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Celebrating ‘the consummate musician,’ choral legend Dale Warland

The 90th birthday celebration at Orchestra Hall will feature Dominick Argento’s “I Hate and I Love” and folk music arrangements by Carol Barnett, Alf Houkom, and William Hawley. 

Dale Warland and Matthew Culloton speaking during a rehearsal of the Minnesota Beethoven Festival Chorale in 2017.
Dale Warland and Matthew Culloton speaking during a rehearsal of the Minnesota Beethoven Festival Chorale in 2017.
Photo by Caroline Swanson

On Sunday, choral legend Dale Warland will be honored for his 90th birthday at Orchestra Hall, at a celebration concert hosted by The Singers called “Dale Warland at 90: A Legacy Celebration.” 

Born in Fort Dodge, Iowa to a family of Norwegian farmers in April of 1932, Warland began conducting and composing in high school, and later at St. Olaf College in Northfield. He had an academic career, anchored by nearly two decades at Macalester College, and also was founder and artistic director of the Dale Warland Singers, a job in which he commissioned 207 new pieces of music, performed works from roughly 400 composers and recorded 29 CDs, one of which was nominated for a Grammy. 

The birthday celebrations will feature Dominick Argento’s “I Hate and I Love,” which was commissioned by the Dale Warland Singers, and folk music arrangements by Carol Barnett, Alf Houkom and William Hawley. 

Of course, in light of Warland’s love of new music, the celebration also features a world premiere, “Changed by Beauty,” by composer-in-residence Timothy Takach and poet Brian Newhouse, who is himself a DWS alum. 

The concert is hosted by the Singers, a group founded after the sunsetting of the DWS. “We’re not really the official successor of the Dale Warland Singers, but we are certainly a group that I lead very much in the spirit of the great things I learned from my time with Dale and my other teachers,” says the Singers’ artistic Director Matthew Culloton. 

Culloton met Warland in 1999, when he became a member of DWS. “I came on as a baritone for what was supposed to be a single project,” Culloton says. Culloton sang with the choir during a tour to Savannah, Georgia, and Warland offered him a spot in the choir for the remainder of the year. “I was hooked, of course, after one rehearsal,” Culloton says. 

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Culloton was with DWS for five years, eventually becoming an assistant conductor and bass section leader. “By the end, they gave me this title of music advisor to Dale Warland, which is kind of a comical title, but it just meant we programmed for the Dale Warland Singers together,” Culloton says. “It was essentially my first graduate degree.” 

In 2004, DWS ended with a concert at Orchestra Hall that featured guest conductors from around the country and Dominick Argento’s song cycle “Walden Pond,” the recording of which earned the group a Grammy nomination. 

Culloton, while on staff, wasn’t part of the discussions to end the group, which happened at the board of directors level. “I can say there was a trend happening when Robert Shaw passed away, when Canadian conductor Elmer Iseler died, the choirs tried to continue with the name of their founder, and none of them really kind of kept going with the same scheme that they had,” Culloton says. 

In the end, Culloton founded a new ensemble, bringing roughly 30 of the 40 singers from DWS to become a part of a new choral ensemble called The Singers. As for Warland, he’d go on to become the guest music director of Chanticleer, artistic director of the former St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Chorale, and music director for the Minnesota Beethoven Music Festival Chorale, as well as doing numerous guest conductor appearances.

Among the things Culloton learned from Warland was the importance of commissioning new works and working with living composers. “I just loved the impact of new music and programming,” Culloton says. 

“He thought that creating beauty and putting beauty out into the world was the most significant calling you could have,” Culloton recalls. “In rehearsals, what that meant is you would take such care about making a musical line, the ups and downs of the dynamic colors, the balance of the chords. You look at the clock and realize, ‘Oh my gosh, time flies, but we’ve been on this page making this crescendo and balancing this chord for 20 minutes.’”

Kathy Saltzman Romey, director of Choral Activities at the University of Minnesota, and artistic director of The Minnesota Chorale, calls Warland “the consummate musician” as he has brought excellence, his joy of music, his deep insight into the score, and his concept of sound and interpretation into his work. “For all of us who have worked with him, we find his vision for the score to be inspiring,” Saltzman Romey says. 

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Saltzman Romey has known Warland most of her life, having met him when she was five years old while he was doing his doctorate at the University of Southern California, during a time her father was also in the program. Later, he became her mentor, teacher and friend. Saltzman Romey’s husband was a manager for DWS, and Saltzman Romey became assistant conductor at Macalester College during Warland’s tenure as conductor. 

Observing Warland in rehearsals, Saltzman Romey saw first hand the infectious joy Warland brought to the music, which made singers love to work with him. “Rehearsals flew by,” she says. 

One of Saltzman Romey’s favorite memories was watching Warland conduct the Frank Martin Mass for Double Chorus while DWS was on tour in Germany, where they also performed Krzysztof Penderecki’s “St. Luke Passion.” 

“That’s probably one of the most memorable moments of my working with Dr. Warland,” Saltzman Romey says. “To watch him mount this work with a professional chorus and a collegiate choir, and then to go to Germany and work side by side with one of the foremost composers of our time in preparing and presenting this work was absolutely inspiring.” 

Besides his musicianship, Culloton says Dale was just “a lovable guy.” 

“So many of the Dale Warland Singers over the years just called him Uncle Dale,” Culloton says. “I think people don’t realize, Dale could have been very famous elsewhere, but he turned down so many guest conducting things that  would have taken him away from his Monday night rehearsals with the Dale Warland Singers.

Warland will be at the event, in the first tier on the conductor’s left side. “It’s going to be very Kennedy Center Honors,” Culloton says. Seventy-eight alumni of DWS will be present, sharing the stage with the current members of the Singers during the second half of the concert. The event also will have a slideshow and a video montage.

“You only turn 90 once, and I’ve just kind of learned that it’s important to say thank you to people while you still can,” Culloton says. “It’s a big choral hug, and it’s kind of an event that’s meant to give the community a chance to say, ‘I still love Dale.” 

“Dale Warland at 90: A Legacy Celebration” takes place at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 13 at Orchestra Hall ($40 in advance, $45 at the door). More information here