Blog Alumni, Music

Q&A: April Fredrick – Alumni Honoree 2019

By Linda LaFrombois on Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Dr. April Fredrick ’02 visited campus during Homecoming Week to be honored with a 2019 Alumni Honoree Music & Theatre Hall of Recognition award. While here, the internationally acclaimed soprano sang with Northwestern’s student ensembles at the Homecoming Showcase and performed a full repertoire of songs at a Faculty Artist Series recital, accompanied on piano by faculty member Pamela Sohriakoff and accompanied on violin by faculty member Emily Saathoff.
Dr. Kirk Moss, Chair of the Department of Music & Theatre, had the opportunity to interview Fredrick at a student Music Hour before she returned to her home in London. Following is a portion of their conversation.

Did you ever envision—as you were sitting in this very space during a recital hour—holding a career in London?

I can honestly say, “No.”

I came into Northwestern intending to pursue creative writing. Singing, as I often remind God, was not my plan; it was His. I also sometimes joke that I got hijacked by the vocal department, and I never got away.

“I came into Northwestern intending to pursue creative writing. Singing, as I often remind God, was not my plan; it was His. It has been an amazing journey full of twists and turns.”—Dr. April Fredrick ’02

God doesn’t work in straight lines. That’s something I’ve learned. We like straight lines because that gives us a sense of control. 

God loves the elliptical. He loves the nonlinear. He loves the lateral move. Because that gives Him a chance to get the glory and to put us in places we never would have envisioned. And that I can certainly speak to.

Tell us a bit about the things you did as a student at Northwestern.

I was a bit of a busy bee when I was here. I was a vocal major and Bible major (as we all are). I also had English and Spanish minors, because I was as much of a words person as I was a music person.

I tutored at the Alpha Center. And I was in various ensembles—orchestra and choir. So, I was always, always flitting from thing to thing, and always had full loads every semester. I actually had to have an extra semester to fit it all in.

What are some experiences you had at Northwestern that hold meaning for you?

I did love my diction and vocal lit classes. For me it was being exposed to this wider world. And, because I love words, art song was a bit of revelation for me because you have these amazing poems with these beautiful, vivid invocations and settings.

The Vocal Pedagogy course was amazing; it’s worth coming to Northwestern for that alone—as a professional tool. It was very high-level thinking. As an English minor, so were some of my classes from Dr. Boeckel.

Some of my favorite memories?

A lot of talks on what was then the grassy knoll, now beautifully bisected by paths. 

A lot of time in personal conversations. Conversations in Dr. Kathleen Robinson‘s office; those were always a big thing for me. Igniting the life of the mind in her Music History classes.

One other thing that did stand out to me during that time was a moment in College Choir. We were working on Jonathan Harvey’s “I Love the Lord.” A quartet sings over and over again, “I love the Lord, I love the Lord, I love the Lord,” while the choir sings the words of Psalm 116. It’s one of those “out of the depths” and “the chords of death entangled me” songs—calling out to the Lord. It’s a very anguished piece.

I remember Mr. Sawyer saying, “There will be times in your life when other words desert you, and all you can say is, ‘I love the Lord, I love the Lord, I love the Lord.’ It’s a hard journey, and faith is a kind of hand-over-hand climb.”

That’s true! It was the acknowledgement of that aspect of the journey of faith—which isn’t always smooth and which isn’t always a lovely worship song. Sometimes there’s discordance. Sometimes there’s struggle, and there’s failure.

I have had cause to appreciate that and to treasure the depth with which we went into things both in College Choir and in various contexts since then.

“It may be years before you understand why certain doors do or don’t open, but God is faithful. He is faithful to place you where your individual voice will be needed.”

After Northwestern, you went to graduate school at the Royal Academy of Music in London, which is quite a distinguished conservatory. Talk to us about the Royal Academy: what auditions are like and about your experiences there.

Ah, the Academy. I was at the Academy for a long time—about seven years—between my master’s and my Ph.D. I got to know it quite well.

I flew over to London for the auditions. I did three contrasting songs. In my case, they put me forward to a special board. I sang for the head of the voice area and for the principal of the Academy—at the time Sir Curtis Price, a fellow American—and also for the vice president.

The Academy, though it is the oldest of the conservatoires, had a freshness about it and an edginess that I loved. I had amazing teaching and had some wonderful coaches. They also have a wonderful Historical Performance department that I got involved with on my Ph.D. That was revelatory to me, especially working with a composer named Laurence Cummings.

I got to do opera singing and continued to hone that aspect, and did master classes with well-known accompanists.

There are a lot of fine composers at the Academy. That’s where I started to premiere works—some brand-new contemporist works.

There’s also an amazing research department where we got to sing songs with historical instruments to see what that would’ve been like. It makes more of a difference than you would imagine because they’re a lot quieter.

What is it like to live in London?

Being a country girl by nature, I sometimes have a bit of a love/hate relationship with London. But these days it’s fairly affectionate.

London is a bunch of small villages that grew together. I love it because those villages still maintain their individual character. There are lots of green spaces; that has kept me sane. I remember picking blackberries in preparations for big competitions during my PhD and finding that that was the normality that kept me on the even keel when pressure was getting great.

