Turtle Creek Chorale Moves Forward with Positive Attitude
After a year as the interim director of the Turtle Creek Chorale, treat Trey Jacobs accepted the position of artistic director. Founded in 1980, the Morton Meyerson Symphony Center is home for the 225-member men’s chorus. With 31 CDs, the Chorale is the most-recorded men’s chorus. The group was featured in the Emmy Award-winning documentary, After Goodbye: An AIDS Story. They hold the Guinness World Record for the Longest Continuous Choral Concert at 20 hours and 23 seconds and have performed across the country and in Europe. Arts writer David Taffet spoke to Jacobs as he completes his interim year, before moving to Dallas and begins his new career.
A+C: What is your musical background?
Trey Jacobs: Music has always been a part of my life. My Mother told a story of me as a baby, sitting content in my swing for hours while the radio played. I sang in children’s choirs at church from pre-school through elementary school. When I was 6 years old, I began studying piano. I would fantasize for hours about being a concert pianist and would pretend to play on the taped number line on my school desk! I continued with piano lessons until I was in the 4th grade. As most kids do, I lost interest, and didn’t want to practice, so I quit and my parents sold our piano.
A sort of funny sidebar here, our piano was a huge upright, “no name” brand piano that had been refinished, and I am sure that my Dad found it for a steal. The piano stool was the old circular stool that would raise and lower by turning the seat around and around. I remember that it had claw feet and I hated it! I was such a little tike, and the piano and stool seemed so large and assuming. I have often laughed that the real reason I quit taking lessons was because I hated our piano so much! Anyway, when I was in the 5th grade, my music teacher contacted me to inform me that the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, in my hometown, would be presenting the musical Oliver! and that she wanted me to audition. I did audition, and according to my Dad…I overheard he and my Mother talking while they thought I was asleep….I was terrible. To my excitement, I was cast as a workhouse boy and also as one of Fagin’s gang. I was thrilled! A few weeks into rehearsal, I was pulled aside by the director, music director and the young boy cast as Oliver. The boy was going through puberty and his voice was changing and he could not sing the solos. So, they asked me to take on the role of Oliver. With fear and trepidation I accepted and never looked back! I acted in many other community theater productions in Wilmington and caught the performance bug.
When I was in the 6th grade, two major musical events occurred in my life. First, I begged my parents to buy another piano…they did…and it was a petite spinet…just the right size! And second, I began playing the trumpet. I loved playing the piano, and would sit for hours every day playing through a book of oldies…my favorite piece was “Autumn Leaves.” I played trumpet in band and orchestra, from 6th grade until I graduated high school. Additionally, I sang in the youth choir, youth ensemble, played in the hand bell choir, and brass ensemble at my church.
I never sang in the choir at school until the second semester of my sophomore year in high school. I was such a music snob and thought that the music that the choir sang at my middle school was so beneath me! Auditioning and being accepted into the top choir in my high school midway through my sophomore year was another of those “life changing” moments for me. The chorus became my family. It was a place where I belonged and was accepted. My chorus teacher, Jane Price, was an incredible mentor for me. She encouraged and put up with me spending every free moment in her office and babbling about all things musical. The summer after my junior year, I auditioned and was accepted to study choral music at the prestigious Governor’s School in North Carolina. I had the opportunity to sing and make music with 40 of the finest singers in the state for six weeks. It truly changed my life. I realized that summer that I HAD to pursue music as a career. My parents were none too pleased about my decision. They had always pushed me to believe that I would pursue medicine and one day be a pediatrician. When I broke the news to my parents that I planned on majoring in music, my Dad very nonchalantly said, “You will never make any money as a musician.” I very defiantly told him that I was okay with that, because at least I would be doing something that made me happy because he made a lot of money, but was miserable at his job.
The following year, I began my journey as a vocal major at East Carolina University. At first, I truly thought that I would be a professional singer/performer. I slowly but surely realized that I did not really love performing as a singer. I was pretty good at it, but I didn’t love it. In my second year of undergraduate school, I took my first conducting class. I was hooked! I felt more at home on the podium than I had ever felt as a performer. My degree plans moved away from performance and toward music education. My conducting teacher, Rhonda Fleming was my second most influential conducting mentor. I saw in her a passion for music making that I had never experienced at that level before. Fast forward a couple of years, and I did my student teaching with an incredible high school teacher….the music director from the production of Oliver! that I did back in the 5th grade. I graduated in four years and moved back home to Wilmington. A church in my hometown contacted me to consider a position as their music and youth minister. I accepted the position, thinking that it was a temporary step for me before going on to pursue my master and doctorate degrees in choral conducting. I spent a year at the Masonboro Baptist Church. In January of that year, 1982, I attended a music conference in Orlando, Florida, and met a young lady who was in charge of marketing for the sponsoring company. We because engaged the third time we ever saw each other and I agreed to move to Ft Worth, Texas to get married and attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where her Father taught, for my master’s degree. We spent two years in Fort Worth, and then moved to Joshua, where we built our first home. I was working as the music minister at 1st Baptist Church in Joshua and was there for five years. Our son, Christopher, was born July 25, 1984. I continued directing music in Southern Baptist Churches until 1993. While at 1st Baptist Church of Tallahassee, Florida, my ex-wife and I divorced. It was the hardest thing I had ever experienced, but was also the most freeing thing I ever experienced. This opened a door for me to accept a job as Director of Choral Activities at Winter Park High School, in Winter Park, Florida. It also allowed me to finally come to terms with being a gay man. I taught at Winter Park High School for 11 incredible years. While in the Orlando area, I also had the opportunity to co-conduct the Bach Children’s Choir, affiliated with Rollins College, and then along with two of my best friends founded the Orlando Children’s Chorus. I also had opportunities to prepare choruses for the Orlando Philharmonic.
