Interview: Joel Rinsema (Phoenix Bach Choir)

I've talked to a few Grammy winners and nominees here at Zooglobble -- Dan Zanes, Ralph Covert, the incomparable Ella Jenkins -- but with the Grammy ceremon(ies) set for Sunday, I hope you'll indulge me another Grammy interview. No, it's not kids music, but it's also not every day that a friend gets nominated for 4.4 Grammy Awards (yes, 4.4 -- see below).

JoelPBC.jpgJoel Rinsema is the Executive Director and Assistant Conductor for the Phoenix Bach Choir. (Here he is rehearsing the Phoenix Bach Choir.) Their recording with the Kansas City Chorale of Grechaninov’s Passion Week, led by Artistic Director Charles Bruffy, was nominated for four 2007 Grammy Awards, including Classical Album of the Year.

Joel is also the music director at our church and is always up for talking about cooking good food. He was kind enough to talk about what it was like hearing about the nominations, their music, and where to get designer fashions on the cheap.

To some extent, there are some parallels here between Joel's comments on the impact a win for the Choir and Chorale would have on the classical music category and what wins for independent artists in the children's music categories mean. So go ahead and read -- you'll enjoy it...

Photo credits: Tim Trumble

Zooglobble: Where literally were you when you heard about the Grammy nominations? Was there lots of jumping and screaming involved? Or did you just go back to getting the kids ready for school?
Joel Rinsema: The kids were off to school, and I believe that the televised nominations began at 9 AM Arizona time (8 AM Pacific), so instead of making my way to the office, I booted up my laptop and worked while the nominations were going on. Charles Bruffy lives in Kansas City and we do a lot of our work via AOL Instant Messenger. He wasn’t on, but Donald Loncasty, the Executive Director of the Kansas City Chorale was, and we immediately began to IM back and forth while watching. Of course, they announced all of the “major” nominations to the press corps, but when they got to the end (without announcing any of the classical ones!) and announced that a full list of the nominees was available “at the back of the room” we were both ready to throw things at our TVs.

Instead, I began to frantically type in So did, it seemed, thousands of others were doing the same thing, as the website was frozen. I kept on hitting refresh…and there it was…the list of the 50th Grammy Award Nominees. I remember quickly scrolling down the list, and clicking on the word Classical. The first field that appeared was Category 98: “Best Classical Album of the Year.” Alphabetically, ours is listed second, right after the Cherubini Mass with Ricardo Muti conducting. Shaking wildly…so much so, that I knew that I couldn’t type, I picked up the phone to call Kansas City. Don answered the phone and I just remember screaming craziness into his ear. (Something like “Oh My God! Best $(*^&^^% Classical Album of the Year!)

I went back to the computer as Don was still trying to access the site. I just knew that if we were nominated for best Classical, that there were other nominations. Sure enough, we were given nods for four additional Grammys including Best Choral Performance , Best Engineered Album -Classical, and Best Surround Sound Album. Also, our producer Blanton Alspaugh from Soundmirror in Boston was nominated as Best Classical Producer. Two of the five discs he submitted for consideration (Passion Week and Eternal Rest) are ours. [Ed: Hence, the additional 0.4 nominations.]

Did you have any idea that you'd be nominated for four awards? Any rumors?
We heard that Passion Week had made a good impression on the voters. We had no idea though, that we would be up for Best Classical. That was SO far removed from our thinking.

What are the big "firsts" associated with the nominations? (Besides "first Grammy nominations for Joel Rinsema")

CharlesBruffy.jpgI have tried to research some of of this, but it was not easy. For sure it is the first Grammy nod for either of the Choirs and for Charles. I know that there have been some other individuals and chamber-sized groups in both our communities that have received nominations. I doubt that any of them received 4 in one year, however. There are much bigger implications if we were able to actually walk away with a Grammy, especially Best Classical Album or Best Choral Performance. In 50 years of the Grammys, an unaccompanied (a cappella) choral album has never won the Best Classical Album category. What is even more surprising than this: an unaccompanied choral album has never won the Best Choral Performance Category! Chanticleer has won a few, but the Category they have won is “Best Small Ensemble Performance (they have less than 24 singers…in fact, only 12). If we walked away with either of these, it would be huge for the choral field. We don’t need no durned instruments!

Tell me a little bit about the album and the choir(s).
Both choirs are professional choirs. There are not that many of us in the U.S….maybe a dozen or so similar choirs. Because there are so few, the general public (who have never been to our concerts) really don’t know what they are missing.

Let me explain it like this: most people know what a professional symphony orchestra is. It is an orchestra comprised of players who had dedicated their lives to their art. Most have advanced degrees in their field, and have highly developed skills. Because of this, professional orchestras are able to play a wide range of repertoire; both the classical standards and also pieces that are so advanced, virtuosic and, frankly, difficult, that it takes a professional player to perform. This is similar to the professional choir. There is only one full-time professional choral ensemble in the US (the all-male Chanticleer) however, so most of our singers piece together several part-time jobs in music in order to make ends meet. Some are school teachers/professors, music directors at churches and synagogues, private vocal instructors etc.

