St. George's Choral Society hosts Summer Choral Festival
by Ann Kirschner for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 31, 2018

St. George's Choral Society Summer Choral FestivalSt. George’s Choral Society will host its two-week summer choral intensive beginning June 5. This year the participants will prepare Bach’s Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230, and Schubert’s Mass in C. Ann Kirschner recently spoke with Matthew Lewis, artistic director of St. George’s Choral Society.

Ann Kirschner: How did you come up with the idea for the intensive, how many years ago, and how does your approach differ from leading a chorus during the regular season?

Matthew Lewis: I came up with the idea several years ago, after hearing someone suggest it at a Chorus America convention. I thought it would be a great way to have a choral institute in the city, without people needing to leave to go offsite. This way, they can stay in New York City, continue working or doing whatever they normally do, while participating in a choral festival. Since the scope of it is only two weeks, it is a finite and manageable portion of time. During the regular season, we have a schedule that resembles a college semester schedule: fall rehearsals, with a concert just before Thanksgiving, and spring rehearsals with a concert late in April. Both "semesters" have 10-13 weekly rehearsals, on Wednesday evenings. In the summer, we move faster through rehearsals, knowing we have limited time to pull the music together. So, rehearsals are fun and they move quickly! Experienced singers love it, because it's challenging to them. Others, who may not read so well, love the challenge too. It just means they might need to work on their own, either with a piano, a friend, or by using online rehearsal tools, so they can keep up.

AK: Lobet den Herrn is identified as one of Bach’s six motets, but some scholars question whether it was actually written by Bach, as it differs in several ways from the other five. For example, the vocal writing is more instrumental in nature, and there is no chorale. Why did you choose this motet, do you think it’s an authentic Bach composition, and does it really matter who wrote it?

ML: Well, it's also interesting in that it's not written for double chorus! As an organist, I play the Toccata and Fugue in d, BWV 565, frequently. I love playing it, and people always seem to enjoy hearing it. But modern scholarship suggests Bach probably didn't write it. Honestly, it doesn't matter to me! I love the music of many of Bach's contemporaries. If it's good music, that's all I need. I feel the same way about this motet. It's a fantastic piece of music that is challenging and invigorating to sing. We will sing it using strings doubling the voices, as many of the other motets are performed. This was a common practice, even in Renaissance music. The effect is great!

AK: This motet ends with a wonderful triple-meter Alleluia. When I sang it many years ago, our conductor sat down at the piano and played it in the style of a Brahms waltz. Do you detect any Romanticism in Bach’s music?

ML: I believe all Bach's music should, to some degree, be viewed as Romantic music. Bach, at any tempo, is beautiful and a pleasure to practice. It is so deep and so well constructed, it's impossible to not enjoy it, at any tempo. So, some rubato, coupled with varied dynamics, accents, phrasing, etc, all make it wonderful and musical. And these elements are crucial in the preparation process. It may be that, for performance, we maintain some stylistic integrity, but these elements add layers that communicate to the audience.

AK: Schubert wrote his Mass in C in 1816, but he revised it more than once, the last time in 1828, just seven weeks before his death, when he replaced the solo soprano Benedictus with a choral setting. Which of the several versions will you be doing?

ML: Interesting question. Composers often change and edit their works. It can be difficult to decide which one to do! It's worth bearing in mind what forces you have. I'm sure such issues were the cause of re-writes. We will do the version for strings (two violins, no viola, cello and bass, with organ continuo). And, we will do the choral Benedictus. I like all versions equally, and I would base my decision on a number of factors. This time, I am assuming the people in the chorus enjoy singing!

AK: Schubert studied Mozart’s missae breves and the music of Michael Haydn, Joseph’s younger brother, at the time of the composition of this mass. What such influences do you see in the writing?

ML: There are many influences! Mozart and Haydn both wrote Mass settings with the same instruments. Haydn's most notable Mass with this string combination is his KleineOrgelmesse -- St. John of God. It's such a delightful piece! Schubert has some similar components, except he was under fewer time restraints. (Haydn was obliged to write a Mass that could be performed in a short amount of time -- the entire service needed to be short.)

AK: You started out as an organist, and it continues to be an important part of your musical life. Has your experience playing the organ informed your approach to choral conducting, and has your conducting influenced your organ playing?

ML: It's hard to say. Of course, I got used to reading three lines of music, which helps. And, my ears have been trained to hear multiple lines going on at the same time, including a certain degree of orchestration, as all organists do. But, all instrumentalists deal with challenges, which could potentially make anyone a good conductor! So, I'm not sure. One thing I remember, especially when working with Robert Page, was that we spent a lot of time getting my hands and arms "off the organ keyboards" so they could conduct! It was, in many ways, learning a completely new skill set. Which is why I believe any musician, with the desire, could become a conductor.

AK: St. George’s Choral Society was founded in 1817. Last fall, as part of the 200th anniversary celebration, the chorus performed Dvorak’s Requiem, and a month ago the season ended with a performance of the Verdi Requiem, in collaboration with the Greenwich Village Orchestra. Can you tell us what you have planned for the chorus’s 201st season?

ML: Haha! It's always exciting to think of what could be! Of course, I have a wish list. We are still ironing out some budget and logistical issues. We hope that, by the time of the Summer Festival, we can securely announce repertoire for the 2018-2019 season. So, stay tuned!

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