Under the Influence of. . . Ralph Hunter

Ralph Hunter, pianist, arranger and choir directorThe Marlowsphere Blog (#113)

The last blog described my relationship with Maestro Maurice Peress with whom I studied “performance practice” for a semester in a doctoral level course at the City University of New York Graduate Center in 2001. In the blog I also referred to several other musicians who have over a course of several decades influenced my composing, arranging, and playing.

There are many others, but one of those who remains to be mentioned is Ralph Hunter. Hunter was an outstanding musician: as a pianist, arranger, and especially a choir director. He died on June 3, 2002 at age 81 in Grinnell, Iowa, where he lived in retirement. I knew him as the director of the Hunter College Choir between 1963-1965.

The New York Times obituary reads as follows:

Known for his passionate conducting of polychoral and spatially stereophonic music, Mr. Hunter also worked in radio and television and recorded five albums with the Ralph Hunter Choir.

In 1954 Mr. Hunter became head of the Collegiate ChoraleCollegiate Chorale, an amateur choir in New York. From an ensemble of eight women and 10 men the group swelled to a 100-member chorus known for performing polychoral works by composers like Thomas Tallis and Henry Brant.

Mr. Hunter led a choir giving a series of NBC television performances with the conductor Arturo Toscanini and later conducted a campaign choir called the Voices for Nixon. In 1970 he was named professor of music at Hunter College after serving as an associate professor for one year.

In addition to teaching choral literature, conducting and arranging, he led biannual choral concerts. He retired in 1987.

A native of East Orange, N.J., Mr. Hunter began his music career with a position as a church organist at the First Reform Church in Newark. After serving in World War II, he attended the Juilliard School.

He had lived in Grinnell for four years after moving there with his wife, Louise, from Cresskill, N.J. Besides his wife of 54 years, he is survived by two sons, Richard Hunter of St. Croix, V.I., and Christopher Hunter of Grinnell; four grandchildren; and a sister, Doris Dugan of Philadelphia.

My association with Professor Hunter was as a member of the Hunter College Choir. I auditioned for the bass section, but what they needed was tenors. I became a tenor. The experience actually stretched my voice.

The college choir course was only ½ a credit per semester, but it was one of the most enjoyable ½ credits in those two years. While I might have lumbered to some of my other courses, I raced to choir practice.

Herbert Lehman College, CUNYHere I must pause just for a moment to explain that at the time I was attending Hunter College (uptown). There was, of course, a downtown campus at 65th Street and Park Avenue. Hunter College (uptown) ultimately became Herbert Lehman College. Hunter College (downtown) ultimately became Hunter College.

Ralph Hunter must have possessed the patience of a saint. The reason: most of us in the uptown campus could read music on a scale ranging from “just barely” to “very well.” The “very well” singers were in the vast minority. In effect, Hunter taught each section of the choir—soprano, alto, tenor, bass—our specific musical lines note-by-note, or more accurately, phrase by phrase. At home I would attempt to read the lines in the score and sing it in preparation for the weekly practice sessions.

He was short of stature with a constant gleam in his eye. He could sit at the piano and sight-read each line of the score with great ease. I was envious of his skill. My own sight-reading skills at the time were almost non-existent. But my tenure as a tenor in the choir was, in part, the beginning of a more formal musical education. By the second year I had gained sufficient confidence in my singing, that I had become the de facto leader of the tenor section. There was also, on occasion, opportunities for me to take the lead of the entire 200+-voice choir. We were meeting in the large auditorium in the Hunter downtown campus. Hunter was late to the rehearsal. I stood in front of the somewhat disorganized choir members, called them to attention, and conducted the opening of one of the pieces we were to perform at our annual Christmas concert. I loved it. I had never led a musical group before.

Harry BelafonteAnother aspect of Hunter’s influence was the repertoire we performed. It ranged from the very classical to the popular—from Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart, to Gabrieli, Vivaldi, traditional Christmas songs and selections from the Harry Belafonte opus and other recordings. This is an aspect missing from Hunter’s obituary.

Among his recordings as composer and arranger were “The Wild, Wild West” (RCA 1959), “Living Voices Sing Moonglow and Other Great Standards” (RCA 1964), “Going Down Jordan” RCA 1975), and “All the Things You Are” (Pro Arte 1984).

The Many Voices of Miriam MekebaHe also served as a conductor and arranger for the likes of Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba in the early to mid-1960s: “Jump Up Calypso,” “Jump in The Line/Angelina,” and “The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba.”

Whenever we performed something from the Belafonte repertoire I brought a pair of bongos from home. How they came into my possession I have no recollection. It gave me great delight to perform on the bongos during these pieces. Whether I was playing the correct rhythmic pattern of not, I also have no recollection, but it must have sounded somewhat authentic. Hunter made no objections.

One last story about him. It was Tuesday, November 9, 1965. The Northeast blackout of 1965 was a significant disruption in the supply of electricity affecting parts of Ontario in Canada; and Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont in the United States. Over 30 million people and 80,000 square miles were left without electricity for up to 13 hours.

The uptown campus section of the choir—about 80 of us—was rehearsing on a stage in a below ground level auditorium. It was around 5:35 p.m. We saw lights flicker for a moment but didn’t think much of it. Then, a few minutes later the entire room went 1965 Blackoutcompletely dark. There could have been panic but Hunter kept us calm. Good thing too because it was at least a six foot drop to the floor of the auditorium from the stage. Anyone falling off the stage would have been hurt.

Hunter did the right thing. He led us in a rousing rendition of the “Halleluyah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” It brought everyone together. Instead of panic, there was a high level of morale. After we got done singing, a few of us whose eyes had adapted to the darkness (including myself), led everyone, line by line, down the steps on each side of the stage, through the auditorium and onto the outside campus. Even though it was November and shorter days, there was also a full moon which helped light our way.

In retrospect, it was an extraordinary evening. People on the street volunteered to direct traffic. The level of cooperation was very high. The feeling all around contradicted the usual perception that New Yorkers are nasty, self-centered folk.

Ralph Hunter provided that musical spark of leadership that helped us deal with the unprecedented situation.

He was a person you wanted to spend time with and sing your heart out for.

If you have any questions or comments about this or any other of my blogs, please write to me at meiienterprises@aol.com

Eugene Marlow, Ph.D.
December 8, 2014

© Eugene Marlow 2014

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