Meet A Member: David Hagen, Alaska Chamber Singers

David Hagen has a deep sense of belonging to the place he was raised. “I'm just an Alaska lover,” he says. “I love the wilderness, and it's something that's a critical part of my life.”

Hagen also realized that he had a calling to balance with this love for his home state. “I knew that I wanted to do music, but I knew that I also wanted to live here,” he says. He studied at George Fox University, and then the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music, returning to Alaska after finishing his degrees.

“Over the years, I have found my niche in various parts of music community in Alaska, and I've been fortunate to make a nice contribution to the music world in the place that I want to live,” said Hagen, who since 1995 has been the artistic director of the Alaska Chamber Singers, succeeding founder Elvera Voth.

Hagen spoke with president & CEO Catherine Dehoney in the latest edition of our ‘Meet A Member’ series.

Does the weather affect your season schedule?

DH: Not really, although I have to say that we fit our season a little bit more into the school year calendar than perhaps some other places. Because of our long cold dark winter, once summer hits, folks just sort of disappear into the fishing streams and things. I’m actually much the same way. I often take a break and do my Alaska wilderness trips in the summer, and get rejuvenated for the fall. I typically go to workshops and things in the winter months every year or couple of years. More often than not, I go to the ACDA conferences.

Are there many choruses in your area?

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DH: The only two main traditional choruses are our group—the Chamber Singers, which ranges from 30-40 singers each season—and a large chorus called the Anchorage Concert Chorus, which is more of a symphonic-sized chorus. We also have a men's and a women's barbershop chorus in town, and we have a children's chorus, which is now more based in a city called Wasilla, a little bit away from Anchorage. Other than church choruses, that’s it.

One of the biggest differences is that in many other places, you can go hear a number of very fine choruses, where we can't do that in our town. To hear and compare groups that are similar to ours, we have to travel at least to Seattle. That's kind of a disadvantage.

Would you say that the choral community in Alaska is any different than that in the lower 48 states?

DH: I don't think the way we approach things up here is terribly different. The challenge here is that our population is not very big, so we have a much smaller pool of folks, including those who have choral training, compared to many other places in the lower 48 states. Another slight challenge is consistency of residency. There tends to be a lot of coming and going in a place like Alaska, where people may come up for a few years for a job in the petroleum industry and then leave. Having said that, I'm proud of how well we do for the size of our city given those challenges.

How did you handle the experience of taking over for a founding artistic director?

DH: It's something that I find a very interesting concept. It was challenging because Elvera was a strong personality and had very strong artistic views. She was a protégé of Robert Shaw. I believe she came to Alaska kind of thinking of herself as a missionary to the frontier. There's actually quite an amazing story of Shaw coming up here to conduct large choral works in the summers for 12 or so years in a row. Elvera did some phenomenal things in the early days of our arts community. One thing that Alaska Chamber Singers is very proud of is that we made it past a person like that retiring. 

Some of her approaches to choral music were quite different than mine, so it did take a few years of shifting the kind of sound that we wanted. The repertoire was not different so much—there was just a different sort of vocal quality that I was interested in. But we had a strong board and a group of very dedicated singers who wanted to continue, so we made it through.

One of our goals now is to have everything in place so that the organization is stronger than the artistic director. We like to say at board meetings that if heaven forbid we all went down in a plane crash that everything would continue and we would still be a strong organization. I think we're in a position now where if I were to retire, I'm very confident that the group would not be terribly affected by a new artistic leader.

Tell us about one big success in your chorus that you’re really proud of.

DH: We performed a 20-minute piece this fall by a Seattle-based composer named John Muehleisen called Eternity Passing Over – An Arctic Requiem, which was premiered by Seattle Pro Musica. The piece was written in memory of a gentleman who sang the very first concert with Alaska Chamber Singers, and was commissioned by his daughter, who sang with Seattle Pro Musica. John was up here and the commissioner of the work was here. I think it's a profound and very important contemporary piece.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your chorus today?

DH: Artistically, the challenge is finding great singers in a somewhat small community, especially new singers. And then the logistical challenge is that Alaska is still in the midst of a financial meltdown because of our oil industry. All of our state government budget has existed through taxing of oil revenues, which have slowed down to a drip. And more importantly, the price of oil has gone down to a tiny fraction of what it was six or eight years ago. So it's more difficult to get funding from our local government. In general, the economy is making people pinch pennies a little more among our individual donors. We're very proud that we have been successful in staying within our budget. However, we're learning to live with a lower budget than we're accustomed to, and we have a lot less money for things like hiring chamber orchestras. We've definitely tightened our belt for the time being. 

What’s one exciting thing you have planned for the future?

DH: We don't travel a lot, but we're taking a little Alaska road trip and featuring the Arctic Requiem to the second-largest town in Alaska—Fairbanks, about an eight-hour drive north of here. We will also be singing a piece that we commissioned from Steven Sametz, based on a text by a poet who lives in Fairbanks. We'll be premiering that piece there. I'm really excited about performing those two new pieces in other parts of Alaska.

Can you tell us about a time where your Chorus America membership has helped you?

DH: I think what we find most useful about Chorus America are the plans and templates that are on the website. It's an extremely valuable resource. We have a big goal over the next few years—we have not had an executive director, and so we're doing a lot of fundraising and grant writing right now to add an executive director position to our organization. I know we'll be taking advantage of your information in that endeavor. 

What got you hooked on choral music?

DH: I didn't notice how influential it was at the time, but my father was a high school choral teacher and a church musician. When I was growing up, there was constantly classical music and choral masterworks playing in the house. My main focus in school was as an instrumentalist, but when I got to college, I don't even remember how, but I ended up in the chorus as well as the instrumental program. I had a phenomenal choral director, and I just fell in love with it. I became his assistant conductor, and then I ended up going to the same graduate school that he attended. Those two things combined to get me hooked.

When you take off your choral hat, what else is an important part of your life?

DH: I do a lot of what we call trekking—long trips living out of a backpack. Everything you can do up here, I dabble in. I'm also a small airplane pilot. I had recently taken a break from flying, but I'm purchasing an airplane in the next couple of months, so hopefully I'll be flying quite a lot, starting this summer. When you have a plane up here, you gain a lot of friends. So it's easy to find passengers. It's very exciting to take someone flying over glaciers and see what Alaska looks like.

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