The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf returns to sing on Sunday night with Chanticleer. Here’s how he got there with the right teacher, hard work, good luck and a push from mom. Part 2 of 2 

October 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday night, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the new Hamel Music Center, the a cappella singing group Chanticleer (below) will kick off the centennial anniversary celebration of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Tickets are $45 for the public; $40 for faculty staff and Union members; and $10 for students. For more information about the performers and the “Trade Winds” program, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chanticleer/

Among the 12 members of Chanticleer is Gerrod Pagenkopf, who is in his fifth year with the group as both a countertenor and the assistant music director.

For a biography of Pagenkopf, go to: https://www.chanticleer.org/gerrod-pagenkopf

Pagenkopf is a graduate of the UW-Madison. When he performed as a student, his high, clear countertenor voice was a new experience and made those of us who heard him sit bolt upright and take notice. “He is going places,” we said to each. And so he has.

But Pagenkopf’s story is not only about him. It is also about the rediscovery of countertenors, about the changing public acceptance of them, and about the challenges that young musicians often face in establishing a professional performing career.

So The Ear is offering a longer-than-usual, two-part interview with Pagenkopf (below).

Part 1 appeared yesterday. Here is a link: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/30/classical-music-uws-first-countertenor-gerrod-pagenkopf-returns-to-perform-on-sunday-night-as-a-member-of-the-acclaimed-choral-group-chanticleer-heres-how-he-got-from-here-to-there/

Here is Part 2:

Back when you were a student here, were you the only countertenor at the School of Music? How did you find out you were a countertenor and pursue that training?

As I recall, I was the only countertenor — certainly the only one studying in the voice department. I had been studying as a tenor with Ilona Kombrink (below, in photo by UW-Madison News Service) for a few semesters, and it just didn’t seem as easy as it was supposed to.

I didn’t sound like other tenors in my studio or on recordings. I remember that a famous countertenor had just come out with an album of Handel arias, and, upon hearing it, I thought to myself, “I can sing like that!”

I asked Professor Kombrink about it, and she told me to learn “Cara Sposa” from Handel’s “Rinaldo” over the summer. When I came back in the fall, if it sounded legitimate she agreed I could pursue countertenor singing.

I remember that first lesson of the fall. After I sang this Handel aria for her, she sat back and mused in her sage-like manner, “Yes, this must needs be.”

I never looked back. I think I was on the early edge of the re-emergence of countertenors. Certainly there were countertenors working professionally, but there weren’t that many. There weren’t any other countertenors in Houston when I went to grad school, and even when I moved to Boston, there were only a handful of working countertenors.

Since then, how has the treatment of countertenors changed in the academic and professional worlds?

By the time I left Boston a few years ago, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a countertenor. We now see young countertenors winning major competitions and earning places in young artist programs around the country. The competition is fierce now.

I was lucky enough to be one of just a few fish in the pond, but now countertenors are everywhere—and a lot of them are really good! I also remember that there was a stigma so that it would be difficult to find a voice teacher who would teach countertenors.

A lot of pedagogy books by reputable technicians said that countertenors weren’t real — they just sing in falsetto, which isn’t a real voice. I was lucky that Professor Kombrink was willing to explore that with me. I think now that there are so many successful countertenors singing everywhere, I hope this antiquated view of the voice type has changed.

What would you like the public to know about the program you will perform here? Are you featured in certain pieces?

Our “Trade Winds” program explores several different aspects of the wayfaring sailor. They include Monteverdi madrigals about water and nature; a wonderful mass setting by a largely unknown century Portuguese composer, Filipe de Magalhaes; several charming folksongs from around the Pacific Rim; and even a few sea shanties.

It’s a varied program that includes repertoire from as early as the 15th century up to just a few months ago. One of Chanticleer’s missions is to further the art of live music through new compositions, and we’ve commissioned a fantastic young Chinese-American composer, Zhou Tian (below), to write a new multi-movement piece for us, entitled “Trade Winds,” from which our program also gets its title.

Lots of listeners are scared of “new music,” but Zhou has given us a gem. It’s easy to listen to, and I think listeners will instantly understand what it’s all about.

What are your plans for the future?

Personally, I can’t say that I have anything coming up. As wonderful as Chanticleer is, the job pretty much limits any amount of outside freelance work. (At the bottom, you can hear Chanticleer singing “Shenandoah,” its most popular YouTube video – and a piece with a prominent countertenor part — with well over 1.6 million hits.)

One of the truly fantastic parts of singing in Chanticleer (below, performing on stage) is all the places we travel to. We started off this season with a three-week tour of Europe, which was actually the ensemble’s third trip to Europe in 2019.

We love traveling around the U.S., and as I’ve said, traveling back to Madison is certainly the highlight for me. The Midwest is always a special place for us to sing, as several of our members are from this region.

We’re very excited to travel to Australia in June 2020. I think it’s Chanticleer’s first visit “Down Under.” We will also be going back to the studio in January to record a new album for release sometime later in 2020. We have lots of exciting events coming down the pipeline.

Is there something else you would like to say?

Prior to singing with Chanticleer, I had been living in Boston for almost eight years, pursuing professional singing as a freelance artist.

To make ends meet, I had been working at Starbucks, which I actually started doing when I still lived in Madison, and my gigging was getting lucrative enough that I eventually decided to take a leave of absence from slinging lattes.

While I was in Wisconsin on Christmas vacation, I received a message from Chanticleer’s music director, William Fred Scott, letting me know that there was an immediate vacancy in the ensemble, and would I be interested in singing for them.

I thought I was being spammed, so I didn’t respond, and continued to enjoy the bliss of spending the entirety of the holidays with my family.

When I eventually got back to Boston a few days later, another email arrived from Mr. Scott: “Did you get my email? We’d really like to hear from you.” Ok, how do I tell them I’m clearly NOT the countertenor they’re looking for?

Well, after much soul-searching, calling my mother (“Just do it!” she exclaimed), and figuring out the logistics of liquidating a one-bedroom apartment, I decided to run away and join the circus. It was a complete leap of faith, but I think I made the right decision.

Don’t give up on your dreams. Singing in Chanticleer was the first legitimate dream I remember having. Although my musical path took me in several other directions, that path eventually led me to where I am today, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.


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