Interview with Composer of the Month: David Cherwien

David Cherwien
David Cherwien

David Cherwien is Cantor at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN) and Artistic Director for the National Lutheran Choir. Dr. Cherwien is a founding member of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians and served as the National President from 1993 to 1997. A distinguished organist and director, Cherwien’s choral and organ works account for nearly 70 titles in the MorningStar Music catalog. He is also the editor of our National Lutheran Choir Choral Series.

1. How did you get involved with music?

I guess I just always was involved in music.  My parents are both musicians,  and played flute together in the Luther College Band under Weston Noble.  They both played piano,  and I remember Mom, as she was cleaning the piano, would stop to play the same feisty piece every time.  I think it was something by Chopin or Rachmaninov.  Dad taught high school music (until switching to teaching French when I was 13) and was a professional singer in the Twin Cities.  I started piano lessons at age 6, and my grandmother was my primary teacher until I moved on to other things in high school.  By then, I was playing in rock bands.  In grade school, I was always that nerdy kid who was terrible at anything athletic, but I could play the piano.  We were also very involved at Central Lutheran Church in the 60’s: Dad in the adult choir and I in all the children’s choirs, until the whole family went to France for Dad to complete his teaching certification.  In France, I started taking organ seriously (or it started taking me seriously I guess) – and I had an outstanding teacher there.  I was going to be a high school music teacher, but the church grabbed my attention instead.  Throughout my life, it seems as though music, and specifically church music, chose me…not so much the other way around.

2. Where do you look to find inspiration for your music?

When I was younger,  recordings of organ music – especially French music, and Paul Manz’s recordings from Mount Olive.  Then it was hymn festivals led by Paul.  After he quit playing, I used to make an annual trek to Paris and Jean Guillou would make me wild with enthusiasm.  People from my church would come up and say, “You’ve been to Paris again, haven’t you?  I can hear it!!”  And they loved it as much as I did.  It’s harder the older I get because the mentors who inspired me all these years are gone and my generation is supposed to be the mentors…but I don’t feel ready,  nor done, being the mentee!

3. In addition to your role as Cantor at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, MN, you are also the Artistic Director of the National Lutheran Choir (NLC). How do you find these two roles influence your writing?

That’s been fascinating.  The church music writing is mainly what the liturgy needs.  Psalm setting,  various types hymn setting,  propers,  preludes/postludes – all custom for whatever liturgy I was writing for, with the forces I knew I had.  The NLC is more art music – appropriate in a concert setting, able to be more involved.  The surprise is that I’ve discovered the two are totally related.  Elements of art music can, and actually should, be a part of the liturgical writing.  And the NLC has really enjoyed their role in bring more life and creativity to hymnody and scripture!  The church writing always begins with the text and finding ways to uncover its music,  and most importantly, its meaning.  This is also possible for art music!  Probably one thing that’s been profound about NLC’s influence on church writing:  There’s a difference between simplicity and simplistic.  If I’d be embarrassed to bring a church piece to NLC,  I should also be embarrassed to give it to the church choir.  The bar needs to be high in both places.

4. What has been most gratifying about your work with the National Lutheran Choir?

The National Lutheran Choir

That question is much easier to answer.  They are such amazing musicians – the way they feel things together astounds me over and over again.  They can float into a cadence with an elegance that makes me wild.  All I have to do is think in my mind the question, “Do you guys want to float into this cadence?” My eyes communicate that and off they go.  So the answer to that question is clearly their musicianship,  which is undergirded by their spirituality.  It actually means something to them!!  We’re also very close friends and really enjoy being together.  We know how to “work hard AND party hard.”  One without the other wouldn’t really work very well.

5. Describe life as a church musician. Feel free to touch on the joys (and challenges!) of the job.

Joys:  It’s been an extremely gratifying career.  I’m lucky to be able to have been at churches who hold music as such a high priority. They adequately “take care of the musician” (salary and benefits) so that I don’t need many jobs to try to pay the bills like so many of my colleagues.  And there is nothing like that feeling when the whole congregation gets into that zone singing fully together to the point that the accompaniment could be there or not.  And when the choir pulls something off beautifully that they never thought they were capable of doing.  But again,  observing the evidence that what they are singing is deeply, deeply meaningful is humbling and I take the stewardship of that gift which they give to me very seriously.

Challenges:  I think most of us church musicians share the same challenge: worry about who’s going to show up.  Folks are busy and it’s a tremendous challenge when the make-up of congregation and choir is different week-to-week.  We just have to smile and get over that.  I have noticed, however,  that there is a direct connection between how much time I put into rehearsal preparation and attendance…Another huge challenge is our role as “prophets”- not everyone wants to trust the musician’s expertise as more than mere opinion.  Mount Olive is fantastic with trust – and many, many of them know probably more than I do, but still trust my stewardship.

6. What advice would you give to an aspiring young church musician?

Ooo…it’s tempting to get really preachy.  But I am willing to relay things I wish did better along the way:

1.  People first.  Love them first before anything else.  Then listening to what’s meaningful and known to them before telling them what I think is better.

2.  Keep people first in working relationships between colleagues. Don’t make work relations more about turf protection or egos than being steward of people’s music making.

3.  Keep learning a priority.  Practicing, attending workshops to learn, reading. I’ve been terrible about this.

4.  Don’t get too hurt by critics, and listen before defending/reacting.  Nine times out of ten, a vocal critical member has stuff going on which gets projected which has nothing to do with church.  Yet often there might be something important to hear even if the topic of their criticism isn’t the real point.

5.  Remember the big picture. No era is the most important one ever – either for the people of God since (or before) creation,  or our generation, or this month in the life of the parish.  Time can heal a lot. Growth can take much more time than we’d like, but in a grander way, is amazingly quick.  (Computers were developed during my career!!!)

7. What do you spend your non-musical time?

I love traveling.  Seeing places and observing people anywhere else, finding great food and wine – especially if from the region where I’m visiting.  It’s also no secret that I’m a car guy.  I don’t so much work on them as I do just enjoy driving different cars!  Even as a kid, my brother Steve and I used to play with match-box cars on a city we painted on an 8′ x 4′ sheet of plywood.  In grade school, I used to go to all the car dealerships on Saturdays, play in the new cars, and collect the brochures (which I still have).  As an adult, I’ve had a lot of different cars – 69 different ones so far.  They’ve been all over the place – from old, rusty VW Beetles (and a couple of vans, too) to Cadillacs.  I just wish some car dealer could come up with a 6-month used car lease program:  Pick out a car from their lot, drive it for 6 months,  come back, and pick out a different one.  That would be heaven.

8. Is there any recent or upcoming news you want to share?

This month (August 2017), NLC starts preparations for the premiere performance of a piece we commissioned from Kim Andre Arnesen, titled The Holy Spirit Mass for choir and strings.  The donors for the commission, Gary Aamodt and Celia Ellingson, had envisioned a major work to commemorate the 500 anniversary of the Reformation.  It’s an incredible work and we’re premiering it both in Washington D.C. at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Basilica of St Mary’s (Minneapolis), and the Ordway Theather (St. Paul).  The performances are the end of October and we’re very excited about that!

Click here to learn more about David Cherwien.


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