Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What is Professor Mahrt like? Answers to a Reporter from SF Chronicle

A photographer and a writer from San Francisco Chronicle showed up at the St. Ann choir rehearsal and Mass last Sunday (Feast of Christ the King). The writer asked me a few questions outside the church, and she gave me her card and said she would call me. I sent her the following email on Tuesday.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Tuesday, November 27, 2007 3:24 PM
To: Sturrock, Carrie
Subject: What is Professor Mahrt like? Some thoughts in answer to your question

What is Professor Mahrt like? I have been thinking about this since you asked me Sunday after Mass.

I mentioned his focus and his dedication, that he shows up to lead rehearsal every Thursday night (when he isn’t at conferences or other music events) just as he has pretty much for 40 plus years straight through. Believe it or not, there is some question about whether he even gets paid for the vast amount of work he does directing the choir. I’ve seen a printed quotation in some article or other from someone who knows him who lauded Bill’s uncompensated time- and talent- draining work.

Prof. Mahrt is a predictable sight to be seen at dusk on most Thursday nights, loping across the Stanford campus towards the Braun music building rehearsal room. He is tall (6’1’), white haired, spare. His nose is a bit beak like, and he is ever so slightly stooped. So from a distance his silhouette is a bit reminiscent of Ichabod Crane. But unlike Ichabod, Bill Mahrt carries a large portfolio of chant pages for the next Sunday and a music stand under one arm, and in the other hand he holds a metal briefcase with the polyphonic motets for the week, some hymns, and any Mass settings the choir might be practicing for upcoming feasts.

He almost always wears a buttoned-up shirt, a tie and a jacket.

His conservative polyester apparel is in striking contrast to the mufti worn by the choir. The members’ California spirit of do your own thing is evidenced in the variety of clothes they wear when they sing. Singers straggle into Sunday rehearsal an hour ahead of Mass wearing anything from blue jeans to sweat suits, Birkenstocks to jogging shoes, with a sprinkling of Indian dresses that could have been and quite likely often have been hanging in closets since the 1960s. You know, the colorful rayon kind with the little mirrors . . .. You see lots of shawls. A few of the men sport long grey ponytails. That’s not to say that you won’t see a few suits and men’s oxford shoes, Sunday dresses and stylish high heels on some of the singers. But it cannot be denied that it is a motley group.

Bill’s occasional suggestion that we might consistently use choir robes (instead of only for Vespers) brings rebellious cries from several of the most outspoken choir members, and the idea gets tabled again.

One interesting fact is that a large minority of the choir is not Catholic, and many participate only because they love the music.

Bill Mahrt’s single most appealing attribute for me is his gift for hospitality. At the first rehearsal I attended, he brought refreshments in honor of the birthday of Susan Weisberg, because, as he said, she always remembers people’s birthdays. He poured very good wine from his extensive wine collection into real wine glasses that he carried in cartons with little cardboard dividers. And he walked around the room like an attentive waiter offering a plate of strawberries . . .. I was impressed.

The first Sunday Lauds I attended was one of the last times that the choir was able to sing Lauds in its original home, St. Ann Chapel, which was formerly the Stanford University Newman Center. After a traditional Anglican congregation had bought the chapel from the Catholic diocese, they let the St. Ann choir continue its singing of both Lauds and Vespers there for quite some time. But last year they started having their own Lauds, and there was no room there any more on Sunday mornings.

When I started to get into my car after Lauds that first morning, Bill called to me across the street, rather perfunctorily, but pleasantly enough, “There’s coffee.” So I stayed. He took out of the trunk of his beat up Honda another carton, this time with china mugs, plus two thermos pots of coffee, milk and sugar, and biscotti. One choir member brought a homemade cake. I happened to have a freshly baked bag of corn muffins in the car so I put that out on the brick bench under the tree with the rest of the repast. We stood around drinking coffee and talking until it was time to pack everything up and go to Mass rehearsal. I was impressed again.

Repast, now that’s a Bill Mahrt word. He also uses collation when he talks about the spread that some dedicated volunteers put out for the choir after the noon Mass every week.

Not being able to find any place else to hold Lauds, Bill now opens his home every Sunday morning to the three or four of us who still attend. And serves us coffee afterwards on his good china.

Vespers are better attended, but always with more singers in the choir than there are hearers in the congregation (maybe 6 or 7 to 2 to 4). As you may have heard, Susan and John Altstatt host a dinner for the choir every Sunday night after Vespers at their funky home in the Los Altos hills. They push together long folding tables and serve very good meals from restaurant-sized pots and pans to whoever shows up. Bill always brings three bottles of his excellent wine to the dinner.

And when the Altstatts are on one of their frequent camping trips in their big AirStream trailer out in the desert, indisposed, or otherwise unavailable, Bill hosts the dinner at his home.

He is the only man I have ever met who has three sets of dinnerware. One set is Spode china. He puts out cloth napkins and real silverware. And he composes unforgettable meals in his tiny kitchen. One Sunday night one of the choir members confessed she had been dreaming all week about the red pepper sauce Bill had prepared the week before. I still am mentally licking my lips about a meal of shrimp rolled in sole served with tiny baby patty pan squash (all sauced to perfection) and Bill’s perennial risotto that Bill prepared after Vespers a few weeks ago.

If you are interested, I’ll send you the recipe for the red pepper sauce. J

One long time choir member told me about a wonderfully handsome graduate student from South America who had once been in the choir, and she said, “All the girls who weren’t in love with him were in love with Bill.” The handsome South American got married and went home, and sadly died young. But in spite of all the choir members who have purportedly loved Bill over the years, Bill never has been married or engaged. One more recent choir member charmingly said about him when I was wondering about Bill’s marital state that “he is a monkdom of one.”

He turned 68 on March 9. He had a heart attack last year, and now watches his diet religiously. And he is one of the vast numbers of men of a certain age living with prostate cancer. I heard him telling a former choir member who showed up for rehearsal a few weeks ago that (in spite of his having the prostate removed) the cancer has metastasized, but the doctors don’t know where to. “They’ll start chemo at some point,” he said, after the blood marker reaches a certain point. And he quoted his father to her, who had prostate cancer too and died in his 90s. With a rueful laugh, he told her, as his father often said, “We’ve all got to go some time.”

We hope that for Bill that “some time” is some time in the far future.

Susan Altstatt said to me last week that it is good that Bill and the music he has so valiantly preserved are getting noticed at this late date. It must be gratifying to him. I agreed and blurted the thought that sprang to my mind, that fame if it arrives at all often comes only after the person is dead.


Susan Altstatt said she wanted to tell you that Bill is right off the farm. He often mentions that he was raised on a farm near Spokane. He mentioned once that in high school, he was a trombone player, and he attended Gonzaga University in Spokane on a band scholarship. His interest in things musical evolved. According to Susan, Bill learned Dominican chant while he was at Gonzaga. He came to Stanford originally to work on a doctorate on Mozart in piano performance but when he met mathematics professor William Pohl, the choir’s founder, and started singing Gregorian chant in 1963 when the choir started, he said he realized that was what he wanted to do. He sat down, he said once, and sang through all the ordinary chants for all the Masses. And he has been doing that ever since.

BTW, I have a history he wrote around 1989 if you would find it helpful.

Give me a call if you want to talk more.

I am very happy you are doing this article. It was a pleasure to meet you!
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