About Episode 2
Get ready for another episode of Bach Talk as we dive deeper into the world of The Bach Society of Saint Louis with Music Director and Conductor A. Dennis Sparger. In this second installment of 'Meet the Maestro', we uncover more about the man behind the music and his remarkable journey. He also shares insights into the importance of teamwork, respect for volunteers and the power of Bach's music in uplifting and transforming people's lives. The episode also touches on Dr. William B. Heyne, the founder of The Bach Society, and how Dennis continues to carry on the legacy of Bach's music.
Ron Klemm 00:00
This is Bach Talk. I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the World to Come. The heart of the credo, I believe, as expressed in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. You're hearing The Bach Society of Saint Louis in a performance of Bach's Mass in B minor, conducted by Dr. A Dennis Sparger. Hello, I'm Ron Klemm. Welcome to Bach Talk. Dennis Sparger. became the music director and conductor of The Bach Society of Saint Louis in 1986. He recently surpassed founder Dr. William Heyne as the longest-tenured conductor in The Bach Society's 82-year history. Maestro Sparger has conducted more than 195 performances with a Bach Society, which means that before the current season concludes, he will have reached the 200th performance plateau. The number of singers that Dennis has led over the years can be measured in the 1000s and the cumulative audience that he has impacted with The Bach Society alone would fill st Louis's Busch Stadium twice. Last time on Bach Talk, we began this series of podcasts with the first part of our extended conversation with the maestro from the Sparger's breakfast room, we chatted about a bevy of topics. We learned all about Dennis's upbringing in Harvey, Illinois, just south of Chicago, about his first recollections of music at home, his musical development from starting on the accordion, to learning the piano, then the double bass and cello. And we heard about his side gigs too playing jazz around town in the evenings while pursuing his bachelor's degree at Eastern Illinois University. Today, we want to pick up where we left that conversation as a promising young conductor began to see his life's course unfold. One, which turned out to be his mother's plan all along.
Dennis Sparger 02:41
As I was wrapping up my senior year, I was a little ahead of the game because I was taking extra courses and I was able to get a little bit of a head start into a master's degree. And I was offered a position as a graduate assistant. So I would get free tuition and a very minor stipend. And by then I had a church choir. And I had a couple of bars where I played piano on weekends and was paid okay, and, and by that time I was married and had our little girl Cindy. And I thought if ever I'm going to get a master's degree, this is the time to do it. So we stayed on. And by that time we were living in student housing for married students. It was an area we called fertile acres. That's but it was a place to be a nice place to be and university supported. So the rent wasn't terribly high. Um, and during that summer when I was taking classes, another fellow came in from Germany. He was an American who had worked in Germany and played in studio bands, radio bands, playing really highly sophisticated jazz. And he was back at Eastern I think picking up a master's degree then. So we played what then used to be called jam sessions. I don't know what they call them. Now the players would just get together and we'd have like a common repertoire and we just played together and he played Valve Trombone, really well. And valve trombone, yeah. Wow. Yeah. And my my jazz piano playing by that time was fair. I got through. Well, I finished my master's degree and started looking for jobs and kept turning them down. And late in August, as Helene was going crazy thinking, will he ever get a job? An offer came from Urbana High School. So I took that job and it turned out to be a wonderful first-year position for me. Now the students, many were children of professors at University of Illinois, were so many of them were so gifted and talented. A couple of them had perfect pitch. Several played piano really well. And we just had a great year, but at the end of the Your I could see that a lot of wonderful seniors were leaving. And the counselors were advising students to take a fifth solid instead of choir. And I thought I can see where this is going. Well, I should mention here that every once in a while, in the mornings when I'd have my break, I'd go to the teacher's lounge and have a cup of coffee, with Igor Stravinsky's daughter-in-law.
Ron Klemm 05:23
Dennis Sparger 05:24
Yes, by then I was young and stupid and hardly knew that it was a big deal. It was a big deal. And and I should have used that you have that leverage to meet the master himself.
Ron Klemm 05:37
Dennis Sparger 05:37
But there were wonderful times. This fellow who played valve trombone, by that time, had moved to Belleville. It was working in the junior college at that time, it was Belleville Junior College, and it but he was starting to grow and had a little bit of a music department built by one. And he wanted a choral director. He was looking for a choral director that could play jazz piano and drink beer.
Ron Klemm 06:04
For what reason? Who knows.
Dennis Sparger 06:07
But he had interviewed people from like the very fine universities. And he remembered me so he gave the call and we came down, took a look had a beer heavier, and it was about a 50% pay increase. And in addition to teaching, it offered summer school to teach and an evening overload class, and I thought, you know, you're I have a wife and a child, I have people to support and this is an opportunity, you know, to keep growing and, and helping my family at the same time. So we thought we'll come here for two years and then move on.
Ron Klemm 06:43
Well, I know that feeling so be you didn't know anything really about Belleville or the St. Louis area necessarily.
Dennis Sparger 06:49
I had a college roommate who was from Belleville and he had mentioned you know, what a very nice place it was to live. And it was not too unlike Harvey in South Chicago. Hardworking people that were generally pretty pleasant.
