Rick Kvam sits down at our Caribou Coffee table with java and a slice of lemon poppyseed bread saying, “It’s 480 calories. For some reason I thought I deserved it.”
Of course he knows the bread’s calorie count—he would. Among Kvam’s impressive smart guy resume bullet points include being a Harvard College and Mayo Medical School graduate, founder and director of the Choral Arts Ensemble and Honors Choirs of Southeast Minnesota (which is celebrating its 25th year), and initiatoof the Harmony for Mayo Series. He’s meticulous, arrives hours prior to Honors Choirs concerts, warms up on stage, and then excuses himself to get in a thankful state of mind that he is allowed these undertakings. That’s Kvam for you: humble, grateful, and kind.
“Who told you I sing during interviews?” he asks straight away, when my first question is to ask him to sing in his self-described Baroque voice. He’s too reserved to do so here at Bou, but we’ll get to that soon enough. “I do hum a lot in the ER. Which surprises people, and I’m always surprised that they’re surprised. But yeah, I guess that’s a little weird.”
Oh yes, Kvam is also an emergency room doctor at Olmsted Medical Center. What can’t this man do well? Accompany on piano, he says. But we’ll get to that soon enough, too.
Q: What do you have in common with the following folks—Garrison Keillor, the vocal group Tonic Sol-fa, noted record producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the Teddy Bear band, and multi-instrumentalist Jerry Kahle of Cologne, Minn.?
A: We were all inducted this last November into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame.
Q: What was that like?
A: It was nice. People from Choral Arts and Honors Choirs both showed up, and some of my friends. We had a caravan over there. It was a time to be grateful for all the support I’ve had over the years.
Q: What was it like collaborating with Garrison Keillor for his Rochester show?
A: That was a real trip. He really is an odd, introverted guy. He’s kind of gruff and never really looks at you. But it was very fun because he was constantly noodling with everything. We got a new piece an hour before the show to learn, with new words. You never know when you’re on. It’s just kind of boom, go. I think he’s a genius. Just amazing. Such command of the language and terrific memory. He doesn’t use notes for anything, hardly.
Q: Do you own or rent the tux you wear for concerts?
A: I just bought a new tux, for the first time in 30 years, just this last summer. The other one still fit but it was falling apart a little bit.
Q: Do you feel a little like James Bond up there on stage?
A: Um, not. Not remotely.
Q: Honors Choirs is known locally for being hard core when it comes to attendance and participation, even with regard to the grooming, of its singers. What is the end goal here?
A: The attendance I am very militant about because it’s not like piano lessons or voice lessons where if you don’t go, you lost out. It’s where if you don’t go, we all lose out. The weakest link determines how good we are. It’s a group commitment. The sports analogy is very apt. If you’re not practicing with the team, you’re not going to play.
Q: When it comes to your own musical abilities, you and your fellow Honors Choirs directors often play instruments during concerts. What instruments do you play?
A: I play piano but nothing to write home about. I played a bunch when I was a kid but then I quit. I played clarinet and oboe in high school. I guess that’s all I play.
Q: So let’s face it—there’s some rampant nepotism in Honors Choirs. Your talented wife Jan accompanies on piano; Nick Johnson and his wife Korrie both direct; married couple Bill and Amy Nelson both direct. What’s going on here?
A: I met Jan through choir in 1986. It took me about a year to really notice her and she’s always been my accompanist. She’s really fantastic. She is so tuned into the ensemble and tempo and phrasing; she’s always with the conductor. It’s quite a skill. I’ve done a lot of accompanying and I find it impossible. I don’t know how she does it. That’s how Jan is there. Bill I recruited and the next year it was, well, let’s get Amy doing something, too. Nick was there when I came back (from a hiatus getting a master’s degree in choral conducting) and doing his Chorale Choir magic, and I heard Korrie was a good director. She has a degree in conducting and is a fine musician. I keep telling her we need to get her doing more music. It was very easy to say, let’s get Korrie to do this group (of Half Notes, the Honors Choirs’ newest and youngest group of singers).
