On Sunday, January 25, 2015 at 3:00 PM at Carnegie Hall, The New York Choral Society and Orchestra and Music Director David Hayes will present the rarely heard St. Paul by Felix Mendelssohn. Soloists will include soprano Sarah Shafer, mezzo-soprano Haejung Shin, tenor Vale Rideout, baritone Mark Delavan and the Princeton Girlchoir. David Hayes will conduct. This performance will be sung in the original German with English supertitles. Dan Dutcher and Nicole Guberman spoke with Mr. Hayes about the performance.
Dan Dutcher and Nicole Guberman: Can you tell us a little bit about what Mendelssohn's work means to you, and why you chose the piece?
David Hayes: In 1829, Mendelssohn revived Bach’s St. Matthew Passion after many years of study of Bach and, in particular, the chorale and fugue forms at which Bach excelled. In the wake of this momentous performance, one which kicked off the great 19th century Bach revival, Mendelssohn set about creating his first large-scale work, St. Paul. In this work he synthesized not only the oratorio and passion traditions of Bach, Handel and Haydn but sought to create something he thought lacking in contemporary operas and other large dramatic works: a work that edified and uplifted the listener. It’s a seminal work of the 19th century oratorio and one that has become less and less known in live performance. It’s one of those works that is truly an underperformed masterpiece and that drew me towards it. I’m constantly looking for either new works or works that deserve attention from the historical canon for performances by the New York Choral Society.
DD and NG: What drew you to Mendelssohn's work?
DH: I first got to know some of St. Paul though an audition for a choral position when I was first starting out as a professional conductor. I was asked to prepare one of the choruses from St. Paul for that audition. While I had known (and loved) Elijah for some time, I really was unaware of St. Paul at that time. So, as part of my preparation for that audition, I explored the full score of St. Paul, became fascinated by its many beauties and, while wondering why it seemingly fell “off the map,” I decided that at some point I’d have to perform it. The stars aligned this past year and the opportunity to do the work with NYCS came up, so I jumped at it!
DD and NG: How has the rehearsal process unfolded with your singers regarding this work? What has been the greatest challenge? What has been most rewarding?
DH: The chorus has been so excited by the work we’ve been doing on St. Paul. There's been a constant sense of discovery for them at every rehearsal and that’s made the process quite satisfying! I think the most challenging thing about the piece, aside from mastering the sheer volume and variety of vocal writing (massive, athletic fugues, tender chorales, dramatic “crowd” choruses) is finding the dramatic pacing of the work. The first part is an intensely dramatic narrative; the stoning of St. Stephen; the vision on the road to Damascus by Saul of Tarsis; his conversion and becoming “Paul.” The second half has, despite its gorgeous vocal writing, sometimes been felt by commentators as not as successful due to the change in tone, from extremely dramatic action sequences to the sequences where Paul is spreading the gospel. Finding the drama in the second half and keeping the pacing and story arc compelling is the key to overall success in performance. We’ve been working hard at that!
DD and NG: Can you describe the three dramatic sections of the work? What are the distinguishing characteristics of each section?
DH: The three main dramatic sequences the work, spread over its two parts are: The Stoning of St. Stephen; the vision of Saul of Tarsis on the road to Damascus and his conversion and spiritual rebirth at Paul; the missionary work of Paul in spreading the Gospel.
The first dramatic sequence (Stephen’s stoning) has an extremely dramatic and rather violent series of choruses that are most akin to the “turbo” or “crowd” choruses in the Bach passions. There’s a very effective use of chorale at the moment of Stephen’s death, which directly (and surely consciously) echoes Bach’s use of chorale at the moment of Jesus’ death in the St. Matthew Passion.
Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus with the disembodied voice of Jesus (sung by the Princeton Girlchoir) is as mysterious and awestruck as one could imagine; his blindness (an extremely moving sequence musically) and subsequent regaining of his sight sets the stage for a magnificent choral sequence that follows (and which employs the leitmotif of the entire oratorio, the chorale “Wachet auf! Ruff us die Stimme”).
The spreading of the Gospel and missionary work is both musically beautiful and dramatic when things don’t always go according to plan. So there are some very dramatic and wonderful choruses in that part as well.
DD and NG: What historical perspective have you gained in preparing for this performance?
DH: I’ve certainly come away with a greater sense of Mendelssohn’s crucial role in bridging the gap between the 18th and 19th centuries. His study of Bach, Handel, Mozart -- all of it is synthesized into his musical style. Mendelssohn is, I believe firmly, one of the great user-rated composers of all time. He’s gotten a bum rap historically for many reasons, whether it be Wagner’s anti-Semitism, which colored receptions of Mendelssohn after his death; or the attempts to erase Mendelssohn by the Nazi regime in the early 20th century; or whether it be the idea that set in that Mendelssohn was a facile composer of "near" but not "great" genius; I think the time has come when we are able to objectively re-consider Mendelssohn and his true place in music history.
DD and NG: What do you hope audiences walk away with?
DH: I hope our audiences come away with a sense of having discovered a new favorite -- a work that they didn’t know, but which unfolded its beauties and gave them something along the lines that Mendelssohn hoped: that they were uplifted in some way.
For tickets, please call 212-247-3878 or visit www.nychoral.org. Tickets are also available at the Carnegie Hall Box office, 57th Street and 7th Avenue and through Carnegie Charge at 212-247-7800.
Dan Dutcher and Nicole Guberman work for Dan Dutcher Public Relations, which handles clients in classical, opera, pops, dance, theater and music festivals.