Director of Duke Chapel retires with a song in his heart

Writer: 
June 12, 2018

Rodney Wynkoop settles into the spot near the front of the chancel in the chapel, the spot in the choir rows where he’s sat just about every Sunday for nearly thirty years.

“When I’m sitting here during the sermon, I’m listening to the sermon, to be sure,” he says, perhaps slyly, “but often I just gaze around.” The ornate woodwork above the choir’s heads, organ pipes, stained-glass windows lining the aisles. “It’s just a beautifully designed place to be,” he says. “It can’t help but lift your thoughts to things beyond the ordinary.”

For three decades Wynkoop has directed the thoughts of chorister and worshiper alike beyond the ordinary. He said during Reunions Weekend, in front of a couple of hundred current and returning members of the Duke Chapel Choir, that through their music they might hope “indeed, to catch, perhaps, a glimpse of God.” The alumni had gathered to sing with Wynkoop one last time because on July 1 Wynkoop will retire from the position of director of chapel music he took in 1989, no longer to stand in front of the hundred or so members of what he calls “a whole host of families.” Wynkoop won’t leave Duke: He will continue teaching in the music department (where he started at Duke in 1984), conducting the Duke Chorale, and conducting the Choral Society of Durham and the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Durham.

Some retirement. “It is true that I will have somewhat less of a ridiculous overcrowded schedule,” he says; he hopes to visit his sons in college with his somewhat expanded free time.

Wynkoop, sixty-six, approaches the change with no fear but perhaps a little anxiety. Being Chapel Choir director is enough of an identity that he treasures a pullover the choir made for him with the words “Chapel Choir Conductor” on the left breast; that and the Messiah score he’s annotated over the last twenty-nine years will provide all the souvenirs he needs, since he’s not leaving campus.

But he is leaving the Chapel Choir, and there are things he will miss. Performing the Messiah each year, for example. “Every year, the first performance is the first time that all of the new members hear all of the music from beginning to end,” he says. The piece includes, of course, the famous Hallelujah chorus. “But at the very end,” he says, “there is this thunderous chorus,” followed by “an ‘Amen’ that to me is one of the most beautifully constructed pieces in the repertoire. It builds, and builds, and comes in waves, and backs up and builds again. And it’s pretty cathartic by the end.

“One of my favorite moments every year is hearing that buildup and knowing that this ‘Amen’ is strong enough to be a stamp, a goal at the end of that three hours of music, and that this says, ‘Yes—it shall be like this.’ I find myself incredibly moved by that moment,” he says. Not just him—every year some new member comes to him: “With tears in their eyes usually they will say, ‘It was unbelievable. I cannot believe what we have just lived through.’ That’s a very special moment to me because it’s about education, and it’s about hard work and teamwork and eye-opening experiences and all that.”

Wynkoop says he has tried to integrate all those aspects of his service. “I see my work with the choir as partly educational, partly artistic, and partly as a way of helping to shape how people approach their lives.” Does it work? “It’s a really trusting and caring and generous group. And I think it shows in the way they sound.”

He’s conducted his final Messiah with the choir, and he shared that last afternoon with the alumni. Any parting thoughts? “I have told the choir that I hope in the days to come they will always look for opportunities to have these kinds of experiences, whether in choir or elsewhere. Places to create moments that are magical, that integrate them into some wondrous effort. To look for those, to enter into them fully, and then to treasure them forever.”

Amen.

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.