Q: When did you first discover you had a gift for music?
A: It’s hard to know because my dad was a choir director, and his dad was a choir director. I was raised Lutheran and they throw you in choir as soon as you’re toilet trained. So I did church choir really, and everybody was in it. All my friends were in it. We all just did it because it’s what you do. One of my first early memories at age eight was my brother as the lead in the high school musical, and I was so moved by the musical I thought, “I want to do that too.”
Q: You’re a doctor, too. Why didn’t you pursue music as a full-time, paid profession?
A: I don’t know. When I went to college I really enjoyed math a lot and wanted to be a physics major. I still do sometimes. It’s beautiful, elegant stuff. Then I was a religion major briefly. Then I landed on being a music major and pre-med. It was a completely uninformed decision. I didn’t know any doctors. But I went with it so I got my music degree and I came here to Mayo to medical school. I knew I wanted to perform … but I also had $80,000 in debt from medical school, which at that time was stratospheric. So I have tried to pursue it professionally as my schedule allows. Now I think of it as my full-time job. I work only eight hours a week in the ER.
Q: How long have you been at OMC?
A: It’ll be 24 years this July.
Q: Do you have music on while you’re doctoring?
Q: You hum?
A: I hum. I find music very distracting. I have to listen to it. I can’t have background music on. I don’t even have music on in the office usually unless it’s a Bach cello suite, but even then I find it distracting because I want to listen to it.
Q: Are you from Rochester originally?
A: Sioux City, Iowa.
Q: Back to choir—how many hours a week do you devote to it?
A: Forty between Honors Choirs and Choral.
Q: How do you find that much time? Do you have any time management skills to share?
A: I do not. I am obsessed. I think if you find something you are really passionate about, you find the time to do it. I think I could be more efficient.
Q: When and where are your next concerts?
A: Choral Arts Ensemble has its ‘A Singing Valentine’ and dinner concert. It’s at the Rochester International Event Center on Feb. 11, a Saturday, at 6 p.m. It’s a very fun Valentine’s concert. Then the next Honors Choirs concert is ‘Voices,’ and that is Feb. 26 at Bethel (Lutheran Church) at 4 p.m. It’ll be featuring Minnesota composers, including a new work by David Dickau for Choral, and he’ll be there.
Q: Please tell us about your mentor Dale Warland and how he impacted you.
A: I think he’s the gold standard for choral directors. I can’t say how much I respect him. He’s got all the skills and vision; he changed choral conducting for the whole world, really. I think he’s the most influential choral director since Robert Shaw because he took the performance level up a notch. Now all kinds of conductors are enriched by that. But he was the leader. He’s highly detail oriented and driven and obsessive and focused and committed. He just never stops thinking about how he can make something better. Yet he’s warm and affirming and friendly and personable. He was very generous with his time. We’d spend hours and hours together. It was very interesting to pick his brain about how he’d put a program together. It was exhilarating to work with him and I’ve kept in touch since. He’s 84. He’s totally on fire still, for every detail. It’s very inspiring, and a little intimidating. It’s: You better have it right ‘cause Dale is coming!
Q: You’ve had some Honors Choirs students direct and you sit out or sing. Tell us more.
A: I have two assistant conductors every year and have since about ’97, maybe even earlier. There were always some kids who just can take it to another level. They have such potential and there’s more you can do to challenge them. I meet with them every week through the year and we study a little ear training and music theory and keyboard skills. Then, in the second semester, I pick a piece for them to conduct. We study the piece in every possible way. You learn a lot of musical nuts and bolts. We practice waving our arms a bit, which is the least important part. You need a good gesture but if you know the piece, the gestures just come.
Q: If you had to select a solo number to perform publicly, what would it be?
A: Um, as long as I don’t have to do it … um, wow, maybe an aria from Messiah. I have a lighter voice, more suited to Baroque repertoire.
Q: So you’re not going to sing it now, are you?