Academy's conductor takes his final bow

October 13, 2006|By SUSAN GVOZDAS | SUSAN GVOZDAS,Special to The Sun

Fred Cohrs was a senior at the U.S. Naval Academy when Barry Talley took over as conductor of the glee club in 1971. At the age of 28, Talley was 40 years younger than his predecessor.

Talley started teaching members vocal exercises that they had never tried and introduced a more difficult classical repertoire. Cohrs, who had two years as a music major at the University of Michigan before he came to the Naval Academy, recognized Talley's ability immediately.

"I could tell just by the way he talked that we were on the verge of a new era," said Cohrs, 58, an office administrator for a Virginia consulting firm. "He pulled us - in a very short time - a quantum level up."

Cohrs couldn't resist the opportunity to perform again tonight in Talley's final men's glee club concert.

After 35 years at the academy - 34 as the head of the music department - Talley will retire his baton in December after conducting the annual performance of Handel's Messiah, which he established as a tradition at the Annapolis military college.

When Talley arrived in 1971, the choral department had 300 singers. Today, it has more than 800. He also established a national reputation for the men's glee club.

At least 80 former members of Talley's glee clubs will perform with current members tonight. Many more wanted to come but couldn't because they are stationed in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, said John Semcken, class of 1976, who organized the farewell concert.

Semcken, who lives near Los Angeles, said it took him two years to get into the glee club. It was the first thing that had not come easily to Semcken, who graduated as a pilot from the Navy's "Top Gun" program.

"He created a passion for excellence in music that you wouldn't expect at a military academy," Semcken said. "He helped me come out of my shell and be more than I thought I could be."

Talley, 63, decided to retire this year because he didn't want to become too out of step with his young charges.

"I sense the distance widening," he said. "I want to be gone before I'm out of touch."

It also ends a grueling schedule that had Talley conducting nearly every weekend during the school year.

Although most of the performances were local, he toured with the men's glee club nationwide and traveled with the men's and women's glee clubs overseas every four years. Talley returned with the glee club on Wednesday after finishing a tour of North and South Carolina.

Still energetic after the long drive, Talley readily consented to a late-evening interview from his home in Edgewater.

He took to his Steinway grand piano to demonstrate some of the numbers that the glee club has performed on tour this year. They include mudslinging political songs from Andrew Johnson's presidential campaign to clever parodies of television theme songs, such as "Bonanza."

Talley emphasized that such tongue-in-cheek performances are a minor part of the club's repertoire. Classical music has made up the backbone of the academy's musical program since he was hired.

Building a reputation

The Kentucky native earned a bachelor's degree in piano from Oberlin Conservatory of Music and received a master's degree in conducting from the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. He was conducting choirs at private schools and religious organizations in the Baltimore area when a professor at Oberlin recommended Talley for the academy job.

Talley had never heard of the Naval Academy and actually mistook his job offer letter for a draft notice.

"It was in a brown paper envelope with the academy seal," he said, laughing at the memory.

Back then, the academy had only the glee club and a liturgical choir. Over the years, Talley added the women's glee club, the gospel choir, the chapel chorale and the musical theater choir. He established the Distinguished Artists Series, the annual Spring Oratorio and the winter musical.

The performance of Messiah by the glee clubs, the choir from Hood College and the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra became so popular that it is broadcast on public television every year.

The men's glee club is the largest and most active of the academy's musical organizations, according to tonight's program. The club has appeared on the morning news shows broadcast by ABC, NBC and CBS and has performed on NBC's and TNT's Christmas in Washington programs.

Talley's talent also has benefited the Annapolis community. As a board member for the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, he led two search committees for new conductors, said Anna E. Greenberg, a former board member and past president of the orchestra.

"He helped raise our orchestra to another level because of his intuitive sense about conducting," she said.

Motivating excellence

Mutual respect is part of the reason Talley believes that he has been able to persuade already overscheduled midshipmen to work hard at singing.

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