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Clara Longstreth on Choosing New Music
compiled by Lauren Scott for Vocal Area Network
Posted November 30, 2002

Clara LongstrethSays Clara Longstreth, music director of New Amsterdam Singers, "One result of New Amsterdam Singers' (NAS) growing reputation as a chorus that sings a good deal of contemporary music is that huge, unwieldy piles of scores are sent to me in the hope that I will program them. How do I decide what to look at? How does a piece get chosen?" One piece that survived the selection process, Russian-American composer Alla Borzova's work on a text by W.H. Auden, The Ballad of Barnaby, will receive its world premiere as part of  New Amsterdam Singers' first program of its 2002-03 season (December 6 at 8 PM at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, West 65th Street and Central Park West; December 8 at 4 PM at Immanuel Lutheran Church, East 88th Street and Lexington Avenue). So just how does that selection process work? Ms. Longstreth talks further about her decision to program The Ballad of Barnaby.

“In May 2001, a former NAS singer introduced Alla Borzova to me during a brief break in a NAS dress rehearsal. Afterwards Alla sent me scores and tapes of her music together with letters of recommendation from other composers. I listened to her music and studied her scores. Several pieces were in Russian and one required an orchestra, so I focused quickly on Barnaby as the most immediately appropriate. I was simultaneously attracted to and nervous about the piece. I knew that much of it was fun and accessible. What alarmed me were several passages with extended tone clusters, passages that required a combination of disparate meters to be performed simultaneously, and a short piece of “sprechstimme” (speech song). These would be difficult, and I had to weigh the level of difficulty on the one hand—could NAS do the piece justice?—against the equally important consideration of whether the singers would enjoy the process of rehearsing and learning it.

“Alla and I met in April 2002 and discussed Barnaby in detail. She played through the score on the piano and convinced me that the sections I thought extremely difficult were actually manageable. The fact that she had heard NAS sing was important here as it meant that she knew we were a skilled avocational chorus and was familiar with our sound.

“Beyond liking the music, a number of factors made me keen to program The Ballad of Barnaby. First was Auden's text. I am often asked why we don't sing more in English, so Auden brought double points for Barnaby. There was also Alla's growing reputation in the U.S. plus the fact that the performance would be a world premiere. In addition, there was the extra bonus interest of having as composer a Russian-American woman. Finally I was influenced by the fact that Alla herself loved the piece. The story of Barnaby has special appeal for her because it is the story of an artist who remains true to his art throughout his life. As she says in her program notes:

Auden obviously liked his hero, and his poem has a strong appeal to
the artistic profession. Barnaby was ‘the finest tumbler of his day' and
remained true to his talent, continuing to serve God with it until, literally,
his last breath. ‘Tumbling is all I have learnt to do,' he cries in front of
the Virgin's statue, ‘Mother of God, let me tumble for you.'

“In the nine years Alla has lived in the United States, she has had remarkable success. Awards, commissions, residencies, performances, and positive reviews have been building up in a veritable crescendo. To cite a few examples:

  • ‘…a force on the American musical scene'
  • ‘Every note she writes has an intensity and immediacy that is as startling as it is affecting'
  • ‘masterpiece of musical imagination;' ‘sheer enchantment'

“As she tells the story of Auden's poem, which is based on a medieval French legend, Alla's music sparkles with life and color. The audience hears the clip-clop of horse's hooves, Gregorian chant, whistling (of a 13th century melody), the ringing of bells, angels, demons, medieval harmonies—even Barnaby's acrobatic leaps. And all this from an a cappella chorus! The piece is theatrical, exuberantly dramatic from beginning to end.”

The Ballad of Barnaby will feature counter-tenor Ricardo Rivera. Last spring, college student Rivera found his way to NAS through Vocal Area Network. His passion is 20th century music, so he searched VAN looking for a chorus where he could indulge that passion. He discovered that NAS was rehearsing Penderecki's Agnus Dei and knew that was where he wanted to be. Now he sings with both the main chorus and the Chamber Chorus. In The Ballad of Barnaby he sings in one key, while 70 members of the chorus sing in another. It's quite awesome!

The December concerts will also feature Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols with Susan Jolles, harp, and music by J.S. Bach, William Billings, Peter Warlock and Thomas Tallis. Tickets are $18, $15 for seniors and students. Reserve tickets and get further information by calling 212-568-5948. For more about New Amsterdam Singers, visit nasingers.org.

Lauren Scott is the manager of New Amsterdam Singers and sings alto in the main chorus and in the chamber chorus.

Content Contact: Lauren Scott
Revision Date: January 11, 2011.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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