An interview with Carol Walker

Every year, the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth invite Masterwork to perform their Christmas concert. This year being transitional, Andrew asked our accompanist extraordinaire to take on the role as director for this event. Carol has been our accompanist for seven years, and she exhibits somewhat of a sixth sense when it comes to keeping up with Andrew. She never misses a beat, and seems to know exactly what he means even when he doesn’t! We are excited to have her at the helm for one concert this year. Below, she talks about her history with Masterwork, and what her process has been for directing the upcoming show.

For more on Carol, visit her website at www.musicladycarol.com. She recently placed in the top five finalists of the 2014 National Mountain Dulcimer Championship. 

Carol

How did your relationship with the Masterwork Chorus begin? 

Back in 1970 or thereabouts, I was living in an old, crummy apartment in Montclair with my then husband and toddler son, and working a boring 9-to-5 job at a bank in Newark.  There was virtually no music in my life, and I was missing it terribly.  Somehow, I happened to learn about Masterwork Chorus. At the time, they met in a building in a Morris County park near Mendham that was quite a trek from my apartment, but I decided to give it a shot and went to my first rehearsal.  David Randolph was the conductor, Michael May was the accompanist, and Shirley May seemed to be in charge of it all.

I must have found them after they had already begun their spring semester because when I came in they were hard at work rehearsing Brahms Requiem, and I immediately realized I was in way over my head.  I’d never sung in such a large chorus, nor did I have any idea how to pronounce the German. In fact, it suddenly occurred to me that I had never really sung in very many choruses at all — I had always been the accompanist.

They put me in the middle of the soprano section, and now I really felt completely overwhelmed amongst that huge sea of singers. I could not even hear my own voice!  But I loved the idea of singing with such a professional group, and knew I wanted to come back.  A cursory audition took place before I departed that night, and I was invited to return the following week.  I was overjoyed!

When I got home and explained to my then husband that I would need to bring the annual dues of $35 to the next rehearsal, he reminded me that the family budget was already stretched to the limit, but eventually caved and wrote out the check for me. The following week, with the check in my purse, I was very excited to once again begin the long trek to the rehearsal.

Unfortunately, our only car was also old and crummy, and was not running well — the steep ride up Northfield Avenue was too much for it, and it conked out halfway up.  Needless to say, the amount of money it took to have the car towed, plus the cost of the repairs, completely wiped out any hope I’d had of being a part of this venerable choral group. I was very sad when I tore up the check, but knew deep down that I really had no choice.

So yes, I had indeed “joined” Masterwork Chorus, but my experience had lasted for exactly one rehearsal.

Life moved on as it always does, other things came along as they always do, but somehow I never found my way back to Masterwork.  The memory of that one night stayed with me, however — the thrill of the huge sound they produced, the prospect of singing at Carnegie Hall, and the excitement of working with someone so energetic and professional. And I thought, maybe someday, I will go back — maybe someday, they might even be looking for an accompanist.

Fast forward to 2006 — after finally achieving a life goal in 1980 to be a high school choral teacher, I had now been happily teaching for many years, creating beautiful music with my own students, along with taking on quite a few outside accompanying gigs here and there.  The Morris County High School Choral Directors Association sponsored an honors choir every year, and I was asked to be the accompanist for that year’s program.  It so happened that Andrew Megill had already been contracted as the Guest Conductor. We’d had several rehearsals together before I learned that he was the man who had ultimately succeeded David Randolph as Masterwork’s Music Director. The concert went well, we thanked each other afterwards, and went our separate ways into the night.

In November of 2007, I got another call to accompany for Andrew (and I must give credit to Vinny Rufino, former Masterwork member and retired Morris County choral director for this referral) — Andrew was in need of a substitute for a Masterwork rehearsal, and was I available tomorrow night to play Messiah for this one-off gig?  Tomorrow night? Sure, thought I — I could go in and sightread this….  I was excited that after all those years I was actually going to accompany a Masterwork rehearsal, even if it was just for one night!

Much to my own chagrin, just as I had been for that long-ago first and only Masterwork rehearsal I had once attended, I again felt overwhelmed and in way over my head! Even though I had already worked with Andrew the previous year with the high school honors choir, I was completely unprepared for his lightning-fast tempos, and was really struggling to follow his conducting style while also trying to sightread music that was written for a full orchestra, and all the while trying to maintain a composure that exuded confidence, which was the exact opposite of what I was actually feeling.  Somehow I got through it, and Andrew thanked me.  Again, we each went off into the night on our separate ways.

I was both surprised and elated to be called again a few weeks later, and was asked to substitute one more time before the orchestra came in for the final rehearsals and performances.  Well, yes, I was happy to be asked back, but now I was really in a panic!  My teaching job was demanding, especially that time of year when I was also planning my own school concerts and other obligations, and had little time for practicing anything else. I did what I could and went to this second rehearsal, knowing that this time I couldn’t get away with the “I’m just sightreading” ploy.  Same results as the first time.  Even with the little bit of practicing I’d been able to squeeze in, I felt out of my league.  I wanted to exclaim to Andrew, “I’m givin’ ‘er all she’s got, Cap’n.  I cannae give ‘er any more!”  But of course, I didn’t know him well enough then to actually say that….

