Despite pandemic, St. George's presses on with multimedia concert
by Laura Daly for Vocal Area Network
Posted September 4, 2020

Matthew LewisDue to the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr. Matthew Lewis, Artistic Director of St. George’s Choral Society (SGCS), found himself scrambling for a way to keep the group going. As singing in groups and concerts in enclosed spaces have been identified as a “super spreader” events, his challenge to keep the group singing was shared by other choral groups. Many ensembles ended up cancelling their upcoming fall seasons. Undeterred, Dr. Lewis approached this existential issue as a problem that could ultimately be solved. Fortunately, he found an answer, thanks to advancements in audio-visual technology.

On Saturday, November 21 at 7 PM, SGCS will present a newly commissioned piece – tentatively titled Mass (sung in Latin) – by composer Phillip Martin for choir, soloists and chamber ensemble. But unlike in previous years when more than fifty singers would get together on stage, this fall, they will appear as pixels. The choir will have their segments pre-recorded, which will then, in turn, be played back while the soloists and ensemble perform live at St. George’s Church on Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Square. The entire piece will be livestreamed, and depending on NYC policy at that point, there may be the possibility for limited audience attendance.

SGCS board member Sean Nam interviewed Matthew this August about the upcoming concert.

Sean Nam: It’s safe to say that there’s not a single individual on this planet who hasn’t been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. But you might add that the choir world has been affected to a far greater extent than some areas, given the nature of the activity. How did you feel when you realized in-person rehearsals and concerts were out of the question?

Matthew Lewis: Well, that’s a tough one. It was pretty devastating, to be honest. Especially as details kept coming forth, making the immediate future even more bleak. But I am forever an optimist, and did what I could to keep people involved, challenged and hopeful. So, we continued our weekly rehearsals online. When it became clear that we couldn’t have our concert as scheduled, we continued our weekly rehearsals, mainly to keep people entertained and engaged.

SN: You were one of the few choir groups that utilized Zoom early on, putting on four free lessons in the month of June. How was that experience (technically, etc.)  and were you encouraged by the results?

ML: I really was! I saw there was a need for people to meet, as few things (relatively) were happening on the choral scene. We had over 90 people sign up. They didn’t all attend at once, but the response was exciting. There were challenges, and we learned a lot about what Zoom has to offer. From that standpoint, I know we weren’t alone -- everyone is learning as we go along.

SN: Despite the odds, you’re putting on a fall concert, albeit digitally. How did the idea of putting on a virtual concert come about?

ML: Well, I hoped we could have an actual concert, but seeing what was happening, I soon realized this wouldn’t be possible. As I had been leading rehearsals for Choral Society as well as my parish choir, I was beginning to appreciate what we could accomplish online. So, I started talking with Phillip Martin, who is a composer friend of mine. The idea of a concert that featured both pre-recorded music and live performance came about. I am very excited about this one!

SN: How did you meet Phillip Martin, and have you worked with him before? What is his background?

ML: I met Phillip a few years ago, when I became the music director at the Church of St. James the Less in Scarsdale. Phillip sings in the choir here. We did a Christmas piece he wrote for choir, which I really enjoyed. And this past February, we had a composers’ concert in Scarsdale, which featured his Suite for Cello and Piano. It was amazing! I really loved it. Very modern, yet classical, in many ways. It had complex rhythms, beautiful melodic lines and many Baroque elements. It was immediately accessible, and the audience loved it. I was so impressed. When I had the idea of commissioning this choir piece, he was the first person I asked. And I love what I’ve seen of his Mass so far.

SN: Talk about this original piece from Martin. What was the inspiration for it and why did you choose this piece in particular?

ML: We knew what the medium would be, we just needed to iron out some details. Phillip chose the ordinary of the mass for a text. It is a “low mass,” which means there is no Gloria or Credo. The word “low” refers to its liturgical function, not the quality of it. The mass is sung in Latin -- a text familiar to most choral singers. And, it isn’t English, which is always interesting. I believe there will be new challenges for the singers, most involving technology. The piece is manageable to learn, with a few tricky spots. I believe singers will really enjoy the challenge and rewards!

SN: Technically, the concert isn’t completely virtual, is it? The ensemble and soloists will perform together at St. George’s Church in New York City’s Stuyvesant Square, while the chorus section, which is pre-recorded, will play in the background. And, according to the press release, you are entertaining the possibility of having a limited crowd in accordance with New York City policy…?

ML: That is exactly right. I know that choral singing has a way to go before it returns to normal. And it is unlikely that choirs will sing live and in person anytime soon. But small ensembles seem more possible. So, it occurred to me that, by keeping the choir parts virtual, we could actually have a live concert by combining pre-recorded elements with live ones. Of course, we will keep an eye on New York policies, but it seems likely we will be able to have a small audience in attendance.

SN: Have you found there to be any benefits or advantages to conducting a choir under these remote conditions?

ML: It is demanding on the participants, that’s for sure. In a chorus, it is easier to sing with confidence when you are supported by people singing around you. Singers can blend in with their surroundings, and are rarely put on the spot to sing solo. While many people are happy to sing their part on their own (solo), most choral singers would prefer to sing with other people. So, when singers attend virtual rehearsals, they are singing on their own. Of course, only people at home with them can hear them, but it is still daunting to some singers. At the same time, it is a great and comfortable (and safe!) way for an individual to sharpen their vocal skills -- nothing and no one to hide behind! In the end, everyone will emerge with stronger musical skills. I really believe this is a project that will be very satisfying to participants -- a rare and wonderful opportunity.

As for conducting a choir, all I can say is that I keep learning new things, especially how to communicate and offer suggestions to help people learn their part and, above all, to keep singing.

SN: Finally, this is a unique opportunity for singers new to the group to sing with the group. How would they get in touch with you to participate?

ML: Anyone can contact us through our website at www.stgeorgeschoralsociety.org/join.

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