Scott Jarrett’s tale of 2 cities (and 3 jobs)

Oratorio Singers of Charlotte director shuttles between here and Boston

02/17/2012 12:00 AM

02/17/2012 3:03 PM

Two or three weeks with no day off. Coming and going through busy airports. At work, dozens of people watching your every move.

Having three jobs in two cities would be enough to wear you down – if it didn’t immerse you in uplifting music.

So Scott Allen Jarrett is nowhere near wanting to ease off the pace. For nearly eight years, he has shuttled between Charlotte and Boston, shepherding choirs – including the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte – through Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

Last weekend, Jarrett guest-conducted a Miami group in a Bach masterwork. This weekend, he directs the music in chapel services at Boston University, his job No. 1. Next weekend he focuses on Charlotte, leading the Charlotte Symphony and Oratorio Singers in a choral blockbuster, Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”

“The good news is, I have these pieces in my blood,” Jarrett says. “I really thrive on them.”

In early March, he conducts a different Bach epic with another Boston choir, his job 3. Most every day includes a rehearsal with one group or another, usually in combination with administrative chores or a board meeting or an airline flight or the choral-repertoire class he teaches.

No wonder Jarrett’s briefcase bulges. But you just can’t catch him sounding weighed-down, however much you quiz him on the workload, schedule or challenges.

Ask him about Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” a work the Oratorio Singers will perform in May. It’s heavenly music, but hellacious to learn and sing. He describes the difficulties but ends up here:

“I adore the piece. I just love it.”

‘The life I want to live’

Even though Jarrett doesn’t speak with any particular regional accent, the mellowness in his voice harks back to his native Virginia. He grew up in a subdivision in Lynchburg, where his family could look out from their backyard deck and see the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s mansion on the next hillside.

By the seventh grade, Jarrett played the piano for his school choir. Here’s how hooked he was on music: He stayed after school for band rehearsals – even though he wasn’t in the band.

He went to Furman University with every intention of becoming a school choral director. But even as he earned an S.C. teaching certificate, he decided what he really enjoyed was academia. So he went to Boston University for a doctorate in choral conducting, figuring that would get him a professorship someplace.

In Boston, Jarrett found a bustling music scene beyond anything he had experienced. Between conducting, playing the piano and singing, he found opportunities to perform all over. His first Christmas there, he was a “Messiah” soloist for four or five groups.

“It was an unbelievable sort of watershed musical experience in that first year,” Jarrett said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the life I want to live.’ ”

Motivated and happy

His opportunity came in triplicate. In 2004, while he was working on his doctorate, he landed three jobs: music director of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel; director of the Oratorio Singers; and director of the Back Bay Chorale, a Boston group akin to the Oratorio Singers.

In Charlotte, the Oratorio Singers started him with a one-year contract, just to see if the two-city juggling act could work. Not only has the group held onto him, but the Charlotte Symphony – which administers the choir – last year added Jarrett the title orchestra assistant conductor.

“I don’t think any of us had any idea,” Jarrett says, “it would work out for eight years and still continue.”

The orchestra’s music director, Christopher Warren-Green, praises Jarrett’s musical taste and skill. After seeing Jarrett in action with the Oratorio Singers, Warren-Green also notices another talent.

“He can make them laugh,” Warren-Green says. For the director of a volunteer chorus, keeping everyone motivated and happy is high on the agenda.

“They come in after a long day’s work – or they get up at 6 a.m. to get their children off to school – and then they have to sing in the evening,” Warren-Green says. “It’s hard work for them.” The chorus’ attitude, he adds, “always reflects the captain of the ship.”

The efficient traveler

Having a quick salad between a flight from Boston and an Oratorio Singers rehearsal, Jarrett asks: “Is your life governed by email?” The question implicitly declares: Mine is. His goal, he says, is just to clear out one day’s email before the next day’s comes in.

That’s as close as he comes to saying there’s anything onerous about his jobs.

Flying every week? He has hardly ever had a serious delay, Jarrett says, and he rarely checks luggage.

Keeping track of expenses? Jarrett espouses “the Ziploc-bag way of life”: He stuffs all his receipts into a plastic bag.

Keeping a half-dozen or so big choral works in his head at a time? Experience pays off, he says. “I’m getting to the age where I’ve done a lot of these pieces before.”

“I feel extraordinarily blessed to have the opportunity to visit these works again and again.”

The power of the music also draws in the people who sing, Jarrett says.

“A volunteer chorus can dedicate one night a week for three months in a row and find a spiritual experience about learning the piece and all the piece has to offer,” Jarrett says. “It’s one of the great joys of the music we get to do.”

Pushing for power

But sometimes the music is just about fun – as with this week’s “Carmina Burana.” Based on medieval texts discovered in a German monastery a century ago, it’s a celebration of love, lust and libation.

On a recent Tuesday night, Jarrett and the chorus – returning to music they shared in 2008 – put on finishing touches. Sometimes Jarrett polished details, sometimes his pushed for power.

During one of the lustier parts: “Can you swagger more?”

To the women before a juicy melody: “Sultry, altos!”

At one of the most vigorous parts: “Not artful in any way. Just primal.”

To draw all that out of the singers, Jarrett turned into a primal creature on the podium, pumping his arms and rocking his torso. But he settled down and moved to the piano when it came time to teach part of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis.”

They tackled Beethoven on of Beethoven’s most difficult sections. Jarrett began with a quick pep talk. The music in their hands, bristling with notes, looks scary, he acknowledged.

“But don’t dismay,” he said. “The reward is great. And it will come.”

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