Superlatives in a city of superlatives
by Laura Daly for Vocal Area Network
Posted April 13, 2023

Matthew LewisSt. George's Choral Society will be performing various works by New York City composers on April 30 at 3 PM at The Church of St. Luke in the Fields, 487 Hudson Street, New York, NY. The program features works by Dello Joio, Burleigh, Copland, Bassi, Sosa and Bernstein. Matthew Lewis, Artistic Director for the group, shares his insights on these composers and the program.

Laura Daly: As a born and bred New Yorker, it is marvelous that your upcoming concert honors New York City composers -- those that were either born here or belonged to the city the moment they arrived. What was the inspiration for this theme?

Matthew Lewis: There have been a number of inspirations for this. New York City doesn't have a shortage of talent when it comes to composers. In fact, we could probably program several seasons of choral works by NYC composers. But when I start putting a program together, I have to think about two primary things: what will engage and challenge our singers, and what will our audience enjoy hearing? So that's what this program is about. Imagining a program with piano accompaniment, a few "wish list" pieces were on my mind. Then came the connection that they were NYC composers, and the rest of the program was pretty easy to fill.

LD: Let us talk about each of the composers. The group will begin the concert with Norman Dello Joio's A Jubilant Song. Dello Joio was born in NYC to a musically accomplished Italian immigrant family. He began his musical career at 14 as organist and choir director at the Star of the Sea Church on City Island. He received a scholarship to study at the Juilliard School where he studied composition under Bernard Wagenaar. He was apt to combine old forms with contemporary musical techniques. Like Copland, he composed music to accompany the works of Martha Graham. He won the 1957 Pulitzer for Music for his Meditations on Ecclesiastes. Matthew, tell us about A Jubilant Song and what drew you to it as a selection for this concert.

ML: I would say that A Jubilant Song may be one of his most popular pieces! I've known a number of people that even sang this in their advanced high school chorus (not that it's easy). And there are reasons for its popularity: it is exciting, immediately accessible, has a great piano part and sets an incredible text by Walt Whitman. It employs frequent changes in meter, syncopations, combined with an expressive middle section, all offset by an explosive piano part. You can understand why this piece has been such a hit since it was written in 1946.

LD: Harry Burleigh came to New York City at age 26 to study on scholarship at The National Conservatory of Music. Those familiar with the history of the St. George's Choral Society know of his connection with Dvorak, and their connection with St. George's Church. Burleigh became a soloist at St. George's Church (we can thank parishioner J.P. Morgan for casting the deciding vote to admit him into the then all-white congregation) and began composing in 1898. By 1910, he was known throughout the country for his art songs. Matthew, I know that Burleigh holds a special place in your heart given the history of the St. George's Choral Society. How do these three spirituals illustrate the oeuvre of Burleigh?

ML: SGCS sure does have a history with Burleigh and Dvorak! We've done our fair share of both. Burleigh was a classically trained singer, and a very fine one. I think he is most remembered for his contribution to the spiritual repertoire, most notably of notating them and bringing them to the public's attention, and of course in presenting them to Dvorak. So, it seemed logical to me that we would do some of Burleigh's choral arrangements of spirituals. By the way, he also arranged many for solo voice and piano, and composed many of his own art songs. It is interesting to note that, as a trained singer, he wrote them for chorus to be sung in a "classical" way: good technique, diction, support, etc. Which makes them a challenge and pleasure to sing. And spirituals are always popular on a program.

LD: Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, but so much of his music evoked the prairie and American wide-open spaces. This is true of Stomp Your Foot, part of his opera, The Tender Land. The original opera was commissioned by NBC Television's Opera Workshop, although the network ultimately rejected it as its completion coincided with Copland being brought in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. This did not deter Copland and the work was first staged at the New York City Opera. The libretto for Stomp Your Foot was written by Copland's partner, Erik Johns. For this non-traditional couple, the libretto is very much rooted in very traditional divisions of labor and definitions of "the other sex." This is true of other Copland works. What is it about Stomp Your Foot that inspired you to add it to this program?

ML: It seems like you know more about this work than I do! I appreciate all the history you've provided. I heard a recording of SGCS singing this in a past concert. I believe Ken Dake was the director at the time. It sounds so fun! Very "Copland," with his Americana sound, and it's a big blowout sing for the chorus. Yes, the text is quirky, but we can put it in its historical perspective. The singers get a kick out of it. Overall, I think this is a great piece and a fun part of music history here in NYC.

