As I head up the ramp to Barbara Poulshock’s house tucked into the pines in Klipsan, I run into cellist Jessie Ahman who has driven all the way from Richland, WA where he teaches 5th and 6th graders. He and Aaron English, a Seattle-based pianist and composer, are about to head down to the Long Beach Kite Museum to perform. (The inimitable community matchmaker Diane Buttrell brought them by because she wanted Aaron and Barbara to fall in love — “and I think that has happened,” Diane says happily.)
Even after the hubbub dies down and the boys take off, Barbara is still excited about them. “Aaron’s work is really incredible, unique, powerful, very contemporary. His singing is more like story telling with a melodic recitative line. He’s been to African and has adapted songs from Kenya and Uganda. His harmonic technique is rock — though he also plays a little eight-note lute-type instrument. He was singing — ‘the rains are coming, let’s get the cows home.’ It’s world music.” (Listen to Aaron’s world music here, Kothbiro: tinyurl.com/AaronEnglish or a Police cover here: aaronenglish.com)
It’s fitting that young musicians are drawn to Barbara’s house — where we always sit in the living room around the grand piano — because she’s the Peninsula’s charismatic musical maestro. (Last time I was here I joined Andrea Patton and her daughter for a vocal rehearsal. I’ve met Brooke Flood and Madison Baker and many other budding talents here over the years.)
At 89 Barbara rehearses and directs two church choirs every Sunday; the Ocean Park Lutheran and the Methodist. “At the Lutheran church they started their services early and put the announcements at the end so I’d have time to run over to the Methodist church.” And she has taken over the directorship of the Bayside Singers which was started several years ago by Sandy Nielson as a six-voice women’s chorus. Now those six voices have grown to 40 with the full range of soprano, alto, tenor, bass or SATB, as Barbara calls it.
The Bayside Singers have free concerts coming up both of the next Saturdays: April 16, 3 p.m. at the Ocean Park Lutheran Church; and April 23, 3 p.m. at the Peninsula Church Center in Seaview.
Barbara opens the music for the concert on her lap and we talk through the program, with a smattering of stories thrown in. Barbara comes from a family of musicians: her father was a “fine oboist who played for Jack Benny, Red Skelton, and Bob Hope” and her grandmother was a singer. When she was six or seven her teacher called her family to school and said, “You have a talented musician here. You must start her on the piano right away.” As Barbara tells it, “My father went right out and bought a grand piano!” and she studied with some of the piano greats. Once George Liebling, a German pianist and composer, after listening to one of Barbara’s lessons, “took out his red pencil and started scratching all over my music. I said, ‘Oh no, Mr. Liebling, that’s a library book!’ There were several library books I had to pay for.”
But Barbara really wanted to be a ballerina until she took the bus into town one time and after joining a line of Grand Jetes — “What’s a jete?” she thought — went right out the door and back onto the bus. That was the end of dance!
As a young woman, she was encouraged to study voice. “We used to make our own records,” Barbara continued, “so I played one for my dad that I had cut myself. He said, ‘Who’s that? Who’s beautiful voice is that? ‘ And I said, ‘That’s me’ and he said, ‘No way, you’re going to be a pianist.’” But Barbara continued singing and got her first teaching job at University of California, Long Beach, without even a degree. She soon found that she had a special ability for coaxing out and training voices. “They always gave me the best and the worst,” she said. “I have a real affection for people and I found I had a talent for teaching both.”
Barbara married husband Norm, also a musician and composer, and eventually they left Garden Grove and moved to Klamath Falls — “we’d gone up on a fishing trip and fell in love with the place.” They taught, composed and performed. Some time later, after a stint at Cornish, Barbara landed at Pacific Lutheran University, a college in Tacoma known for its outstanding music department. She stayed 27 years.
After coming up for vacations a couple of summers to the beach, she and Norm bought a place. They lived at homes up and down the Peninsula — on Joe Johns, in Surfside, in Ilwaco, and finally the house in Klipsan. “I retired in ’94. It’s been kind of crazy but a lot of fun.” Barbara teaches singing, directs choirs and musicals — “I do all the staging and boss them around, hopefully help them deliver their lines with sincerity”—and is still composing for voice. She is a musical powerhouse.
The two Saturday concerts offer a wide-ranging program from 16th Century madrigals, to classical opera, to gospel. Several of the pieces are Barbara’s compositions of poetry set to music. She prefers Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Christina Rossetti as her poetic collaborators — though there is even a Shel Silverstein children’s poem in the mix.
David Immel and Teresa Goodwin will musically duel in a duet from the Marriage of Figaro. The gospel song “The Storm Is Passing Over,” an arrangement with a tricky rhythm, is one that has challenged the singers. Bette Lu Kraus says of the experience of working with Barbara, “There is so much positive energy and joy in the room when we get together. Barbara is a community treasure, a national treasure. I feel very honored to be able to sing her music and to bask in her love of music.”
Though the concerts are free, Bayside Singers supporter Celsa Johnson is helping them register as a non-profit 503(c)3 so that they can accept donations for music and, perhaps, a set of risers. For six women’s voice, standing is a semi-circle is fine; but 40 voices is different. The singers need risers so that everyone can see, can be seen and can hear each other.
Barbara mentions that they will be singing a piece that sets to music something Bach wrote at the bottom of every composition: “SDG,” short for “Soli Deo Gloria” or “For the Glory of God Alone.” It may be that this was Bach’s intention; but, fortunately, for two upcoming weekends we can all glory in the music of Barbara Poulshock, accompanist Barbara Bate, and the Bayside Singers.