by Michael Caruso
With Labor Day behind us and the new school-year beginning, the middle of September also marks the return of the full spectrum of most churches’ music programs. For the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, it also launches the second year of Daniel Spratlan’s tenure as the congregation’s music director.
Born and raised in Amherst, Massachusetts, Spratlan has an older brother and sister, both of whom were adopted from Seoul, South Korea. “My parents are both professional musicians and retired music professors,” he explained.
“My father, Lewis, is a composer and oboist, and he taught composition and theory at Amherst College for nearly 40 years, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2000. My mother, Melinda, is a professional soprano who recently retired after 42 years of teaching voice at Mt. Holyoke College.
“My mother was always singing around the house, and I was going to concerts to hear my parents from the time I was a toddler, so music was always a part of my everyday life. My paternal grandmother, who moved to Amherst from Miami just after I was born, was an organist and piano teacher, so I started studying piano and music theory from her when I was four.”
Spratlan explained that his first experience singing in a school choir occurred when he put down the clarinet in 9th grade and joined the chorus. The switch took place during the first year of Amherst High School’s new conductor, Jesse Murray. Spratlan continued singing in the choir through graduation.
“He’s the person who really helped develop my voice,” Spratlan said, “and kindled my love for choral music. He programmed an incredibly diverse and exciting repertoire, always performed by memory. His open spirit and joy was infectious — and his discipline, attention to detail and technique.”
Spratlan attended Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, “a Quaker liberal arts school in the middle of nowhere.” He received a B.A. in music, with a focus on conducting. He chose a liberal arts college rather than a conservatory because he had other interests normally not included in a conservatory’s curriculum.
Spratlan received his M.M. in choral conducting from Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, choosing the school partly to sing with the Westminster Symphonic Choir. “I had heard many recordings of the ensembles there, and my visit to the campus for my audition, when I heard the choirs ‘live’ and watched the conductors in action, sealed the deal,” he said.
Spratlan will be receiving his D.M.A. in choral conducting from Rutgers University in October. This past year, he was hired as part-time faculty to teach undergraduate choral conducting and to conduct the Collegium Musicum. After graduating from Westminster, Spratlan moved to New York City to pursue singing. “It was much easier to get work as a singer right out of grad school than as a conductor,” he explained, “and honestly, I love both and was just happy to find work.”
Through a host of connections, Spratlan was asked to join the chorus of the Spoleto Festival, led by Donald Nally, founder of The Crossing, the chamber chorus specializing in contemporary music that considers Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church its home base. He subsequently joined The Crossing, the chorus of Opera Philadelphia, Choral Arts Philadelphia, and the choir at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in center city. The combination of the strain of traveling to Philadelphia from New York and the birth of his daughter, Amelia, encouraged him to move south and enter Rutgers’ doctoral program.
Speaking about his singing as a member of The Crossing (the choir opens its Chestnut Hill season Saturday, Nov. 8, at 8 p.m.), Spratlan said, “The Crossing makes its mark as a one-of-a-kind ensemble in many ways. Looking from the top down, Donald Nally is perhaps the most innovative and motivated conductor I have ever met.”
Spratlan’s connection with Chestnut Hill Presbyterian began when he joined The Crossing. “As soon as I heard that the position (of music director) was open, I immediately threw my number in the hat.”
The main ensemble is the gallery choir, comprised of 28 adults teenage singers. Twenty members are volunteers plus eight professional soloists/section leaders. The choir rehearses Thursday nights and sings at the 10 a.m. service each Sunday, performing three to four anthems each service plus a sung psalm and service music.
“Our primary goal as a choir,” he explained, “is to enhance the worship experience for the congregation … Our repertoire encompasses nearly every genre of music from Gregorian chant through contemporary works. We also hope to enjoy and enhance the community that is made when you create music with other people.”
Beginning his second year as the church’s music director, Spratlan feels that several of his immediate goals are already being met. “The dedication of our newly restored chapel in October will be accompanied by the first of our Cantatas and Chamber Music Concerts … While I am obviously biased, I think our choir is one of the strongest church choirs in the region. I am fortunate as a conductor to have a skilled choir like this one to work with.”