Dessoff celebrates Whitman bicentennial with world premieres
by April Thibault for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 28, 2019

Walt WhitmanHailed as “one of the great amateur choruses of our time” (New York Today) for its “full-bodied sound and suppleness” (The New York Times), The Dessoff Choirs ends its 94th season on the 200th anniversary--May 31, 2019--of the birth of American poet and journalist Walt Whitman (1819-1892). For the final concert of a season-long celebration of Whitman’s bicentennial, Dessoff’s 50 singers will perform exquisite choral settings of Whitman’s poetry, including works by Howard Hanson and Gregg Smith as well as the world premieres of Eve Beglarian’s None More Than You, Ian Sturges Milliken’s Quicksand Years and Matthew Aucoin’s choral settings of Crossing.

“The Dessoff Choirs is thrilled to be premiering new works by two of the most innovative composers in the business today, Eve Beglarian and Matthew Aucoin,” says Malcolm J. Merriweather, ninth Music Director and conductor of The Dessoff Choirs. "I am delighted that we are contributing to the Whitman choral repertory.” In None More Than You, a new Dessoff-commissioned work, Eve Beglarian sets texts taken from the poem “A Song of the Rolling Earth,” published in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The piece alternates the choral sounds of Dessoff singing Whitman’s text live with prerecorded soundscapes by the Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. By using fragments of words—consonants alone, and then vowels—the recording creates a backdrop for the chorus. As Beglarian recently told The New Yorker, “It’s a rare breed of singer who’s able, through feats of diction, to make English intelligible in opera. But if you’re going to set a text, presumably you care about the f**king text!”

Closing the concert is the world premiere of choral arrangements of scenes from Matthew Aucoin’s critically acclaimed opera, Crossing. Aucoin is both Artist-in-Residence at Los Angeles Opera and co-Artistic Director of the newly formed American Modern Opera Company. In 2018, he was a recipient of a John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly referred to as a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” According to Aucoin, Crossing “is a musical fantasia that imagines and realizes the many forces—generosity, insecurity, longing, selflessness, bravery, unfulfilled sexual desire, a need to escape his own life, a boundless kindness—that caused a man named Walter Whitman, Jr. to forge an indelible embodiment of the American spirit in his poetry.” According to The New York Times, the opera’s score “draws upon myriad modernist and neo-Classical styles, with hints of Britten, Bernstein, Thomas Adès, techno and much more. With his acute ear and abundant technique, Mr. Aucoin deftly folds diverse musical strands into this restless score, which can shift from skittish frenzy to stretches of aching lyricism.”

Dessoff’s concert begins with the 12-minute Song of Democracy (1957) by Howard Hanson. Setting excerpts from Whitman’s "An Old Man's Thought of School" and "Thou Mother with thy equal brood,” Hanson tried to imbue the work with "all of the dramatic impact of which I was capable.” The program continues with the world premiere of Quicksand Years (2017) by Ian Sturges Milliken. Named for the 1855 Leaves of Grass poem, Quicksand Years embellishes Whitman’s observations about the afterlife. The Dessoff Choirs also presents an encore performance of As Adam, Early in the Morning (2018) by Douglas Geers, commissioned and premiered by Dessoff in November 2018. Known for integrating technologies into concert music, Geers includes sound frequencies from an audio recording of Whitman reading from his poem “America.”

The choral celebration of Whitman would not be complete without Two Whitman Songs (1984) by Gregg Smith. Smith’s devotion to choral music was greater than that of almost any composer of his generation. During the second half of the 20th century, Smith elevated the standard for professional choral singing. Two Whitman Songs is drawn from a two-part Whitman poem, “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” which was written during the Civil War and is part of the collection Drum-Taps. The first part of the poem is a paean to nature, while the second extols the excitement of New York City. The Hunter College High School Senior Chorus will join Dessoff for the performance of this work.

Walt Whitman, born May 31, 1819, is one of the most influential voices in American and world literature. “He was an American icon whose life and works have been an inspiration for artists and musicians everywhere,” says Merriweather. “His is a kind of distinct and distinctive American voice that has brought joy to so many people in our country and around the world.” Whitman himself described music as “a god, yet completely human…supplying in certain wants and quarters what nothing else could supply.” Not only was Whitman outspoken in his love for music, he also inspired more than 500 composers who have drawn from his work. “Many composers have been attracted to Whitman’s exuberant spirit, democratic ideals and timelessness,” adds Merriweather.

The concert takes place on Friday, May 31, 2019, at 8:00 PM at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, West End Avenue and 86th Street. Pre-concert talk at 7:15 PM with Malcolm J. Merriweather and the composers. Tickets: $20-40 in advance; $25-45 at door. To purchase, visit dessoff.org.

