Eric Stark remembers hearing a Johann Sebastian Bach fugue for the first time while prepping for a musical presentation with a choir at Columbus’ First Presbyterian Church.
“I’m not even sure I knew what a fugue was at the time,” said Stark of the memory from the early 1980s of the multifaceted music. “But I knew that when I was hearing it, it was as if my brain was on the best ride imaginable at Kings Island.”
The 47-year-old Stark, a Columbus native, finds himself on quite a ride of musical success these days. He recently assumed his new post of director of choral activities at Indianapolis’ Butler University, where he has taught in the music department since 1996. The responsibility means he will oversee the university’s four faculty-led choral groups.
But he will remain the director of the 50-voice Butler Chorale, the ensemble that literally has traveled much of the globe in recent years as a university musical ambassador. And he still will teach choral conducting, to say nothing of leading the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir in his separate musical life.
Plus, he will sing occasionally, as he did with the Super Bowl 2012 choir he assembled to back Madonna at halftime at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium. In fact, notes he sends from his iPad all contain his closing, signature thought in Latin: “I sing, therefore I am.”
And he plays, too. During a recent New Year’s week San Diego and Los Angeles vacation with relatives, he brought his acoustic guitar with him for the getaway, using it for relaxation while strumming everything from Bach works to John Denver and Dan Fogelberg pop tunes. When he runs, he tunes his iPod to Pandora and current songs from artists such as Robin Thicke and Bruno Mars.
“I enjoy that as much for knowing what my students are talking about as I do for the music,” he said, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “And besides, it’s just good jogging music.”
Stark’s path to music began at First Presbyterian, though he entertained no thoughts of a career in the field then. Then-church choir director Ray Hass remembers Stark joining one of the church’s singing groups as a fourth-grader. Hass also taught him piano for several years and put Stark in leading roles in the church youth musicals.
“He always had such a sharp and keen mind,” Hass said. “He was an ideal singer in that he would always catch on immediately to what you wanted. And he could read music very well.”
In recent years, Hass has seen Stark lead the symphonic choir at Indianapolis Hilbert Circle Theater, Carmel’s Palladium and Columbus’ St. Paul Lutheran Church — and been wowed every time.
“He’s always presented an outstanding and imaginative program,” he said.
Columbus’ Sherry Stark, his mother, has seen him work even on family vacations. Once, in the 1990s during a Florida getaway, he spent time memorizing a musical score of a work the symphonic choir later would present. And he’s always championed approaching a musical work predominantly from the score, rather than another choral conductor’s recording or arrangement.
“It’s wonderful to see his success and see his talent recognized,” his mother said of his latest appointment.
Stark himself figures he will be much the same person in his new role.
“I’ve always been more of a collaborator than one person making decisions,” he said. Besides, he sees himself as a team player.
“None of us achieves success on our own,” Stark said. “We all are part of a team. Nobody is a solo act.”
He is focused on others’ achievements as much or more than his own. How else do you explain his visit to some 20 high school music departments, including alma mater Columbus North, and Columbus East, during the month of September alone? Sure, he was touting Butler’s Jordan College of the Arts.
But the licensed pilot who has taught a Butler motivational-style honors course on aviation pioneers also wants to encourage young people to spread their wings and absolutely see their dreams take flight. Ideally, he’d like them to do that with joy in their heart and a smile on their face.
Toward that end, his 2-year-old Yorkie-mix dog, Rudy, often is a special guest at some choral group rehearsals, happily hopping onto students’ laps during breaks. The pooch even frequently flies to Washington, D.C., when the music man visits his partner, Jon Smith.
“Rudy loves choral music,” Stark said.
With an owner like Eric Stark, though, does Rudy really have any other choice?