St. George’s Choral Society, founded in 1817, will perform Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor and a commissioned work by Venezuelan-American composer Manuel Sosa for its spring concert. Matthew Lewis, the group’s Artistic Director, shares his insights on both composers and how two works, separated by centuries, share common bonds.
Laura Daly: I know you are busy preparing for this spring concert, as well as your
second annual Summer Choral Festival on June14.
Can you give us some history behind Mozart and his Great Mass in C Minor?
Matthew Lewis: We know that Mozart wrote this Mass for his marriage to Constanze, a very accomplished singer. She was to sing the premiere of the "Et incarnatus est," one of the most poignant moments of the entire Mass. This work also fulfilled Mozart’s promise to his father to write such a Mass. The work is unfinished, consisting of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo (only through the "Et incarnatus est"), and Sanctus without Benedictus and Agnus Dei.
LD: Did Mozart break any new ground in choral singing with this Mass?
ML: As with many composers, Mozart actually looks back at more Baroque ideals when writing sacred choral music. Parts of this Mass are indeed very ancient, and could be the work of a major Baroque composer. Having said that, it is still like no other major work of its kind. The extreme range in emotion and expression is unique, and it is as much of a challenge as a joy to sing. The opening Kyrie is very dark, indeed, before it gives way to the warmth of the soprano solo. By contrast, the Gloria is a jocular romp -- an appropriate mood! The concluding fugue of the Gloria is monumental, and one of the longest sections in the entire work. Rossini, no doubt, reflected on this when writing his Petite Messe solennelle. The Credo starts with one of the most peculiar orchestrations: very Baroque, almost like Monteverdi, but with choral writing that is definitely Mozart!
LD: Why did you select this piece? How does this work fit into the history of SGCS’s performance history?
ML: This concert marks my 10th year as Artistic Director of St. George's Choral Society, and this work has been a passion of mine for some time now. So, it seemed like the perfect occasion.
LD: What is your overall objective in selecting pieces for SGCS? How does this particular work of Mozart’s challenge the group?
ML: I like to vary the programming choices I make, including Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern works. The choral forces of St. George's Choral Society will be an ideal vehicle for this piece.
This work requires a fairly large chorus. There are several movements written for double chorus, and there are several movements for 5-part chorus (with divided soprano section). It's not really a chamber chorus kind of piece! And, as with most of his choral works, Mozart's orchestration is ample. It’s also a real technical challenge. From the sustained intensity of the opening "Kyrie," the fast melismatic passages, and the double chorus movements, especially the lively concluding fugue in the "Osanna," this piece really has it all. While our Fall Concert featured music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, this Mozart Mass is of a considerable different challenge to our singers.
LD: This concert will also premiere will premiere a work by Venezuelan-American composer Manuel Sosa, performed by SGCS’s chamber group. Can you tell us something about him and how you met?
ML: I have been to performances of his music many times, and am a great admirer of his style. I have been hoping to collaborate with Manuel for years, either in the form of an organ piece, or a choral work. We finally found the occasion for one! He and I went to Juilliard together, and have known each other for years. He is a great friend and colleague.
LD: How would you describe Mr. Sosa’s music? What about his music drew him to you?
ML: Manuel can say the most powerful things with a minimal amount of notes. His music is very sincere and heartfelt, and uses great economy of devices. From my point of view, this new work is ancient, and very modern at the same time. His harmonic language is his own, and unique. Listeners know they are hearing something new, and sincere. It is remarkable.
LD: Is there anything you can tell us about the piece? Did you give Mr. Sosa any direction in terms of subject matter or mood?
ML: Well, we were both drawn to the prospect of writing a piece that would complement the Mozart Mass, particularly since it is essentially an unfinished work. Something that would start the concert, and make a stirring segue into the opening Kyrie. To my mind, Manuel has accomplished this. He even uses devices found in the Mass: alternating voice parts (as found in the Domine Deus) is one of the most striking features.
Manuel’s work, Tabula 1, uses parts of the Latin Requiem text, and combines it with the Hebrew Kaddish prayer: both prayers for the dead. It uses spoken text throughout, in combination with haunting yet warm choral sonorities. It is unlike anything I have come across, and I am thrilled to be part of such a monumental premiere.
LD: It is interesting that this piece uses both Latin and Hebrew texts. Does this mix hold any special meaning for you?
ML: Manuel made the proposition, when searching for a text, of mixing Hebrew and Latin texts. I loved this idea, since it represents our choir in so many ways. We are not affiliated with any religious causes, and our members come from different faiths. This work represents our diverse membership and is a testament to the unifying power of music.
LD: Matthew, thank you for your time. It sounds as if this concert is not to be missed!
St. George’s Choral Society will perform Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor and a commissioned work by Venezuelan-American composer Manuel Sosa on Sunday, May 4, 2014 at 3 PM at the Church of the Incarnation on Madison Avenue and 35th Street, New York City. Tickets are $25. Visit www.stgeorgeschoralsociety.org/ to reserve tickets or for more information on this concert and the St. George’s Choral Society’s Summer Choral Festival.
Laura Daly is manager of marketing and artist relations for the St. George's Choral Society.