Ron Klemm 07:39
The concluding chorale from Der Geist Hilft, a double chorus motet by Johann Sebastian Bach, The Bach Society of Saint Louis in concert conducted by Dennis Sparger. More of our conversation with Maestro Sparger straight ahead. I'm Ron Klemm, and this is Bach Talk.
Melissa Payton 08:02
Hi there. I'm Melissa Payton, Executive Director of The Bach Society of St. Louis. Did you know that The Bach Society is St. Louis's oldest continuous Choral Society? For decades, The Bach Society of St. Louis has been the heartbeat of musical excellence, captivating audiences with unforgettable performances. Led by visionary music director and conductor A. Denis Sparger. The Bach Society Chorus and Orchestra breathe new life into each composition, infusing it with emotion and depth. We're committed to providing musical experiences and the tradition of Johann Sebastian Bach, and there's something for everyone to enjoy for Upcoming Events, digital offerings, and to stay up to date on all things Bach. Visit us at bachsociety.org.
Ron Klemm 08:58
As our conversation with Bach Society music director and conductor Dennis Sparger continues, we find the Spargers planting roots in the Greater St. Louis area, as Dennis was now teaching in a burgeoning junior college in Belleville, Illinois.
Dennis Sparger 09:14
So I started that first year with a college by I, you know, had the choir had a smaller group of singers and taught piano, taught voice, taught music appreciation, the works, the works, and met Sam Andrea who then later founded Andrea's restaurant who has a wonderful alto sax player, and played in his quartet for a while, started working in other clubs and restaurants around. And the years started going by. By the time I got to my fourth year, I had achieved tenure already and I thought, well, now I'm in a position where they can't fire me, and that's a good place to be. And I was just a few years away from qualifying for a sabbatical, and I knew that I had wanted to start a doctorate. So the way I did it was I started telling people, I'm going to get a doctorate. I'm going to go to the University of Illinois and get a doctor's degree in music. And I thought by telling everyone, I thought I sure better do this. See, you know, so I took the entrance exams, got approved, started taking the few classes they thought I needed. And meantime, I started going to some summer sessions there. Eventually, my turn came up for a sabbatical in those days, they provided half pay to go to school for a full year. And we thought, well, we can make this work. Well, we moved up. By that time, we'd bought a house, we rented our house out move to Urbana, started going to school, but by December, I realized this money is getting rather thin. With only half pay because the expenses didn't cut in half you know at all. So I found an agent and picked up a job playing at the Champaign Holiday and five nights a week. In those days, I think for about $200 a week.
Ron Klemm 11:05
While, while you're working on your doctorate?
Dennis Sparger 11:09
Ron Klemm 11:09
Dennis Sparger 11:10
Yes. Yeah. So I get home at two or three in the morning.
Ron Klemm 11:13
No wonder you're a night owl.
Dennis Sparger 11:16
Not anymore, and be in class by nine the next morning. And, yeah, it was a real struggle. But I pushed my way through, took my final exams at the end of the year, and then started working on a paper, well came back to the college. And I realized, with all of this big music, I've been learning of your major works, especially and works for chorus and orchestra, I needed to start getting some experience in that area. Because my goal even then was to get a university job. So I talked to my dean about starting a Community Chorus. And, you know, my department head was all for it. The dean was all for it. The president of the college decided, yes, this would be great. So we started what was called the Belleville Area College Community Chorus. And we grew rather quickly with a lot of wonderful people, you know, from the adult world, and you know, some of my college students as well, and started doing a concerts, selling tickets, raising money, paying the orchestra hiring soloists, and all of this had to be run through the college. So we were thinking about how can we make this work a little more smoothly. So we petitioned to see if we could amicably divorce and that worked out very well, that we became an independent, you know 501c3 organization, became incorporated. We had people who could run the business side up quite well. And we, by that time to change the name to Masterworks Chorale, to kind of reflect the quality of music and performance that we were giving. And during the 80s and early 90s, especially Masterworks Chorale was performing at a very high level that compared you know, to the best in St. Louis. We just had great people that were coming in that had good musical skills. So that's how that happened.
Ron Klemm 13:13
And that's how we met I mean, it when in talking about the Masterworks Choral before you were asked to come to The Bach Society, well do you remember those days while that happened?
Dennis Sparger 13:25
Yes, I do. But the year before that masterworks said, I realized we needed to increase our publicity. Already the Belleville News Democrat was writing a nice little articles about us and that but we needed more help. So Sandy Wagner, Steve Bloomer, and I went to visit the publisher of the paper, who at that time was Darwin Wile and we sat down and talk to him. We did the whole spiel about here's who we are, here's what we do. Here's what's happening with community, here's what we need, here's the benefit. And we need some help, right? So he asked, well, what kind of help do you need from me? And I said, we need some help with advertising. He thought for a moment he said, Okay, we'll give you 500 column inches per year. Now, that's huge.
Ron Klemm 14:15
That's a lot.
