By Melissa Jerves
Music has the power to bring families and communities together, and nobody knows that better than counter-tenor Joseph Schlesinger and his mother, Downers Grove resident Florence Schlesinger.
Joseph Schlesinger didn’t begin his musical career as a singer. He started playing the trumpet at age 10. “My mother threatened me that if I quit trumpet I would owe her the $50 she spent to buy my instrument,” he says. “Luckily, I enjoyed it more than the recorder.”
But Schlesinger won’t be playing the trumpet in George Friedrich Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum with the Downers Grove Choral Society (DGCS) in its November 11 presentation, A Choral Thanksgiving: Te Deum, at the First United Methodist Church in Downers Grove. He’ll be singing the solo counter-tenor part, instead. Keeping it in the family, his mother Florence is a soprano in the chorus.
Florence grew up with music in her home and continued the tradition with her children. “The appreciation of fine classical music must be cultured,” says Florence. All the Schlesinger children play instruments, and Joe is not the only professional musician in the family. Daughter Eileen is a coloratura soprano who also has performed solo parts with DGCS. Joe and Eileen have performed together in Houston and Amsterdam, and Joe and his mother sang together at a recent family wedding at the Houston Cathedral. “Family gatherings always seem to gravitate to the piano with instruments added,” says Florence. We even let [my husband] Dave join in - he has a great bass voice.”
Florence has sung with the Downers Grove Choral Society since 1980 and directed choirs at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Darien for 15 years. She still serves as a cantor there. Though she and her husband spend their winters in Arizona, Florence sings with DGCS whenever she is in Downers Grove. “[I] have always been amazed at the professional quality of the DGCS,” she says. “I feel that we attract fine singers, which has kept the society functioning. Our directors have been top musicians.”
Joe was born in Spain and spent his early childhood in Europe, where his father, Dave Schlesinger, was a teacher and administrator in American schools overseas. After the family returned to Illinois in 1978, Joe attended Benet Academy in Lisle. “Downers Grove represents a wonderful childhood of bike riding and playing outside. It was a great place to grow up.”
Joe didn’t start singing until after his undergraduate studies in Finance and Asian Studies at Augustana College in Rock Island, where he played principal trumpet in the symphony orchestra. “At Augustana the orchestra and choir schedules conflicted. I couldn’t afford to lose my trumpet scholarship if I sang in the choir.” After finishing his degree at Augustana, he moved to Seattle. “I spent more time mountain biking and wind surfing than anything else more serious,” admits Joe. But for two years he sang with a well-respected amateur choir, Seattle Pro Musica. “By then the musical bug had finally bitten!”
“I returned to study music because I loved it. Singing is like any craft. You hone your skills through experience. I decided I could pursue music as a career after a few years of singing and testing my ability through auditions, recitals and concerts.” Joe earned his Masters of Music in Voice at DePaul University in Chicago in 1999 and sang in the apprentice programs of Glimmerglass Opera in New York, and the Pacific Music Festival in Japan.
Joe’s performance with DGCS will not be the first time he sings under the direction of Artistic Director Dr. Amy Weller. While at DePaul, Joe was Weller’s student. “Dr. Weller was a very inspiring teacher. In our conducting class her enthusiasm was contagious. If I'd taken more than one class with her, I might have ended up on the conductor's podium.”
Weller has nothing but praise for Joe. “The beauty of his vocal instrument, his incredible musicality, and his exemplary work ethic all stood out. There was no question in my mind that he was going to be able to have a musical career if he wanted one,” says Weller. “Also, I distinctly remember that his parents were supportive of his singing.”
When she came to DGCS as Artistic Director in 2011, Weller finally met Joe’s mother, Florence. “Now I understand better the nature of that support. It's wonderful to witness first-hand the devotion to the arts and to music, in particular, that such a family brings to the local community and to the world at large,” Weller says.
Joe’s career blossomed when he received Netherlands-America/Fulbright Fellowship to study Baroque Music at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. “Joseph's performing experiences overseas have been remarkable,” says Weller. He has sung on stages in Amsterdam, The Hague and Brussels. Joe has performed traditional repertoire for the counter-tenor, including Baroque works by Bach, Handel, Purcell and others, as well as four world premieres of modern operas in the Netherlands.
“I thoroughly enjoy singing the cantatas and Passions by J.S. Bach,” Joe says. However, “the contemporary music scene for the counter-tenor voice is quite exciting. I suppose modern composers’ interest in using the counter-tenor voice is to add another color on their musical palette of composition.”
What exactly is a counter-tenor? “A counter-tenor is an adult male who sings the alto part,” explains Joe. “The word derives from the word contra-tenore, which literally means the part that goes against the tenor line. Its derivation occurred in the development of Gregorian chant many centuries before the advent of the oratorio or opera.”
“In Gregorian chant the men would all sing in unison and that vocal line became known as the tenor line. Once harmonization began to occur in Gregorian chant, the line above the tenor was called the contra-tenore and was sung by men whose voices were higher than those singing the tenor line. This higher vocal line gradually evolved for men who sang in their falsetto.” As the oratorio and opera genres developed, the counter-tenor part was included.
Joe’s opportunities to perform overseas may have shaped him in a way that musicians who stay close to home do not experience. “European audiences, German and Dutch, understand Bach’s text and expect a performer to completely portray that text as any fluent speaker would,” he explains.
So far, Joe’s favorite venues have been the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park, and a chapel in the Netherlands that dates back to 900 A.D. But Joe finds value in every performance, no matter the venue. “It's always a pleasure to share music with DGCS or any other ensemble devoted to the vocal arts,” says Joe. “Each new piece is an exploration of the meaning of the text and its historical importance.” He adds, “Any opportunity to perform live is an opportunity to improve your artistry.”
Though Joe now lives in Cleveland, Ohio, Chicago-area audiences will have the chance to enjoy the fruits of this experience. Dr. Weller says, “[Joseph] brings profound musical and textual understanding to his solo part in the Dettingen Te Deum. He has performed the work before, and he is very experienced in general with music of the Baroque era. The gorgeous quality of his voice and the way that he uses his vocal instrument to sing sensitively and expressively will greatly enhance the performance that DGCS is able to offer. We are so lucky to have him! He truly brings with him what can rightfully be called "world class" to Downers Grove.”
The Downers Grove Choral Society presents A Choral Thanksgiving: Te Deum, featuring Joseph Schlesinger, counter-tenor; Klaus George, tenor; and Keven Keys, baritone. Sunday, November 11, 2012, at the First United Methodist Church, 1032 Maple Avenue, Downers Grove.