Matthew Lewis talks Handel and Galbraith
by Laura Daly for Vocal Area Network
Posted August 16, 2023

Matthew LewisSt. George's Choral Society will begin rehearsals for its fall concert on Wednesday, September 6 at 7 PM at St. Mary's Byzantine Church, located at 236 East 15th Street. The performance will be on December 3 at Church of the Holy Apostles, 296 9th Avenue. Matthew Lewis, Artistic Director for the group, shares his insights on these composers and the program.

Laura Daly: This looks like an unusual program, pairing two very different works. How did you decide on it?

Matthew Lewis: You are right, they are very different works, and will complement each other well on the same ticket. I planned a program for string orchestra, organ and chorus and I love the combination of old and new. The Handel is a brilliant piece: dramatic, expressive, virtuoso and full of contrasts. The Galbraith is very modern and in a vocabulary that the audience and singers will both find attractive. Dixit Dominus has been on my wish list for years and we have performed the Galbraith some time ago, but only with organ. (She wrote it in two versions.)

LD: Dixit Dominus is considered to be Handel's first masterpiece, illustrating his talent for combining refinement with raw power. Can you share with us how he achieves this pairing in this work?

ML: It is very operatic, as is true of many Handel choral works. The writing is demanding on the chorus and soloists -- long, brilliant melismatic passages, challenging counterpoint, all for 5-part chorus (double soprano). It is stunning how dramatic it is! It is gripping from the very beginning, and never has a dull moment. His timing is impeccable, contrasting the fast movements with slower, expressive ones, and counterpoint with homophonic passages. It's remarkable.

LD: How did Handel's experience with Italian opera composition influence Dixit Dominus?

ML: It's amazing how Handel manages the text. He turns a Psalm into a story. It's more opera than oratorio. The style feels quite secular and doesn't sound like church music at all. Of course, Handel as a masterful composer of opera, but we don't find necessarily operatic elements in all his choral music.

LD: Any chorister who has sung Handel's Messiah experiences a workout with his use of long, melismatic passages, a vocal embellishment already established in his Dixit Dominus. How does he use the melisma to convey the emotional aspect of the work? What was his inspiration in using this technique?

ML: He never seems to use these virtuoso passages as a mere technical vehicle -- they always support the text. For example, the text of the opening movement is a command: "The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool." And it is a strong text. Handel sets this with authority, which is heard in the instrumental prelude. The chorus enters with an arpeggiated figure -- strong and dominant. From the very beginning, we are struck at the power of it all.

LD: Handel was a contemporary and compatriot of J.S. Bach. How do their styles differ? What do you think Bach would have thought of Dixit Dominus?

ML: Bach was a very devout Christian. He didn't write opera and almost all his choral works are sacred. That's not to say Bach lacks drama. It's just from a very different point of view. Although Handel wrote many sacred works, the overall style is much more secular. Opera is in his DNA! We also know Bach admired many works of his contemporaries, like Vivaldi. He spent a lot of time trying to really get to know works of other composers, to learn from them. I have no doubt he would have admired Handel's Dixit Dominus very much, but he would not have tried to imitate it.

LD: The second work in SGCS's fall program is Nancy's Galbraith's Magnificat. Ms. Galbraith is Chair of Composition at Carnegie Mellon University. Ms. Galbraith's work has been described as having a rich harmonic texture and is deemed to have a leading role in defining the sound of American contemporary classical music. How would you describe American contemporary classical music, and Ms. Galbraith's contribution to it?

ML: I would have a tough time describing American contemporary music; many composers write in many drastically different styles. I've had the pleasure of meeting Nancy Galbraith, thanks to my conducting mentor, Robert Page. He was also on faculty at CMU, and he conducted and championed her works for chorus and orchestra. He did the Magnificat many times and had recommended I look at it years ago. Nancy can see very big scenes, meaning she can write for large chorus and orchestra with great success. The Magnificat is, in many ways, a very broad and generous work. It starts with a dramatic bang: loud chords and full forte chorus entrance. It's very exciting! Her works are tonal and use a number of interesting techniques. Some movements contain minimalism (repetition of germ motives, like an ostinato), some are contrapuntal, and, like the Handel, there is great contrast: grand, soaring sonorities contrasted with very intimate passages.

LD: Choristers who sing evensong services are familiar with Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by a lengthy list of composers. What makes Ms. Galbraith's Magnificat unique?

ML: Choristers that sing in a liturgical context have a very different experience. Although Evensong is primarily a musical service, there are some boundaries, like the service can't last too long. The Galbraith Magnificat is a concert piece, which lasts around 30 minutes (a bit long for Evensong). And the overall scope of it is big and grand, making it a really stunning event on a program.

LD: You will be holding auditions for this program on September 6 and 13 from 6 to 7 PM at St. Mary's Byzantine Church, located at 236 East 15th Street. To any singer contemplating joining the group, what would you like to say about the experience of singing with SGCS?

ML: I would recommend they come! I am passionate about bringing people together with music as our common thread. We come from diverse backgrounds (jobs, neighborhoods, etc.), but we find a common goal in preparing choral masterworks together. After our recent summer concert, one of our new members gave a speech, describing his experience with SGCS over the past season. He said he didn't just find a choir that he enjoys, he also found a home.

LD: Matthew, thank you and I look forward to your fall program.

For more information or to schedule an audition, contact Matthew Lewis at SGCS1817@gmail.com. To learn more about the group, please visit St. George's Choral Society at stgeorgeschoralsociety.org.

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