Talking Berlioz with ISC's Eric Stark 

Stark, on the podium.
  • Stark, on the podium.
The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir's 75th anniversary season has included a few milestones - the choir's first release of a major symphonic-choral work on CD (Mendelssohn's Elijah); the first radio broadcast of the choir's holiday concert (WFYI); and a performance before an audience of millions, nay billions, when 40-some members of the choir and ISC artistic director Eric Stark joined Madonna's choir for her Super Bowl halftime show.

The ISC's season closes Saturday with a performance of Hector Berlioz's Requiem - also known as Le Grande Messe des Morts, Op. 5 - at the Hilbert Circle Theatre, with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (at whose behest the choir was created back in 1937), students from Butler University and selected soloists along for the ride. Stark, who celebrated his 10th anniversary as head of the ISC this year - a position he's maintained while working as a professor at Butler and director of that school's Chorale and Madrigal Singers - talked to us about the state of the Choir and the mass.

NUVO: How does the mass fit into your 75th anniversary celebration?

Eric Stark: Because it's the end of our anniversary year, we decided to go out with a bang, and this will be a bang to end all bangs. There'll be about 300 performers - about 200 in the choir and nearly a hundred orchestra members to sing this piece that hasn't been performed in Indianapolis, as best I can tell, since the late '70s. It's a glorious, explosive piece. My students from Butler University are joining with the Symphonic Choir for it, and they're so excited about it. It's kind of like Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture again and again; one movement after the next.

NUVO: So where will these off-stage brass bands be placed?

Stark: There are four off-stage brass bands, so we're going to use the two side boxes for two of them; those two are larger and have about ten players each. Two are smaller - about four or five players - and I'm going to put them on the far edges of the dress circle. Berlioz wanted there to be a kind of spatial separation between the main stage chorus and orchestra, and the off-stage brass, so by doing that, I think we'll get a real surround-sound experience.

NUVO: How would you describe Berlioz's approach to the text?

Stark: There's a wholesale replacement of the spiritual with the theatrical. He was so drawn to the vivid imagery of the Requiem text when he was writing the mass. The fear and trembling, the great drama, overpowered him, in a way, so he really gives us a theatrical tour-de-force that's about as far from the Roman Catholic liturgical tradition as it could be, cutting and pasting lines of text here and there.

NUVO: Why have you stuck with this volunteer gig?

Stark: I feel so fortunate; and in a way, I feel like I'm just getting started. The choir has grown substantially in every way in the last 10 years. When I came to the choir, we had about 95 singers on the roster; we've got about 160 now, and I think the artistic quality of the group is as high as it's ever been. Financially, we've weathered the recent storms very admirably; and in fact our individual giving and corporate donation goals have been met year after year. In a choir like this, because we're all volunteers and because my singers are very multi-talented and have lots of things going on in their lives, there's what some might describe as a relatively high turnover rate. We might see 10 to 15 percent new singers every year; though we have some people who have been in the group for decades, and I'm so pleased about that. I love meeting the new folks, and it feels to me like every year, the folks that come and join us are always better and better, so that challenges me to dream a bigger dream for the group, and work with the staff, board of directors and supporters to see how we might bring that about.

NUVO: In your blog on the ISC website (, you talk about your special moment with Madonna, when, climbing the stairs to the stage ... "Wishing to steady herself, she reached out and grabbed my right bicep. Then, (obviously enjoying the sensation!) she put her other hand there as well."

Stark: It was kind of funny; I found myself feeling pretty starstruck. She was there for most of our rehearsals and very involved in the whole process. I was really impressed with how hard she was working; she really had the whole vision of that show firmly in mind. She walked right past me a couple times, and grabbed me that second time, which gave me a fun story to tell. You never know where you're going to end up with a doctorate in choral conducting.

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Scott Shoger

Scott Shoger

Scott Shoger staggered up to NUVO's door one summer afternoon, a little drunk, poor and crazy-haired, muttering about future Mayor Ballard. He was taken in, hosed down, given NUVO-emblazoned clothes to wear and allowed to work in exchange for food and bylines. Refusing to leave the premises, he was hired on as... more

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