The Handel Society of Dartmouth College performs Handel’s Messiah on May 18 and 19 as its last performances under artistic director Robert Duff before he leaves for positions in Boston. Hop Film Programming Manager Johanna Evans wrote this reflection.
By Johanna Evans ’10
Handel’s Messiah is a choral masterwork about beginnings, endings and beginning again—themes which find new emotional resonance as we prepare our final concert with Bob Duff at the baton and reflect on how we’ve grown over these last 15 years together.
I have been singing with Bob for most of that time, staring in the fall of 2006. In fact, meeting Bob Duff is one of my first memories at Dartmouth. During orientation, first years are invited to audition for the Hopkins Center ensembles, and I remember navigating the underground labyrinth of the music department to find Faulkner Auditorium, where I would have to prove basic competence at sight-reading and a sense of pitch. I had sung in a choir and taken voice lessons through high school, so I thought I had a good chance—flop sweat and shaky knees notwithstanding.
I wasn’t three notes into the warm up before Bob asked me to try something. “Do it again, but with a smile,” he said. This raised my soft palate, and in an instant my voice was transformed.
I never enrolled in a class with Bob, but I count him as one of my best professors. He coached us in vocal technique, music theory, the historical context and analyses of the pieces we were singing. He took time during each rehearsal to teach, and for us to incorporate the ideas in our muscle memories for the performance. My fellow singers in the Handel Society can tell you that it has become a standing joke that when he asks what to do with a note that ties into the next measure, I supply the answer: “Crescendo over the bar line!”
In other words, don’t just sit on a note—you have to move on it. I internalized this lesson outside of the rehearsal room as well, reporting to Bob as the Handel Society student manager throughout my four years at Dartmouth. The man always finds more to give: more time, more ideas, more energy. He was a remarkable mentor, and my work ethic has greatly benefited from the attention to detail, methodical planning, management of priorities, clear communication, passion and vision I observed working at Bob’s side.
During these fifteen years, Bob Duff has taken on extraordinarily ambitious projects with the Society: commissioned pieces (notably Andrea Clearfield’s setting of Robert Frost’s poetry in Fire and Ice in 2007), educational outreach (in connection with our performance of Annelies in 2015, a piece set to selections from Anne Frank’s diary) and collaborations with young singers (an exceptional children’s chorus for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 2013 and a joint performance of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna with high school students in 2016). He has chosen innovative and challenging repertoire to help our ensemble grow musically, particularly in preparation for going on tour. Our ensemble has toured through Germany, Switzerland, Italy, England, France, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, in venues ranging from the grandeur of Saint Peter’s Basilica and the now devastated Cathedral de Notre Dame to tiny village churches in the mountains.
And Bob has also found time to include some of the great choral masterworks, knowing that in our rural community, live performances of the Brahms Requiem, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast and Dvorak’s Stabat Mater are hard to come by and possibly life-changing for the audience.
As a Dartmouth student, I could not believe that I had an opportunity to sing these pieces with a live orchestra; preparing for my third Messiah with the Handel Society, I still can’t believe it.
Working with Bob to support this community of singers became the one constant of my college experience, and the Handel Society became one of the few places I felt at home. I took comfort in a place where we were encouraged to honor our own vocal instruments, but also to find balance. Just this past Wednesday at rehearsal he reminded us to “listen more than you sing, so you can become one with your neighbor.”
This practice is good for the soul and it is good for our community. No one understands this better than Bob Duff. Over the past fifteen years Bob has worked tirelessly to serve the Choral Arts Foundation of the Upper Valley (CAFUV), a non-profit originally founded in 1992 as the Handel Society Foundation, but later expanded to support and promote all of the groups in our area. Bob’s commitment to fostering connections between groups and audience appreciation for the power of choral music has been essential to helping the CAFUV board develop a plan to grow the Upper Valley’s remarkable music ecosystem. Most of you only know Bob as the artistic director for the Handel Society, but he is going to be missed for so much more.
At this past rehearsal, former Handel Society president Karen Endicott reminded the group that when Melinda O’Neal left in 2004 after 25 years, that it was impossible to imagine who would replace her—and then we found Bob Duff. Karen said, “Every conductor is a gift.” We will look forward to seeing what the next one will bring.
In the meantime, we will continue to remember what Bob has taught us:
Listen more than you sing, so you can become one with your neighbor.
Crescendo over the bar line (in everything you do).