Now hear this

Dave Fielding delights in bringing historically rich choir performances to Minnesota audiences

Dave Fielding
Dave Fielding. Photo by Tracy Walsh

Singing together — in celebration, in worship and in grief — is an essential part of the human experience. For as long as we’ve gathered together, we’ve found ways to blend our individual voices into something bigger than any single one of us.

For Dave Fielding, 72, a self-described musical archaeologist and programming administrator for the nonprofit Oratorio Society of Minnesota, the joy of bringing choral voices together has led to a new calling — the discovery and preservation of music that might otherwise have been forgotten.

“I love the quote from Hans Christian Andersen that says, ‘When words fail, music speaks,’” Fielding said. “Music has spoken to me all my life, and it has been that voice that has drawn me to perform and study the craft.”

Devoted to music

Fielding spent 30 years working for Eastern and Northwest airlines in executive-level service positions. But his avocation has always been music.

“My dad was an amateur musician, but he wisely counseled me that I would struggle to make a living as a musician and needed to find something else to do,” Fielding said. “I was always good at math and science.”

So Fielding, who grew up in Summit, New Jersey, about 25 miles west of Manhattan, earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Michigan and an MBA from the New York Institute of Technology.

Even as he was rising in the ranks at the airlines, Fielding never lost his deep love of music. An amateur singer and organist, he sang in several local choirs in the Twin Cities, including the Minnesota Chorale, St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral Choral Society and the Oratorio Society, a 90-voice, audition-based choral ensemble that’s now in its 39th season.

After retiring from his day job in 2011, Fielding was able to devote himself to music full time.

His first move was to attend music theory and composition classes at Augsburg College. It was an enlightening experience.

“[It] showed me that while I would not be successful as a composer of music, my interest in the art — and the time that retirement affords me — could allow me to help composers’ music be heard again,” he said.

Detail of the organ in the main sanctuary at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis, a frequent performance space for the Oratorio Society of Minnesota. Photo by Tracy Walsh

Creating a repertoire

Though Fielding’s name might not be familiar to many — except to diligent program readers — many of the productions with which he’s been involved stand out as major events in the Twin Cities classical music scene, including the 2014 world premieres of The Music of Downton Abbey and A Downton Abbey Christmas.

Earlier this year was the world premiere of a commissioned work by composer Roger Ames,  The Greatest Generation: An American Oratorio, which tells the story of a soldier and his family on the home front during World War II through the familiar music of the 1940s.

“We always start from the point of view of the story,” Fielding said. “There has to be a reason to put the concert together, a story to tell.”

Working with the Oratorio Society’s artistic director, Matthew Mehaffey, Fielding helps conceptualize concert ideas by researching music that directly supports the story and its historical events.

Performances by the society often include visuals, such as films and slideshows, alongside the music. For the 2016 performance Voices of Light: The Passion of Joan of Arc, for example, the society’s volunteer singers, along with its paid orchestra and conductor, performed entirely behind a giant screen showing a silent film.

“That was a huge risk for us financially,” Fielding said. “We believed in what we were doing.”

Dave Fielding sits at the organ in the main sanctuary at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis.

The Great War

Fielding’s latest effort goes beyond the usual reaches of the Oratorio Society with a 150-voice production — Lest We Forget: World War I Armistice Centenary Concert — on the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, which ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, at the “11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.”

This co-production of the Oratorio Society of Minnesota, the University of Minnesota School of Music and Northrop will be on Veterans Day (Nov. 11) at Northrop at the University of Minnesota.

In addition to historic compositions from the era, the concert will include the U.S. premiere of renowned British composer Patrick Hawes’ The Great War Symphony, which will premiere on the same day at New York’s Carnegie Hall as part of a joint premiere agreement.

As an organist himself, Fielding notes with pride that the concert will include Northrop’s newly restored, historic Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ.

World War I, Fielding said, has become a forgotten war of sorts, lumped in with Veterans Day with little recognition of how catastrophic it was for the world, Europe and even Minnesota.

More than 886,000 British military personnel died during World War I, more than 15 times the number of U.S. lives lost during the Vietnam War (about 58,000).

In Minnesota, 118,500 people served in the first world war, including 57,413 who went overseas at a time when the state’s population was around 2 million. Of the 3,607 Minnesota war deaths, 1,432 were killed in combat or died of wounds. The others died of complications from the Spanish influenza outbreak in the fall of 1918.

Fielding is working with the governor’s office to issue a Bells of Peace proclamation as part of a national effort to encourage churches to ring bells at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 in remembrance of the war.

He also hopes to raise awareness about The Great War with the Veterans Day concert.

“Maybe we can challenge people to go learn more,” he said.

The Oratorio Society, a volunteer, audition-based choir, routinely performs concerts with a paid orchestra and conductor at venues around the Twin Cities. Photo courtesy of Dave Fielding

Finding lost works

Over the years, Fielding has discovered a passion for finding unpublished or rarely performed works and giving them new life through performances by the local groups.

John Nuechterlein, president of the American Composers Forum, which is based in St. Paul, has seen Fielding’s research skills in action.

“Dave gets a special thrill from uncovering little-known pieces that have been neglected,” Nuechterlein said.

More than 10 years ago, Fielding discovered an exceptionally early work by the prominent 20th century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, written when the composer was just
a student.

Through “dogged communication” with the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society in England, Fielding managed to get permission to present the world premiere of a piece called Vexilla Regis in 2009 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis.

