I find it hard to believe, but a dozen years have passed since the Very Rev. Robert Alan Schiesler, then St. Paul’s Dean, enlisted the choir to help choose a new choirmaster—to succeed on her retirement the superb musician and most lovable Carol Stewart. Each candidate auditioned for the position by conducting a two-hour rehearsal of the Cathedral Choir and choristers then filled out evaluation forms. I found all the candidates more than adequate, with the exception of one who stood out because she taught bel canto—Italian for beautiful singing—and led without being patronizingly pedantic.
[Full disclosure here, I came to the task of writing this profile having previously directed a graded choir program at a Baptist church in Kansas City, singing two years in the 96-voice choir with soloists from the Metropolitan Opera at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City, being part of a 12-voice professional choral group that created recordings of new church music for Broadman Press and more recently participating in the music at Westminster Presbyterian Church here in Des Moines.]
Rebecca so impressed me that I wrote with vigor all over my evaluation form. Dr. Schiesler said later that the sureness of my comments helped him make his selection to lead the Cathedral Choir and the professional choir in residence, the Howells Scholars that performs Evensong services several times yearly. Lest she be idle for a nanosecond, Rebecca serves as Artistic Director and Conductor for the Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus and is a certified Kindermusik Educator. Not in her job description at St. Paul’s is that Rebecca has taken it upon herself to give us a constantly updated presence on social media
During her time at St. Paul’s Rebecca has become a Doctor of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She had earlier gotten in 1987 a Master of Sacred Music from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, and a Master of Music in choral conducting from SMU. Before that there was an undergraduate degree in voice/music from our near neighbor to the south, Simpson College in Indianola. At Simpson Anne Larson was her singing teacher and in due course Rebecca would claim as her student the young Michael Egel who would grow up to be impresario of the Des Moines Metro Opera.
Considering that in the midst of all this our Rebecca married and raised three remarkably attractive and intelligent children (the youngest is a senior in high school), it would seem she has earned an undergraduate degree in capability, a masters in adaptability and a doctorate in the art of juggling.
Rebecca was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Baptist parents who were also musicians. In fact, her father was a preacher who went to pharmacy school to assure a more reliable income to support his family that would grow to four—three girls and a boy; Rebecca is the youngest. It was a musical household with piano, organ, English horn, flute and recorder. Conjecture has it that a family that makes music together will create a harmonious home.
When Rebecca first graduated from Simpson she was only 20. “I was too young to know what I should do next.” Love and marriage took her to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where she sang with the Bach choir and did solo work. She also did time at a children’s museum and as a docent for school tours. Don’t look for a pink Cadillac in Rebecca’s driveway but she did sell Mary Kay cosmetics for a time and helped manage an oral surgeon’s office.
Rebecca is intent on building the ministry of music at St. Paul’s, a church that has a long-standing reputation for robust and inspiring hymn singing supported by a pipe organ bearing the Casavant pedigree. Her work with children suggests the possibility of a children’s music education program and perhaps even a boy’s choir, something extant when John Wetherell was a lad at St. Paul’s. “Our new organist Mark Babcock and I are working to add zest to the congregational singing, with the organ leading,” Rebecca says. “We aspire to awe and beauty and encourage participation by anyone who wants to be a part of the music program as their service to benefit the church and to nurture their spiritual needs.”
As a member of the Cathedral Choir, my testimony is that the two-hour rehearsals on Thursday evening are as physically and emotionally restorative as a session of Pilates exercise. Both activities require deep breathing and total concentration. “Kindly leave your cares outside and after rehearsal you may find they have vanished or at least seem less daunting.”