Dennis Sparger 14:16
That means like quarter-page, half-page ads for each concert. Yeah. So in those days, people read newspapers. Yes. Yeah. If you live it on the side of the river, we're in Illinois, by the way, yeah. You bought the Belleville News Democrat and you see this. So we had these wonderful feature articles coming out by Roger Sleater. They would explain everything about a concert. And then these wonderful ads show up in the paper, no reviews. Thankfully, we had nothing we had to live down. And then we got up ready to leave thanked him profusely. And and Darwin said, Well, what else can we do? And we thought, well, we're thinking thinking, and we thought well with, we'd like to start a children's choir. And he says great, because I would like to write to our owners, which I think at that time was capital something or other and get a grant that would serve my community. So we worked out this deal that he would provide $5,000 If we could raise $5,000 to start a children's choir. So we started in the first year, I think we had about 60 singers come in. And these were five of the most wonderful years. I think I've ever lived that because anything you could teach, children could learn, right?
Ron Klemm 15:42
They were sponges.
Dennis Sparger 15:43
Well, yeah, they were. Yeah. So they were singing Bach and Handel and personal and Vaughn Williams and Benjamin Britten. And some of the difficulties. Well, last year, we did a piece by Malcolm Williamson with a Bach Society that we did with children's chorus, with orchestra. It's just amazing. But the next year, I had a call and was asked to interview for The Bach Society. Now by that time, Masterworks Chorale had been hiring orchestra players largely from St. Louis. And our orchestra contractor, that is the person who engages all the players distributes the music collecting all of this was Jan Parks, and she was also on the board of The Bach Society. And they were in the process of going through a change. And she suggested that they interview me and of course, no one in The Bach Society on the board had ever heard of me, or Masterworks Chorale, and were a little reluctant. But they agreed to do this. So I came in, and I just told them what I thought and they liked it. And they made me an offer. And I thought, well, I'll do this for a year. So I refused to take any payment until the end of the year because I didn't want it worked into my budget. And that's how it started. And that was 1986, 37 years ago, I never dreamed I would stay this long or they would want me this long. But it has been just a wonderful, wonderful journey. All the incredible people that I've met during that period of time, the amazing music that we've performed the people in the audience who've been so gracious with their donations and supporting you know, we now have an endowment to help the organization survive for long after I'm gone. So it's been a great journey.
Ron Klemm 18:35
One of virtually every choral music lovers favorites. Salvation is Created by Pavel Chesnokov, the Bach Society of St. Louis from a concert in 2011 conducted by Dennis Sparger. That's right. The Bach Society doesn't limit itself solely to the music of Bach, but rather presents music in the spirit and tradition of the master. That tradition continues today. And so does our conversation with Maestro Sparger straight ahead. I'm Ron Klemm. And this is Bach Talk.
Melissa Payton 19:12
Hi there, Melissa here again. I want to take a moment to tell you about The Bach Society's next concert for the St. Louis area led by music director and conductor A. Dennis Sparger. And featuring The Bach Society Chorus and Orchestra, we'll present Eternal Light. This will be an emotional journey like no other, highlighting Howard Goodall's masterpiece, Eternal Light: A Requiem. This concert will also showcase choral favorites by renowned composers, including Ola Gjeilo, Jean Sibelius, and Olaf Christiansen. If you're in the St. Louis area or you plan to be please join us on Sunday, October 22, 2023 at 3 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, it promises to be an unforgettable celebration of music and remembrance. Tickets are on sale now at Bachsociety.org/concerts. We hope to see you there. And now, let's get back to Bach Talk.
Ron Klemm 20:17
You talked about your jazz background at length. And now with your incredible tenure with the Bach Society. I wonder if there's any way to tie those together? How do you see the experiences that you had as a young man and as growing in into music and as an educator and working in all these, these jazz contexts? And now, The Bach Society? How do they come together?
Dennis Sparger 20:47
Well, well, first, I should I should mention, when I started working for The Bach Society, I gave up playing on weekends, I thought I just can't keep all of this going. So that's the one thing that set aside, I guess the, you know, playing in a jazz group, because quite often I played in trios and quartets. You had to listen to one another, respond to one another, work as a team and know that you're not it, you're part of what the it is. And I think that helps us a conductor realizing it's not about me, it's about us. And not just the us of the performers, but us of the audience is well, all of that comes together. The church choir work, you know, they did long ago, made me think, or I guess he gave me the background of knowing you're working with volunteers to a large extent people are giving up valuable time,
Ron Klemm 21:41
It's a sacrifice,
Dennis Sparger 21:42
A sacrifice on their part to be in you have to respect that right, appreciate it, and feed them in a sense of so they're getting something important out of it. So they're getting a spiritual message from the music, we perform an emotional lift, a release from their daily lives and the troubles they have. I remember one of our singers, I probably shouldn't mention his name. He buried his father and came to rehearsal that evening.
Ron Klemm 22:17
I can't imagine it that no, can't imagine it.
Dennis Sparger 22:19
It, it almost brings me to tears to to mention it. But many of our singers are not unlike this, that they're going through personal tragedies of or problems of one sort or another, and crises, and they come to rehearsal, and their lives are uplifted and improved for that time together. Most people come into rehearsal, a little tired.