If you’re wondering how big a deal this is, the answer is — very.

“World premieres of music by dead composers are a rare thing,” Nuechterlein said.

Nuechterlein, who earlier this year announced his own retirement, said Fielding represents an example of how one can lead a productive and useful life in retirement.

Nuechterlein said: “He has an innate curiosity that leads him naturally toward learning new things and accomplishing new goals.”

Dave Fielding has made a hobby out of converting handwritten manuscripts like this one (left) into fully notated versions (below), using the music-notation software known as Finale. Images courtesy of Dave Fielding

Keeping score

But Fielding doesn’t just find old works, he also — in some cases — painstakingly converts the raw autographed manuscripts from the composers into sheet music that professional musicians can use for performances.

He made a particularly big splash in developing the two Downton Abbey shows with the Oratorio Society, finding pieces beloved among fans of the TV series, including the music that played during Matthew’s proposal to Mary at Christmastime.

“Every single one of those pieces I found through various sources in the U.K.,” he said. “I then assembled them and created the scores.”

Today Fielding is in the midst of a new challenge he’s dubbed ‘The Parry Project,’ his personal quest to find and bring to life large-scale works for chorus and orchestra by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, a prolific and once-
prominent English composer, who lived from 1848 until 1918.

It will take Fielding almost a year to do the musical notation, which will include creating sheet music for all the necessary orchestral and choral parts for each piece, including the conductor’s score.

“I’ve done two works so far,” Fielding said, who has 10 to go. “I’m just taking them one at a time.”

Fielding does scoring in Finale, the gold standard of music- notation software in the U.S.

Finale isn’t the only software Fielding’s taught himself to use. In preparing for other Oratorio Society productions, he’s also picked up graphic design skills, graduating from Publisher to InDesign over the years, to spearhead concert promotions, advertising and programs.

“He works so hard,” said his wife of 42 years, Heidi Fielding. “It’s all day long at the computer. And all of it is just for pure love and not for any profit at all.”

Indeed, all of Fielding’s work is volunteer/unpaid.

Mehaffey said it’s fitting that Fielding calls himself a musical archaeologist.

“He finds something that was lost — carefully extracts and cleans it up — and presents it to the world,” he said. “The only difference between Dave and someone who digs up dinosaurs is that Dave’s goal is to get what he finds out of the museum and into our musical lives.”

Thanks to digital resources like Finale, Fielding’s work could become virtually immortal.

“Music that would previously have gone unheard will be available 100 years from now, thanks to him,” Mehaffey said.

ThoughThe Parry Project’ could turn into a performance for the Oratorio Society, Fielding’s first goal is to get the digital musical notation into university libraries.

“It’s resurrecting the music so that others in the future can take it to whatever level they want,” Fielding said. “This is my legacy. I’m not looking to sell it. It’s just what I do.”

Stepping up strategy

Mehaffey said Fielding’s business acumen has helped the Oratorio Society become better positioned to attract funding and build audiences.

“He encouraged us to develop a three-year programming plan and a marketing strategy that included building extra-musical partnerships within the community,” he said. “There is no way we could have presented the creative projects of the last five years without his work.”

Fielding is currently in the planning stages for an Oratorio Society concert in April 2019 — Victoria: A Life in Music, celebrating the story of Queen Victoria on the bicentennial of her birth in 1819.

“I set out to find music that was either composed for the Queen or which was used in major events, such as her coronation,” Fielding said.

Next fall, Word Over All will celebrate the choral legacy of Walt Whitman on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

“My excitement comes from finding a piece of music that’s maybe never been published or has been out of print, getting it onto a program and turning it into a performance,” Fielding said. “I’m giving a new voice to composers, and that’s what gets my adrenaline going.”

Dave Fielding at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. Photo by Tracy Walsh

Committed to Minnesota

The Fieldings have lived in Apple Valley for 27 years. Their son and daughter-in-law, who live in the metro area, recently welcomed the Fieldings’ first grandchild.

“He’s only 6 months old, but he’s already showing a strong affinity for choral music,” Fielding said.

The Fieldings met by chance when they were seated next to each other on a flight from Chicago to Miami, where they both were living and working for Eastern Air Lines. As they talked during the trip, they discovered their apartments were across the street from one another.

And the rest is history. (They met in September and were married by March.)

They lived all around the U.S. before choosing to make the Twin Cities their home.

“You really can’t find a better location in terms of the arts, education, access to quality medical care and proximity to a major airport,” Fielding said. “We love it here, and we take full advantage of everything the area has to offer.”

Looking Back

Some the projects Dave Fielding has been involved with include The Music of Downton Abbey (March 2014), A Downton Abbey Christmas (December 2014), To Fly Unbounded: A Musical Celebration of the Joy of Flight (March 2015), Voices of Light: The Passion of Joan of Arc (April 2016), The Greatest Generation: An American Oratorio (May 2018), Lest We Forget: World War I Armistice Centenary Concert (November 2018) and Victoria: A Life in Music (April 2019).

Lest We Forget

In this centenary concert — a co-production of the Oratorio Society of Minnesota and University of Minnesota School of Music and Northrop — audience members will experience a variety of classical works related to wartime, including the U.S. premiere of renowned British composer Patrick Hawes’ The Great War Symphony, a four movement, hour-long work for soloists, chorus and orchestra.

WHEN: 4 p.m. Nov. 11

WHERE: Northrup Auditorium, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

COST: $18–$58


Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.