Now Messiah was all finished, and so was I, I figured.  Wrong again.  It so happened that Andrew needed to replace his former accompanist completely — she would be taking off the entire Spring Semester, with an uncertain return date.  Was I interested in filling in for the full spring semester, and perhaps beyond?  Well — now this was really something — how ironic it was that almost 40 years earlier I had sat in a Masterwork rehearsal, wondering if they would ever be interested in hiring me as an accompanist.

So, at the end of that last Messiah rehearsal, and with only a little hesitation, I eagerly agreed to be his accompanist. He said he would make arrangements for Pat Bartinique to get the music to me over the break. (Pat did indeed bring me a pile of music, all of it in German, and none of it familiar to me.) In his most gracious tone, but with no mistaking his message, he went on to point out the obvious: “Now you won’t need to be doing any more sightreading.  You will have plenty of time to practice before the next rehearsal.”  Okay.  Got it.

Off I went into the night to figure out how to find the hours it would take to get ready for each rehearsal.  It’s now 2014, and I’m still around, so I must have found a way.  I’ve never forgotten the kindness with which Andrew “nudged” me that I really needed to practice more, and I’ve tried very hard not to disappoint him…

Could you describe the theme and repertoire of the music selected for Christmas concert at St. Elizabeth’s? How did you select the music?

At first I was quite daunted by the prospect of selecting the entire repertoire for this important program. This is pretty much how things went the night Andrew sprang it on me…

“You want me to conduct? At St. Elizabeth’s? The entire chorus? Me. You want me to conduct that whole entire big huge Masterwork chorus for the St. E’s program. Not just the Camerata. The whole chorus. But you’ll choose the program, right? NO? You want me to pick the repertoire? All of it??”

But Andrew had promised he would help me, and when I had calmed down enough to listen, he suggested I start thinking about a proposed program that we could look at together.  I went back through my files (and memory!) and pulled out all my favorites – mostly shorter choral works by a variety of composers and from a variety of periods – I had either conducted or sung (or accompanied!) all of these myself over the years. I also selected certain a cappella pieces that I knew would be breathtakingly gorgeous in that soaring Gothic chapel.

Andrew and I met over dinner on a couple of occasions before he left for the summer, and he gently guided me to eliminate the ones that he thought might not be as effective as others on the list.  I started with my most favorites at the top of the list:  “How Far Is It to Bethlehem,” “Glory to God in the Highest,” and “There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob.”  From that he got the idea to pursue a theme of angels and stars, and the rest of the program began to fall into place.

What had seemed so daunting at first was now pure joy – I was developing a program of old chestnuts that I felt would be both appealing to our audience and appropriately challenging for the singers.  What actually became the next daunting thing was not which pieces I would select, but how to pare down my list of favorites and avoid a program that would run three hours long!

What has it been like directing the 100-voice choir on your own for the first time?

I confess to being a bit nervous at first – this was a huge responsibility.  I was also concerned that the chorus members might be disappointed or feel let down that their accompanist was now their conductor.  Even though everyone knew me, and had worked with me during sectionals, I had always been simply acting as a surrogate, always doing Andrew’s bidding, and never bringing my own ideas. I honestly wondered how many people would actually show up at that first rehearsal in September.  I felt an even heavier responsibility to all the new people who would attend those first couple of rehearsals, expecting Andrew, but getting someone completely different instead.

But I did my homework and launched full tilt boogie into that first rehearsal, which, I’m excited to report, was very well attended! I knew that I simply needed to be myself, and do what I do best, without being concerned that I did not have the same level of credentials as Andrew or Sun Min.  I instantly felt good vibes from everybody, and together we seem to have made a grand start, full of smiles, positive energy, mutual respect, and with very pleasing musical results.  I’ve always said that Masterwork is like my family, and it has never been truer than when I stand in front of them as their Guest Conductor.  I’m having a grand time, and I can feel that the singers are also sharing in my joy. I can’t think of a better way to share my love of teaching and gift of music than with my Masterwork family.

It’s obvious that Andrew has left his mark on this group – after all those years of working with him, we all have been very well trained.  I take very seriously my role as a steward charged with maintaining the quality and integrity of the group while we move through this transition period.

Oh, and to Andrew, I say a most sincere and heartfelt “thank you” for your gracious warmth, unending patience and wisdom, for your faith in me, and for trusting me with this opportunity. I’m also really glad you so generously allowed me to find that extra time to practice…

Upcoming for Masterwork – an emotional year.

This year will be one well-remembered in Masterwork history. We took a gorgeous trip to Germany where we performed three concerts with Cäcilien-Chor, a chorus we fondly view now as our sister chorus in Frankfurt. But besides that, our dearly loved and respected music director of 15 years, Andrew Megill, is ending his tenure with us. 

Andrew has accepted a position as director of choral activities and a professor of conducting at the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana. It’s a prestigious position and a logical step for Andrew, who is a much sought-after conductor. Though it is a great loss for us, it is an exciting time, as we are in the midst of a search for our new musical director.