We have been joining the two choirs together now for about 7 years. When Charles took the job in ’98, there were some in Kansas City that were worried that he was going to leave them. They were so used to being Charles’ golden child, that they did not want his affection to be split between the two children. We brought the two Choirs together within his first two seasons. I remember that there was something quite magical about it. Not only were we able to perform repertoire that required more voices, but there was some incredible music-making that happened. Kansas City had done a lot of recording back in the mid-90’s, and was the first North American choir carried on the U.K. based Nimbus Label. The Phoenix Bach Choir had released a holiday album in 1996, but it was a one-off, and the choir didn’t have recording as part of its long range plan. I also came to be the administrative head in 1998, so Charles and I sort of instigated the whole recording thing in Phoenix.

We recorded a disc of 20th and 21st century settings of Shakespeare texts back in ’03. In all honesty, that disc came off better than it should have. It was our first time recording since ’95, it was our first recording with Charles, and it was the first recording with Soundmirror’s producer Blanton Alspaugh and engineer John Newton (who we hired after some fairly extensive research). The album came together so nicely, that Soundmirror shopped it to Chandos, which is the world’s largest independent classical record label, based in Colchester in the U.K. Chandos took it on, and the disc received instant success –especially in the U.K. where it spent some time as a top seller on and was ClassicFM’s CD of the week when it released.

PassionWeek.jpgWe caught the recording bug after this immediate success. Grechaninov’s Passion Week was a piece that two of the choir members (one in Kansas City and one in Phoenix) had been encouraging Charles to program for some time. We decided that not only would we perform it, but we would record it. We did just that in ’05 in Kansas City. We shopped it to Chandos first, but they really weren’t interested in it, as they had the only other recording of it out there…by a Russian Choir. We sat on it for a while, but in the meantime, recorded Eternal Rest. When that project was done, we approached Chandos with both of the discs and convinced them to release them both. They released Eternal Rest in the fall of ’06 and the Grechaninov in the Spring of ’07. I think that they feel good about their decision.

Do you have a particular track from the CD on your Myspace page for listeners -- what should they know about it?
We have included my two favorite tracks No. 1 "Behold, the Bridegroom" and No. 6 "Now the powers of heaven" at They both are great representatives of the whole work. There is a sentimentality and spirituality about the piece that I have never experienced in any other work I have been a part of. One does not need to be Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu etc. to get something from this music. It is knee-weakening listening. I don’t think there is a person on the planet that could honestly listen to the work and not be somehow changed by it. If you are a Christian and follow along with the texts, it is profoundly moving, perfect for the season of Lent.

How many of you are going to LA for the ceremony?
There are nearly 80 of us attending the ceremonies in Los Angeles! In addition to current and former choir members, several board members and friends are joining us. It is going to be a great time! We will try to make our presence known in good ways. Some have joked about trashing their hotel rooms if we lose. I don’t think we’ll be doing that.

Where exactly are your seats for the Sunday telecast?
The majority of the seats are in the “Bronze” a.k.a “nosebleed” section. You see, while both choirs are on the discs, the “official” nominees are Charles Bruffy and the Producer/Engineer. They will be sitting up by the other nominees. There are two ceremonies: the pre-telecast begins at 1p.m. pacific time and includes the majority of the awards, including ours. Historically, this ceremony has not been telecast. This year, XM Radio is broadcasting it, and it was just announced that they will do a live webcast at from 1-3:30 Pacific. After the pre-telecast, we all walk across the street from the LA Convention Center to the Staples Center for the telecast that begins at 5 PM Pacific. We don’t know for sure if any of our categories will be a part of the telecast or not…possibly Best Classical and maybe Best Surround Sound, as we are up against the Flaming Lips and the Beatles (among others).

What parties have you been invited to? What swag are you trying to get?
Many of our group have decided that since we can only experience this for the first time, once; that we are going to “do” the Grammys, which includes the post-Grammy celebration – a $200/head event. This also means that many of the attendees are getting a little caught up in the search for designer clothing. Thank goodness for eBay, Nordstrom Rack and Last Chance, and My Sister’s Closet! Yes, some will actually be wearing Dolce & Gabbana, Joseph Abboud, Zegna, Armani, Ferragamo, etc…but none will have paid anywhere near retail price for them!

What one thing do you want to do Grammy weekend?
One thing? – that is hard. Since we are staying at the Biltmore (the Grammy hotel) I am sure that we will bump into a lot of celebrities. I told the choir last night to make sure people know who we are. I want to make a strong statement about what we do and who we are. I want to make high level choral music hip and cool. The Grammy nominations have certainly been a nice invitation to people who normally wouldn’t want to know about what it is we do, or who just plain don’t know about us and our art. This is an opportunity to tell people about the great stuff we are doing for our art form, and have a blast doing it!

I can’t wait for the weekend to get here…and be done…:)