On November 10 at 3 PM, St. George's Choral Society will begin its 196th season with a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams's Toward the Unknown Region and Five Mystical Songs and Benjamin Britten's Choral Dances from Gloriana and Three Divertimenti for string quartet. The concert will be held at the Church of the Incarnation, 209 Madison Avenue at 35th Street. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door.
I spoke with Artistic Director Dr. Matthew Lewis to get his thoughts on the works and the choir.
Johanna Goldberg: Why these pieces for this choir?
Matthew Lewis: Interesting question. Ralph Vaughan Williams was a practical composer. He wrote so much church music that is done today, primarily in Anglican services, that requires a real "churchy" sound. By this I mean it benefits from straight-tone sopranos, a blend of voices, and a real English cathedral style of singing. But when he wrote for symphonic choir, such as his Dona Nobis Pacem, Hodie and Toward the Unknown Region, the style is different. These works are for larger choirs, and benefit from a full and more robust style of singing. These works are ideally suited to St. George's Choral Society (SGCS), a 66-voice choir of amateur and professional singers, which is why I chose them.
JG: Do you remember the first time you heard any of these pieces? Has your impression of them changed as you've prepared them with the choir?
ML: I have done the Mystical Songs in church many times over many years. I think they are incredible settings of Herbert's poetry, which is what makes them "mystical." Each time I do them, I find something new in them. And I'm sure I don't hear them the same way now that I did years ago, although it is difficult to say exactly what is different. Each group of singers will hear and sing them differently, so I have to adapt my interpretation to the particular group of singers I am working with. Things that one group will find easy may be a struggle for another group, etc. In this case, SGCS has taken to Toward the Unknown Region as their own very well. It is really an ideal piece for us!
JG: Britten and Vaughan Williams both wrote music in England, with much of their careers overlapping. Does this show in their approach to choral settings?
ML: Both composers were steeped in sacred music, and both wrote a lot of music that is prominent in the Anglican choral repertoire. Both composers also wrote music for symphonic choir, either secular or sacred. So there are many similarities. And both composers were progressive, especially in their symphonic works. Their sacred liturgical music, while interesting, doesn't really represent their progressive compositional techniques (although Britten certainly pushes this issue more than Vaughan Williams). Britten was a less "practical" composer than Vaughan Williams, which is evident in the difficulty of his choral music.
JG: Instead of revolving around religious texts, as choral music often does, the texts of Vaughan Williams' works come from poetry by Walt Whitman and George Herbert. Do you get a different sense of the poetry when hearing Vaughan Williams' settings than by reading it?
ML: The primary difference in the setting of these texts is the way he deals with sacred and secular texts. The Mystical Songs, while symphonic and interesting, definitely sounds more sacred than the Whitman text. Also, Vaughan Williams does interesting things with the poetry structure. With Herbert, who is sometimes quite structured in verse, Vaughan Williams loosens that rigidity in his settings, making a point of not setting things in a strophic manner. This is best seen in "Easter," the first song. When hearing this piece, it is hard to imagine that the poem is as structured as it is. With the Whitman text, Vaughan Williams represents sections, or moods, of the poem. He really treats this poem as a symphonic tone poem—each section is represented in a contrasting mood, which identifies the particular sentiment. So yes, there is a drastic difference in hearing these poems set to music than by reading the poems, or hearing them read.
JG: Can you tell me about the Chamber Choir and the piece they are singing, Britten's Choral Dances from Gloriana?
ML: In Britten's opera Gloriana, there is a scene where Queen Elizabeth I visits the city of Norwich and is entertained by a Masque. In the opera, there is a tenor soloist, with harp accompaniment, introducing the songs and bridging them together. We are doing a straight a cappella performance of the choral songs, which represent Time and Concord, country girls, and young rustics and fisherman. All of these pay homage to their Queen.
JG: The concert also includes a Britten's Three Divertimenti for string quartet. How does this instrumental piece fit into the choir's program?
ML: These pieces are for string quartet, and are a great contrast to the other works on the program. Full of vitality, these rarely-heard pieces are energetic and somewhat angular, full of rhythmic verve (Britten loves rhythmic complexity!). Since November of this year represents his 100th birthday, I thought it would be appropriate to have another Britten work on the program.
JG: What's next for the choir, especially as you gear up for your tenth year as artistic director next season?
ML: I am looking forward to our upcoming spring concert, when we perform the monumental Great Mass in C minor by Mozart, with orchestra. This is one of my favorite pieces of all time, and it doesn't get performed very often. We welcome new singers for the spring. We will also hold our second-annual Summer Choral Festival in June, performing Rossini's Petite Messe solennelle after an intensive two-week rehearsal period. All can apply to sing with us.
Next season will be an exciting one, full of contrasts. In the fall, we will present an all-Bach program, including his wonderful Cantata 140, Wachet auf. This cantata contains the famous aria in the middle that has made it so popular. This program will also include Bach's Magnificat¸ complete with the Christmas interpolations (sung by our chamber singers) that Bach added later. In the spring, we will perform Honegger's stunning oratorio King David (sung in English). This monumental work is full of stylistic contrasts, and includes a narrator. It tells the Biblical story of King David's life. I think the next season is a great one. I enjoy challenging the choir with works not typically done by large groups, such as the Bach program. The music of Bach, along with Haydn, Mozart and Handel, keeps us disciplined and on our toes! And the Honegger is an easy choice—another perfect piece for our group.
About Matthew Lewis
Matthew Lewis is organist and director of music at Church of the Incarnation in New York City, organist-choirmaster at Temple Israel in Lawrence, NY, and is artistic director and conductor of St. George's Choral Society. He is on the organ faculty of the Juilliard School Pre-College division, and is adjunct assistant professor of organ at Westminster Choir College. Dr. Lewis earned the doctor of musical arts degree at Juilliard, and was the recipient of a Fulbright Grant and the Annette Kade Fellowship from the Council of International Education for study in Paris. His teachers include Samuel Hsu, Jon Gillock, Robert Page and Marie-Madeleine Duruflé.
About St. George's Choral Society
St. George's Choral Society enriches lives through the universal and transformative power of music. With a focus on the education of our members and outreach to the New York City community, we have been sharing performances of great works of music, old and new, for chorus and orchestra since 1817. We are a diverse community of amateur and professional singers, committed to continuing and expanding our legacy of artistic excellence in choral music for years to come.
Johanna Goldberg is St. George's Choral Society's webmaster and social media manager.