Arts & Entertainment

Butler U. grad student Jacob Stensberg is a music Renaissance man

July 18, 2017

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Like most other local reviewers I was particularly impressed with the chorus that represented the “Notre Dame Choir” in BOBDIREX, aka Bob Harbin’s,  latest masterpiece, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It ran June 23 – July 9 at Marian University Theatre. Responsible for overseeing the splendid vocals of the choir was  Jacob Stensberg, the show’s dynamic music director.

Jacob Stensberg – Courtesy of Jacob Stensberg. Used by permission.

A Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. native, and Carroll University University graduate, Stensberg, 28, is currently studying for his master’s degree in choral conducting at Butler University.  Prior to moving to Indy in 2016, Stensberg resided in New York City where he was the primary chorus master and music director at Lycee Francais de New York and music director at Marymount School of New York.

About Stensberg, his primary teacher Dr. Eric Stark says “Jacob is a wonderful musician and truly gifted teacher. It’s been rewarding to watch him in his first year as a Master’s student at Butler, and I know the coming year will be amazing. He’s got great ears and a terrific sense of how to help folks grasp the music at hand. Plus, he’s a delightful fellow and has skills that will serve him well indeed when working with fellow musicians. I think his future is bright.”

Stensberg has been on my radar ever since a holiday party we both attended last year. He and I enjoyed a delightful chat regarding his background and musical interests. After attending “Hunchback” and learning that he contributed to the show’s superb vocal performances I decided to reach out to the multi-gifted artist. About Jacob “Hunchback” director Harbin says “Collaborating with him was challenging in the best of ways. His preparation is so on point, I had to work hard to keep up. He’s a complete team player with wonderful additions and made our choir very near perfection. And he did it in such a way that every choir member kept wanting more. His talent is top of the heap. I think he will be in incredible addition to the music scene and I can’t wait to work with him again.”

Recently I sat down with Stensberg at a Midtown Indy coffee shop so I could debrief him about “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and chat  about other topics as well.

“Hunchback of Notre Dame” choir. Courtesy of Jacob Stensburg. Used by permission.

How was your “Hunchback” experience?

It was pretty incredible. Working with a choir that everyone auditioned for. Some of them were leads in past shows and supporting roles in past shows. People took their participation in that ensemble very seriously because the score is such good music. Working with that source material,  and director Bob (Harbin) and music director Trevor (Fanning) was remarkable. It was the sort of team that could accomplish anything we put our minds too with the experience of all the actors and performers and Zach (Rosing) running sound. It was hard to do anything bad with people like that who were involved.

Were you involved from the very beginning of the production process?

I came in after the auditions. Once Bob and Trevor got into the libretto and the score they realized it wasn’t a one-person job. I don’t think one person could rehearse the orchestra, work with the soloists, ensemble and choir. The scheduling would be impossible.

I wondered about that because the choir is such an integral part of the show.

It was.  150 pages of eight-part music. It was in intense score to learn.

Then of course, there was the Gregorian Chant that was included. Were your singers familiar  with that style or had any sung it before?

I don’t think so. Only through the sound track but I don’t think they had experience in that performance style so to work around that I developed certain warms ups to help them be the villagers, the church choir or help them sing Gregorian chant.

I take it you have experience in Gregorian music?

Yes. I do. I love that music.

Have you worked in musical theater previously?

A lot of what I have done are the small pit shows that are piano, base drums and I typically lead with the piano. Things like “Rocky Horror” and in New York I did some small pit shows at the schools I worked at. So to be a part of something with 15 people in the orchestra and 40 people on stage was a new experience. It was exciting. I equated it to what it’s like when Dr. (Eric) Stark prepares the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir to sing with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Urbanski. I saw myself in a similar role. I prepared the choir to join another group.

Jacob Stensberg with “Hunchback of Notre Dame” orchestra musicians. Courtesy of Jacob Stensberg. Used by permission.

You also played in the show’s orchestra, correct?

I did. I played keys.

How was that?

It was one of the hardest things I’ve done. A lot of contemporary shows like this have multiple patches. Especially this one.  It had 300 patches changes. Only one song did I actually play a piano sounding instrument. Otherwise I played the bell and the organ. So it was its own choreography to hit this extra key to change patches.

Let’s talk about the superb sound balance which I thought was so impressive.

I, of course, noticed it as well. I had my own special balance that I heard down in the orchestra that helped me to stay together with everyone so I had a lot of piano.  I also like a lot of strings and had a couple of the principals in my mix but when I listened to a recording I was given, I couldn’t believe how perfect it was. You could hear characters talking while the choir was singing and the orchestra was playing. It was amazing. It is always a concern when you have hanging mics in front of the choir and you wonder “Will the person in front of it be louder than everyone else?” I did not notice that on the recording. It sounded very balanced. I have a hard time imagining anyone who could have done a better job running sound than Zach (Rosing) did.

In terms of your career, what did the experience mean to you?

