With his cloud-white mane, Rev. Steve Harter cuts quite an imposing figure on stage.
His arms slice the air, back and forth, up and down, as he guides dozens of members of First United Methodist Church’s Chancel Choir during his penultimate Thursday night rehearsal. This is it. He’s passing on the baton after his last service on May 30, when he’ll conduct the church’s adult and youth choirs for the last time before retiring. His career has been long and prodigious: 17 years as director of music at Central United Protestant Church in Richland, Wash., and the last 24 here, at Colorado Springs’ first church.
That’s 41 years altogether, more than four decades of bringing the power of music into people’s lives, inspiring and comforting those in the pews and on stage. And now it’s time to say goodbye.
“I have been so fortunate,” said Harter, 65, minister of music and arts for the church.
“I have conducted with orchestras and even major concerts here with the orchestras. And I have had the privilege of conducting almost every major work by a classical composer that’s accessible to a really good church choir. I’ve had a good career.”
This rehearsal finds choir members sitting spaced apart in the pews as they diligently watch Harter, who guides them with his movements and facial expressions, sometimes mouthing widely along with the lyrics. One can imagine his arms and hands pulling in and shaping the sound vibrations into a lush tapestry of music that fills the sanctuary.
“I’m sharing with you my theology with these pieces this last month,” Harter tells the choir, as they sing “My Eternal King,” “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name” and “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.”
“I’m a very emotional person,” Harter said post-rehearsal. “It took years for me to be able to relate that emotion and feeling of the anthems to the choirs. I was embarrassed when tears came, but this is my God-given gift, and it helps me get what I want out of them.”
The conductor has evolved an impressive resume through the years. He’s landed world-renowned music groups for the church’s Sacred Concert Series and The Concerts at First Series, including Chanticleer, The American Boychoir, the choir of St. Margaret’s Church from Westminster Abbey and two visits from Vienna Boys Choir. More than a thousand people flock to the church during the holidays to take in his annual “Messiah” concert, and there is no shortage of professional musicians and vocalists in town who have performed with him, including Colorado Springs Philharmonic instrumentalists and singers Peter Tuff, Valerie Nicolosi, Amy Maples and Jennifer DeDominici.
“He’s like 100% full-bore effort. It’s incredible,” said David Zuercher, principal trumpeter for the philharmonic. “You can tell they (Chancel Choir) love working for him. The sound they produce and their phrasing and diction. They are first rate. We’ll all miss him. It’s just been a joy. Sometimes we show up and there’s a little candy bar on our stand. If it’s around Christmas time, it’s something Christmas-oriented, and there are bottles of water for everyone. He goes way beyond the extra mile to appreciate his musicians, and everybody appreciates him.”
And then there are the hundreds of adults, children and teens whose lives he’s touched through the Chancel Choir, Youth Choir and other groups. He’s taken the Youth Choir on annual trips to perform around the country, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and the Texas State Capitol rotunda. So influential has Harter been on young lives, that more than 50 former Youth Choir singers will fly in from around the country for one last performance with their beloved conductor. They’ll perform during the 8 a.m. service May 30.
“Steve gets more out of them than you’d think somebody could,” said the Rev. Kent Ingram, senior minister at First United Methodist Church.
“He has high expectations of adult and youth choirs and he gets the results. He’s connected with lots of kids over the last 24 years, taking them on tours around the U.S., and he’s been here long enough now, that kids who started in seventh grade, he’s marrying them and seeing babies come along. He’s touched a lot of young lives over the years.”
One of those lives is Matt Doole, a former member of Youth Choir and a graduate of The Classical Academy, who’s now majoring in music education and conducting at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He remembers being a sophomore in high school, singing with the Chancel Choir and watching Harter conduct Zuercher in the difficult trumpet solo in Handel’s “Messiah.” It was that moment he knew the life he wanted to pursue.
“His conducting flows out of him. It radiates from him. It’s very gifted,” Doole said. “I’ve seen many conductors conduct, but following him is so easy. You know what he wants without him verbalizing it to you. If it was not for Steve, I definitely would not be going into music and not be the person I am today. Steve, and through his training in music and the repertoire he selected, has led me through some dark times.”
In the beginning
Harter was bound to be a conductor, even though it took awhile to chisel the dream from the marble.
Growing up in Abilene, Texas, he imagined he’d be an English teacher. But in fourth grade, he felt the urge to round up the neighborhood kids and go Christmas caroling. But the group couldn’t just bound out the front door and break into song in a willy-nilly manner. They needed to be organized and rehearsed. And who better to do that than little Steve Harter?
So he stayed up late at night typing out the lyrics to carols on a typewriter so everybody had a copy, and set up rehearsals in his garage, where he stood up front to direct. It became an annual event until Harter graduated from high school.
And yet, the truth of his life didn’t poke him until his junior year, when he woke up and realized he harbored zero desire to teach English.
“I went, ‘Now wait a minute, I’ve been singing in youth choir at church and every concert choir through elementary school, junior high and high school,” Harter said, “and I thought, ‘Well, this makes sense.’ So I turned my eyes from English to music and never looked back and didn’t doubt it for a minute.”
After earning a bachelor’s in music education from McMurry College (now McMurry University), a Methodist school in Abilene, he continued on to Scarritt Graduate School in Nashville, Tenn., for a masters in church music. As he neared graduation, one of Harter’s professors recommended him for the job as director of music at Central United Protestant Church. He accepted his current position in 1997.
In 1986, the United Methodist church decreed that somebody with a master’s degree in a specified area from a United Methodist church, who had been in a particular job for more than five years, could become ordained. So Harter arrived in Colorado Springs as a fully ordained deacon, able to marry and bury and lead a church service, though he never had the nerve to do the latter. Singing in front of a thousand people, no problem. Leading a service, no way.
“There’s nothing like standing right there in front of them, and the orchestra is looking at you, and the choir is looking at you,” Harter said.
“And I’m thinking, ‘I am here to bend your will to mine. I have to interpret this music. And you have to follow me.’ There’s nothing like that feeling of the sound from the orchestra, the sound from the choir coming over you, and you’re trying to make it a meaningful experience for everybody sitting out there, as well as the orchestra and choir.”
But now, it’s time to envision life outside choir rehearsals and “Messiah” performances. Fittingly, Harter also will celebrate 40 years of marriage on May 30 with his wife, Sharon, with whom he shares two sons. Harter met Sharon through a friend during his first year of graduate school. Shortly after her visit to campus ended, a package of chocolate chip cookies and Hershey kisses appeared in Harter’s mailbox. She’d purposely sent the kisses wrapped in the silver and green foil, as she knew green was Harter’s favorite color, and romance blossomed.
Harter’s future looks like private voice lessons, possibly auditioning for the Colorado Springs Chorale and hopefully teaching conducting. And if you happen to catch him driving around town, and his car windows are down, you might be privy to a solo concert of songs from the ’70s: Earth, Wind and Fire; Chicago; Three Dog Night; Seals and Crofts. There could also be some Glenn Miller, the Beatles and maybe a little disco, if the mood hits.
But above all, that little fourth grader who conducted Christmas carols in his garage would surely be impressed by what the adult version of himself has accomplished.
“Music touches us on an emotional and intellectual level,” Harter said. “I want it to be that for people, and I have felt on occasion I achieved it, when you come to the end and there’s silence.”
Contact the writer: 636-0270