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On April 25 at Carnegie Hall, the New York Choral Society will present a program comprised of Beethoven's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, a setting of two poems by Johann von Goethe, and Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony, a choral symphony featuring soloists Jennifer Forni, soprano, and Jordan Shanahan, baritone. Award-winning stage and screen star Kathleen Turner will introduce A Sea Symphony with a reading of the moving and evocative text written by the American poet Walt Whitman, a piece on which the symphony is based. Music director and conductor David Hayes spoke with Dan Dutcher about these exquisite choral works.
Dan Dutcher: What makes Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage and A Sea Symphony such unique pieces – especially performed together?
David Hayes: Both works are based on poetry of the sea and are about metaphorical journeys. The choral and orchestral writing is incredibly evocative, not only of the implications in the texts but also of the sea itself. I've been talking to the chorus about the idea that both composers have responded to their respective texts in creating a sound world that really allows to listener to feel like they are "there"--whether that's being totally becalmed at sea and desperately waiting for a breeze to continue the journey (as in the Beethoven), or out on the open ocean with wide troughs of waves rolling in an almost cinematic vividness, or hearing the quiet, gentle rocking of the ocean under a still moonlight alone on the beach (as in the Vaughan Williams). And with the texts being by Goethe and Walt Whitman, you don't get much better writing!
DD: Kathleen Turner will be making a special guest appearance to introduce Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony with a reading of the Whitman poems. How did she become involved in the April concert? Are you looking forward to working and performing with Ms. Turner?
DH: It was serendipity, really! We had been discussing the idea of introducing the Sea Symphony to our audience by having a significant artist read some of the Whitman poetry used in the work before we sing it. There's nothing quite like hearing Whitman's words, unadorned, in all their splendor! I felt it would help the audience better appreciate Vaughan Williams's great achievement in his magnificent setting of Whitman's poetry.
One of our NYCS members happens to know Ms. Turner and while at dinner recently, they got talking about NYCS and our upcoming Carnegie Hall concert. After hearing about what we doing and expressing interest in the concert, this member asked Ms. Turner if she was interested in joining us to read some of the Whitman poetry. To the great delight of all of us, she enthusiastically agreed!
We're tremendously honored that Ms. Turner has agreed to join us and I am looking forward with great eagerness to collaborating with her! I know she will find the perfect balance in choosing which sections of the Whitman poetry used in A Sea Symphony to introduce our performance.
DD: Is it unusual for composers to take inspiration from poets (the way Beethoven looked towards Goethe and Vaughan Williams to Whitman)?
DH: Actually, it's not unusual at all! Composers throughout history have drawn inspiration from great words. Many of the greatest masterpieces in the repertory today are vocal works (either solo songs, a cappella choral works or choral/orchestral works) that are the result of great words inspiring a composer to write something beyond purely abstract music. Text and music together is a very powerful combination.
DD: Where else do composers often find inspiration?
DH: From all around them, really! Literary sources are only one possibility. There are many works that have been inspired by visual sources, nature, philosophy, mathematics, even architecture -- a couple of my favorite works inspired by "architecture" are Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel, written for the opening celebrations of the structure by the same name in Houston, TX and Dufay's Nuper rosarum flores which was written for the consecration of the Cathedral of Florence on the occasion of the completion of the famous dome built by Brunelleschi and embodies within its structure the proportions 6:4:2:3 which some have claimed are reflective of the architectural proportions of the cathedral itself and by others that the dimensions are of the Temple of Solomon (60 x 40 x 20 x 30 cubits)!
DD: What programs and concerts can we look forward to in NYSC's future?
DH: We have another performance with Andrea Bocelli scheduled for this June and, of course, our annual Summer Sings in July and August at Symphony Space where the audience becomes the chorus! So, if you are looking for something to do on a hot, sticky Tuesday night in New York City, consider joining us and having some fun at a Summer Sing!
DD: Can you tell us more about annual Summer Sings this year?
DH: We are still finalizing the guest conductors and repertory at this writing, but I can tell you that they will be on Tuesdays this summer, starting in July, in the air-conditioned comfort of Symphony Space at 95th and Broadway. As always, each week will be led by a different conductor (including myself!) and will focus on the great popular masterpieces of the choral repertory. It's low-key and fun -- so, even if it's been a while since you've sung in a chorus -- if you enjoy singing with others at all, please consider joining us this summer. Check out our website, www.nychoral.org, in April for more details about conductors and repertory for each Summer Sing!
DD: Is there a piece that you find especially challenging or difficult to conduct? Why?
DH: There are all kinds of difficult pieces to conduct. Some are difficult from a technical standpoint, others from a musical standpoint. In some ways, the most difficult works to conduct are the ones that are the most simple. Complexity, either technically or musically is not the only mark of great art. I find works that are very straightforward can be tricky because, more often than not, they require that you bring every ounce of your musicianship to the performance to bring them alive and make them communicate. Interestingly, for the longest time as a young conductor, I found Brahms very difficult to conduct (musically) -- now I adore conducting Brahms! So sometimes, it's a particular composer that's difficult to fathom and then later, with much study, they begin to speak to you in ways that previously were closed to you.
DD: What other musical events are you looking forward to attending this year?
DH: Honestly, my own conducting schedule is so complicated and intense that I have very little time to attend other musical events. I deeply regret that and am always hopeful that I will be able to carve a bit more time in my schedule to hear some of the many fabulous performances that New York has to offer!
The concert will take place at Carnegie Hall on Thursday, April 25 at 8:00 PM. Tickets may be purchased online at www.nychoral.org or www.carnegiehall.org, by phone from CarnegieCharge at 212-247-7800, or in person at the Carnegie Hall box office at 57th Street and 7th Avenue.
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.