It was really special because I love doing multiple things. I don’t like to be only thought of as classical music musician, conductor,  or a musical theatre devotee. I want to combine all of those. The show’s Gregorian Chant and entr’acte is very classical in its nature—the way it was written for the choir. I got to play the piano and work with the singers and do musical theatre and classical-type music. It was sort of chance to combine everything I love doing into one project.

Have you caught the musical theatre bug?

I have all the bugs. I love musical theatre. I love choral music. I love playing the piano for one singer or 40 singers. I just love doing good music and “Hunchback,” and like “Jane Eyre,” an adaptation by Paige Scott, is just  another example of just great music.

When does “Jane Eyre” open and what is your involvement?

I play the piano for the show. It’s presented by ElecticPond Theatre Company and runs the July 19 through  30 at Grove Haus in the Fountain Square area.

Tell me about the graduate program you are in at Butler?

It has one year to go. It’s very exciting. My conducting recital,  which is part of fulfilling the requirements of the degree. will be in November. I am also just getting  classes down and learning what I need to learn. I’ll have lessons in conducting in large groups and private lessons. I have some more music theory courses. I sort of have a secondary specialty in music theory. I teach and tutor the music theory undergraduates. All the undergraduate students in music have me as their tutor. I am also doing some doing some music graduate level music course work. We have these big oral tests. Some more course work in choral literature. We do a big seminar in that.

What do you want to do after you receive your degree?

I have no idea. I love teaching. Teaching is one of my main passions. I love the opportunity to do more than one thing .  One that lets me do classical music, theatre, choir, solo accompanying, teaching. Anything that combines all of those. I have also always thought about working on cruise ship lines. That would be nothing compared to what I just mentioned but just to get on a boat for six months and play jazz standards and show tunes, light classical for people every night would be fun. A dream job. I have also thought about staying here for a couple of years if I could find a teaching job here.

Have you started looking?

No but it is on my radar. January is when I start worrying about what I am going to do after the school year’s over.

How has your Indy experience been?

I have loved it. Much more than I anticipated. One of the reasons I loved the idea of coming to Indianapolis to study choral music is because the Indianapolis Children’s Choir and the Symphonic Choir have some of the best educated singers from children to adults. I think that is a really neat demographic that Indy should be very proud of and work with. I wanted to see what it would be like to come into the middle of that hub and learn and do as much as I can. And then to learn there is a rich musical theatre group happening here. Between community and professional theatre and people doing new things or reviving old things, I love. It seems like a very rich environment.

What were some of the backgrounds of  “Hunchback” choir members?

Some of the people in the choir were actually music education students or vocal performance majors from I.U. or Ball State.

How was your third and final weekend of “Hunchback?”

I feel like Indy has procrastinator audiences that love to come on the last weekend. Ours were loud. They were cheering after every number. The entire orchestra section below the balcony was packed.

What is some of the feedback you received about the show?

A friend said “I wish the soundtrack sounded like you guys.” Another friend said “It’s the best sounding show I have ever been to in Indianapolis.” It was validating but I am not so much excited about the work I did as I am about the singer’s work.  I hope they felt really good about what they accomplished.

What was working with  Bob Harbin like?

He is an amazing person to work with. He has such a colorful history and past. He could be the kind of person who comes in and says “This is the one right way to do something.” But he never did. People were always free. A couple of times I said, “What if we try it this way? And he said “Let’s do it.” There is zero intimidation factor and so it really allows for creative processes to happen because you are not afraid of failure as you are trying new things. I think that is the only real way that creativity can really flourish. You are not afraid to mess up. The actors were never constrained to do things one way and one way only.

What about working with Trevor Fanning?

Trevor and I are great friends and it was our first time collaborating together so it was just great. He asked me to become involved and I am so happy he did. He is great to work with. He is a great conductor. He has great musical ideas. Just an overall a nice, talented, good person. It was great fun. I hope we get to do something together again.

How important is music, the role it plays, and its power to make a difference?
The importance of music is hard to quantify in words. As a teacher at heart, my mind immediately jumps to music in our schools.   Sure, there are statistics that show music makes us better at spatial reasoning, math, and literacy, but this is not why music is so important.  Music is a discipline that fosters creativity, detail, passion, humor, teamwork, practice, and the list goes on.  It’s a classroom where students can feel valued, and regardless of their life outside of the classroom, once they walk in the door, they become equals with their peers.  It’s a culture that is hard to replicate anywhere else. As to the role it plays, I think the opportunities are endless.  Music can be a voice for healing and hope, resistance and community, mourning and rejoicing, coping and reflection, history and the future.
What are the benefits of singing in a choir?
I know for a fact that singing in a choir or experiencing live music can bring positivity in one’s life. And the best way to find out how is a join a choir.
For tickets and information about “Jane Eyre” visit  eclecticpond.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Author

Tom Alvarez

Tom Alvarez is a freelance writer who has covered theater, dance, music and visual art for over 40 years. He has written for the Indianapolis Star, NUVO Newsweekly, Indianapolis Monthly, Arts Indiana and Examiner.com. Tom appears regularly as a contributor on WISH-Channel 8''s "Indy Style." Also an actor/model, Tom is represented by the Helen Wells Agency and Heyman Talent Artists Agency.

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