LD: Jim Bassi, born in Haverhill, the next town over in Massachusetts from Bernstein, has been a New Yorker since 1982. He has played concerts for a variety of artists, including opera stars Deborah Voigt and Jessye Norman, cabaret singers Ute Lemper and Tovah Feldshuh. His compositions have been heard at major venues including Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. His music has been performed by noted artists such as Judy Collins and Frederica von Stade, as well as the Orchestra of St. Luke's and Voices of Ascension. He is also St. George's Choral Society's beloved rehearsal accompanist. The concert will feature the first performance of the revised version of his Two Anthems. Originally for choir and organ, this work was commissioned and premiered by St. George's Choral Society in 2012. According to Mr. Bassi, "I have revised the music for choir and piano. The inspiration for this piece comes from the vivid and moving texts which I've selected. The Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, which supplies the text for the first movement, is a spiritually and emotionally charged confession layered with humanity, supplication, and ultimately, of faith and affirmation. In the second movement, the text "O Lord Support Us," a well-known prayer utilized in Christian evensong services, evokes a truly serene state; a still, quiet meditation." Matthew, is there anything else you would like to add?

ML: I can say that I have known Jim and worked with him for many decades here in NYC! He is an amazing talent. When I originally asked him about a commission more than 10 years ago, he was eager to participate. We got a real treasure! The first piece is an extended anthem -- boisterous, expressive, and uplifting, all together in one piece. And it has brilliant, virtuoso piano accompaniment. The second one is a great contrast -- introspective and meditative. It presents the text simply, with a beautiful choral melody sung in unison, all on a text that comes from The Book of Common Prayer. A touching "Amen" concludes the work.

LD: Manuel Sosa is a Venezuelan-American composer and NYC resident. He teaches composition at the Pre-College Division of the Juilliard School, ear training at the Curtis Institute of Music, and is also a member of the Art History and Music Department at Fordham University. St. George's Choral Society will perform Sosa's Tabula 1, a piece commissioned by the group and first performed in May of 2014. Matthew, how would you describe Mr. Sosa's music?

ML: Manuel's work, Tabula 1, uses parts of the Latin Requiem text and combines it with the "Oseh Shalom" (Hebrew) from the Hebrew Kaddish prayer: both prayers for the dead. It uses spoken text throughout, in combination with haunting yet warm choral sonorities. The spoken text represents people praying alongside the music. Although not a specifically tonal work, it returns to certain pitches enough that it appears to have a tonal center. It is a different singing and listening experience. Listeners simply need to let the piece "happen" while they witness it, and the experience is warm and meaningful. It feels heavenly -- like something beyond what we see and hear every day.

LD: It is interesting that this piece uses both Latin and Hebrew texts. Does this mix hold any special meaning for you?

ML: I like that it includes more than one faith and makes the expression broader. Often, we sing great choral works regardless of their religious affiliations or liturgical significance. Having said that, it is nice for people to relate on a different level to the text and overall meaning of a piece. This work represents our diverse membership and is a testament to the unifying power of music.

LD: The program will close with Leonard Bernstein's Make Our Garden Grow. Bernstein was a transplant from Lawrence, MA. He became a towering figure in NYC, both musically and culturally. Can you give us a bit of background on Make Our Garden Grow, and why you selected this piece?

ML: First of all, I love it and think it's a beautiful song. I've done it a number of times in synagogue, where we have done festivals of Jewish music (music by Jewish composers). When Make Our Garden Grow gets done, we have done it more or less in its original version, which is for soloists. My conducting mentor, Robert Page, wrote a choral arrangement of it, which is spectacular. It is very clever, passing the melody from section to section. In fact, a large chorus sang it at his memorial tribute at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh and I realized I had to do this piece someday. Our singers love it (everyone does!), and it's rewarding to be part of it this way.

LD: Matthew, thank you for your time. New York is coming back from the pandemic, and this concert does the town justice!

For more information about the St. George's Choral Society concert on April 30, please visit www.stgeorgeschoralsociety.org/concerts. Tickets are $30, available online or at the door.

Laura Daly is manager of marketing and artist relations for the St. George's Choral Society.