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Made of Time

After a half-century of reaching for the ideal, James Erb steps down from the choir.

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One of the longest runs in Richmond music-making ends this weekend — maybe.

The women of the Richmond Symphony Chorus will join the orchestra in "Sirènes," the final section of Debussy's Nocturnes. It's the last time the group will prepare a piece under the direction of James Erb. Then, for the first time in 53 years, Erb will be without a choir to call his own.

"I'll miss it terribly," he says. "Making music with people, to me, is everything."

Erb has been leading groups of local singers since 1954, when he joined the University of Richmond faculty and took over its choral program. In 1966, he turned an ad-hoc Chorus of Alumni and Friends of the University of Richmond into a free-standing community choir, CAFUR. He retired from the university and disbanded CAFUR in 1994. By that time, he was in his 23rd season as director of the Symphony Chorus, which he founded in 1971.

The director's position, endowed several years ago as the James Erb Choral Chair, will pass next season to Erin R. Freeman, who also serves as the orchestra's associate conductor.

Erb decided to quit the Symphony Chorus because, he says, "I'm 81 years old. My short-term memory is not as agile as it used to be. I didn't want to resign, but I wanted to make the call before somebody else had to."

But he hints that his choral directing days may not be over. "I wouldn't mind organizing a group of people who really want to sing and be heard by people who really want to hear it," he says.

Erb knew that music would be his life's work by the time he graduated from high school in his native Denver. He began as a boy chorister in the city's Episcopal cathedral, and as a teenager studied with Antonia Brico, a pioneering female conductor. "She taught me that conducting is basically learning how to listen to music," he says.

Erb turned to choral conducting in the summer of 1948. Then a sophomore at Harvard, he joined a chorus at Tanglewood, the music festival in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, to sing Brahms' "German Requiem" under Robert Shaw's direction.

"It was a Pentecostal experience," Erb recalls. "I knew this was what I had to do with my life." (Shaw conducted Erb's Richmond Symphony Chorus in its 1971 debut.)

"I've spent more than 50 years trying to understand why people are drawn to music," he says. "Music is sound arranged meaningfully in time. That's a key to the attraction, I think, because time is what we humans are really made of, and in music we have time organized in an ideal way. All kinds of ideal ways, really, because all kinds of music, from a Bach fugue to a guy playing three chords on a guitar, seems to release emotions in much the same way.

"Singing in a group, you reach for that ideal differently," he observes. "It's not the beauty of a single voice, but beauty achieved by the voices of people who listen to one another, depend upon one another, learn from one another, and understand that what they're doing amounts to something because they are creating it for others, in the group and in an audience."

Leaving the Symphony Chorus is the second big change for Erb in the past year. Last fall he and his wife, Ruth, a former symphony violist and proprietor of Book People, moved out of their home of 40 years and settled into a unit at Westminster-Canterbury.

"That's taking some getting used to," Erb says. He worries that he's leaving real life and entering "elder life."

But he'll ease that transition by "spending a lot of time conversing with Mr. Bach at the keyboard," he says, working his way through the two books of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier." S

The women of the Richmond Symphony Chorus, directed by James Erb, perform in symphony concerts at Second Baptist Church May 18 at 8 p.m.; at First Baptist Church May 19 at 8 p.m.; and St. Michael's Catholic Church May 21 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18-$60. Call 788-1212 or visit www.richmondsymphony.com.

Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com.

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