Community chorus director sings his finale
“Music has always been a part of my life.”
Since he was a boy growing up in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., Jeff Rehbach was surrounded and inspired by music.
“My parents sang in the Lutheran church choir in my hometown, and my younger sister, brother and I all sang in the youth choir at the church,” he described in a recent interview. “Our aunts, uncles and first cousins gathered at Christmastime to sing carols together each year from the time we were all in elementary school right through high school and early college years.”
He picked up the violin in fourth grade and continued with that through high school and during his college years at Cornell University, where he played in the orchestra, chamber ensembles and accompanying musicals. At Cornell, Rehbach also began to play viola, which he continues to do with the Champlain Philharmonic Orchestra.
Here in Addison County, we know Rehbach as the director of the Middlebury College Community Chorus, a 90-voice ensemble of community singers that he has led since 2000. But the time has come for Rehbach to pass the baton to Jeff Buettner, director of choral activities at Middlebury College.
“During the coming years, I’ll to continue to conduct Middlebury’s annual holiday ‘Messiah Sing’ as the community gathers to make music together,” Rehbach explained. “I look forward to playing chamber music and orchestral music on viola (with a new instrument made by Vermont luthier Warren Ellison), using a brand new viola bow — a gift presented to me by the Chorus — hand-crafted by H. F. Grabenstein in Williston.”
Rehbach said he hopes to have some opportunities to guest conduct, to continue to play and to sing with various ensembles, and to travel with his wife, Meredith.
“I think it’s going to be wonderful!” he said
Rehbach recently took time to reflect on his careers and share his experiences.
What brought you to Middlebury College as Music Librarian in 1981?
I entered Cornell University to study engineering, but always took music history and music theory classes as my electives. Just before the conclusion of my junior year, I switched majors from chemical engineering to music. This move came while working as a student assistant in Cornell’s magnificent music library, where I saw the potential of a future career path as a professional music librarian. After graduating in 1975, I stayed on at Cornell, working in the library while studying musicology, conducting choirs, and commuting to Syracuse for coursework in librarianship and information studies. This was just as computer systems and databases first materialized to replace paper indexes and library card catalogs.
I completed my courses of study (for a Master of Library and Information Science) at Syracuse University in 1981; I finished writing my Cornell master’s thesis in 1982 after I had settled in Vermont. In 1981, following interviews for various music library positions across the U.S., I jumped at the chance to come to Middlebury to build up the college’s relatively new music library and to live in the beauty of Vermont. I still remember when I stepped into Mead Chapel for the first time that year, and immediately felt a sense of being at home (the choirs at Cornell all rehearsed in its chapel). Now, for the past 20 years, I’ve spent countless hours in the chapel, both leading the College Chamber Singers in the early 2000s, and as conductor of the College Community Chorus since 2000.
What have been some of the highlights of your Library & Information Sciences career?
Middlebury College provided many opportunities over the years to “spread my wings.” With background from my studies at Syracuse, I helped the college library select and implement its first online catalog system. It went “live” 35 years ago at the start of the fall 1986 term, with old fashioned computer terminals mounted on counters in the lobby of Starr Library.
By 1995, I was working with computing support services on campus. We launched our first website that year, continued to introduce personal computers to faculty and staff offices, and, by fall 1986 CHECKis it 1996??it goes from 1995 back to 1986…, wired nearly every dorm room on campus for network access as students began to arrive on campus with PCs and Macs.
Some of us may remember the challenges of Y2K as we tested every computer and software program on campus to assure they wouldn’t crash as we transitioned from 1999 to the year 2000. We were 100% successful.
When the libraries and information technology departments merged in the early 2000s, I moved to a new role as special projects manager. I especially enjoyed working with architects, facilities planners, and colleagues on so many details of the new Davis Family Library, from selecting furniture to setting the order of the books on the thousands of yards of new shelving. Ultimately the project entailed the relocation of nearly 700,000 books and magazines, and 70 staff and faculty members from seven locations across campus to their new offices — all in just a seven-week window!
What have been some of the highlights of your musical career?
Oh, so many! In high school I particularly remember playing with our orchestra my senior year when the school produced “West Side Story.” My orchestra teacher each weekend loaned me the full score of Leonard Bernstein’s amazing musical — with all its instrumental, chorus and solo parts handwritten across its large pages — and I first began to teach myself to read and conduct from a score that year.
Over the years, singing in choirs has been so rewarding under fabulous conductors such as Michael Tilson Thomas (when I was a singer with the Cornell Glee Club and Chorus) and Robert De Cormier, Kate Tamarkin, Jamie Laredo, and José Daniel Flores-Caraballo with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus. I learn so much by directly observing and participating in their rehearsals and performances. Here in Middlebury, singing the Brahms “Requiem” under Emory Fanning’s direction remains a vivid memory.
In 1984, we held our first Middlebury Messiah Sing — and that continues annually! From 1985 to 1999, it was a privilege to lead the church choir at the Congregational Church of Middlebury. In 1990, nearly 100 singers from local choirs came together to perform Haydn’s two-hour long oratorio “The Creation” as we celebrated the church’s bicentennial. During the late 1980s and 1990s, I loved helping with community theater groups and the Addison County Youth Chorus, especially the shows “Oliver” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” that included my step-children Alasdair Post-Quinn and Margaret Quinn.
Leading the Middlebury College Chamber Singers from 2000-2007 was also a delight. I enjoyed working closely with so many talented students, and, especially our singing in the annual Service of Lessons and Carols in Mead Chapel each December. Presenting a newly commissioned work by Middlebury College alumna Christina Whitten Thomas (a past Chamber Singers singer) with the Vermont Choral Union five years ago was a treat.
And, for these past 20 years it has been an honor to lead the College Community Chorus — with a history that stretches back to the 1850s — and its nearly 600 different singers, including college students and community members from throughout the region. During my first year with the Chorus in 2000, we prepared for the premiere of Peter Hamlin’s “Reflections of the Sky” for the college bicentennial. Since then, performances that have included new works by local musicians Sam Guarnaccia, Moira Smiley, Nate Gusakov and Sally Hoyler have also made this experience so rich. How wonderful it’s been to collaborate with our outstanding accompanists George Matthew Jr. and Tim Guiles, as we have performed classical works and introduced a new generation of composers to our singers and audiences.
How do these two main channels of your work-life connect or relate to one another?
My work in library and information systems and with choirs can require a “vision” and a process with many steps along the way. If we’re creating a website, for example, we envision and define its content and we talk with people about how they may interact with it. We research, articulate and document the path that leads to its implementation. Along the way, we typically involve, coach, guide and inspire people who work together to create the final product.
Planning performances encompasses background research, listening and looking at music scores and their texts. How to anticipate how they will come together meaningfully for performers and audiences alike. We learn the music step by step, gradually giving shape to an individual song as we combine its phrases and melodies and harmonies. Add to this, writing and printing programs, booking spaces, publicity, configuring lighting and seating, and more — a whole inter-related system — ultimately results in an uplifting program that we offer to our community.
How do you direct so many voices so that the performances comes together so beautifully?
Whether a piece lasts a few minutes or 40 minutes, we patiently repeat in rehearsal its melodies, words, and rhythms; its dynamics from the softest pianissimo to the strongest fortissimo; we learn to shape of each line of music and give it a sense of direction.
From one rehearsal to the next, our voices and our minds begin to recall each phrase. We practice how to shape vowels and produce consonants uniformly. Most importantly, we come to understand how we listen to one another, and from that to sing “with one voice” in harmony and in community. We laugh, we share, we let go of ourselves, and we let the dots and lines and symbols on a page of music move into our minds and hearts and voices to create music that is uniquely human, beautiful and inspiring.
After 21 years directing the Middlebury College Community Chorus, what are your main takeaways? Do you have any parting words you’d like to share with the community?
As I shared with the chorus when we gathered and sang outdoors together at the end of August — the first time we had been together in person since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Vermont in March 2020 — I believe our human nature instinctively weaves our lives together, that is, to dance in concert. Indeed, our word “chorus” comes from the ancient Greek word “khorus” meaning a dance. Physically, we create and hear singing as sound waves that move through time and space. Then, with a sense of mystery and wonder, music transcends time and space as we sing “with heart” and find ourselves connected heart to heart. As a community chorus, we enter into a special communion with one another and with our community at large as we share music that gives voice to light and darkness, joy and sorrow, life and death, hope and remembrance. The spirit of music unites us in this dance of life.