Dr. Timothy Coker Assumes Leadership of The Mississippi Chorus

By Greg Waxberg

The Mississippi Chorus’ artistic director for the 2004-05 season is Dr. Timothy Coker, professor of music, chair of the Department of Performing Arts and director of choral activities at Millsaps College. As interim director, he succeeds Martin Bittick, who founded the chorus and stepped down after 15 years because of personal and family obligations. “There were several things in my personal life that were using a lot of my spare time. In the near future, it was going to be even more difficult to juggle everything. It would simply be better to turn the chorus over to new leadership at the beginning of the season rather than have to quit in the middle of the season,” Bittick said.

He has known Coker for many years and called him several weeks before the season started, asking if he would take the position. “A lot of time and energy had gone into making it one of the major arts groups in Mississippi. The last thing I wanted to see happen to it was for it to diminish in size or quality. In my opinion, it needed someone special to continue to build on what we had already built. Tim is one of the best choral musicians in central Mississippi. He has proven this to me since his days as high school director in Tupelo,” Bittick said.

During a conversation in his office at Millsaps in mid-September, Coker was complimentary of the ensemble he will be guiding during concerts in December and April. “That was Martin’s baby. It’s grown into a really good, very effective organization under his leadership. I’ve been very impressed with the commitment the people have with it.”

They, in turn, are impressed with him.“The chorus is thrilled to have Dr. Coker as our new director. His interpretation of the music has brought a fresh perspective and created a new energy. We are excited about the season and the breath of fresh air he brings to the chorus. We are so thankful to Martin for introducing us to Dr. Coker,” said Sherry Boyd, president of the chorus.

Talking about his goals, Coker wants to sustain what Bittick had developed. “I want to continue the tradition … of preparing them in such a way that they are genuinely excited about their presentation. They have felt good about their singing. They’ve felt very excited about music-making, which is a tremendous gift that Martin gave them. To me, the most important thing was helping this group – that I see as a very important group in our community – to have another successful year,” Coker said.

He has taught at Millsaps College since 1984, directs the Singers and Chamber Singers (his children attended Millsaps, and his wife, Cheryl, teaches voice at the college) and says taking over The Mississippi Chorus gives him added mental stimulation.

“Taking another group that had worked under another person for a long time and then beginning to get them to think the way you’re thinking is a challenge once again. We’re doing Messiah right now and I guess that 95 percent of those people have sung Messiah, but getting to think together about how to do it is the challenge. I don’t think that I have ‘a Coker sound’ with a choir.”

Instead, he focuses on people’s strengths and how they fit with his conception of the music. Also, this group is considerably larger than 25 or 50. “There’s no way you can get 100 people to do something at absolutely the same time, so you have to make decisions about how you’re going to attack and release that will give you as much precision as you demand. In Messiah, and in Baroque music, generally, it’s that precision and articulation that’s so important. With a big group, you have to make [the attack on a word] even more percussive,” Coker said.

In addition to the Christmas Section of “Messiah,” the chorus is presenting “Carmina Burana” in April, marking the first time Coker will conduct the full orchestral version (Orff wrote a version for two pianos and percussion). He notes that it is not easy to start and stop the chorus because many of the pauses are in awkward places.

“You have to work at your stick technique, so I suspect that I’ll spend some hours up in front of the mirror in the rehearsal hall here, put that recording on and start conducting that thing to make sure that what I do is clear. I actually practice my conducting,” Coker said. When asked how he practices, he retrieves one of five batons that he keeps on a bookshelf behind his desk, leans forward and makes a gesture with it. “Does this look like what I want it to look like?”

Actually, he has been conducting in front of mirrors since he was in high school. In tenth grade, he started a membership in the Columbia Record Club, which sends new recordings unless you tell them not to. Coker was not good at returning the forms, so he received a number of releases, among them the Roger Wagner Chorale in Vivaldi’s Gloria.

“I just absolutely fell in love with that work. I would come home at night, get in front of my mirror in my room and I would just start conducting it. I actually memorized the Vivaldi Gloria just from the recording.” He received other recordings and, although he didn’t have the music, conducted them, too.

A pivotal moment in real life came during Easter of his junior year in high school. Jane Marshall’s “Fanfare for Easter Day” for choir, brass, timpani and organ was performed at Jackson’s Christ United Methodist Church. Coker was a pianist at the church and, on the Saturday afternoon before Easter, he learned that the Minister – who conducted the choir – had pneumonia. As it happens, Coker had been practicing conducting the piece in his spare time. “I was ready, emotionally and musically, to get up there and make the effort to do that. From that point on I was hooked,” he said.

His involvement with musical activities at the church didn’t end there. His mother began the youth choir, and he took over as a senior in high school – the first piece was Vivaldi’s Gloria. He conducted the youth choir for two years while attending Belhaven College, whose choral conductor was Henry Ford. “He was a technician in choral conducting. It was all about the technique of singing, the technique of how you conducted everything,” Coker said.

When he transferred to the University of Southern Mississippi, he studied with David Foltz, choral director and chair of the music department. “He was about bringing emotion out of the music. He was an emotional dynamo. He could create a climactic moment in music like nobody,” Coker said.

After graduating from USM, Coker went to Seminary at Emory University, but realized how vital music was in his life, returned to USM for his Master’s Degree in choral conducting and was the first person in their master’s program. He worked with Joe Barry Mullens, the symphonic band conductor, who emphasized the finesse of conducting by asking, “does your conducting look like the music?”

These are the questions Coker faces when he stands in front of the mirror and directs the weekly two-hour rehearsals, which he finds physically tiring and emotionally exhilarating. The Mississippi Chorus is preparing for Messiah and seasonal music on December 17 and will tackle Carmina Burana and other choruses on April 22, and, all the while, Coker is concerned with re-defining his interpretations. “I’m re-studying Messiah myself, trying to think of other ways to approach it that will give me new light. I’m looking at one of the greatest works in the world and trying to re-think it. That’s not a bad deal, is it?”

Greg Waxberg is Music Director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting Radio. He has written program notes for opera companies and orchestras, and his essay about Maestro James Levine was published on FanFaire.com.