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0 Comments | Feb 13, 2022

A Life in Harmony . . . Dr. John Silantien and the San Antonio Mastersingers

Feb PhotoSometime late last summer I was listening to a radio interview and they happened to mention an organization here in the Alamo City known as the San Antonio Mastersingers. I had never heard of such a thing, but I decided to check it out. I had done a bit of choral singing way back in my high school days and in more recent years spent time occasionally playing my guitar and singing for my dogs. As luck would have it, auditions for the fall season were just getting going around the time I heard the radio piece and so I gave it a shot. A few weeks later I was the newest member of the baritone section, one of the 120 or so singers who make up the group. During the audition, and in the weeks of rehearsal that followed, I had the distinct pleasure of working with the Mastersingers’ musical director, Dr. John Silantien. But now, as events have transpired, it turns out John will be retiring this spring after thirty-eight years leading the chorus. And so we decided what better time to reflect on his long musical career while also introducing our reading audience to a city treasure that many may not even know exists.

The San Antonio Mastersingers (SAM) is the official chorus for the San Antonio Symphony, interspersing its symphony performances with standalone concerts from time to time (such as, for example, our concert at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower this past November). The chorus has been in existence for seventy-seven years, having started in 1944. SAM was the first symphony chorus to be formed in the state of Texas and it was originally created to take part in opera performances under its inaugural director Max Reiter. At that time, the chorus was called The Singer’s Society of the San Antonio Symphony or for short, The Singing Society. The idea was to enable the symphony to perform some of Wagner’s operatic compositions, and the legacy of that early effort is the chorus that has been together ever since.

The chorus has had six musical directors in its long history, with John Silantien being the longest serving one by a healthy margin. But in order to fully understand and appreciate his impact on this highly regarded San Antonio artistic institution, we need to rewind things a bit and delve into John’s upbringing and the forces—both personal and professional—that brought him to San Antonio back in 1980.

IMG_0746Born in Rhode Island into a blue-collar family (his father was a laundry delivery driver and his mom was a stay-at-home parent), John’s parents made the auspicious decision to purchase him a Gene Autry model plastic guitar at the age of eight. This humble beginning was, though, a harbinger of things to come. The only other musical member of the Silantien family was John’s paternal uncle Mike, who played stand-up double bass in a local polka band. Not exactly the sort of musical heritage that typically leads to careers with symphonies and choral music, but John’s path to today has been nothing if not circuitous. The Gene Autry guitar’s musical qualities notwithstanding, John dove into it enthusiastically, teaching himself the rudiments of chords and music theory.

“The polka band would broadcast shows every Saturday night,” he recalls, “and we’d listen to Uncle Mike on our old Philco antique radio. When he wasn’t working, he would show me a few things on the guitar, then a few more things. He eventually suggested to my mother and father that they should arrange for me to get some music lessons. But on what instrument?”

That all-important answer would—after a good bit of soul searching—turn out to be the accordion, his parents apparently captivated by the prospect of their son earning a living as an accordion player in polka bands. Still, the most consequential life choices often start with the most modest of intentions. And so John, having demonstrated more than a modicum of musical ability at this still tender age, threw himself into mastering his newly chosen instrument. And he was good—so good, in fact, that he stayed with it all through his high school years, playing in numerous competitions, both alone and with a partner. By the time high school was coming to an end, John was playing in national competitions, and even parlayed his abilities into a Presser Foundation music college scholarship and a Rhode Island state scholarship. John would end up attending Hartt College, a performing arts conservatory in West Hartford, Connecticut.

“There were only three buildings when I got there,” he says. “Now it’s a major university. I chose Hartt on the advice of some musical people I knew. This was, after all, the whole point of going to college, as far as I was concerned. I never for a moment thought of majoring in anything else.”

According to plan, John successfully majored in music during his time at Hartt. By sheer bad timing, though, around the time of graduation (1968), things were getting pretty crazy in Vietnam, what with the bombing of Cambodia and all that unpleasantness. So, rather than risk being drafted, John decided to apply to graduate school. However, the fates were about to intervene once more in the trajectory of his life, this time in the person of his college roommate who happened to walk back into the dorm one afternoon carrying his violin case, having just returned from an audition for the U.S. Army band.

“‘What’s that all about?’ I remember asking him,” John recalls. “‘Free rations and quarters and a rank of E5 out of basic training’ was my friend’s answer. He told me that the Army band had only one accordionist and he was getting ready to retire, so they were actively searching for a replacement. I promptly got a plane ticket and my accordion and I went straight down there and I guess I must have done a good job of impressing them. By sheer luck, I chose to play a piece called España Cañi (a famous Spanish bullfighting song). Everybody was laughing in the room, but I had no idea why. Turned out that was the theme song played whenever the Army’s strolling strings performed at the White House. They were all wondering how I’d known to play that.”

