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Destined for music.

Byline: Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

From the time she was a tot, Diane Retallack - she was Diane Johnson then - listened to her father's beautiful tenor voice giving voice lessons at their home in La Salle, Ind., or bursting spontaneously into an operatic aria as he moved through the house.

As a young child, she began studying piano with "a wonderful teacher" whose talent was magnified by the habit of rewarding her student with black licorice buttons. She was willingly pressed into service for the musicals her high school music teacher father, Roy Johnson, put on every year with his choir students whenever there was a part for a child.

"When I was 6, I was Annie Oakley's little sister in 'Annie Get Your Gun,' and my older brother Bruce was her brother," Retallack recalls. "My mother said she took me on the train to Akron to visit relatives, and I spent the whole way entertaining the passengers, singing 'Doing What Comes Naturally' in the aisle."

Roles in "Showboat," "Finian's Rainbow" and "The Music Man" followed in turn.

Her mother's family was musical, too. As Armenians who escaped the genocide in what is now Turkey around 1915, they had made their way to Marseilles in France and gotten aboard a ship owned by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, which was recruiting immigrants to work in its factories in Akron, Ohio.

"My mother loved music and took piano lessons from David Kahn, one of Van Cliburn's teachers," Retallack said. "Her father played the violin. In Armenian households, there was always a lot of singing and dancing."

It was in Akron, where he was stationed in the Army, that Retallack's father met her mother, Grace Shahnazarian, at a USO center where she was a hostess.

"She said this tall, skinny, farm-y guy kept coming in and asking her to dance, but she wasn't impressed," Retallack said.

"Then one day he asked her to go with him to a booth where you could make a record, and he sang a song called 'Home' to send to his mother. That's when my mother went, 'Ohhh,' and they were married soon after."

Steeped in all that music, there was never any question what Retallack would grow up to be.

"I don't know when I formulated the idea that I would follow in my dad's footsteps - I just always knew I would do it," she said.

"He had such a rich life, and he was absolutely revered by his students."

She didn't end up as a high school teacher, although she did teach for a couple of years, but Retallack, 60, has made music the centerpiece of her career. This fall, as the 110-voice Eugene Concert Choir gets ready for its 39th year of performances, she begins her 29th year with the group as its executive director and choral music conductor.

"I love the choir - we have gone through so many things together," Retallack said. "I always say it's like a small town, with its marriages, deaths, breakups, children, people coming and leaving."

Her route to the choir "town" was circuitous, paved with some of the indignities and unfairness known to many women of her generation.

"I went to the University of Illinois, where I got a bachelor's degree in music education (for) choral music," she said. "At the end of my first year, we did a choir tour of Europe. We sang in Vienna and Venice, where they stood up on their seats and cheered, then went to Switzerland and England, where we sang for the Archbishop of Canterbury. When we got done," she said, assuming a crisp British accent, the archbishop said, "'That was so good - I hoped it would not stop.'"

Retallack and a female friend were the top students in their graduating class, but when they went to apply for high school teaching jobs, they were turned down every time.

"We would get letters from schools in the Chicago suburbs, and they would say, 'We're only accepting applications from men,'" Retallack said. "The head of the music education department advised me to apply for elementary teaching positions because of my 'woman's natural nurturing tendencies.'"

She had the greatest respect for elementary teachers, "but that's not where I wanted to go," she said, so she put off teaching and started a master's degree program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

"I'd been there only a few weeks, and there was a telephone call to my parents' home saying that a teaching opening had opened up in the small town of Olney, Ill.," she said. "They talked to my father, and he said he wasn't even going to tell me about it if they weren't seriously interested in hiring a woman. They said they were."

In fact, the sudden opening occurred because of a scandal in the district, in which the high school choral director "ran off with the music supervisor's daughter-in-law," Retallack relates. "I took the job, at East Richland High School, and it turned out it was a small town but the school district covered half the county, so I had a really big choir."

She loved her first year of teaching, but when the second year began, "I thought to myself, 'I did this before, now I'm doing it again - I want to do something else,'" so after that year she went back to graduate school in Madison, where she doubled up her coursework and finished her master's degree in one year and began applying for doctoral programs.

"I really wanted to go to a place with mountains, but my parents urged me to audition at Indiana University," she said.

She went to check it out and was introduced to Julius Herford, an eminent but elderly teacher of score study "to all the greats."

"My dad had studied with him for a summer once, and when I met him it put me into a whole different direction," Retallack said. "I decided I wanted to do a Ph.D. in music and conducting."

Her three years at Indiana University were marvelous ones, studying with people such as Margaret Hillis, a rare female conductor and founder of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, who also had the unusual task of substituting on short notice for Georg Solti, the Chicago Symphony's conductor.

"One time, she had to do Mahler's Eighth Symphony at Carnegie Hall with no rehearsal when (Solti) suddenly became ill," Retallack said. "Her example changed my whole life."

In fact, one of her all-time most cherished compliments came from Doreen Rao, another well-known woman conductor, teacher and writer who occasionally taught workshops at Indiana, "who watched me conduct and told me I had Margaret Hillis' left hand."

During her stint at Indiana, Retallack was "still single and not looking. Besides music, I loved outdoor activities, so I joined the Sierra Club."

So did a "handsome, dashing Australian" named Greg Retallack. "He had just come to Indiana to do post-doc work in paleobotany," she said. A couple of outings later, "We were inseparable, and we've been inseparable ever since."

She did her doctoral exams in May 1981 and married Retallack the following week. Later that year, he was hired by the University of Oregon, where he is still professor of geological sciences. The couple have two sons, Nicholas and Jeremy.

In 1985, "I got the Eugene Concert Choir job, was finishing my Ph.D. and was pregnant with Nicholas," Retallack said. "I was rehearsing for my first concert with the choir, so I asked them, 'For how many of you is this your first concert conducted by a woman?' and quite a few hands went up. Then I asked them, 'For how many of you is this your first concert conducted by a pregnant woman?' and the whole place just broke up."

She conducted the choir's last major concert in April 1986, a smaller one in May and gave birth in June. Two weeks later, she did a successful doctoral defense by teleconference with Indiana University.

During Retallack's tenure, the nonprofit Eugene Concert Choir has matured, going from a $20,000 annual budget then to $390,000 now.

The Eugene Concert Choir does three sets of concerts, one around the winter holidays, another in mid-season and the last in late spring, which also includes a separate concert for children.

Besides the large choir, Retallack conducts the Eugene Vocal Arts Ensemble, which has about 30 members and its own performance schedule, including a costumed dinner concert in the spring.

Sandwiched in with all that, Retallack still manages to do the outdoor activities - hiking and occasional mountain climbing - that attracted her to her husband and Oregon in the first place. Along the way, during a trip to Greg Retallack's native Australia, she also became certified as a scuba diver.

But at least for now, her favorite leisure activity is ballroom dancing. Retallack travels to Portland weekly where she takes classes with two instructors and prepares for pro-am - professional teacher paired with amateur student - competitions.

"I think that's something most people don't know about me," she said.
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Title Annotation:Personalities
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 15, 2013
Previous Article:Buzzworthy.

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