Ron Klemm 22:44
Dennis Sparger 22:45
And by the time they leave, there's a lift in their stuff. And something and many people have told me that they can't go home and go to sleep. They're still up for a while, you know, kind of wired from the excitement of making great music
Ron Klemm 22:57
Dennis Sparger 22:59
That's a great word. It really is.
Ron Klemm 23:02
Did you, Dr. William Heyne started The Bach Society back in the just when World War Two was looming? Did you ever meet him?
Dennis Sparger 23:13
Ron Klemm 23:14
Tell me about that. Tell me what he what your impression of him was what he said to you, perhaps? And what's your recollection of those that time?
Dennis Sparger 23:25
Well, Dr. Heyne was very revered. You know, people just loved him. And of course, he did great things with The Bach Society and had incredible programs that he gave it, you know, they would go into that time to Kiel Opera House now it's called Stiefel, 3500 seats, I think, in those days, and they would have to give two or three performances of events, you know, filling it. But of course, at that time, he was one of maybe just too big choruses in town. Now we have over 40 independent choruses. So audiences are spread a little more thin. Well, anyway, getting back to Dr. Heyne. He was not, he wasn't in good enough health that he could come to concerts to hear them. So I would send him recordings of what we did. And then he would write a little critique to send back to me.
Ron Klemm 24:19
This I can't wait to hear.
Dennis Sparger 24:21
But they all were very positive and very supportive. And he was just so happy that we were doing by Bach, Bach again had become our focus of the organization. It it's the legacy of The Bach Society. Its its history. Its its future. This was so important. And I was having such a wonderful time doing this great and still do, doing this great music. On a few occasions, I went to visit him in his home. He and Vera we're in we're still alive. And this was not long after the first year that I went to see him, to meet him to get to seek his counsel sure on where I should be going with this organization. And I sat down one of the first thing he said to me is, I understand Mrs. Smith is no longer singing with us. I thought, uh no, I did something wrong. I don't recall if her name was Smith or not.
Ron Klemm 25:24
No, no. If your name is Smith. We're not talking about you.
Dennis Sparger 25:29
Mrs. S. And I said, well, well, yes, that happened. I said, you know, I had to audition all the singers because I needed to hear what their voices were like. And she finished and I said, I said, okay, I'd love to have you back as a soprano two. And Mrs. S responded, and she said soprano two, I've always been a soprano one and she left. And he said, and when I heard that, I said, hurray for Sparger. I've been trying to get rid of her for years and years. And we became friends.
Ron Klemm 26:04
That's good. If he were here today, if he were sitting right here, what would he what would he say to you? What do you think he would say to you, or what would you like him to say about you?
Dennis Sparger 26:19
I would like him to say bravo Sparger as he did that day, because I've done I think the best that could be done in keeping the music of Bach in front of the St. Louis people. There is something powerful, uplifting, spiritual, artistic, in the musical Bach that you just don't get anywhere else. It truly is the best. And I think he would have a deep, deep appreciation of them. I recently heard from his grandson. He's living in Grand Rapids. And again, he was so delighted that we continue to do the music his grandfather set in front of us.
Ron Klemm 27:44
Just the final moments of Bach's Mass in B minor, the Dona Nobis Pacem, Grant us Peace, from a concert in 2019 by The Bach Society Chorus and Orchestra conducted by music director Dennis Sparger. In fact, all musical portions today were taken from concerts given by The Bach Society, recorded by our good friend and Grammy Award-winning recording engineer, Paul Henrich subscribe to Bach Talk wherever you get your podcasts. Learn more at Bachsociety.org.
Before we leave you today, a brief and very personal footnote. As I mentioned at the outset, Dennis and I had our conversation in the Sparger's breakfast room, a bright, comfortable place, relaxing and brimming with joy. Immediately after we turned off the mics Helene Sparger. Dennis's wife, best friend, toughest critic and loving partner for 60 years joined us. She lit up that room, just as she did every other and we enjoyed even more delightful conversation. A few months later, Helene contracted what turned out to be a brutal infection that brought about a painful month-long hospital stay, and eventually took her life. One thing I knew intuitively but didn't see fully manifested until that moment. The Bach Society is a family, singers, instrumentalists, staff and board members, sponsors supporters, audience members, friends far and near all became Spargers It was an amazing outpouring of love. The opening concert of the 2023-24 season is made possible by the Sparta family and many friends dedicated to Helene's memory. This will be a difficult season to be sure with emotions so close to the surface, but in keeping with the Bach Society's mission perfect warming music in the spirit and tradition of Johann Sebastian Bach will most certainly provide the greatest comfort of all.
About Episode 1
In this debut episode of Bach Talk, host Ron Klemm sits down with The Bach Society of Saint Louis Music Director and Conductor A. Dennis Sparger. They discuss the formative moments that led Dennis to pursue a life of music from his mother singing to his introduction to the accordion. Join us to hear about the memories, music and influences that make up Maestro Sparger.
