Best wishes to Lillian Quackenbush as she begins her final season as director of the Sandlapper Singers. In 2012, Quackenbush received an Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award for Lifetime Achievement. Do you know an outstanding arts achiever? Nominate that person for a 2016 Verner Award, the state’s highest award in the arts. Guidelines are available online. Nominations are due Nov. 2.
Lillian Quackenbush has directed the Sandlapper Singers hundreds of times since she and her husband, Dave, established the Columbia-based professional choral ensemble 20 years ago.
While Quackenbush has fond memories of those performances, there are a couple that stand out to the artistic director as she takes a look back – especially one in 2001 at the Koger Center.
That year, the group had commissioned Minnesota composer Libby Larsen to write pieces using the poetry of South Carolina poet laureate James Dickey. One of those pieces was based on Dickey’s poem, “Falling.”
“It was kind of a choral drama –a really moving piece based on a newspaper article Dickey had written about a stewardess who fell to her death when checking a door while in flight,” Quackenbush said. “The entire poem was told from her perspective of seeing the landscape, feeling the wind, knowing that there were people still asleep on the plane as she fell to her death. We premiered it in September of 2001.
“Three days later, 9/11 happened,” Quakenbush said. “Even as I talk about it now I get goosebumps. It was just so strange that we would talk about people falling to their death and then watch those images on television three days later. I talked to the composer right after that and we both just cried over the phone.”
The Sandlappers will perform the piece again this season – a season that will mark Quackenbush’s last as the group’s director.
Under her leadership, the 30-voice Sandlappers (named after South Carolina’s nickname of the Sandlapper state) have performed the songs of American composers in genres ranging from blue grass and gospel to western and jazz. Each year, the group holds an annual season in Columbia and travels to present performances throughout the state – and has even performed nationally and internationally.
“She has helped open the eyes and ears of South Carolinians to fabulous composers from our own city and state, and has expanded the view of American music,” said Audrey Brown, a member of the Sandlapper Singers since the first year. “Through the Sandlapper Singers, Lillian has challenged us to hear different music and learn how that music came to be. … From teaching, conducting, mentoring and sometimes just sharing a giggle, she has inspired us all to become better – better musicians, better listeners, better keepers of the musical stories of America.”
A Jacksonville, Fla., native, Quackenbush and her husband moved to Columbia from Charleston in 1976. For 34 years, Quackenbush taught voice, conducted the choir and chaired the department of music at Columbia College until retiring from that position in 2009. She also served as music director at several Columbia churches, most recently Shandon Presbyterian where she served for 24 years until leaving that post in May. She also served as artistic director and conductor of the Greater Columbia Sing-along Messiah, conducted the Columbia Choral Society for Spoleto in Charleston and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in Columbia.
In 2012, Quackenbush was awarded the South Carolina Arts Commission’s Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I never imagined that I would receive any kind of recognition like that because when you love what you do you don’t think about other people recognizing it,” said Quackenbush, who received an undergraduate degree in music education from Florida State University, and a masters degree in voice and doctorate in choral directing from the University of South Carolina. “You want people to appreciate what you do but you don’t think about awards and things like that and so it was a bit overwhelming it truly was. It was just a very, very special moment in my life.”
Donald Holland sang under Quackenbush’s direction as a member of the Chancel Choir at Shandon Presbyterian and has known her through the years as a colleague, mentor and friend.
“Only time will tell what her legacy will be,” Holland said. “For the present, however, it seems that her most amazing quality is her ability and unwavering determination to continue to bring her brilliance to the art of choral music presentation and education throughout the state of South Carolina. And she continues to work extremely hard to do so well into the time in her life when she could be resting on her laurels; but that’s not Lillian.”
While Quackenbush will miss her time with the group, the decision to step down is not one that she questions.
“This last season will be a great joy for me because I really feel like it’s sort of the culmination of my work with them. I picked the music by asking the singers and audience members as well what they’d like to hear again so a lot of the season is recalling some great memories and kind of looking back while also looking forward at what’s to come,” Quackenbush said. “You want to go out when things are going well and things are going really well.”
AT A GLANCE: LILLIAN QUACKENBUSH
Get to know more about Lillian Quackenbush with this Q&A:
When did you develop an interest in music?
“It started when I was a kid. I loved to sing and of course like most kids I sang a lot in church and a lot for anybody who would listen to me. My poor relatives asked me to sing at family meals but then I took a lot of piano lessons when was growing up and that ust led from one thing to another and I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do than be a musician and so it all worked out.”
Were your parents musically inclined?
“Not a bit. My mother loved to play the piano just for fun and my dad loved country music, which is not my thing. None of my relatives were professional musicians. My mom was a teacher and my dad owned his own transfer and storage business.”
What is your singing voice?
What is your favorite music to sing?
“I don’t know that I could choose. One of the things I love the most about my job is that there are so many different types of music and it really doesn’t matter what genre we’re doing, when we’re doing that piece I love that music the most and when we’re doing the next piece I love it the most.”
What is your favorite music to listen to?
“I, nine times out of 10, will go to either Mozart or some type of jazz. If I had to pick a classical composer it would be Mozart.”
How did you meet your husband, Dave?
“It’s kind of a silly story. We were both doing some theater there with the Charleston Opera Co. and we got cast as the young lovers in the ‘King and I,’ and that was that. We’ll be married 40 years in May.”
What was your maiden name?
“Amos. I went from four letters to 11.”