St. George’s Choral Society presents Dvořák’s Requiem on November 19
by Ann Kirschner for Vocal Area Network
Posted November 13, 2017

Matthew LewisOn November 19 at 2:30 PM, St. George’s Choral Society will present the second concert of its 200th anniversary season with a performance of Dvořák’s Requiem. The concert will be held at the Church of the Incarnation, 209 Madison Avenue at 35th Street. Tickets are $30 and are available at stgeorgeschoralsociety.org/concerts and at the door.

I spoke with the artistic director, Dr. Matthew Lewis, to get his thoughts on the chorus and its repertoire.

Ann Kirschner: St. George’s Choral Society (SGCS) was founded in 1817. How does it feel to be at the helm of a 200-year-old chorus?

Matthew Lewis: It’s amazing, actually. When I started with the group, the bicentennial year was on the horizon, and, while we were talking about it, it never seemed we’d actually get there. So much history and so much music. I love being involved with an organization that has had such an influence on people’s lives for so many years!

AK: Is SGCS the oldest chorus in the country? Is it still affiliated with St.George’s Episcopal Church on Stuyvesant Square in Manhattan?

ML: I’m not sure about that. It’s hard to know for sure. I know that the Handel and Haydn Society, in Boston, was formed in 1815, and I believe they have operated continuously. We took a few breaks, including during wartimes, but our group was never completely stopped and reformed. For most of the time, SGCS was among the duties of the music director at St. George’s Church. So it was completely sponsored by the church. A number of years ago, perhaps 20 years, the church decided it couldn’t continue with a full-time director of music. One of the ways to reduce the job was by cutting the choral society. At that point, the board decided it would raise money to pay an independent artistic director and they would make a go of it on their own. So they hired Harry Huff, who was the director of music at Calvary Episcopal (the affiliate parish), who directed the group very successfully for years, before he moved to Boston for another position. When I started with SGCS, we decided that it was in our best interest to become completely independent, so we became a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization. This has allowed us to raise money and apply for grants. We still rehearse in St. George’s Chapel, which is a wonderful way to make us aware of our history. And it’s a beautiful space.

AK: The chorus is marking its landmark anniversary with two works by Dvořák. Last spring the program was his Stabat Mater, and on November19 his Requiem. Why so much Dvořák?

ML: Well, funny you should ask! When Dvořák was in the United States, he lived in the same neighborhood as St. George’s Church. In fact, Dvořák became friends with Harry T. Burleigh, the longtime bass soloist at the church. Burleigh was one of the first people to gather and promote African-American spirituals. A composer in his own right, he also made wonderful, dignified arrangements of them. It is said that Burleigh introduced Dvořák to these spirituals, which inspired the themes in his New World Symphony. SGCS has sung Dvořák’s choral works many times over the years. So we feel a historic connection to the composer, for a number of reasons.

AK: The Requiem mass liturgy has been set to music since the Middle Ages. According to a source I found, more than 3,000 composers wrote more than 5,000 such masses, yet only nine are performed with any regularity. The others are those of Mozart, Verdi, Berlioz, Cherubini, Fauré and Duruflé, plus Brahms and Britten, who used nontraditional texts. In what way does Dvořák’s Requiem stand out?

ML: Dvořák’s setting of the Requiem is vast and dramatic. It isn’t a liturgical piece, just as Bach's Mass in B minor isn’t a liturgical piece. It’s too long to be practical and wouldn’t work in such a setting. Rather, it is an artistic statement and interpretation of the essence of the Requiem. Dvořák’s Requiem is an unusual piece for many reasons. It is scored for large orchestra, chorus and four soloists. The effect of the piece isn’t always very religious in sound. In fact, the mood changes throughout. Sometimes, it sounds like an ancient sacred choral piece and at other times it is a fun romp, as chorus and orchestra seem to really enjoy themselves (in the“Quam olim Abrahae” fugue, for example). It has all the wonderful elements Dvořák is known for.

AK: Dvořák wrote his Stabat Mater in 1876–77 and his Requiem in 1890. How would you characterize the differences between them, and your approach to each?

ML: They are drastically different pieces! The Stabat Mater is indeed a wonderful work. One of the interesting aspects of the Stabat Mater is that there are no fast movements. The entire piece is basically in a slow tempo. I don’t know how he does it, but somehow Dvořák makes it interesting and compelling in spite of that! The Requiem presents much more variety among movements—fast and slow, loud and soft, and other dichotomies. Of course, the texts are drastically different as well. The Stabat Mater text is mystical, reflective and often somber. It was written after the death of Dvořák’s three young children. The Requiem text, while serious and, of course, often somber, offers a wider array of possibilities. The two pieces are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

AK: The performance on November 19 will feature a full orchestra. How does your expertise as an organist inform your work as a conductor of both voices and instruments?

ML: Honestly, I'm not sure being an organist helps! Some would say that organists choose colors as they decide which stop combinations to use, and that could help them as they work with an orchestra. And organists are used to reading three lines of music (hands and feet). But my feeling is that musicians of all types are used to listening to many things at once, so I’m not sure organists have a leg up on it! However, I have worked in and around choruses for most of my life, including having sung in them since I was young. I give most of the credit to my teacher and mentor, Robert Page. He taught me to hear all details, the smallest to the biggest, and to keep track of everything. But he always saw the bigger picture at the same time. He was a wonderful inspiration to me, and to many people.

AK: What are your plans for the chorus as it begins its next 200 years?

ML: I like the thought of having a foot firmly planted in the present, while aware of our history. I also like the idea of promoting new music. We have commissioned a number of fine composers to write for us, and I plan to do more of that. I would like the chorus to continue singing the masterworks of Baroque, Classical, Romantic and 20th-century composers, along with works that we introduce into the repertoire through commissions. It’s a very exciting prospect to be immersed in such an eclectic profusion of musical styles.

AK: Thanks, Matthew! We look forward to SGCS’s performance of Dvořák’s Requiem on November 19, 2017.

Ann Kirschner sings with the St. George's Choral Society.