On April 25th, the New York Choral Society will present a program compromised of Beethoven’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, a setting of two poems by Johann von Goethe, and Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, a choral symphony featuring soloists Jennifer Forni, soprano, and Jordan Shanahan, baritone. Award-winning stage and screen star Kathleen Turner will introduce A Sea Symphony with a reading of text by Walt Whitman, on which the piece is based.
This concert marks your second show with the NYCS at Carnegie Hall – how does it feel to perform in the hall again? Does it differ from how you felt before your debut?
Carnegie Hall is always a special place to perform. I don’t think one ever loses that sense of wonder at the incredible acoustics and even more importantly the sense of history that pervades the space. You really sense you are treading in the footsteps of giants when performing on that stage! I had conducted many times in Carnegie before my appointment as NYCS Music Director, so it doesn’t really feel different – just a wonderful anticipation of making music together again!
How did the theme and content of this concert come together?
I wanted to have a major anchor (no pun intended!) to the concert and have always loved Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony. Knowing that it’s not been often performed in New York and that it had been many years since the NYCS had last performed it, it seemed like the perfect capstone to our first season together – the work is a really a metaphor for the journey of life. The Sea Symphony itself would be enough for a full concert. However, I felt we needed a short work to precede it. So, I hit upon the idea of including Beethoven’s A Calm Sea and A Prosperous Voyage – his miniature masterpiece of tone painting – as a logical companion.
What makes Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage and A Sea Symphony such unique pieces – especially performed together?
Both works are based on poetry of the sea and are about metaphorical journeys. The choral and orchestral writing is incredibly evocative, not only of the implications in the texts but also of the sea itself. I’ve been talking to the chorus about the idea that both composers have responded to their respective texts in creating a sound world that really allows to listener to feel like they are “there”. Whether that’s being totally becalmed at sea and desperately waiting for a breeze to continue the journey (as in the Beethoven); or out on the open ocean with wide troughs of waves rolling in an almost cinematic vividness; or hearing the quiet, gentle rocking of the ocean under a still moonlight alone on the beach (as in the Vaughan Williams). And with the texts being by Goethe and Walt Whitman, you don’t get much better writing!
Kathleen Turner will be making a special guest appearance to introduce Williams’ A Sea Symphony with a reading of the Whitman’s poems. How did she become involved in the April concert? Are you looking forward to working and performing with Ms. Turner?
It was serendipity, really! We had been discussing the idea of introducing the Sea Symphony to our audience by having a significant artist read some of the Whitman poetry used in the work before we sing it. There’s nothing quite like hearing Whitman’s words, unadorned, in all their splendor! I felt it would help the audience better appreciate Vaughan Williams’ great achievement in his magnificent setting of Whitman’s poetry.
One of our NYCS members happens to know Ms. Turner and while at dinner recently, they got talking about NYCS and our upcoming Carnegie Hall concert. After hearing about what we doing and expressing interest in the concert, this member asked Ms. Turner if she was interested in joining us to read some of the Whitman poetry. To the great delight of all of us, she enthusiastically agreed!
We’re tremendously honored that Ms. Turner has agreed to join us and I am looking forward with great eagerness to collaborating with her! I know she will find the perfect balance in choosing which sections of the Whitman poetry used in A Sea Symphony to introduce our performance.
Is it unusual for composers to take inspiration from poets (the way Beethoven looked towards Goethe and Williams to Whitman)?
Actually, it’s not unusual at all! Composers throughout history have drawn inspiration from great words. Many of the greatest masterpieces in the repertory today are vocal works (either solo songs, a cappella choral works or choral/orchestral works) that are the result of great words inspiring a composer to write something beyond purely abstract music. Text and music together is a very powerful combination.
From your point of view, how do the poems come across in the orchestral pieces?
I think both composers took important cues from the texts they were setting. In Beethoven’s case, at the beginning of the work, we hear the complete stillness of a becalmed sea; literally nothing moving. Then, softly at first and rising excitedly through the orchestra, a musical “breeze” blows up and the chorus jubilantly responds to the “wind” in the orchestra, knowing they will reach their destination – it’s truly a masterstroke!
In the case of the Sea Symphony, Vaughan Williams uses the full palette of symphonic colors available in the early twentieth century orchestra to audibly describe the various states of the sea and carefully respond to the moods and emotions in Whitman’s text. It’s truly cinematic - the listener can vividly hear what the sea “sounds” like. Anyone who has heard Richard Rodgers’ score for the television series “Victory at Sea” will recognize the effect of “being there at sea”. He was much indebted to Vaughan Williams’ work!
What makes a piece like A Sea Symphony- a “choral symphony”?
When people hear the phrase “choral symphony”, I think they usually think of Beethoven’s Ninth. This was the first, groundbreaking use of a choral element in a “symphonic” work. However, it’s important to remember that the chorus only sings in the last twenty-ish minutes of and almost hour-long work.
During the nineteenth century, composers struggled to get out from under the long shadow of Beethoven (and the Ninth in particular) and many works experimented with combining choral and orchestral elements in symphonically conceived works. While works such as Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 combined chorus and orchestra virtually throughout, these works did not follow the typical four-movement symphonic structure. It was Vaughan Williams who created one of the first truly “choral” symphonies: the chorus singing throughout the work and its structure based on the standard four-movement symphony.
Can you tell us a little bit about the chorus’ rehearsal process? How do you prepare them for a concert?
The NYCS rehearses weekly. At the moment, we are concurrently working on our Carnegie Hall repertory (Beethoven and Vaughan Williams) alongside Verdi’s I Lombardi for the Opera Orchestra of New York. All of this repertory is chorally intensive and there’s a LOT of text to get under one’s belt! We work especially hard on getting the text intelligible and bringing the meaning and color of the text to the fore. I’m very concerned that we work on the musical aspects of phrasing and text right at the beginning of the rehearsal process, not as an afterthought after all the notes are perfect. We rehearse the deep sense of the text and music alongside the other details right from the start.
What programs and concerts can we look forward to in NYSC’s future?
We have another performance with Andrea Bocelli scheduled for this June and, of course, our annual Summer Sings in July and August at Symphony Space where the audience becomes the chorus! So, if you are looking for something to do on a hot, sticky Tuesday night in NYC, consider joining us and having some fun at a Summer Sing!
What do you like to do when you’re not conducting?
Well, that’s not often these days! However, I love to read; listen to “old-time” radio shows; explore parts of the city I’ve never been to; relax in coffee houses; watch endless re-runs of 50’s - 80’s TV shows (especially Star Trek!) and British TV – The Avengers; Are You Being Served?; Absolutely Fabulous; Downton Abbey; Sherlock, etc.