Dirksen never had a formal conducting lesson that we know of but he spent thousands of hours under the direction of a master. Paul Callaway was a fiery Maestro of the old school, and his urgent leadership took his musical associates far beyond the chancel. His connections with opera and contemporary composers (many of them personal friends) brought Wayne in contact with the wider musical world. It also taught him much about drama which he put to use conducting musical theater in the DC area (Little Mary Sunshine, ThreePenny Opera).
Paul was indeed ‘old school’ with some faults of the same. Here is a description of him from a letter of February 22, 1942, Wayne’s second week on the job:
[He] is very energetic and a titan as a musician, handling his choir with an iron hand…. I have full charge of the Junior Choir, 35 young devils from the St. Alban’s School for Men [sic]. They are between the ages of six and ten, and are really fun to work with but so noisy and mischievous. Paul treats them with the same iron gloves he uses with his own choir, but I work differently. I get their confidence in me and themselves, then I set about to make them like to sing.
That sums up the difference between the two conductors perfectly. Dirksen’s musical leadership was, in essence, enthusiastic. “There’s gotta be a band!” (a quote from The Music Man) was a favorite aphorism, and his formidable keyboard technique, broad artistic vision, and considerable physical stature generated immediate loyalty and total buy-in from his singers and players.
And many of DC’s professional instrumentalists from the National Symphony were lifelong friends, always available to play even lowly Glee Club concerts for him. An example of their fidelity and warm response to his conducting came with the 4 hour recording session for The American Adventure at Constitution Hall. With minimal rehearsal and under strict Union timing, Wayne put down some stunningly taut tracks. The American Adventure March demonstrates this combination of professional planning and personal charisma.
A conducting highlight of his later years was the performance of the Brahms Requiem as the Choral Society’s interim conductor in 1985. Of special note in this performance is the superbly calibrated ending of movement 2, a crescendo, diminuendo, and ritardando masterfully controlled by Wayne and Cathedral regular Freddy Begun, the NSO’s dynamic timpanist.
Two other pieces deserve mention here: His March 1967 performance of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde (then only nine years old) drew a large cast from the greater DC area to the Crossing of the Cathedral and fell smoothly into its growing role as a center for opera and drama.
And astonishingly, just two weeks later he led The Judas Tree by composer Peter Dickinson and poet Thomas Blackburn. Staged in Holy Week against the stark temporary West wall that stopped the Nave at the fourth Bay, it was an edgy contemporary take on the Passion. A CD of that performance was produced many years later by associates of Mr. Dickinson and we are lucky to have it preserved.
But consider this: Full stagings of two major contemporary operas within two weeks of each other, during deep Lent and Holy Week at a Cathedral. And he was not only the musical director but the producer of both, with all the administrative and logistical details to manage.