In the end, John got the gig and the next thing he knew they were taking his fingerprints so he could get into the White House,IMG_0747 meaning that despite his best efforts to avoid the military, he still ended up as an E5 in the Army. After three years, though, he decided that the bureaucratic government life was not for him and he took a position in Washington DC teaching music at the junior high and high school levels. This, though, turned out to be a tough way to make a living, with multiple side jobs required to make ends meet. And so, after a few more years of public school teaching, he found himself reflecting and deciding that he didn’t want to still be doing that when he was fifty or sixty. The Army had already paid for him to get a Masters degree, and so the next question became where to apply for a doctorate in music. The answer would be the University of Illinois. The school had a great reputation for placing their grads into professional positions, besides which his GI Bill benefits helped to pay his way through the program, netting him a Doctor of Musical Arts degree four years later.

John’s goal upon leaving Illinois was to find a role that would allow him to simultaneously pursue scholarly research while also doing some conducting. As luck would have it, one of his grad school mentors, Jim Smith, offered him an assistant conducting position at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

“They were prepared to pay me a salary and give me a chance to work at one of the best music schools in the country. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. And during my first year there I took the opportunity to apply for a Fulbright scholarship. But I was not accepted because it turned out I was competing against a lot of people who were pursuing careers in musicology, whereas I was committed to being both a scholar and a performer.”

But John has many characteristics that have served him well over the years, just one of which is his tenacity. And so he applied again the following year. And being that much the wiser for the nuances of the application process, he won one of the coveted positions to study in London for a year. His time in England was consumed with primary research into his thesis topic, which he then followed up on with two more years back at Eastman writing his thesis. Around the time he was wrapping up that work, his advisor mentioned that he had become aware of an interesting opportunity in San Antonio, Texas.

And so, one plane trip and a few interviews, class lectures, and chorus rehearsals later, John was offered a position with the UTSA music department.

“One of the people I interviewed with was legendary organist Bess Hieronymous,” he recalls. “She had spent a lot of time at Smith College and I think she liked the fact that I had a New England background. Getting that opportunity was a dream come true for a young choral director.”

IMG_0750That was 1980 and it was around that time that John began also learning about the local symphony chorus, one that was not, as it happened, doing particularly well at the time, due in part to a decreased emphasis on its original operatic focus.

“These were not paid singers,” he says, “and the attractiveness of performing operas wasn’t exactly resonating with them. Several guest symphony conductors were voicing complaints over the level of preparedness of the chorus.”

And so, in 1983, the symphony went looking for a new director for the San Antonio Symphony Mastersingers (the name they use when singing with the symphony) to replace outgoing director Roger Melone. Having come to UTSA to build a chorus from what were admittedly quite sparse beginnings, John took up the opportunity to work simultaneously with the local community symphony group. He would go on to lead both groups for the next thirty-five years, retiring from UTSA in 2018.

“The two roles were in many ways quite complementary,” John says. “The work at UTSA was during the day and the SAM group was in the evenings. The skills required for both positions were very similar, and it’s not at all unusual for a university chorus director to have a community job as well.”

In the end, John’s orchestral conducting credits would include not only countless performances with the San Antonio Symphony, but also the San Antonio Pops and New York’s West Side Chamber Orchestra. He recorded three Mozart piano concertos with the Moscow State Radio Orchestra and made his Carnegie Hall debut in May 1994 conducting Mozart’s Requiem, returning again in 2008 to perform Mozart’s Vespers. In May 2016, he conducted the Mastersingers in the Carnegie Hall premiere of Robert Cohen’s Alzheimer’s Stories. Also, in addition to his many performance accolades, John is widely admired for his active work with the American Choral Directors Association, both on the national and international level.

The San Antonio Mastersingers have sung on international tours in Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, where in 2018 the group performed at the American Cemetery at Normandy Beach, at the Abbey Church at Mont St. Michel, during High Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and at the prestigious Church of La Madeleine. John will lead the chorus on a tour of Scotland, England and Wales in June of this year. Following his retirement after the UK tour, the chorus’s new director will be Yoojin Muhn, who studied at the Women’s University in Seoul, Korea, subsequently training at the Westminster Choir College at Princeton University. She received her Doctor of Musical Arts from USC.

After thirty-eight years of leading choral groups, what comes next for John?

“My wife and I really like to travel, particularly to fishing places, e.g., Jackson Hole, or to an island up in Canada that’s so out inIMG_0745 the wilderness you have to fly in on a pontoon plane to fish for salmon. I also really like deep-sea fishing. My dream retirement has been for decades to keep this house but have another down in Rockport. I want to have my own boat where I can get up at 5:00 and go out for redfish or trout, or maybe just read the NY Times over coffee. My passion is our house, landscaping, working the yard. I’ve already done quite a lot on the property, building decks, sidewalks, just being outside. I want to focus on making a home that’s filled with feng shui, where everything is organized and just right.”

“All in all, I have no regrets about the career path I’ve pursued,” John says. “It’s been a struggle at times, of course, like any worthwhile endeavor. But the satisfaction I feel with the chorus is something I’ll always treasure. I’ve had the opportunity to make a difference. I’ve affected the lives of graduate students who are now out in the world teaching. I’ve just been so lucky, and I don’t believe I could have wished for a better path.”

 

If you’re interested in learning more about the San Antonio Mastersingers (or maybe even auditioning), you can reach them at www.samastersingers.org or samastersingers@gmail.com

 

 

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