The richness and history of the place, the layeredness of it, is astounding—that you can be walking down the street in a place where stock market deals are done every day and know you’re walking over Saxon ruins. To know that there are all those layers beneath you… it puts your story in context.

It’s also a dizzying city! There are more opportunities than you can ever take. More shows than you can ever afford to go to or have time to go to. You’re always missing something.

Sometimes it’s tricky to keep your feet and to keep perspective in the middle of all of that striving. But London is an amazing place. The Gospel goes forth there as much as anywhere.

So, London: It’s amazing. I love it. It drives me nuts. It’s home.

What is your worship experience like in London? How have you navigated the transition from here to there in your faith walk?

After graduation from Northwestern, I spent six months at my parents’ home in rural Wisconsin. Then I went to do my master’s in London. That is one of the rudest awakenings I’ve ever had.

Christianity in Britain is very much a minority. It’s often referred to as a post-Christian nation. You’re often viewed with a bemused, thinly veiled condescension for being a person of faith.

Yet there are robust and insightful communities that are there, and a huge variety of expressions of church. You can find the churches where you are getting good Bible study and good exposition. People are being transformed by the power of the Gospel. That is really encouraging to me.

I’ve landed in the Anglican tradition. That’s very much home for me. It’s mass with corporate confession (I love that), passing of the peace, eucharist every week. And we could be doing anything from Bach to Bluegrass on any given Sunday.

I have sung in everything from what they affectionately call “smells and bells” (high Anglo-Catholic) where there’s incense and vestments, all the way to highly charismatic churches where there’s prophecy, and everything in between.

The church comes in a lot of forms. But the center of it is Christ, and Christ crucified.

“God has works that He has prepared in advance for us to do. We are His workmanship. It is the same word as poem. You are His masterpiece. You are His epic poem.”

I see the list of performances that you do, spanning such a broad swath from an operatic lead role to a recording session with a symphony on a new work to an oratorio—solo work and everything in between. What is it like to be April Fredrick in London?

At the Academy, they used to say that musicians have what they politely call a “portfolio career.” What they mean is it’s a patchwork quilt. You’ll end up doing a whole range of things. The more proverbial strings you can have to your bow, the better. 

Being versatile is good. You’re going to wear a lot of different hats in the course of a week. You may not be able to dot every “I” and cross every “T” in the way you would like to all the time, and you have to make peace with that.

I have learned to have peace where I find favor. To realize that God gives me favor with certain people, and to walk through the door that I wouldn’t have necessarily picked to walk through. It changes you. You grow professionally. It ignites a different part of your imagination; your curiosity.

“A beautiful voice, shining and round, celestial on the high notes and rich on the low ones, with a creamy timbre and velvety strength.” —Piers Burton-Page, International Record Review

Speak about the faithfulness of God along the way. What are some of those, “Wow! God is so good!” moments?

One of them was the first time I sang Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” with an orchestra in Chester Cathedral. The conductor was a man named Richard Howarth who for many years chaired the second violins in the Manchester Camerata, a fine chamber orchestra in the north of the country. He’s seen a lot and played with a lot of people. And he’s a very voluble man; he’s not usually at a loss for words. 

What happened that day: The spiritual power God graciously breathed into this performance. 

The work is talking about mortality and about coming to terms with what you have accomplished, and what you now know you never will; this sense of surrender and regret and, in a sense, exile. I understood when I was preparing for this and the subsequent times I have sung it, that exile—all the disappointments that you receive in your professional life, all the doors that have remained closed that you wanted desperately to open—are preparation. 

And they are gift. Because I knew that I would not have been able to sing those songs the way that I did had I not experienced that disappointment. The disappointments had changed me, and they had prepared me, and they had given me compassion and insight.

Richard couldn’t speak.

When we finished, none of us could speak! Because the power of what had happened when the Spirit showed up was so great.

One of the clergy came to me afterwards, and he was welling up. (You must understand that the British do not well up, particularly not in public; it is just not done.) He came up to me and just took my hands. It took a moment for him to be able to speak.

He said, “Salieri once said of Mozart, upon hearing his music, ‘I have heard the voice of God.’ Today I can say the same.”

Dr. April Fredrick

Based in London, Fredrick is a soprano with a passion for nuance and text, which gets to the heart of both music and character. Equally at home on the opera stage, concert hall, and recording studio, Fredrick has recently premiered the title role of John Joubert’s opera Jane Eyre in a live concert recording for SOMM.

Initially pursuing violin at Northwestern, Fredrick began to train in voice with Catherine McCord-Larsen, where her time as a violinist behind the baton shaped her attitude toward the role of a soloist as part of the ensemble. Her layered, in-depth preparation and close attention to fine vocal color were honed by her time in the College Choir and her life-long preoccupations with Mahler and the effect of World War I on British music and culture.

She went on to gain a Master of Music degree and Ph.D. at the Royal Academy of Music, where she studied with Jane Highfield, Ian Ledingham, and Dominic Wheeler. She sang regularly with the RAM Lyric Song Salon, the RAM Historical Performance ensembles, Academy composers, and in masterclasses with James Bowman, Robert Tear, Graham Johnson, Rudolf Jansen, and Roger Vignoles, with whom she went on to do a full course in lieder and chanson with Vignoles in Austria. She now studies with Jacqueline Straubinger-Bremar.