Perhaps someone misinformed Don Studebaker when explaining the definition of "retirement." At 54, the chorus master and university professor retires this spring from a seven-year stint as artistic director of Tulsa Oratorio Chorus, Tulsa's only all-volunteer chorus with a professional reputation, but he'll by no means be slowing the breakneck pace at which he works.
Rather than actually "retiring," Studebaker is simply resigning from one of his three jobs; he'll remain a professor at Northeastern State University, where he also conducts the University Chorus and the Northeastern Oklahoma Symphony, and he'll continue in his role as director of Tahlequah's First United Methodist Church choir.
Studebaker said the decision to resign from his post as TOC's artistic director was a difficult one that required months of "soul searching."
"When you're a conductor, there is a certain amount of time you have to have to study scores, prepare for rehearsals, etc.," Studebaker said. "TOC is my third position (in addition to the ones at the university and church). It became more and more impossible to juggle and maintain the level of preparation and organization that all of the groups deserve. I had to let one go."
Studebaker said it was easier to keep the two jobs located in Tahlequah, where he lives. His position at TOC meant that he spent a minimum of three hours per week in the car driving back and forth to Tulsa. Some weeks he'd make the trip as many as four times.
But, his decision to retire from TOC wasn't an easy one. He shared the news with the chorus last May as it completed its second studio recording. Studebaker said he carried his written letter of resignation around in his briefcase for two months before finally delivering it to TOC's board president Stephen Hobbs.
Studebaker's retirement will be effective at the end of this season; TOC's April 18 concert at Trinity Episcopal Church, titled "Masses and Motets" and featuring Hassler's "Missa Secunda," Stravinsky's "Mass," Bach's "Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden," Brahms' "Warum ist das Licht Gegeben," Rachmaninoff's "Bogoroditse Devo" and Elgar's "Three Marian Motets," will be his last.
"I chose this literature and I laid the groundwork for this season," Studebaker said of his decision to wait for the season's conclusion to bid farewell.
"It also gave the board a year to choose the next artistic director and make a smooth transition," he said.
He said the search for his successor is well underway, and TOC's board of directors has received a number of "very strong applications" from pursuers both in Tulsa and from out of town. He said the board hopes to announce his replacement before winter ends.
The number of applications and the applicants themselves speak to the reputation TOC has earned during the past seven years, Studebaker said.
"TOC has grown in stature, ability and number of performances since I took over seven years ago," said Studebaker. "The administrative and artistic requirements have grown far beyond what they were when I took the reigns. And I consider that a good thing."
Under Studebaker's leadership, TOC has evolved into a reputable, well-known arts organization and collaborated with the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, Tulsa Opera and Tulsa Ballet. Its singers, all of whom are volunteers and lead varied professional lives, have accomplished great works under his tutelage.
Notable among those is Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" in March 2007, the production of which Studebaker noted as an example of the company's expanded repertoire.
"That was the first time almost everybody in the chorus had performed that work," Studebaker said. "It was also the first time almost every single symphony player (in the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra) had played it. It was a monumental undertaking for the chorus and for the symphony. And they rose to the occasion."
Other accomplishments he cited include TOC's two full-length recordings and an increased level of performance. During his tenure, Studebaker whittled down what was once a 100-plus-voice chorus to one that involved somewhere between 80 and 100 singers by re-auditioning singers every few years. That, he said, encouraged chorus members to retain and improve their level of quality. And each year that he re-auditioned singers, some would inevitably retire.
"It was a heartbreaking, gnashing-of-teeth situation," he said. "The chorus isn't as big as it used to be, but every singer is a contributing singer. There is not one twig of dead wood."
He called the TOC singers "fearless" and said his only regret is that the chorus wasn't able, under his leadership, to perform all the works he knows its singers are capable of performing. But, he looks forward to attending the group's concerts five years from now and watching with pride as the chorus that he helped grow continues to improve and expand its repertoire under another.
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