Ron Klemm 0:00
This is Bach Talk
the Sanctus from the Mass in B minor by Johann Sebastian Bach.
You're hearing the renowned Bach Society of Saint Louis in concert conducted by music director Dr. A. Dennis Sparger.
Hello, I'm Ron Klemm. Welcome to the first in our series of monthly conversations with the people who make music like this come alive. The Sanctus from Bach's B minor was the first piece Maestro Sparger conducted with a Bach Society back in 1986. He is the longest tenured conductor in the Bach Society's 80 plus year history. So today, appropriately as we begin this series, let's meet the maestro, we sat down in the Sparger's beautiful bright breakfast room, enjoyed a cup of coffee and an extended chat. Full disclosure, Dennis and I have been friends for a very long time. But one fact that took us both by surprise when we first uncovered it, we were born and grew up less than 10 miles from each other in what was then the quiet southern suburbs of Chicago. That meant that we shared many of the same experiences. And so I started our conversation by asking him to describe life, as he remembered it. As a youngster in Harvey, Illinois.
Dennis Sparger 1:52
What I remember is that it was just a wonderful place for a child to grow up. We had such complete freedom in our area, you know, we could get on our bikes, and just ride the complete town. I have a couple of friends and I might drive up into a forest preserve and bring a little lunch with us. And there was no sense of fear that anything could happen to us. Our parents didn't worry. We didn't lock our doors, car doors were left unlocked. So it really was quite wonderful place to grow up. My father was a steel worker. You know, many people in the south side of Chicago, are steel workers. And those were union jobs. Thank goodness, you know, so they paid well enough that a man was able to provide for his family, and in his wife was able to stay home and take care of the family. I'm not sure they all did that by choice. But that's kind of how it turned out for many. You know, so I had a mother that was home taking care of us as we live just a quarter of a block away from the great schools. So we could walk back and forth come home for lunch, watch a little TV, because that was brand new of those days. And then you know, go back for the second half of the school.
Ron Klemm 3:14
What do you remember about your first contact with music? How did you first get involved with music? Or when did music begin to play a part of your life?
Dennis Sparger 3:24
From the beginning my mother was a singer. And she and her sister had done some singing on the radio, untrained. But strange thing I noticed later on in life after I'd studied voice and gotten college degrees. And I would hear my mother sing when she was in her 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and she did things correctly. You know,
Ron Klemm 3:49
What does that mean?
Dennis Sparger 3:50
Well, the voice was free and open. It wasn't encumbered by tensions anywhere. She pronounced things well. So she sang as if she had voice lessons. And she loved to sing and dance. And when I was a child, you know, I would hear my mother and sister you know washing dishes drying and, and singing duets in harmony. So there was always a part of my background. And of course, so I sang in the church children's choir that my mother directed. In fact, I think I have a photo somewhere of us little ones in our white robes and red bows. So that was a part of it all. in grade school. We didn't have much music other than the classroom teacher, you know, having us open up a song book and we all would sing and so I think all of the children in each class had a chance to sing. When I was in eighth grade we finally got a music teacher. But anyway, you know that was that you know we singing a church. Sunday school class always began with all age levels in the same room singing like gospel songs and spirituals and, and hymns. So we got involved in singing through that way before we go to our individual classes for study.
Ron Klemm 5:11
Who do you remember of those early days that that that had a great impact on you that you still remember today?
Dennis Sparger 5:20
Well, probably my music teacher made the big biggest difference. By the time I was eight, mother decided she wanted a trained musician in the family. So it wasn't like I had a choice it was you're going to learn to play music?
Ron Klemm 5:36
Dennis Sparger 5:36
Ron Klemm 5:37
Did she push you in any way? Did you feel? Did you feel pressure in that sense? It's okay.
Dennis Sparger 5:43
No, in those days, you know, you you did what your parents told you to do. There's no pressure. You just did it. But we were well enough off that we didn't have to worry about food or having a roof over our heads or, or having clothes. Although, you know, we didn't buy the newest clothes at all. We we had a few hand me downs. So we couldn't afford a piano in our house. But in South Chicago, the instrument of choice was the accordion.
Ron Klemm 6:17
Why do you look at me when you say that?
Dennis Sparger 6:19
Most people laugh or make fun of people who play the accordion.
Ron Klemm 6:23
Well, I tell you a story because my twin sisters, who are a little younger than me. We're the bee's knees. In Hammond, Indiana when when they had to take accordion lessons, and everybody wanted a picture of these twins playing the accordion.
Dennis Sparger 6:39
You know, did they go to Rumba brothers?
Ron Klemm 6:42
Yes, yes, absolutely.
Dennis Sparger 6:44
Yeah. Well, A.J. Rumba was my teacher.
Ron Klemm 6:47
Oh my God.
