John William Trotter became Chicago a cappella‘s Artistic Director in June 2020-21 season, right in the thick of the pandemic. With 2022-23 marking John’s third season as Artistic Director, we wanted to give you a chance to get to know him a little better. We recently sat down with him to ask about his history with Chicago a cappella, his vision for the concert experience, and the important role the audience plays.
Why were you interested in working with Chicago a cappella?
Chicago a cappella is an all-star team. It’s an organization that is made up of people who never outgrew their love of making music and singing together and have hyper focused on it their entire adult lives on top of everything else they manage. The ensemble’s range is amazing, number of genres they master together is incredible, on top of being able to present their love for music in front of audiences in such a magnetic way.
My first conversation with Chicago a cappella about working together was in 2012. They were looking for people to take one concert in a season and I remember looking at the season and thinking that every concert looked so interesting, which isn’t unusual because I like many types of music. But what was unusual was how every concert was so unique and different. Each concert would give you a completely different perspective of music and the thought of working with an ensemble that could cover this range was very fascinating to me.
What are you most excited to share about the upcoming 2022-23 Season?
When I think about this season, I’m very excited about the variety we are offering, especially this hidden gem concert we are doing in February of pieces that we think of as striking, important, and necessary, but almost never saw the light of day. These include pieces and composers that were ignored, suppressed, delayed, persecuted, or kept from full public view, but are now accessible. Some, like the Howells and Byrd pieces, emerged some time ago and have now become well known and appreciated, even canonical. Others haven’t had their full public airing yet, and their performances in these concerts is a part of those works finding their life and their audience, particularly the works we’re performing by Renaissance women composers Sulpitia Cesis and Vittoria Aleotti.
We will be putting those pieces and stories next to other pieces that haven’t seen the light of day. Pieces and composers which are new, which might not have come to awareness without the “unearthing” work of those now living, including Chicago a cappella, such as Florence Price and our HerVoice Emerging Women Composers Competition winners. These pieces will go side by side and let us think about the fact music doesn’t just happen it has to be found, brought out, developed, and presented. We are just lucky to be alive in this present time to get to experience it.
The Hanukkah program is an ambitious program for us. It is a particular challenge and contribution. It’s a program where much of the repertoire could only come from this country as most of the composers are American, and while some of the pieces and much of the source material are very traditional, there is also clear influence from American genres. Hannukah is, among other things, a time of celebration, and the music of celebration developed in a unique way in this country, such as the vocabulary and forms of jazz and even funk. This program brings together pieces that haven’t lived together before, some pieces haven’t even been performed together before. We are singing in Hebrew; we are singing in Yiddish; languages we are coached in. None of this has been done before so we are excited to climb that mountain together!
What can the audience expect at every Chicago a cappella concert?
When people come to a CAC concert they will be surprised, there will always be something that they didn’t think they’d see on stage with our incredible group of singers. Concert attendees can also always expect to be touched by the music and the way it’s performed, there will be a moment where you are taken out of yourself and have this deep sentiment often when you least expect it! I have experienced this many times myself as I’ve observed concerts from the audience. Last February, I was deeply moved hearing from young composer Sarai Hillman talk about the losses of her early life and the consolation of her faith – and then experiencing her fresh compositional voice. Back in 2018 at our Chicago, Chicago concerts, I was blown away by the experience of hearing Prayers of Steel in the Pritzker Pavilion, with the skyscrapers of Chicago, which inspired the piece, in the background!
Another memorable moment happened at a Shakespeare a cappella concert. Shakespeare reveals so much about our inner lives on stage, and we in the audience sensed that recognition, together. We felt it together, but we also felt together, in the sense of less alone. There were many warm, loving, and profound moments. And then, unexpectedly, we were chilled by Sarah Ponder’s solo in Shakespeare’s revenge couplet: “For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright, who art as black as hell, as dark as night”.
Tell us a little more about your work outside of CAC. Are there any projects or initiatives that have, or will, connect with your work at CAC?
As Associate Professor at the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music helping students experience the richness of life beyond music is important to me. Every year I bring my choral students on an immersive trip to the city of Chicago for them to experience music in different spaces and have discussions with folks who work in the arts. I’m grateful to have the staff and singers of Chicago a cappella as a resource for them.
In 2019/20, I was elected a Visiting Bye-Fellow at Selwyn College, Cambridge. When I returned from this sabbatical, I thought about the large number of unsolicited manuscripts I had received from composers over many years. They were nearly all from men. Was this because most living composers “out there” were men? If that were so, there must have been a great attrition after undergraduate study, since many composition majors I know are women. Or perhaps it was just another case, writ large, of what I had noticed with student composers: that men are more likely to “cold call” a conductor than women were. Or maybe both. Or maybe some other cause entirely. Whatever it was, these observations were enough to make me strongly suspect that there was “gold in them thar hills” – and that if we were going to find the best pieces by emerging women composers, we would have to go out looking for them. This was what led to the creation of HerVoice Emerging Women Composers competition.
How would you describe the relationship Chicago a cappella has with its audience?
You know, when we meet somebody who’s come to our show, the first thing we will ask them is “which performance were you at?” Do you think about why we ask that? It’s because no performance is the same. Every performance is really very different. Our superfans, who actually go to more than one performance of any particular program, know this. And the reasons for that are just so many. But it just highlights for us how important it is that those particular people are in those particular seats to make the experience what it is for everyone, for the singers on stage and for everyone in the room. Try it sometime! Come to two different shows and just see how different it is, how the flavor and the feel is just unique.
Every night we think of the audience. When we’re preparing, we prepare our work so that it can be as transparent and generous as possible for everyone to receive. But the audience is part in that is equal. It’s an exchange and it’s amazing for us. It’s why we do it. To feel that connection, especially after COVID.