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Cardinal Singers Hit the Highs on the Road to Excellence

By Ron Cooper

  • Best Chamber Choir, 2004 International Choir Olympics, Bremen, Germany
  • Highest score, Harmonie-Festival, Lindenholzhausen, Germany
  • Invited choir, 7th World Symposium on Choral Music, Kyoto, Japan
  • Three third-place honors, 2006 Tolosa (Spain) Choral Contest
  • Third place, Chamber Choir, 3rd International Johannes Brahms Choral Competition, Wernigerode, Germany

The Cardinal Singers' impressive track record on the international stage has Kent Hatteberg pinching himself.

"Why is this happening?" he asks. "What is it? I can't quite put my finger on it."

Hatteberg is wrapping up a decade as the ensemble's conductor. He also serves as the director of Choral Activities at the School of Music and is a University Scholar.

"I never want to be at a point where we start thinking that we're really good," says the humble Hatteberg, but he voices immense pride in his 33-member chamber ensemble and its stellar success during an incredible four-year run of international competition.

To top it all, the international choral organization Musica Mundi recently ranked the Cardinal Singers as the second best competitive choir in the world among the top 1,000 ranked and the best in its top 50 listing in the mixed choirs category.

Caught off guard

conductor and students One significant high note came in 2004 at the International Choir Olympics in Bremen, Germany. Judges named the singers the Best Chamber Choir, an honor that caught them off guard completely.

"They never expected to win that," Hatteberg says.

During the awards ceremony, the Olympics' organizers placed a winning medal around Hatteberg's neck while the Cardinal Singers sang the National Anthem. It was a golden moment that is fixed in Hatteberg's memory for all time.

"The audience rose to its feet, screaming and yelling and then got into a rhythmic clap," he recalls. "Even the judges clapped, some with their hands over their heads.

"Some of our singers were beaming and some were bawling," he says, eyes glistening. "There was such a great mix of emotions. If you have a heart, it's got to hit you."

The singers' noteworthy achievements are no accident, says Frederick Speck, UofL director of bands.

"Success just doesn't happen without the students understanding the importance of their artistic mission," he says. "Kent has the vision, the enthusiasm, and tremendous musical expertise as both a teacher and a performing musician.

"He helps the student learn to elevate their abilities and expectations," Speck adds. "They see themselves as Kent's colleagues."

A team effort

The Cardinal Singers are ready for a challenge, even one that springs up virtually overnight.

In 2005, the singers were invited to perform at the World Symposium on Choral Music when another college choir was unable to muster the expenses for the trip. They had just six weeks to prepare a repertoire for what Hatteberg describes as "the biggest stage for choirs in the world."

"The singers were jumping up and down with excitement," he says. "They knew that they were among the very elite" on the invitation list.

The honor did not go to their heads.

"You work hard to do your best, then the stakes get higher and you work even harder," Hatteberg says. "You get more excited. You get more enthused. Think of our basketball team getting ready for the Final Four. The excitement, the adrenaline. Then they win."

The singers prepared diligently for Kyoto and had their program memorized when a call came—just two weeks before the scheduled departure time. Could the ensemble add some spiritual or gospel music to its chamber repertoire?

Hatteberg and his charges accepted the challenge without hesitation.

"We picked the music and learned it all just four days before we left," he says. "It was simply amazing."

A professional approach

The group's international status is "a bit surprising and a bit humbling," says Cardinal Singers' veteran Benjamin Powell. "We got where we are because of hard work."

Powell, who also is Hatteberg's graduate assistant, says he's learned a lot from Hatteberg.

"He demands excellence without being demanding," he says.

singers singing Hatteberg treats the group like a professional ensemble, says Peter Lovett, a six-year member of the ensemble. With that attitude, the conductor expects the singers to work hard and take responsibility for the music.

New group members go through rigorous tests of their vocal range and sense of rhythm, while Hatteberg assesses their ability to work cooperatively and to learn new music fast.

"I look for brains first," he says. "I look for good sight-reading skills, particularly in the area of rhythm. Can they keep a steady beat? Voice quality makes a difference, but how fast can they learn music? How well do they sing in tune? How well will they sing with others?"

Those who audition go through a recall process, requiring them to sing in a quartet. They receive music to prepare.

"This process tells me a number of things," Hatteberg says. "Do they sing intelligently with others? Do they handle pressure well? How nervous do they get? Can they perform their best when they're on call?"

He also considers the candidate's personality.

"Is ego the main thing that you notice about them? I don't have much room for divas. I look for people who will dig in, work hard and do the best for the group."

It's all about hard work

Hatteberg and the singers always are trying to get to the next level.

"I tell them before each competition that our placement doesn't really matter to me," he says. "If several choirs come in ahead of us in the rankings, we'll at least get to hear some good choirs."

A taskmaster who spends countless hours finding the repertoire best suited for the group, Hatteberg then spends more hours helping to hone just the right sound.

For the Cardinal Singers' performance at the Tolosa (Spain) Choral Contest in 2006, he spent much more time programming what the group was going to perform than he spent in rehearsal.

"I listen to a lot of pieces and study a lot of scores," he says. "I look for variety. But the process takes me forever." Their international honors have proven the effort to be worthwhile.

Closer to home, the singers are active putting UofL's best musical foot forward at on-campus concerts, Louisville Cardinal basketball games and out in the community.

Whatever lies ahead for the Cardinal Singers—singing the National Anthem at a UofL basketball game or traveling to places far distant from the Belknap Campus—the ensemble seems to have an unstoppable momentum.

"I don't really care about winning a competition," Hatteberg says. "What matters most is that our singers will remember their experiences forever. That's what makes it worth it for me."

–Ron Cooper is a Louisville area writer.

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