Brett Karlin would like you to forget that the Master Chorale of South Florida was once the chorus for the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra.
After all, that orchestra vanished 10 years ago this month, and Karlin thinks it’s time that the chorale, which survived the collapse and has been concertizing ever since, is given credit for being its own institution.
“I’m looking forward to moving forward with a name and a brand for the Master Chorale of South Florida, not the ‘Previous Florida Philharmonic Chorus,’” Karlin said. “It’s going to be a new age for the Master Chorale.”
Earlier this month, the 26-year-old Boca Raton-raised musician was named the chorale’s new director, the fourth in its history. He takes over the job officially Saturday, succeeding Karen Kennedy, who resigned after a short time in the job to focus on her work as director of choral activities at the University of Miami.
Unlike Kennedy and the two earlier directors of the group — Jo-Michael Scheibe and Joshua Habermann — Karlin will not be the UM choral chief at the same time as he directs the Master Chorale. And while he heaps praise on his three predecessors, he said he thinks having a director devoted to its welfare is the best thing for the chorus as it is now.
“The Master Chorale of South Florida has never had a dedicated music director who has seen the ensemble as their primary source of employment, their primary gig,” Karlin said from Tampa earlier this month. Hiring him means the group is in for a “significant change,” he said.
It also marks the first time the chorale will be led by someone who grew up in South Florida. Karlin’s family moved to Boca Raton from Pennsylvania when he was 5. As a boy he studied piano, then took up the trombone, but it wasn’t until high school that he began to find his métier in the vocal repertoire, starting with the operatic tradition.
His voice teacher in ninth grade at the American Heritage School, who was a Florida Atlantic University graduate student, encouraged him to listen to more classical music. And that was just fine with him.
“In the seventh, eighth and ninth grade, as a student growing up in Boca Raton, you go to a lot of parties, specifically to a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs,” he said, and that meant a good deal of dancing to contemporary popular music. “This was a time when artists like Alanis Morissette, Green Day, and even Nirvana a little before that, were extraordinarily popular. And it just wasn’t my bag. It wasn’t something that was engaging to me, it wasn’t transformative, it wasn’t emotional.
“It never felt like it represented me, although in the media I was being told that this music represented me,” he said.
What turned out to be his bag was the music of the operatic tradition, starting with recordings by the legendary Australian coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland. That led him down the paths of audiophilia, and he often did homework while listening to cable TV music channels featuring classical and opera selections.
“I would look up from what I was doing, and write down composer names, the title of the work, and any artist’s names that I could find,” he said, following that up with purchases on Amazon or through iTunes. He’d follow the path of that passion wherever it led him: An admiration for the French soprano Natalie Dessay led him to an album of hers with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which in turn led him to seek out more recordings by the British orchestra.
By 10th or 11th grade, it was clear to Karlin and his family that he was going to pursue music, and after high school graduation he went off to Florida State University, initially as a brass and voice double major. He soon stored the trombone and switched to a bachelor of arts in voice when he realized he was more interested in activities such as assistant stage direction for a mainstage opera at FSU, and working through a college theater group to mount chamber operas including Douglas Moore’s “Gallantry” and Samuel Barber’s “A Hand of Bridge.”
But Karlin found his true vocation when he won an FSU grant that allowed him to travel to England to research “Dido and Aeneas,” Henry Purcell’s beloved chamber opera. He saw the original libretto at the British Library, then went to Oxford’s Bodleian Library to see an early edition of the score, and was able during his time in London to talk to Purcell expert Sir Curtis Price and spend some time shadowing the Baroque specialist Laurence Cummings. When he returned to FSU, he gave a talk about his research, and then mounted a performance of the work, with orchestra, chorus and soloists in October 2008.
“It was the first performance I’d conducted beginning to end, and it was the most transformative experience of my musical life,” he said. “After that experience, which was the most challenging, most difficult but also most rewarding experience that I’d ever been a part of, I decided then that I was going to be a conductor. That was it.”
Through his friend Reggie Mobley, a longtime countertenor with the Miami chamber choir Seraphic Fire, Karlin made a connection with Seraphic Fire founder Patrick Dupré Quigley, who hired him as an assistant conductor for 2009-10. Karlin did choir preparation, contracting and even organ tuning as part of his duties, and then decided to pursue graduate studies with another Seraphic Fire member, chorusmaster James Bass, then at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
At that point, Bass was offered a job at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and Karlin decided to follow him there for master’s study in choral conducting. As an assistant conductor for the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, Karlin led concerts with the Florida Orchestra and prepared the chorus for a Naxos recording of “Sea Drift” and “Appalachia,” two works by the English composer Frederick Delius, who lived near present-day Palatka for a brief time in the mid-1880s as manager of an orange grove.
He finished his master’s last year, and in addition to his work with the Tampa Bay chorale, has been teaching voice at Hillsborough Community College.
Although he is not yet formally in the job, he said he has a five-year plan for the repertoire he wants the Chorale to pursue, though he’s not ready yet to disclose any specific works.
“The potential for maybe more diverse, marketable, engaging and higher-level programming is much higher than it was before,” Karlin said, adding that a chorus that can do a lot of different things is also quite desirable.
“From an institutional standpoint, whether it’s Master Chorale of South Florida we’re talking about or not, any combined performance with a symphony orchestra of, let’s say, 40 to 80 players, is going to be much more expensive to produce then a concert of a cappella Mendelssohn and Brahms works, or a concert of works for organ and choir,” he said.
“I find a versatile organization that can perform a wide range of repertoire, and a versatile organization who’s smart about their marketability to the audiences, and above all else, who can provide a product of top-tier artistic excellence, to be the most successful ensemble,” he said.
The 90-member chorale is a volunteer ensemble, most of whose members are professionals in other lines of work than music.
“The makeup of the choir is very diverse. We’ve got music educators in there, we have students in there, lawyers and neurosurgeons; these are professionals that dedicate so much time to music,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean they want their side activity to be any less accomplished, said Karlin, who plans to apply a strong pedagogical focus to his new job, including a short laryngoscope video he’ll show to the choir to show them what their vocal cords, or “folds,” look like.
“It’s about training volunteers, improving their vocal abilities and their technical capabilities every single season,” he said, and that will have a big payoff for audience members and the singers themselves.
“They’re looking for a chance to unplug from their normal business day and family life and just throw themselves into something wholeheartedly, to have — I’ve used this word a lot, but to have a transformative experience,” Karlin said. “Something where they’re dealing with the emotions of their life through music, through a sonic experience, trying to communicate and deal with intangible things that words can’t describe.”
This year, the Master Chorale is scheduled to perform the Mass in C minor (K. 457) of Mozart from Nov. 22-24 in Pompano Beach, Boca Raton and Miami, and in the spring (April 25-27), the beautiful “Mass in Time of War of Haydn,” and Vaughan Williams’ splendid cantata “Dona Nobis Pacem.” The group will also accompany Italian poperatic star Andrea Bocelli in his annual Valentine’s Day concert in South Florida at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, and on March 24-25 joins the Lynn Philharmonia in Boca for two performances of the Second Symphony of Gustav Mahler. For more information, call 954-418-6232 or visit www.masterchoraleofsouthflorida.com.