Dennis Sparger 6:48
Now that now the beauty of the accordion for for the working class was that you sign up for six beginners lessons, right. And they and they loan you, you know, you don't rent they loan you a small accordion, that doesn't have too many keys, and we'll all the buttons on the left side there only 12 buttons to rows of six. So you're not going to get too lost. And that amount of time. And at the end of six weeks, you've done well enough that you can turn that in. And then you rent a larger instrument that has like 48 buttons instead of 12. And a little bit longer keyboard, and then you start paying for your lessons and you start growing. And a few years later, you're ready to buy a used instrument that's a little bit bigger yet. And after another a couple of years, if you're doing really well, you're ready to buy a really fine instrument. So that's kind of how I progressed through it. But my teacher, Mr. Rumba, was very wise, a Hungarian trained musician, he and his other brothers, you know, moved to South Chicago and started this music school. He knew that my mother was the key to all of this. So he would assign me a piece that my mother wanted to hear and assign a piece that was good for my musical growth. So every day of the week, Mother would sit with me and listen to the piece that she wanted to hear and then suffer through the one I really had to practice. But this kept things motivated. Now, the downside of this was that every day after school, I'd have to come home and practice for half an hour. A year later, 45 minutes, a year later an hour eventually was an hour and a half. So I didn't get to go play ball with all the kids after school. So by the time I got there, you know the game was ending. So that was the sacrifice that had to be done.
Ron Klemm 8:45
We're talking to Myron Floren or I'm sorry to Dennis Sparger, I'm Ron Klemm, and this is Bach Talk.
When did the accordion become ancillary to other things in your musical life? When When did you put that away and start doing other things?
Dennis Sparger 9:19
Ah, well, I must have been it at least in the sixth grade by then, that my teacher began working on the harmonization of a melody. You know, so you could look at music they would have the melody only. And chord symbols above the chord symbols like C seven, B flat minor would tell you what to do with the left hand in finding from the various rows, like six rows of God, I don't know how many all to find that and in the right hand, how to find the harmony to fill out the melody.
Ron Klemm 9:57
Maybe we should do a little bit of definition here man at the right hand, we had a keyboard, keyboard, keyboard. And so you'd play that on a on a vertical vertical rather than horizontal. But the left hand those buttons were actually chords of different kinds, we would play multiple notes at once, right?
Dennis Sparger 10:14
Right, right, the first two rows would be bass notes. And then as you go back to the next four rows, you'd have a major chord, A minor chord, a dominant seventh chord, and a diminished chord. And all of these are different qualities of harmony. So you learn where all of that is. But then you also had to learn on the right hand, the keyboard hand of how to fill in the harmonies, to enriching the sound of the melody. And I think by the end of the sixth grade, he said, Okay, it's time for you to play in a band. Oh, we didn't mention, there was an accordion band at the Rumba music school. And this would be like 30 or 40 Kids, all sitting in chairs with music stands, and we'd play our individual melodic notes. So we learned how to keep time with a conductor doing all of this. Well, anyway, at least by the seventh grade, he wanted me playing in a small band. So I assembled a few other boys that were from our grade school where we could get together. So I had a tenor sax and a drummer. And we'd meet in our basement and practice, we buy these little books that would have the swing songs, the kinds of things that people dance through. By the time I was in high school, I was picked up by a quartet that needed a fourth player. And almost every weekend, we were playing for a wedding reception or teenage dance or an adult dance. So I started earning my way through high school already. By my second year in high school, I was invited to play in a big band, our high school had a 13 piece dance band that played a one and a half hour dance after every home football and basketball game.
Ron Klemm 11:59
This is Thornton high school, high school, Harvey, Illinois.
Dennis Sparger 12:02
Yeah. And we all were paid to do this. Now $7 Doesn't seem like Oh. But I guess it would be like it was $70 or more in today's money. And we were able to go out afterwards and have pizza and sodas with a girlfriend. And the next night, you could go to a movie and out for pizza and we ate a lot of pizza. And of course in Chicago pizza was really good. So it really was a really nice opportunity by the end of that first year. And of course, you know, playing out accordion with a big band a little weird. But by that time, I had a professional model accordion, and it could plug into an amplifier, this would plug into the school system, play through the entire gymnasium, blow them out of the water. Yes, yeah. So the end of the end of end of that second year, or my first year with the band, they said, you know, Denny, we're going to have a piano player next year. And I thought, I don't want to lose this job. So I told my dad, he said, Okay, we'll get a piano. So we went out and found an old upright piano that someone didn't want, and we got it carried into the basement. And he also bought a tuning hammer. And he said, Okay, now you've been taking lessons to the piano. Ah, well, I tuned it to perfect fifths, which meant in the key of C, it played very nicely. Oh, sure. But a lot of swing music is in B flat or E flat, or it sounded terrible. So we eventually had to get a real tuner to come in and do it. But I started taking piano lessons next. And I had a wonderful teacher in Chicago Heights who played in the orchestra at WGN. And in those days, you know, radio stations had an orchestra. They'd play live, believe it or not.
Ron Klemm 13:52
They had live music because they didn't have tape. Yeah, was all right.
Dennis Sparger 13:56
So these teachers in Chicago Heights were all wonderful teachers and players. So I got a pretty good start and realized that I could major in piano when I went to college.
Ron Klemm 14:20
So now, let's talk about the moving now from the accordion into the piano and eventually into moving into this direction that your mother had earmarked for you into the profession of music. How did that give us an idea of how that all transpired?
