An interview with St. Cecilia Chorus music director Mark Shapiro
by Linda Sama for Vocal Area Network
Posted November 23, 2011

Mark ShapiroMark Shapiro was appointed music director of The St. Cecilia Chorus effective July 1, 2011, succeeding St. Cecilia's previous music director David Randolph, who died in 2010 after leading the chorus for 45 years. A year-long search led to the hiring of Mr. Shapiro. His first season, programmed prior to his appointment, will include two concerts at Carnegie Hall--Handel's Messiah on December 9, 2011 and Verdi's Requiem on April 21, 2012--and a performance of Mozart's Solemn Vespers and Schubert's Stabat Mater at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on February 26, 2012.

Linda Sama, a chorus member, interviewed Mark Shapiro as he embarks on this new journey with the Chorus and explores his vision for a musical organization with a long history and an exciting future.

Linda Sama: You were a guest conductor for The St. Cecilia Chorus and have now been hired as their permanent music director beginning this season. How has the experience of working with this Chorus been for you and what is your vision for the organization going forward?

Mark Shapiro: In many ways St. Cecilia is unique. The organization has a deeply rooted sense of community and warmth of spirit that may be atypical for the bustling and sometimes anonymous metropolis that is New York City. The chorus is very much a village "where everyone knows your name."  When I was guest conductor, the members' welcoming embrace made a powerful impression. This feeling of personal attachment inevitably informs and enhances the group's music-making; it is something I myself cherish and resonate with, and would not on any account seek to alter. My two-pronged vision for the organization is to build on our robust tradition of well-attended performances by further developing our musical values (sonority, color, precision, vitality and line) in a way that I hope will prove increasingly irresistible to audiences, and to expand the palette of our repertoire to include a cappella and accompanied works in an increasingly wide array of musical styles.

LS: The program for the Chorus's upcoming concert on December 9 at Carnegie Hall features Handel's Messiah, a beloved work for the holiday season. How will this performance of the often performed sacred oratorio stand out among others?

MS: I am always mindful that Handel was first and foremost a composer for the theater. When I conduct Messiah, I always feel the pressure and pull of its story. I marvel at how inventively Handel uses the musical tools he had to create the arc of its evolution. I hope our performance will have a suspenseful, cinematic quality that may be new to some listeners, and that they will find themselves unexpectedly caught up in the flow of events in a way that they experience as surprising, compelling and ultimately very moving. I know I can count on our quartet of young soloists, all of whom have impeccable opera chops, to further bring the drama to vivid life.

LS: What are some of the challenges of taking on the role of directing a chorus with such a long history, many years of which were spent under the baton of a single conductor, Mr. David Randolph, whose death in the Spring of 2010 represented a great loss to the metropolitan choral community and who was most renowned for his record number of Messiah concerts at Carnegie Hall?

MS: All new relationships entail challenges; these are often what make them truly exciting…and productive. I wouldn't have it any other way! David Randolph was a memorable colleague who led St. Cecilia for nearly half a century.  Members who have been with any organization for a long time will inevitably experience a "culture shock" whenever a new leader brings a different approach. The astonishing length of David's tenure might be expected to multiply that effect.  But St. Cecilia's choristers are smart, experienced people, and I think they understand, as I do, that it would be a mistake for David's successor to seek in any way to be his imitator. That could only produce a dull echo of the original, which would be a disservice to all concerned, including, perhaps especially, David himself. My modest aspiration is to be as good for St. Cecilia in my own way as David was in his. We are all links in a chain; and conducting is properly a calling and a service: to composers, to performers, to listeners, to a community, and finally to a cultural continuum. My late father, an engineer, used to have a saying, which he attributed to a favorite teacher of his: "always leave your workplace in good condition for the next person." I will know that I have done my job well if my successor can experience a joy in taking the reins comparable to what I am feeling now.

LS: You have won several awards for programming. How will you bring this talent to the programming of concerts for The St. Cecilia Chorus?

MS: I look forward to working with St. Cecilia's board to identify areas where we can expand our programming while remaining true to our core mission and purpose. There are many exhilarating and imaginative ways to contextualize music, to juxtapose new or unfamiliar works with established masterpieces. As our artistic and institutional capacities continue to develop, new horizons are certain to appear. They always do. It is one of the things I like best about this business: the way new ideas come into view, sparked by the spirits, imaginations and humanity of the people in the room. Often a chorus member's casual remark opens an immense vista of possibility.

LS: Who have been some of your major influences as a conductor?

MS: I have been fortunate to have some exceptional teachers, including Gustav Meier, Markand Thakar, Rob Kapilow, Rodney Wynkoop and Narcis Bonet (himself a devoted student of Nadia Boulanger). I was lucky enough also to have the opportunity to be a translator for master classes led by the noted choral expert Eric Ericson. And like all conductors, I am an avid observer (and thief) of the best practices of my contemporaries and predecessors, some very famous, and others less so. In my twenties I had the privilege of listening to rehearsals led by the remarkable Sergiu Celibidache; they were unforgettable. As St. Cecilians already know well, I am a humble dabbler in music cognition and those aspects of neuroscience that apply, or might seem to apply, to music-making; this information has been invaluable in shaping what I try to do in both performances and rehearsals. Finally, I am really passionate about teaching, and can honestly say that I have learned more from my students than from any other group of people.

LS: Educational Outreach is a strategic component of the mission of the chorus. The current program enables students and others in the community who otherwise might not have opportunities to experience classical music to attend chorus concerts, thus helping to build future audiences. Do you have any thoughts or plans to enhance Educational Outreach or expand the program?

MS: I anticipate that we will implement ways not only to continue to engage young people as listeners, but also as doers: as singers, composers and conductors. There is no experience as rich as seeing a young person make the connection to what is great about great music. We have already begun some wonderful discussions about projects along these lines.

Linda Sama sings with the St. Cecilia Chorus and is Associate Dean for Global Initiatives and Professor of Management at St. John's University.
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