Amuse Singers of New York City is pleased to announce the appointment of Stephen M. Black as Music Director for its 2014-2015 season. An accomplished organist, conductor and singer, Mr. Black is Director of Music at St. Gregory the Great Church in Harrison, NY, and a candidate for Doctor of Musical Arts (ABD) in the Department of Choral and Sacred Music at the University of Southern California. Prior to his studies in Los Angeles, Mr. Black was Director of Music at St. Joseph's Church Yorkville, New York City's German national parish on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. In 2008, on the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the historic parish, Mr. Black led the St. Joseph's choral ensembles in an internationally-televised concert of works by Arvo Pärt, Aaron Jay Kernis and J.S. Bach. During his 11 years in New York, he served as Artistic Director of the Central City Chorus and Music Director of The Brearley Singers in New York City. Mr. Black is the recipient of several honors and awards in both organ performance and choral conducting, including the Charles Ives Prize in organ performance and the Richard French Prize in choral conducting from Yale University.
Mr. Black recently agreed to talk with Amuse Singers about conducting, music and more.
Amuse Singers: Why did you choose choral conducting?
Stephen Black: Choral conducting found me! I meant to be an organist, and although I had directed choirs for several years, as church musicians do, still I went to Yale for an Artist Diploma in organ. Then one day at Yale, I had a sudden moment of clarity: I often did not look forward to practicing the organ, but I always did eagerly anticipate leading a choral rehearsal. With this epiphany, and given the amazing choral scene at Yale, my change of direction was clear.
AS: How does being a singer inform your conducting?
SB: First and foremost, it's all about breathing. A good conductor has to breathe with the ensemble, and at USC I was fortunate to work with Donald Brinegar, a fine singer and stellar conductor, who helped me learn to glue together my gesture and my breathing. Also, as a singer I am better able to work with any vocal issues that might crop up within the ensemble. Not only can I see and hear vocal difficulties, I can diagnose causes and offer solutions because I understand them as a singer. This is particularly important in working with amateur ensembles, and it is unfortunate that a good number of choral conductors – especially those who are church musicians – have not had even the most basic instruction in healthy vocal technique.
AS: What aspects of your choral conducting do you emphasize differently depending on the skill level of the singers you are working with?
SB: I use the same actual gesture and technique whether I am conducting a highly-skilled professional ensemble or a typical all-volunteer church choir. The difference lies in the amount of teaching I do outside of achieving the "black on the page"; that is, how much time I spend addressing issues of vocal production, intonation, and diction, or achieving genuine expression.
AS: Walk us through your basic philosophy of music-making, especially as it informs your collaborations with singers.
SB: I don't know that I have a philosophy, per se. I would want to give a great deal of thought to such a thing, although I do know it would have to start with the importance of excellent teaching skills. But there are things I always try to accomplish. I want to choose music that will challenge the singers just enough to give them a real sense of accomplishment at the end of the rehearsal process. The very best is when I score a hit with a choir by making them fall in love with a new and unique piece of music that absolutely none of them had heard or sung before! It’s a rare but wonderful thing to be part of! On the practical side, I’ve learned that when the singers really feel a sense of achievement and love the music, they turn out a great audience for the concert. Detailed rehearsal planning is also essential. I want to allow enough time for difficult passages to be repeated many times throughout the process, and I want to allow time to run every piece on a given program at least twice without stopping. These are valuable lessons I learned working under Clara Longstreth with the New Amsterdam Singers.
AS: How has your philosophy of choral conducting changed over the past ten years, especially given your recent sojourn on the west coast?
SB: Well, again, I guess I’d have to say my philosophy is a work in progress! Maybe if I teach conducting one day I’ll sit down and codify my thoughts into something that can pass as a philosophy. But I’m not there yet! Having said that, one change I have made since USC is to use the same conducting technique for amateurs as for professionals. It's very easy for directors of amateur singers to fall in to the habit of trying to "pull them along" by using exaggerated gestures, moving the whole torso outside the conductor’s box, and looking in general like an air traffic controller on some kind of club drug! I was guilty of this once upon a time, and I still have to check myself, but I’ve come to learn that I don't need to conduct any differently for amateurs than I would professionals. An amateur group – if they are well prepared – will perform just fine without the histrionics. And it saves a lot of wear and tear on the conductor – that’s for sure!
Stephen Black will be conducting Amuse Singers on September 27, 2014, February 4, 2015 and June 13, 2015, and he will reprise his New York City premiere of Carol Barnett's The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass this coming spring. For more information about Amuse and our upcoming programs, please visit www.AmuseSingers.org. For more information about Stephen Black and his upcoming activities, please visit steblack.com.
Lee Ryder founded and is a singing member of Amuse Singers.