This year marks American Classical Orchestra’s 30th anniversary season. The Orchestra celebrated its opening night on September 23 at Alice Tully Hall, and its next concert will take place on Saturday, November 15 at 7:30 PM, also at Alice Tully Hall. The concert will feature Johann Sebastian Bach’s towering masterpiece, Mass in B Minor. Conductor Thomas Crawford spoke with Dan Dutcher about the upcoming season.
Dan Dutcher: On November 15, the ACO will have its first-ever performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Can you tell us a bit about how this program came together and why it’s so special?
Thomas Crawford: There are certain mature masterworks that I have saved for later in my conducting career, not because of my technical or analysis abilities, but because of the life perspective that is required to fully participate. Bach wrote his B Minor Mass at age 62 after a lifetime of unprecedented musical genius. His craft was at its most refined. I would compare experiencing the Mass to walking into Chartres Cathedral: a young person will be overwhelmed by its splendor, but to experience it as an architect or to build it? That perspective comes with age. Bach was the greatest composer of the 18th century and a master of the technique called counterpoint. The B Minor Mass is arguably his crowning achievement in this genre. Also, the ACO is on something of an artistic "high" these days, so the esprit de corps required for such an undertaking can be relied upon as we go through the rehearsal and performance process. And the B Minor might be the most difficult choral work ever written: the ACO Chorus is among the best in New York. These are some of my reasons for scheduling the B Minor Mass in our 30th season for the first time.
DD: The Mass in B Minor will feature world-renowned soloists Christine Brandes, soprano; David Daniels, countertenor; Charles Blandy, tenor; Dashon Burton, bass; can you tell us a little about each of them and why they were selected?
TC: I gave a concert with Christine in the 1990s and felt that her sense of Baroque style was superb. I first heard David Daniels in a Handel opera at Glimmerglass, and the audience reaction to his uniquely beautiful voice was memorable. Charles and Dashon are young singers with promising careers ahead, and they will provide a fresh perspective alongside the veteran Christine and David. I also chose a fifth singer, the mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney for the special aria "Laudamus te" because it requires a particular compass that is somewhat rare among soloists. For the five soloists, I sought a mixture of timbres and experience.
DD: The orchestra is playing the works on original or reproduced period instruments and the musicians use historic performance practice techniques. Can you tell us a little about this?
TC: There are many compelling reasons to use original instruments, but possibly the most appealing is the more openly transparent texture they provide. In the case of Bach’s B Minor Mass, we have some of the densest, most complex textures ever written, so I think it is particularly valuable to use period instruments.
DD: The November 15 concert, in addition to concerts later in the season, will feature a pre-concert lecture. How long have you been doing these lectures for ACO? How do you prepare for them? Why do you think they are so important?
TC: I have been doing them for every concert of the ACO’s history. I prepare for them in much the same way as I prepare the music, i.e. months and years of study. The feedback I have had from the audience has been quite consistent through the years. What people seem to appreciate the most is that the talk about the music is given by the SAME person who is going to perform it. This means that when I say, for example, that I struggled with a certain passage or tempo and I play samples of it for the audience, they then relate directly to my thinking when I come out on stage and perform it. My talks are generally less scholarly than other pre-concert lectures, which means I take a colloquial approach for the audience so that no one feels lost or talked down to.
DD: When planning for a new season, where do you find your inspiration?
TC: Mostly from the vast canon of great music. It would take fifty lifetimes to perform it all, so every year I feel like a kid in a candy shop as I try to decide which of the many works will fit and which ones I am ready for. I tend not to repeat works, so that is a factor in my decision making.
DD: The year marks American Classical Orchestra’s 30th anniversary season. What have been some of the highlights? And what are your thoughts on what the Orchestra has accomplished so far?
TC: Highlights include building the orchestra’s quality and reputation, collaborations with major artists, and moving the ensemble to New York City from our native Connecticut. The orchestra’s most comprehensive growth phase came in the mid-1990s in Norwalk, Connecticut. I hope to have another one in New York!
DD: The season features distinguished guest artists including Christine Brandes, David Daniels, Hana Blažíková and Myron Lutzke. How did these performers become involved with ACO this year?
TC: Choosing soloists is one of the music director’s primary responsibilities. One of the joys of a period instrument ensemble is that there is a true collegial effort. Using Myron, "one of our own," is something I do every year and it is warmly applauded by the musicians. Singers such as Christine, David and Hana come from outside the orchestra membership, of course, but singers who are sensitive to early music find a natural home with their period instrument colleagues.
DD: What was your earliest musical memory?
TC: Of having goosebumps when I heard the Beatles song "Yesterday" at age 4. "What is happening to my body!!!"
DD: What do you like to do when you’re not conducting with ACO?
TC: Gardening, cooking, nature, time around children.
DD: Any other thoughts?
TC: God willing, the best is yet to come for me, the ACO and our listeners.
Tickets can be purchased at www.aconyc.org, www.lincolncenter.org, by calling Center Charge (212-721-6500) or the Alice Tully Hall Box Office (212-671-4050) or in person at the Alice Tully Hall Box Office. $85 Prime I, $60 Prime II, $45 Standard I, $25 Standard II and $15 student (only at the Alice Tully Hall Box Office with proper student ID).
Dan Dutcher is the owner of the PR firm Dan Dutcher Public Relations, which handles clients in classical, opera, pops, dance, theater and music festivals.