2003 is a significant year for me. I met my partner, Thomas, and my Dad unexpectedly passed away. After my Dad’s death, I decided that I had some unfinished business, and so I resigned my job teaching high school and with Thomas, moved to Michigan to pursue my doctorate in choral conducting at Michigan State University. In 2007, upon completion of all my course work, I was hired as director of choral activities at Eastern Michigan University. In the four years at EMU, I conducted two established choirs, created a Vocal Jazz ensemble, and a Men’s Glee Club, taught choral conducting, graduate conducting, secondary choral methods, and was supervisor for all choral music education student teachers. The choirs at EMU auditioned and performed at both the Michigan American Choral Director’s Association Convention, and the Michigan Music Educators Convention.
A+C: What attracted you to the Turtle Creek Chorale?
Trey Jacobs: I heard the Turtle Creek Chorale in 1993 when they performed at the national ACDA Convention in San Antonio. I remember being completely enthralled with not only the beauty of the sound of the chorale, but also by the expressiveness and musicality. I became an immediate fan and purchased many of their recordings. I used those recordings as a model not only in my teaching men’s choirs, but also for my high school boys to hear what a “real” men’s choir can sound like.
I never considered that I would ever conduct the Turtle Creek Chorale, because I have always thought myself to be a music educator and that I would retire teaching at the collegiate level. The possibility availed itself at the right time in my life, honestly. Even after accepting the interim position, I believed that I was only going to with the Chorale temporarily. After being with them for about a month, things began to change inside of me. I developed a tremendous love for the guys in the Chorale. I had never before experienced making music with a group of people that were so willing to be vulnerable and transparent. It was very refreshing.
I also see the Turtle Creek Chorale at a precipice. Tim Seelig absolutely led the Chorale to its present place of prominence over his 20 year tenure. I believe that the Turtle Creek Chorale is in a prime place to truly make a mark as one of Dallas’ premiere arts organizations, offering the highest caliber of singing and music making, as well as innovative and educational programming.
A+C: You connected with members of the Chorale from the first rehearsal you attended. Through your interim season, your relationship with them grew stronger. What made that relationship click from the beginning?
Trey Jacobs: As an educator, I have always felt that one of my strengths is the ability to care and nurture those that I am fortunate enough to teach. The same thing was true of the Chorale. It is very important to me to be able to call each of the 180–200 singers by name. I want them to know that they, as human beings are important, and not just that they fill a seat and sing.
I also was vulnerable with the guys from the very beginning. I was willing to put any ego aside and bare my soul with them. Vulnerability and honesty…two important attributes when leading.
A+C: Tim Seelig made his mark with the Chorale as artistic director for 20 years. What’s your relationship with Tim?
Trey Jacobs: First, I want to go on the record and say that I have a huge level of respect and admiration for Tim Seelig. I was a fan of Tim’s many years before we finally met. I had the opportunity to meet Tim when the Chorale performed for the Iowa ACDA Summer Conference. Tim, Craig Gregory, the assistant conductor and I became instant friends and had a great time socializing as well as talking about music making. We have remained in contact over the years and I consider Tim to be a friend, colleague and mentor.
A+C: What directions do you plan to take the Chorale that it hasn’t been before?
Trey Jacobs: The Chorale has been in the forefront for years. Under Tim’s direction, they commissioned many important works and pieces. They produced a tremendous amount of recordings. They produced two major televised specials that are still being aired regularly. They have been leaders in the gay community. Under Jonathan Palant’s tenure the Chorale “parented” a youth choral group as a part of Youth First Texas. Jonathan also led the “Partners in Harmony” concert to higher prominence and participation.
Again as an educator, I am hoping that the Chorale will continue being innovative in ways to share an important message of acceptance to greater audiences. I hope that we will find ways of reaching out to teachers and students in the metroplex area. I also am very interested in creating an educational program for the members of the Chorale…a program that would offer weekly classes to improve musical literacy, vocal skills, and dance/movement skills.
A+C: The Chorale has made a name for itself premiering new works — most notably Sing for the Cure. Any plans for future premieres?
Trey Jacobs: Absolutely! Just since I began working with the Chorale in August, we have had four new pieces either arranged or re-voiced for us. We are working on a couple of very exciting ideas for the 2013–14 season. One will hopefully be a one-act production that will be a collaborative work created for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The other would be a work dealing with the subject of bullying that would be an educational piece to share out in the schools.
A+C: The Chorale has performed in Europe and sung at Carnegie Hall. Any tours planned?
Trey Jacobs: We are in preliminary discussions about a possible US tour that would end in New York City with a major performance at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. That will be a year or two down the road. I have received numerous requests for the Chorale to perform in various cities around the U.S. As a sort of outsider, I will tell you that music folk around the country hold the Turtle Creek Chorale in the highest of regard and very much want to hear them sing live.
A+C: You had just moved to Alabama a week before being hired to become the Chorale’s interim director. Now that you will be conducting in Dallas full-time, will you be moving to Texas?
Trey Jacobs: Yes, my partner Thomas and I will definitely be moving to Dallas. Our hope is to be moved by July.