About The Dessoff Choirs

The Dessoff Choirs is one of New York City’s leading choruses. Founded in 1924 by Margarete Dessoff, the group has a reputation for pioneering performances of choral works from the pre-Baroque era through the 21st century. The plural “s” in Choirs connotes the group’s 40-voice core heard today, plus the Symphonic Choir assembled for larger collaborative engagements and a smaller Chamber Choir selected for more intimate works. Dessoff produces its own New York concert series each year and over its 94 seasons has presented numerous world premieres, including works by Virgil Thomson, George Perle, Paul Moravec, David Hurd, and Ricky Ian Gordon. Dessoff also collaborates frequently with local and visiting ensembles, including appearances in the American premieres of Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 5 and Sir John Tavener’s all-night vigil, The Veil of the Temple. In recent seasons, engagements have ranged from Lorin Maazel’s final performances as music director of the New York Philharmonic, in Britten’s War Requiem and Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, to an East Coast tour with British rock star Ray Davies. In the mid-20th century, Dessoff published 48 editions of the Dessoff Choir Series and released 13 LPs that helped introduce Renaissance music to the U.S. audience. Building on that legacy, the choir has released two CDs of American music and can be heard with the New York Philharmonic in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, available on iTunes. For more information please visit dessoff.org.

About Malcolm J. Merriweather

Conductor Malcolm J. Merriweather is Music Director of New York City’s The Dessoff Choirs, known for performances of choral works from the pre-Baroque era through the 21st century. An Assistant Professor, he is Director of Choral Studies and Voice Department Coordinator at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Artist-in-Residence at Union Theological Seminary, and Artistic Director of Voices of Haiti, a 60-member children’s choir in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, operated by the Andrea Bocelli Foundation. In the summer of 2017, Merriweather led Voices of Haiti in performances with Andrea Bocelli at Teatro del Silenzio in Lajatico, Italy, and for Pope Francis at the Vatican. Merriweather is also in demand as a baritone soloist, often performing throughout the eastern United States. Conducting highlights of the 2018-19 season include his Mostly Mozart Festival debut conducting the West Choir in the world premiere of John Luther Adams’s In the name of earth, and appearances with Andrea Bocelli and Voices of Haiti at Madison Square Garden. Other highlights include: Ildebrando Pizetti’s Messa di Requiem and Margaret Bonds’s The Ballad of the Brown King with The Dessoff Choirs; Handel’s Messiah at Brooklyn College and the Harvard Club of New York; and William Grant Still’s They Lynched Him on a Tree with Grace Chorale of Brooklyn. Solo engagements for the 2018-19 season include Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Harmonium Choral Society; Robert Convery’s I have a dream for the New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; and Handel’s Messiah with the Worcester Chorus. Merriweather holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Conducting from the studio of Kent Tritle at the Manhattan School of Music, where his doctoral dissertation, Now I Walk in Beauty, Gregg Smith: A Biography and Complete Works Catalog, constituted the first complete works list for the composer and conductor. He received Master of Music degrees in Choral Conducting and in Vocal Performance from the studio of Rita Shane at the Eastman School of Music, as well as a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from Syracuse University, summa cum laude. Merriweather’s professional affiliations include membership in Pi Kappa Lambda, the American Choral Directors Association and Chorus America, and he sits on the Board of Directors of the New York Choral Consortium. Please visit malcolmjmerriweather.com for more information. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram @maestroweather.

About Steven Ryan

Steven Ryan has been Dessoff’s accompanist and keyboard soloist since 1997, including featured performances in all of Dessoff’s Midwinter Festivals. In February 2017, Dessoff’s “French Fête” concert was a celebration of his 20th anniversary with the group. In recent years, Ryan has performed in Russia, Austria, France and Italy. In 2014, he was featured in the “Voices Across the Pacific” festival in Sydney, Australia, playing a solo concert and working with choirs. He has performed several solos with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra. Ryan is a regular accompanist at Montclair State University, with the choirs and in both the voice and string studios. In April 2017, he performed Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques with Montclair State University’s Wind Symphony. This summer he will be touring with Montclair in Austria and Germany.

About The Hunter College High School Senior Chorus

The Hunter College High School Senior Chorus is comprised of about 60 singers in grades 10–12. The choral program is part of a thriving music department, which also includes Concert Band, Jazz Band, Strings and Chamber Music ensembles. Our singers are encouraged to find ways to pursue music outside of the classroom, and Hunter has long enjoyed our relationship with The Dessoff Choirs through the Singing Scholars Program. Students in chorus are also actively involved in sports, theater and numerous extracurricular activities.

April Thibeault is the founder and president of AMT Public Relations.