Dennis Sparger 14:38
Oh, well, well, as it turned out, I was ambidextrous. I could play the accordion and the piano.
Ron Klemm 14:43
Well, at the same time, you were learning the accordion, you had the right hand down.
Dennis Sparger 14:47
My right hand was down so you know the left hand edge and to try to catch up which it has never done. Well in high school, you know, I sang in the high school choir. I played double bass in the high school orchestra. In my third and fourth years, I had a full year for credit of music theory. And the next year, a full year for credit of music history.
Ron Klemm 15:11
Dennis Sparger 15:11
So, you know what a wonderful background you're ahead of most, you know, in so many schools No, you don't get any music at all, no. Or you're lucky if you can participate in one, but not in two so and wonderful teachers and, you know, got a really good background. Now, no one in our family had gone to college. Or hardly high school, you know, my father had to leave school in the eighth grade to work in the brickyards when his father was injured and couldn't work anymore. My mother went to high school for three days. And because other kids laughed at her because she was wearing homemade clothes, she just couldn't take it anymore. So she dropped out and started getting into housecleaning to, to get by. A few of the guys that I played with in small bands when they left high school, they were older than me, they went to Eastern Illinois University. So that's the only school I was aware of. So that will I guess that's where I'm going. And, and I thought I probably would wind up being a teacher. So I applied for a teacher scholarship. And in the early 60s, there was a great need for teachers, all kinds of teachers in Illinois. So the state government provided scholarships for anyone who was going to major in education. So I majored in music education, got a wonderful scholarship, and my tuition was like $60 a year. Today, we just complain about, oh, we need teachers, we don't do anything to help it happen. But so that's how I wound up it Eastern. It was a very small school. In those days, I think the student population was about 1200. And it's been well over 10,000 years since. In fact, when I was there, the library was so far south, no one went there. And now it's well north of center. But almost every teacher I had was a PhD. It was like, you know, the Harvard of the Midwest, you know, all these wonderful faculty members that I think loved being in this small, rural environment. So I had, you know, wonderful music teachers of great piano teacher, wonderful choral director.
Ron Klemm 17:22
Let's get specific about that. Who are the ones that stick out for you that had a that had a major influence in your life?
Dennis Sparger 17:29
Oh, well, well, Mr. Satterthwaite, in high school was my history teacher. And he just cultivated a love of history. And while I'm not a musicologist, you know, I love digging into information about the past. So, you know, learning more about the 18th century in the 17th century, and feeling like I have a grasp of this, and I think he kind of helped develop that. My choral director, Mr. Armbruster, you know, we didn't know their first names.
Ron Klemm 17:59
Dennis Sparger 18:00
We wouldn't have dreamed of using them. He just gave some quality music and in high school singing Chesnokov salvation is created in English, of course, and hearing that rich eight part harmony, and that Russian liturgical music just was so inspiring. And our orchestra director, Mr. Chambers, you know, we play you know, fine music. You know, we had Christmas concerts, where all the musicians who were involved in this huge gymnasium of putting on Christmas concerts, all of these things were so effective. But in college, John Mahard was the choral director, he had the most beautiful hands for conducting. I can't even come close to the expressiveness of how he could move his hands. He was from Ohio, and went to Capitol University there, and I must have had a great background himself. And, and he just shared all of this wonderful music with us. My piano teacher was Alan Allovall. And I think he recognized that would never be a great pianist. But his teaching could help me become a much better musician, and taught me much about phrasing of seeing a longer line to the music rather than just one measure at a time. And I could also talk about politics, which was fun in those days, when we had our first son. I named him after John and Ellen, these two important teachers in my life. That's another beautiful thing about Eastern Illinois University in those days, is that it was small enough that they all music students had to participate in everything, you know, so although I wasn't really geared up for playing, you know, in the orchestra, you know, I wanted to focus on choral music. I had to sing in a couple of the choirs and I had to play in the orchestra. We had to take strings class so by the second year they said, Okay, you're gonna play cello and double bass. We can get another bass player we need a cellist. So I eventually worked my way up to the second position. Because whenever I made a mistake sitting in these back rows, I would look behind me and the conductor. Dr. Earl Boyd, wouldn't you think, Oh, God, he must know what he's doing. He couldn't really hear these mistakes. So he moved me forward. I never became terribly good at Sharla but I enjoyed playing and playing something like Barber's Adagio for Strings when it for a young person well, and Howard Hansen's Symphony Number two the romantic
Ron Klemm 20:42
Dennis Sparger 20:43
Yeah, well, you know, so really remember those things. I remember doing the Fauré Requiem with the choir. And we only rehearsed parts of a different movements at different times as a singer resident as a singer as a singer. And because of timing, I don't know what was going on. I never heard it covered a cover until we performed. So I learned to not do that. But it was a great experience.
