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Interview: UMS Choral Union Conductor Scott Hanoian

By Saba Keramati

Scott Hanoian conducts UMS Choral Union
Photo: Scott Hanoian conducts the UMS Choral Union. Photo by Peter Smith.

Scott Hanoian had just completed his first season conducting the UMS Choral Union in the spring of 2016, when I met with him to chat about the job. As a member of the Programming and Artist Services staff at UMS, I have had the pleasure of hearing the Choral Union perform many times and was especially interested to hear about what Scott had to say about the new repertoire in store!

An organist, accompanist, and conductor, and graduate of the University of Michigan, Scott has held many jobs, including as the current director of music and organist at Christ Church Grosse Pointe, artistic director of the Oakland Choral Society, and faculty member at Wayne State University.

Saba Keramati: What caught your interest about conducting? When did this seem like the right career path for you?

Scott Hanoian: I really didn’t think about being a conductor at all until I was in college. I was an organ performance major at the University of Michigan, but I was also enrolled in beginning conducting class. A good friend of mine was an orchestral conductor, and he said, “You should come to orchestral rehearsals with Ken Kiesler.”

I remember they were doing Shostakovich 5, and I thought, “This is the coolest thing I have ever seen.” About the same time, I was in a conducting class with Jerry Blackstone [who conducted the Choral Union prior to Scott], and it was just clicking. Jerry and I got along really well, and he sent me an email that said something to the effect of, “You should give this a go. You clearly have some sort of knack for conducting.”

I started taking private conducting lessons with Jerry, and I actually enrolled in a graduate conducting seminar for non-conducting majors as an undergrad. Then they let me into the grad program here, and the rest is history. I completely fell in love with it.

SK: How was your first season as UMS Choral Union conductor?

SH: Good! For everybody, I think. One of the interesting parts of my work with the Choral Union is that there are different roles that I play. And this year, we’ve really done everything. I’ve prepared the chorus for someone else, I’ve done a piece they know, and I’ve done a piece that they didn’t know that I’ve conducted. So I’ve been able to experience everything that they do in one season. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, but it’s a good start.

And I got to stand next to Alan Gilbert on the Michigan football field, so that was pretty cool. Even though I didn’t get to conduct. I wanted to conduct the Michigan marching band, but I’ll have to wait for that.

SK: How does it feel following in Jerry Blackstone’s footsteps after being his student?

SH: They’re big shoes. Big boots, as we say. He was probably my biggest mentor. He’s somebody that I look up to, and it’s an honor to be his successor. I never thought that would be possible. But I owe a lot of that to him because of what he taught me, the advice he’s given me about teaching, and the compassion he’s shown me. He’s the most gracious predecessor I could ever imagine and I love that about him. I am very lucky to have somebody like that just down the road.


UMS Choral Union prepares for Handel’s Messiah performances during 2015-16 season.

SK: What makes the UMS Choral Union special?

SH: They’re phenomenal singers. A group of intelligent, passionate, and really compassionate people that come together to make a commitment to the composer and piece that they perform. They are coming from all different walks of life: they’re working full time and singing, they’re students, they’re retired, they’re travelling all the time… but they come together Monday nights to sing phenomenal repertoire. I love working with people that are just so energetic about what they do.

SK: What should we look forward to in the 2016-17 season?

SH: Messiah, of course. We love Messiah [December 3 and 4, 2016]. They’ll also do some new repertoire. The Beethoven Missa Solemnis with the Ann Arbor Symphony at Hill Auditorium as well as with the Toledo Symphony [March 11 and April 28, 2017, respectively]. The singers will be working very hard, because not only will we be doing that, we’ll be preparing the Beethoven 9 for both the Budapest Festival Orchestra [February 10, 2017] and the DSO. We have a lot of a Beethoven on the horizon. That music will really showcase our singers.

SB: Anything else you want audiences to know?

SH: One of the things the Choral Union prides itself on is that we have no paid singers, it’s an all volunteer chorus, and it’s one of those groups that is entirely self-managed. We have vocal coaches and section leaders all within the group, and it’s a really great synergy of volunteers. It’s a chorus that runs itself. Obviously we work within the UMS auspices, and we have UMS staff liaisons, but there’s a certain corps of people that just sing because they love it. And I think that’s very important. They’re a very tight knit group, and they’re very loyal. I love that about them.

For more information on the Choral Union, including a list of their upcoming shows and audition opportunities, visit http://ums.org/about/choralunion/

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