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Curtain Call: Rep Singers Music Director French is more than ready to go live in May

You might be surprised to learn that a man whose life has played out in front of audiences would admit to being quite shy and one who tends cower in a corner at parties.

That said, the audiences who have enjoyed the choral music brought to them the past 32 years by Paul French would be inclined not to begrudge the man his quiet time.

French, music director of Southern Oregon Repertory Singers, will retire in June from his three-decade career as professor of music at Southern Oregon University. He soon will have more time for those solitary moments while he explores new musical opportunities and continues his work with Rep Singers.

The pandemic has been challenging for French. It was especially frustrating when the long-anticipated fourth annual James M. Collier Festival of New Choral Music in March had to be canceled at the last minute because of a COVID uptick.

But things are looking up for Rep Singers. Tickets are now on sale for “A Distant Song,” to be performed May 14 and 15, at SOU Music Recital Hall, 450 S. Mountain Ave. in Ashland.

The concerts will feature music from as early as the 17th century Baroque period to more recent works. Included will be two seldom-heard pieces by Baroque master Claudio Monteverdi, the oldest works on the program.

For tickets and more information, go to repsingers.org.

Rep Singers audiences have seen French conduct now and then wearing a kilt. They might not know it’s an homage to the time he lived in Scotland as a boy.

“My mom is Scottish and she sang in a youth choir, the Scottish Junior Singers,” he said. “That also was the first choir I sang in during a short time we lived in Glasgow.”

Although born in Santa Barbara and living for a time in Scotland, French grew up primarily in Asia. His parents were missionaries in the Philippines.

The family returned to America to the San Francisco Bay Area where he started high school. He remained there through college.

He continued his involvement with music in high school. He and his brother performed in music assemblies and French took up the guitar.

“I wrote a lot of songs then, which I don’t inflict on people anymore,” he said. “I see this as a sign of maturity on my part.”

French wasn’t always headed towards a music career. When he was a college freshman psychology major, an “eureka” moment at the fall choir concert changed the trajectory of his life.

“I wasn’t even in the choir,” he said. “They performed a piece by 15th century French-Flemish composer Josquin des Pres which moved me so deeply I declared a music major the next day.”

It is still one of his favorite pieces.

“From there, I never really considered doing anything but music.”

He went on to earn a BA from the University of California at Berkeley, followed by Master of Music and Doctor of Music Arts degrees in choral music from the University of Southern California.

He started singing a little in high school, well enough to get the tenor lead in “South Pacific.” When he couldn’t quite hit the high note at the end of a song, he started taking voice lessons. He’s been singing ever since.

He plays a few instruments as well. He took piano lessons as a boy and plays every day for voice lessons at rehearsals.

“I used to play the guitar and a little violin, but I have some nerve damage in my hands now that makes it a bit difficult,” French said. “In retirement, I plan to learn the penny whistle, one of my favorite sounds.”

French has experienced many memorable moments as a voice teacher and choir conductor.

“When a solo singer suddenly can sing free and clear, or when the choir creates something powerful and beautiful, those moments are the ones that stay with me,” he said.

He’s not sure he can ever master all the requisite skills required for conducting well, “so we do the best we can.”

He says preparation is the key, and developing an “in-the-moment” relationship with his choir.

“When you trust one another, you really can go after the high end,” he said. “This frequently means that you take chances during a performance to create moments of beauty — in the moment, not rehearsed. Those are great moments.”

French has great admiration for singers.

“What they do is practically impossible to do — everything instrumentalists do, but in five languages,” he said.

Part of the job of leading Rep Singers is planning concert programs. Some are constructed around a theme, such as a holiday or new works. But for others, French considers the experience of the singers and the audience when making programmatic decisions.

“I spend long periods of time putting pieces in various orders, trying to imagine what that would feel like to the audience,” he said. “I try to mix time periods, moods, the familiar and the new, and I love presenting new composers to the public.”

Developing programs is a large part of what French does. And with about 10,000 pieces of choral music at home, he has a wealth of material on hand.

French feels choral music is more popular today than ever, noting that more people seem to be tuning in. He’s seen that reflected in the growth of Rep Singers.

When he assumed the music director position in 1990, it was five years after Rep Singers had been formed under the baton of his predecessor at SOU, Ellison Glatley.

“I am thrilled that the group has grown into one of the leading arts organizations in the area,” he said. “A huge number of people worked hard to make that happen.”

He’s proud of the choir’s professionalism, of being able to commission new works, and performing to sold-out houses.

And he’s particularly happy to be able to resume performing for live audiences.

“Singing connects with people so powerfully,” he said. “I fully expect choral music to continue to grow and prosper. But I have always been an optimist.”