May 13 2009 12:00 AM

Acclaimed choir director retires after 15 years


If she had lived in ancient Greece, Mary Alice Stollak’s drive to fulfill her highest potential, and her insistence that her choral students do the same, would have been known as “areté.”

Stollak, who is retiring as director of the Michigan State University Community Music School Children’s Choir, began preparing for excellence when she was a child in Milwaukee, growing up under the watchful eyes and rigorous standards of Polish Catholic nuns. "I never have sacrificed high standards," Stollak said, crediting the nuns with instilling focused discipline. "What was most important was to always have high standards, and to work toward those high standards and to never settle for OK, never settle for mediocrity."

Stollak’s repute is well earned. During her 15-year tenure with the Children’s Choir, which will be celebrated at a May 14 farewell concert, she and her students have racked up some impressive achievements: two Grammy awards in 2006 ("Best Choral Performance” and "Best Classical Album,") appearances at Carnegie Hall and with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, recording with internationally acclaimed conductor Leonard Slatkin and much, much more.

Richard Isomaki, volunteer chairman of the Farewell Concert Committee, said Stollak, who will conduct the Children’s Choir one final time Thursday night, deserves to be honored with beauty, joy and laughter — virtues she strove to embody. He said the concert will be composed of some of Stollak’s favorite choral performances from her years as director, a new work commissioned by guest conductor Rollo Dillworth and a few surprises Isomaki hopes will add some fun to the evening.

Marjorie Longcore’s daughter, Catherine Buckels, sings first soprano in the choir.

Longcore, president of the choir’s parent-patron board, said she appreciated Stollak’s insistence on discipline. "She has a real gift for helping children be musical, and she also is one of these people that’s very strict about her rules," Longcore said. "A lot of people have shied away from that style of teaching and moved into more of a ‘Let’s be friends, let’s have fun’ type of atmosphere. She’s more about creating a professional choir, striving for excellence."

Stollak’s insistence on focused, inspired practice has paid dividends. "The thing that I have noticed most about my daughter is that she has learned so much selfdiscipline through the teachings of Mary Alice," Longcore said. “Not just self-discipline, but a lot of life lessons."

Aside from the pedagogy of music, Stollak has urged her students over the years to explore the deeper meaning of the works performed, whether they were soothing cantatas or lyrics grappling with the ravages of war. “She will really help them understand the history of what they are singing about," Longcore said. In this way, the performance becomes more intellectually holistic, and less an exercise in pitch, tone and harmony. "It’s also about communicating the message and showing beauty through what they sing," Longcore added.

Robert Jager’s "I Dream of Peace" will be the primary work performed at Thursday’s concert. The composition is built around the words and poetry of children who lived through the Bosnian War.

Stollak might be under the spotlight for the last time this week, but the practice is what she’ll have a hard time letting go of. "There are times in a rehearsal when I get goose bumps," she said. "I really will miss rehearsing, more than anything.

"I love the process. I love seeing that ‘aha’ light go on in the children’s eyes. I love when they look at each other and they smile — sometimes they almost giggle — because they know, ‘Yeah!’ they have it, this is really great."

The idea is for that joy to grow beyond momentary gratification and develop into dignity and self-respect, as the kids transition into adults, when they will be counted on to contribute beyond themselves, whether at work, with their family or in their community. "The definition of a professional is that you are trustworthy,” Stollak said. "You can always be counted on to do a good job."

Stollak has lived the ideal of ancient Greeks, but her legacy will blossom well into the future through the lives of the children she has touched. "Hopefully, what we have been able to share with our children, is that it is worthwhile to do something that is meaningful," she said. "That they can share with each other, and it results in the inspiration of others."

Mary Alice Stollak Farewell Concert

7 p.m. Thursday, May 14 Wharton Center $9 1 (800) WHARTON