by Nat Frothingham
It’s time once again to catch up with Chris Shepard, a June 1983 graduate of Montpelier High School, who will be making his Carnegie Hall debut when he conducts Handel’s “Messiah” December 23.
Chris grew up on Marvin Street in Montpelier. He was a student at Union Elementary School, then Main Street Middle School and then Montpelier High School.
At high school, Chris was deeply influenced by music teacher and choral director Pamela Perry. He was midway through high school when Perry said to him, “Chris, I think you’d make a good conductor.” She went on to teach him how to lead a chorus and this became his first experience as a choral director.
After high school, Chris followed his passion for music. He took a bachelor’s degree from the Hartt School of Music in West Hartford, Connecticut. After graduating from Hartt, he landed a choral directing assignment at the elite Taft (prep) School in Watertown, Connecticut and in due course he took a master’s degree in music from Yale University.
Just as Chris was finishing his master’s degree at Yale, something completely unforeseen happened.
As it turns out, a tradition had been established between the prestigious Sydney, (Australia) Grammar School and Yale University whereby graduating seniors from Yale were recruited annually to go out for a year or two to work as teachers at Sydney Grammar School.
Well, it happened that the headmaster of Sydney Grammar was in the United States visiting Yale. And he made a side trip to take a look at Taft School. As part of a conversation with the Taft School headmaster, the headmaster of Sydney Grammar said: “Our orchestra is OK. But we need someone to improve our choral work.” And the Taft headmaster said, “We’ll loan you Chris Shepard for a year.”
So Shepard went off to Australia on a one-year loan. But the loan got extended or as Chris Shepard said in a phone call to The Bridge, “Initially I was just going on leave from Taft for a year and then come back. I was meant to go for one year and I stayed for 13 years.”
At Sydney Grammar School, Shepard made at least two important discoveries. First, he liked Sydney Grammar School. As Chris said, “It was very academic, very athletic. They did everything well. And second, he also loved living in Sydney with its gorgeous waterfront and harbor. He took a ferry to work. “And the Australians are so wonderful,” he said.
During his time in Sydney, Shepard established his own “Sydneian Bach Choir.” This choir aimed to perform all the major works of Bach including the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, the Mass in B Minor, the Christmas Oratorio — and all the extant Bach cantatas. Nor was Shepard content to “hide his light under a bushel.” During his time with the Bach Choir, they went on a tour of Europe and performed at such musical capitals as Venice in Italy and Leipzig in Germany. By the time Shepard returned to the United States after his 13-year stay in Australia, his Bach Choir had performed all of Bach’s major choral works as well as 78 Bach cantatas. And one more thing, before he left Australia, Shepard had started work on his doctorate in musicology, which he completed in 2012.
In 1998 — and this was 15 years after he had graduated from Montpelier High School and was then working at Sydney Grammar School and leading the school chorus — he decided on a tour that would take 40 Sydney Grammar School boys to the United States for a series of concerts including a stay in Montpelier at the start of the Christmas holiday season. As part of that stay in Montpelier, the 40 boys in the Sydney Grammar School choir participated in two assemblies at Union Elementary School. Then there was a big, community concert to a packed house at Bethany Church on Saturday evening, December 8. And then the next morning the boys from Sydney Grammar School sang at a Sunday service at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier. And it didn’t stop there, because during their time in Montpelier, the Sydney Boys Choir was able to raise some $1,500 to benefit the local Onion River Arts Council.
Today, Shepard is back in the United States. He’s living in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City and he’s much in demand as a choral conductor with an almost feverishly busy schedule.
On Monday evening he rehearses the Dessoff Choir, a premier New York City choral group. On Tuesday evening he’s in Worcester, Massachusetts rehearsing the Worcester Chorus. Then on Wednesday he’s down in Morristown, New Jersey leading the Masterwork Chorus. During the day on Thursday, he’s in his office at the St. John Episcopal Church in Stamford, Connecticut. And on Thursday evening he rehearses the St. John’s Choir. On some weekends, Shepard travels to Hartford, Connecticut where he conducts Connecticut Choral Artists (CONCORA), the oldest professional choir in Connecticut. The typical arrangement with the chorus is two weekends of rehearsals in a row with a concert at the end of the second weekend. There are 32 singers. They’re all professional, they’re all paid. “They’re really good,” said Chris. “It’s like working with a professional orchestra. It’s like driving a Lamborghini.”
Shepard’s schedule has him on the run — on subways, on trains, driving his car — often away from home overnight. His schedule calls for days off on Friday and Saturday. But that’s when he does his programming, gets it approved, then writes program notes in advance of upcoming concerts. As if this wasn’t enough, said Chris: “I go back to Sydney once or twice a year. During the summer, I judge festivals. Or a school will hire me to do a week of workshops and a concert.”
The truth is — that however far afield Chris Shepard’s passion for music and choral conducting has taken him, he has never forgotten Montpelier, the city of his roots, the place where he got his start as a choral conductor.
Reflecting back on what it was like to grow up here, he said, “I would not trade my upbringing for anything. Montpelier is a nurturing place. I felt I could do anything I wanted.”
At high school, Pam Perry was a decisive influence. Said Chris, “She had really high standards. Everyone wanted to be in her select choir — the Collegium. It was full of music lovers like myself as well as football players. Everybody wanted to be in that choir.”
Then as a senior when Chris pulled together some of his friends and created a choir — that was his first experience as a choir director. “That was the template for what I have done with my life,” he said. That was also when he understood what he wanted from his singers. “I don’t want to work with people if they’re not enjoying themselves — from kids to amateurs to adults. It’s all about joy. All my friends gave me that gift. They gave me that gift that it’s all about the joy first — then the music.”