Acton steps down as artistic director of the Rackham Choir

Suzanne Mallare Acton, a genre-defying conductor whose demanding musical standards and experiential talent transformed Rackham Choir, is stepping down as artistic director of the choir after 25 years.

Suzanne Mallare Acton conducts Too Hot To Handel, which reinvents a classical choral work through a jazz-gospel lens. Courtesy photos

Acton will continue to serve as Music Director / Conductor for future performances of “Too Hot To Handel” and will continue to mentor the young singers in the Rackham High School Vocal Internship Program. Joe Jackson, Rackham’s longtime accompanist, is also leaving the choir and will continue to work with the Rackham interns.

Rackham is one of the oldest vocal groups in the Detroit subway. Founded in 1949 with great musical ambitions, the choir performed regularly for some time with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. But by the time Acton took over, the band were turning over musical directors and had lost much of their musical firepower.

In 1996, when Rackham lost its director a few months before a scheduled performance of Handel’s “Messiah”, one of Rackham’s board members approached Acton to help him conduct the concert. After the performance, the entire board overwhelmingly encouraged her to stay.

Acton agreed, jumping at the chance to experiment with choral music outside of his job as the Assistant Music Director / Choir Director of the Michigan Opera Theater. She quickly began to push the musical level of the choir upwards, reducing the number of annual concerts, imposing stricter auditions for singers and attracting new members to the ensemble.

“I want singers to communicate lyrics, to really reach their audience, to do more than just sit there and sing,” Acton said. “Standing and singing is a bit boring. I looked for a repertoire that would bring choral music to life.

With Acton at the helm, Rackham stepped out of his comfort zone with performances such as “African Sanctus,” a multimedia performance featuring the photographs of Africa by composer David Fanshawe; a staged version of “The Reluctant Dragon”, a 1941 Disney film, with life-size puppets; and “Let my people go! A Spiritual Journey Along the Underground Railroad ”, which was staged with actors, dancers, soloists and drummers.

Acton’s most enduring and popular innovation was “Too Hot To Handel,” a gospel-infused remix of “The Messiah” which debuted in New York in 1993. “The Messiah” is one most frequently performed choral repertoire pieces in the world and it was a staple on Rackham’s annual calendar. After conducting the classic in 2001, Acton went to dinner with one of the soloists, tenor Rod Dixon, and mentioned in passing that she had heard rumors of a new jazz and gospel remix of “The Messiah” .

Dixon reached out under the table, where he had the sheet music in his bag.

“I said, ‘I just finished singing it a few weeks ago,’” he recalls.

Acton began planning to host the show in Detroit and Rackham first performed it in March 2002 at Little Rock Baptist Church. Acton invited David DiChiera, founder of Michigan Opera Theater, to attend one of the performances; he was so impressed with the experience that he agreed to perform it at the opera in December 2002.

“Too Hot” was met with exuberance at the Detroit Opera House, especially when people in the crowd realized they could scream and clap along with the music. Over the next 20 years of performances, “Too Hot” sold out steadily, broadening Rackham’s profile and attracting new members. In 2008, the choir received the Governor’s Award for Arts and Culture under his direction.

Dixon, who has performed solo in dozens of performances of “Too Hot,” said Acton’s broad musical sensibilities are the lifeblood of the show, calling her “the quintessential American conductor with meaning. universal high standards of music from around the world. . “

By bringing sounds of jazz and gospel to the opera, Dixon said, the show honored black musical forms that form the foundation of American music but have long been excluded by American cultural institutions.

“Suzanne could very easily have stayed behind the doors of the Michigan Opera Theater and stayed on the European side of music,” Dixon said. “She could have done that and been fine. But as a human being, she included us. As we evolved, it evolved.

Acton grew up in a family of musicians and her two older brothers introduced her to jazz.

Acton excelled at the piano, which led her to accompany choral music since her youth. One of his first mentors, John Wustman, accompanied opera stars including Luciano Pavarotti and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

Although not a singer herself, Acton emerged from her training as an expert in the functioning of the voice. Rackham members often notice that the rehearsals feel like a top notch voice lesson.

“If I’m struggling with a song, she can fix what’s wrong in five minutes,” said Victoria Bigelow, a soprano who has been in the choir for over two decades. “His ability to do this in real time with a group of 80 people is amazing. I just think she makes us better at what we do.

Dozens of promising young singers have benefited from Acton’s teaching as part of Rackham’s internship program, which gives high school students a place in the choir and individual instruction on the solo repertoire.

Dominik Belavy, baritone, interned with the choir in 2011 and 2012, before studying at the Juilliard School.

“It was the most in-depth work I had done on language, musicality and style,” recalls Belavy. “I discovered when I went to the conservatory that my work with Suzanne reflected professional level coaching.

Acton’s mentorship did not end when he left for college, he said. A decade later, as he enters the early stages of his professional singing career, she is still passing on job opportunities.

“Suzanne left a lasting legacy with the choir that we will continue to build on for a long time,” said Emily Eichenhorn, president and board member of the choir. “We wish him good luck.

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