It’s not uncommon for professional musicians to play exclusive parties or rub shoulders with celebrities, but the shoulders don’t usually belong to foreign dignitaries, and the audience isn’t usually the president of the United States. For Joseph Holt, now the director of Sarasota’s professional chorus, Gloria Musicae, and the artist-in-residence at Faith Lutheran Church, this all just used to be part of the job.
Before retiring and moving to Sarasota, Holt served for 20 years as the principal pianist with the United States Army Chorus in Washington, D.C. His career afforded him the opportunity to perform for presidents, dignitaries and officials in many unique venues — including the base of the Hoover Dam.
How did you start playing piano?
When I was 7 years old, my parents gave me three choices. I could join the Cub Scouts, play baseball or take piano lessons. My grandmother played the piano, and she encouraged me to take lessons. I took to it pretty quickly. My parents loved it. I was a hyperactive kid, so me focusing on the piano was like a godsend.
How long did it take before you decided you wanted to pursue music?
When I was a pre-teen, I started taking my training more seriously. I did what everyone did: I studied with a teacher, took courses in theory and composition, and then I attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. I eventually went on to get my master’s and my doctorate. You’re never really done learning, though. The depth of understanding in music is limitless.
How did you use your music background in the military?
A lot of people think it’s strange to pair music with the military, but there’s a long history between the two. Bands play an important role in military history. My role was to accompany the United States Army Chorus, which is the only remaining all-male ensemble. We played a lot of post-dinner performances for foreign dignitaries, and the music was more than entertainment. It really cemented the relationship that had been built that day. We usually performed something in the dignitary’s native language, and it would really impress them.
You’ve had a lot of interesting opportunities. Do any performances stand out as favorites?
We played at the White House pretty often. We played for the Queen of England, the Pope. It was incredible. We once performed at the base of the Hoover Dam, and we all had to wear hard hats, because if anything fell from the top, it would kill you.
I was there the night Al Gore conceded the election to George Bush. You could just tell the air was abuzz with something, and I saw him talking quietly with his staff. The next thing I know, I can see his speech being written on a teleprompter, and I can’t believe it. He gave the speech that night, and it was the same one that he delivered on television. You get to see a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff.