducting the Southern Lakes Masterpiece Chorale. In addition, he spent 25 years teaching at Delavan-Darien High School, taught numerous classes at the former UW-Rock County and at UW-Whitewater.
Severing has been honored for his service by both the Walworth and Rock County arts councils. Along with his wife, Marie, (who also serves as co-conductor for Choral Union), he has three daughters (Michelle, Elizabeth and Kathryn) and three granddaughters (Victoria, Adelyn and Grace).
Now in its 138th year, Choral Union will present its annual holiday concerts at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8, at Cargill United Methodist Church, 2000 Wesley Ave., Janesville. To learn more about Severing and Choral Union, visit ChoralUnionJanesville.com or search for “Janesville Choral Union” on Facebook.
1. Everyone knows you serve as conductor for Choral Union, but how is your singing voice? I sing well, though I prefer not to be a soloist. Ensemble singing is comfortable for me.
2. Do you play any musical instruments? If so, which ones? My first instrument was steel guitar ... the country-western sound. I then went to electric guitar and started playing in nightclubs. When I started college, I began studying violin, voice and piano. I decided I wanted to be a conductor and decided I needed to be familiar with several orchestral instruments. At this point, I worked on trumpet, clarinet, viola and trombone.
3. What is the average annual size of Choral Union, and how are you able to coordinate a group that size into a single voice during performances? An average size for Choral Union is about 75 singers. I personally encourage singers to work together like any other team would pursue. My wife, Marie, is the associate conductor and brings vocal expertise to Choral Union. She works very hard with our group on diction and singing with a beautiful, blended sound.
4. When it comes to your role, do you feel it is more important to inspire singers or convey the vision of the composer? These concepts cannot be separated. The vision of the composer must be observed. However, we know the composer would absolutely want the singers to give an inspired performance.
5. Music spans generations. Can you name a modern-day performer whose talent you appreciate, even if his or her style is not your cup of tea? One incident comes to mind. I was watching a television program which was a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, who I greatly admire. The next person on the program was Stevie Wonder singing, “A Tisket, A Tasket.” I was sure it would not compare to Ella’s rendition. I was overwhelmed by his performance. He was wonderful!
6. In my opinion, the most underappreciated piece of music is: The “Puccini Messe di Gloria” is definitely underrated. Rarely performed, it is scored for tenor and bass soloists, chorus and orchestra. It has the same splendor and impact as any of Puccini’s operas.
7. In addition to your work with Choral Union and other groups, you taught music at Delavan-Darien High School for 25 years and also classes at both UW-Rock County and UW-Whitewater. What are the key differences between teaching high school students, college students and adults? I think the major difference at each level is emotional maturity. High school students tend to have many things going on in their minds and in their lives. As we grow older, we are generally more focused, and our goals are more clearly defined.
8. As a conductor, how do you find balance between individual performance and team performance? Every part of any performance is teamwork. Even the soloist needs to blend into the overall direction of the performance and not feel that his or her solo is separate from the goal of the whole group.
9. Who have been your mentors? Two influential musicians in my life are Dr. Bernhardt Westlund and Thomas Sanborn. Both encouraged me to pursue conducting, acquire a good, solid rehearsal technique and learn positive interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.
10. Aside from music, do you take part in any other artistic endeavors (writing, creating art, etc.)? When I was an undergraduate at Milton College, I signed up for an oil painting class. It was enlightening and a wonderful diversion from the other subjects I needed to take. I certainly do not feel I am an accomplished artist, but I appreciate it.
11. Share something people would be surprised to find out about you. I am shy. As a result, public speaking is challenging for me.
12. Choral Union has been around for nearly 140 years. How much pressure do you put on yourself as conductor to make sure it continues after you’ve laid down the baton? I do think about that frequently. I have to work at not being obsessed with that issue. Choral Union originated at Milton College, and I am a student of Milton College. The conductors of Choral Union have been students or teachers from Milton College. There is a lot of history.
13. Choral Union aside, you have co-founded and been involved in a variety of other civic musical organizations. In your opinion, why is promoting music such an important endeavor? I believe there are professional groups that do wonderful performances. However, amateurs bring a very different element to their performances. They have a genuine excitement and emotion that comes out. We need to have this music accessible to the general population and provide performance opportunities for all, not just observation experiences. Music transforms humans into whole beings. Humans become caring, compassionate, empathetic, sympathetic and loving people due to music exposure. Our world needs that.
14. Many people who attend music concerts just enjoy hearing the music and have little to no understanding of what goes into a performance. Can you explain what goes into translating complex musical ideas into coordinated vocal beauty? In each Choral Union program, we include program notes that give a brief explanation of a work. Included in this explanation might be language translations, listening ideas, scoring and historical information.
15. You and your wife, Marie, have both enjoyed careers in music. Do you share the same musical tastes, or are there genres on which you disagree? Marie is much more open to popular genres. I am much more open to 20th-century compositions. I think we both admire good performances of music from any genre. We just have preferences, like anyone else.
16. If you could learn to do anything, what would it be? Since I was in high school, I wanted to be a chef as well as a musician. My wife tells me I am an excellent cook, and I love the creative process of cooking as much as I love conducting.
17. If you could lead any orchestral/symphony organization in any musical venue, which would it be and where? Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It’s the finest orchestral organization in the world.
18. You have two hours of free time. What do you do? I enjoy gardening, walking and music listening. Oftentimes, I take a nap. I feel rejuvenated and energized by naps.
19. What is your favorite ice cream flavor? Chocolate.
20. Is music truly for everyone, or are there some people who simply should not sing? The longer I live, the more I think that singing is something that would be good for anyone. Some people sing better than others, but it comes down to how singing impacts that person. If he or she is enjoying it, then it is a good thing.