St. George’s Choral Society hosts annual Summer Choral Festival
by Rachel Ruoff for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 21, 2019

Matthew LewisWith many choirs on hiatus during the summer months, some singers are left searching for opportunities to flex their vocal cords until their regular rehearsal schedules resume in the fall. St. George’s Choral Society, a stalwart of the New York City choral community, offers a solution. Beginning Tuesday, June 4, the group will host its annual Summer Choral Festival, a two-week choral intensive that culminates in a performance of Durante’s Magnificat and Handel’s Laudate pueri, HWV 237 on Saturday, June 15. St. George’s Choral Society president and soprano Rachel Ruoff sat down with the choir's artistic director, Matthew Lewis, to discuss this exciting opportunity that’s open to all singers looking for a creative way to spend their summer evenings.

Rachel Ruoff: What influenced your decision to perform Handel's Laudate pueri and Durante's Magnificat for the Summer Choral Festival?

Matthew Lewis: I try to find pieces that are fun to sing, challenging and yet manageable for the rehearsal parameters we have. Some of the big choral pieces would be fun, but we would have trouble learning them in four rehearsals. Having said that, we've definitely done some difficult works in past festivals! Like the year we did the Poulenc Gloria along with the Bernstein Chichester Psalms. These pieces are, to some degree, standard choral repertoire, but it was tough getting them learned and finessed in four rehearsals. The Durante and Handel we are doing this year are delightful and fun pieces, both in a similar style. The orchestration is strings only for the Durante, and strings plus oboes for the Handel.

RR: Exactly how does the Summer Choral Festival work? How did it come about?

ML: The festival came about after hosting Summer Sings for many years. These are occasions where singers gather to read through choral masterworks just for fun, often with a guest conductor. These are great and people love them. But I noticed that people enjoy these Summer Sings more when they have a slightly better grasp on the piece. For example, it's not too much fun if singers are led through a given movement and really don't know their notes, or how it goes at all. The experience goes by without too much gratification in these cases. So, I thought it would be nice to spend a little more time on the pieces, then to have an actual performance of them as a goal.

So, the Summer Festival runs over two weeks, with two rehearsals each week (Tuesday and Thursday evenings), followed by a Saturday afternoon dress rehearsal and evening performance. It is a fun, relaxed environment. Many singers like the fast pace of them, since the pieces need to be learned rather quickly and efficiently. A core of professional section leaders helps with the reading as well as technically supported singing. The results are often very impressive! We've done some exciting concerts in the past, including the Haydn Lord Nelson Mass, Brahms Requiem (piano, four-hand version), Schubert Mass in C and Bach Lobet den Herrn, just to name a few.

RR: How does the accelerated rehearsal schedule for the festival affect your approach to the pieces as a conductor?

ML: I need to have things planned, that's for sure! Since rehearsal time is tight, I come up with a rehearsal schedule that covers everything, trying to make sure all the singers feel confident and comfortable when it comes to the performance.

RR: Why would you recommend singing in the festival to a choral singer?

ML: I often say it is like a choral "staycation." People can remain in the city without going to a choral festival elsewhere (which is a lot of fun!). They can keep working, or doing the things they normally do when not on vacation. Since the schedule is somewhat demanding of people's time, it is also a finite period of time. It doesn't endure for several months, as SGCS does for the seasonal concerts. This is all contained in a two-week period. Many people can deal with the extra demands on their schedules, knowing it will be within a two-week period.

RR: Do you have a list in your head of "dream pieces" you'd like to conduct some day? If so, what are they?

ML: Yes! I have many. I've always wanted to conduct Mendelssohn's Elijah, which we will do in the fall. I also love Tippett's A Child of Our Time, which I hope to do someday. Bach's St. Matthew Passion would be an amazing project too! But honestly, I am excited about Durante and Handel for this summer -- I think it's going to be perfect summer repertoire.


Rehearsals will be held at St. George’s Chapel, 5 Rutherford Place, one block east of Third Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets, on

  • Tuesday, June 4, 7:00–9:30 PM
  • Thursday, June 6, 7:00–9:30 PM
  • Tuesday, June 11, 7:00–9:30 PM
  • Thursday, June 13, 7:00–9:30 PM
  • Saturday, June 15, dress rehearsal 2:00–5:00 PM
The concert is at 7:00 PM on Saturday, June 15. Visit www.stgeorgeschoralsociety.org/summer-choral-festival to apply.

Rachel Ruoff sings soprano with and is the president of the St. George's Choral Society.