Ron Klemm 21:36
Just a sampling of the Agnus Dei, from the Requiem by Gabriele Fauré from a concert in 2016, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, the Bach Society Chorus and Orchestra conducted by music director, Dennis Sparger. We're in the middle of an extended conversation with Maestro Sparger. Next time, we'll pick up where we left off. We'll learn much more about the choral groups that he founded and established about his becoming the sixth music director in The Bach Society storied history and about his memorable meetings with Bach Society founder, Dr. William Heyne.
Dennis Sparger 22:14
Dr. Heyne was very revered people just loved him. On a few occasions, I went to visit him in his home, to meet them to get to seek his council sure on where I should be going with this organization.
Ron Klemm 22:27
If he were here today, what would he say to you?
We'll hear the answer next time on Bach Talk. Musical portions provided by Giulio Fazio, by pianist Sondra Geary, and by The Bach Society Chorus and Orchestra, captured in concert by Grammy Award winning recording engineer Paul Hennerich. I'm Ron Clem Bach talk is a trademark of the Bach Society of St. Louis. Subscribe to Bach talk wherever you get your podcasts. Learn more at bachsociety.org.
Ron Klemm 0:05
The majestic music of Bach
Ron Klemm 0:12
the renowned Bach Society of St Louis.
Ron Klemm 0:30
The gripping opening the curio from the monumental Mass in B minor, by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Ron Klemm 0:39
It was the first masterwork ever to be performed by The Bach Society of St. Louis. More than 80 years later, the Bach Society remains an iconic performing arts organization.
Ron Klemm 1:03
Dedicated to the great works of Bach and all who followed The Bach Society, he continues this incredible legacy today, performing music designed to inspire the human spirit.
Ron Klemm 1:16
Now, The Bach Society introduces a monthly podcast to better tell its story. I'm Ron Clemm, and I'll take you behind the scenes. In upcoming episodes, we'll learn much more about Bach and his music. And I will introduce you to some of the people who breathe life into this amazing music.
Dennis Sparger 1:40
There's something powerful, uplifting, spiritual, artistic, in the musical Bach that you just don't get anywhere else. It truly is the best.
Ron Klemm 1:55
That's Dennis Sparger, music director and conductor of The Bach Society. In the coming weeks, we'll learn much more about Maestro Sparger, including some surprising things he learned early in his career.
Dennis Sparger 2:07
I guess, you know, playing in a jazz group, because quite often I played in trios and quartets. You had to listen to one another, respond to one another work as a team. And know that you're not it. You're part of what the it is. And I think that helps us a conductor realizing it's not about me, it's about us. And not just the us of the performers, but us of the audience is well.
Ron Klemm 2:36
Dennis and I will talk with guest artists too. We'll find out all about them, including what motivates them
Michelle Kennedy 2:42
To reclaim our sense of joy every day,
Ron Klemm 2:45
Like soprano Michelle Kennedy.
Michelle Kennedy 2:47
Not just an act of empowerment, but an act of reclamation of what it means to be alive. What it means to do this amazing art form to present it to be on the stage to share it with our audiences. It's it's a privilege, it's an honor, and I always do well to just have a smile. And remember why I love it so much.
Stephen Morscheck 3:16
My voice teacher at Wheaton College assigned to me for my senior recital, one of Bach's great solo cantatas for the bass voice, Cantata 82, Ich habe genug.
Ron Klemm 3:30
That's bass baritone, Stephen Morscheck.
Stephen Morscheck 3:33
And I loved the piece. And apparently, my teacher thought that it really fit me like a glove because he said to my mother, something to this effect that he's heard many people sing Bach, but your son sings Bach. And he never actually said that to me. That was my introduction to Bach.
Josefien Stoppelenburg 4:04
What's so wonderful about groups like the St. Louis Bach Society.
Ron Klemm 4:08
Dutch soprano, and guest artist Josefien Stoppelenburg.
Josefien Stoppelenburg 4:12
I think choral singing is just one of the most magical things on the planet, just people singing together. Actually, I remember during the pandemic, I would have these dreams of just people around me singing. I think I just missed that a lot. And you know, every sort of people on the planet have sung as far as we know, it's just such a deep human thing. And there is really some magic to it, especially when you hear it life. Recordings are fantastic, but a life experience with singers around you. I think it resets your monocular structure in some way. It just does something to your body, to hear that.
Ron Klemm 5:07
From conductors and soloists to choral singers and orchestra players, music scholars, even audience members will chat with the people who make the Bach Society such a vital part of the cultural life in St. Louis.
Dennis Sparger 5:22
This is Dennis Berger, music director and conductor of the Bach Society of St. Louis. Even though we've been around for a long time, the Bach Society is always looking for new ways to tell our story. Today, we're thrilled to launch Bach Talk, our new podcast to our buck family and well beyond. I hope you'll make it a point to subscribe and listen to every podcast as it's released. I think you'll find them enlightening and entertaining. Plus, you'll gain a new appreciation for Bach for the Bach Society of St. Louis, and for the music making process. Ron and I will see you again next time.
Ron Klemm 6:12
Musical portions provided by the Bach society chorus and orchestra recorded in concert. Bach Talk is a trademark of The Bucks Society of St. Louis. Subscribe to Bach Talk wherever you get your podcasts. Learn more at Bachsociety.org