A chat With New York Choral Society Music Director David Hayes

Classic Arts Features   A chat With New York Choral Society Music Director David Hayes
On Dec. 18 at Carnegie Hall, the New York Choral Society will present a program featuring Hector Berlioz’ L’Enfance du Christ, which will be performed in French with English supertitles, and Jennifer Higdon’s O magnum mysterium.

They will be joined by an orchestra and four stellar soloists who perform with the Metropolitan Opera: Heather Johnson, mezzo-soprano, William Burden, tenor, Alan Held, bass-baritone and Richard Bernstein, bass.


As you make your debut with the New York Choral Society this month, what thoughts will be going through your head right before the performances?

I think what will be going through my mind most of all, will be the celebration of the institutional continuity about to occur. Every organization goes through cycles and this is one more cycle for a venerable institution with a grand history. My hope is to bring my own strengths to bear as we build a future together and to help the chorus to grow and expand their long and short-term horizons.

How did you decide to perform L’Enfance du Christ and O magnum mysterium for this concert?

The Berlioz is a work I've long loved and never had a chance to perform in its entirety. I find it such a compelling, colorful and beautiful work that brings out the best in Berlioz's touch for color and dramatic impact. It also is a work that showcases the incredible intimacy and delicacy with which he was able to write. These are not characteristics most people associate with Berlioz's music so, I find it satisfying to be able to bring both the dramatic weight and the intimate beauty of his music to the listening public.

It's a work that has important work for the chorus and showcases them in very subtle and delicate music, often a cappella. I knew we had a big concert in the Spring (Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony) so I wanted to showcase the chorus's artistry and sensitivity. Finally, it's a great story! A young family escapes as refugees from the murderous decrees of a corrupt tyrant; faces all sorts of hardships in the flight to safety and finally find comfort and acceptance in the home of a family that should be their "enemy". The miracle of children; the warmth of family, the kindness of strangers - what could be a better story for the Hoiday Season!

Jennifer Higdon's O Magnum mysterium is a recent work by one of America's most performed composers, a Pulitzer-prize winner and a friend of many years. It perfectly complements the Berlioz story and it's intentional anachronisms fit into Berlioz's way of writing music that sounds old but has a distinctly contemporary richness.

How did you prepare the chorus for the challenge and how did they respond?

We've worked very hard at developing their A cappella aesthetic and sensitivity to text color and dramatic meaning. I've found their response to these priorities both enthusiastic and their eagerness and flexibility in embracing the concepts we've been working on has be extremely gratifying!

What is one of the most memorable performances you’ve experienced, either as a musician or a concertgoer?

I suppose I'd have to say the first time I heard Mahler's 8th Symphony, live. It was a performance in Boston at Symphony Hall - Seiji Ozawa conducted the BSO, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (which included my grandmother - a very fine contralto!) and a starry cast of soloists. The moment at the end of the first part when the additional brass ensemble joined the full forces already singing and playing, flooding into the hall like a tidal wave of sound was, and still is, unforgettable.

What do we have to look forward to in the spring from NYCS?

We have a wonderful sonic spectacular in Ralph Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony set to poetry of Walt Whitman. It's hard to describe the incredible sound the audience will experience in Carnegie Hall as the full chorus and orchestra cut loose in the immense waves of choral and orchestral writing. It's a work that manages to capture both the immensity of the sea and also it's intimacy...no mean feat! We'll pair that with a small masterpiece of Beethoven's Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt - another work that perfectly captures a sonic picture of the sea through the moving poetry of Goethe.

Was there a defining moment or breakthrough when you decided that music would be your life?

The very first piece of classical music I ever heard was the last movement of Beethoven 9. Until then, I had imagine being either a doctor or astronaut, I think. However, that encounter was so impactful that I decided fairly early after my initial exposure to this music that surrounding myself in and performing it was what I wanted to do with my life. Even though I started rather late (I was 11) I went about learning everything I could about classical music with great abandon...I think people thought I was a rather strangely obsessed teenager!

Any specific classical music recording that you couldn’t live without? / What are your ten desert-island discs?

Hmmm, that's a tough one! I listen to a lot of Renaissance choral music to relax and anything by the Tallis Scholars or the Hilliard ensemble would be right up there! I also love listening to historic performances so I guess if I had to make a list (no order!!!) it'd look something like this:

1) Bruckner - Symphonies, 8 & 9 (VPO, BPO - Furtwängler)

2) Praetorius - Mass for Christmas Day (Gabrieli Consort and Players - McCreesh)

3) English String Music (Sinfonia of London, New Philharmonia Orchestra - Barbirolli)

4) Shchedrin - The Sealed Angel (Berlin Radio Chorus - Parkman)

5) Puccini - La Rondine (Ghiorgiu/Alagna, London Symphony - Pappano)

6) Strauss - Metamophosen, Four Last Songs (Janowitz, Berlin Philharmonic - Karajan)

7) Gesualdo - Tenebrae responses (Tallis Scholars - Phillips)

8) Beethoven - Symphonies 4 & 7 (Concertgebouw Orchestra - Kleiber)

9) Barber - Knoxville Summer of 1915 (Steber, NY Phil)

10) MacMillan - Seven Last Words from the Cross (Britten Sinfonia, Polyphony - Layton)

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