Andrew will perform his final concerts with us this December for our two Messiah shows, one at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 18, and one at Ridge PAC (NJ) on Dec. 20.

For our other performances this year, we are in the very capable hands of Carol Walker, our accompanist, and Sun Min Lee, our associate conductor. Every year, the sisters of St. Elizabeth in Madison, N.J. hold a Christmas concert for their donors. Till now, Masterwork’s chamber choir, Camerata, has performed the event. This year, Carol will lead the entire 100-voice group for that event, performing pieces such as Schirmer’s O Magnum Mysterium, Walton’s Sanctus, and some exciting arrangements of various known and not-so-well-known carols.

As for Camerata, they will be performing a not to be missed show on Nov. 1 at the Denville United Methodist Church. The group of less than 20 will be singing pieces including Rheinberger AND Massa’s Kyries, some Brahms, some Mozart, some rousing spirituals, and even some folk pieces in Hungarian and Yiddish. The concert will be directed by Sun Min, who has also served as director of Camerata for four years.

Be sure to click on “2014 performance schedule” for all the details.

We look forward to having you all there in the audience as Masterwork enters into a very exciting, emotional year.

Priscilla’s favorite Messiah

Tags

,

Some weeks ago, I had a conversation with Masterwork’s longest-standing member, Priscilla Hartwell. I asked her what her favorite Messiah performance was (she’s done hundreds with Masterwork). She related a moment decades ago, when the chorus was still under the direction of David Randolph.

The chorus was getting ready to sing “And with his stripes we are healed,” which is usually sung at a pretty fast pace. Randolph was, in fact, known for conducing fleet Messiahs, usually running through the piece in well under three hours. This performance, however, was different. He raised his baton to begin the piece, and all of a sudden, an idea hit him.

“Watch me,” he mouthed to the orchestra and chorus members.

And then, unrehearsed and unplanned, he began conducting the song in half time, slower than they had every performed it.

Every chorus member, she reported, watched him intently, as they had no idea where he was going with this. He started pianissimo, and gradually brought the volume up so the piece swelled.

“And oh, it gave me chills!” Priscilla recalled.

From then on, Randolph conducted it that way every single time, making it his signature with Masterwork.

Here is the piece for reference (not Masterwork) – and for the record, it’s one of my favorite sections of the Messiah!

The night the Rodham-Clintons Came to see us! Countdown to Messiah, 34 days.

Did you know that in the midst of Hillary’s campaign for senate, America’s royal family came to see Masterwork perform Messiah at Carnegie Hall?

It’s true!

Bill, Hillary, Chelsea, and Chelsea’s boyfriend at the time came to see MW, reportedly commenting that we were the “best Messiah at Carnegie.”

The quartet made their way backstage (Secret Service in tow) to meet with the chorus. They shook everyone’s hand, and even signed some members’ scores.

I had a conversation with MW’s longest standing member, Priscilla Hartwell (also known as the Queen Mam), who has been with the chorus for 53 years. I asked her what it was like meeting the Clintons.

She started to blush.

“I don’t even want to tell you what I said to them,” she said.

Of course, that made me want to hear it more!

“I told them, if Hillary ever ran for president and won, we would sing at her inauguration!”

Sounds good to me! Sigh…lost opportunities. Would’ve been nice, wouldn’t it?

Some other chorus members’ memories of that special night:

“I was sitting with Paula and Gerry was in the audience watching. He had texted Paula that Clinton was there and the word spread like wildfire in the alto section during intermission. They were smack in the center of the first balcony and I felt like we all sang the second half of the program directly to them. I was so surprised when we got back up to the green room and Bill, Hillary, Chelsea and Chelsea’s boyfriend were there along with their Secret Service posse. I didn’t realize quite how tall Bill is!” – Dana

“I remember we were coming up the stairs after the show and people were going so slowly. I will have to tell you in person so you can see me blush and sigh. And I was getting annoyed because it was late and I was tired. Then we realized Bill, Hillary and Chelsea (and her boyfriend at the time) were greeting every chorus member. Some people got their scores signed – I was too starstruck to ask. We got to shake their hands. They were very nice. I had previously read Hillary’s biography that they liked to attend Messiah every Christmas and then, woah, there they were at our performance! Hillary was campaigning at the time. One of the guys spotted them up in a private box about halfway through our performance. SO distracting. And every time we go there I expect to see another president. Nobody else…yet. And there were secret service guys talking into their sleeves. It was so cool!” – Jenny

“Bill Clinton made me feel, for 2 minutes, that I was the most important person in the world. What a gift he has. Oh – Bill and Hillary shared reading glasses (back and forth) and really followed along with the libretto. Bill is also probably the only person who would be allowed to bring his venti Starbucks into the box.” – Ann

Tickets are still available for our Carnegie performance on Wednesday, Dec. 18 at 8 pm. Buy tickets here: www.masterwork.org

Image

Camerata Concert – Ring Out! Countdown to Messiah, 41 days.

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Camerata Concert - Ring Out! Countdown to Messiah, 41 days.

What better way to prepare for Messiah season than to join The Masterwork Camerata (Masterwork’s chamber choir) for a holiday concert. Admission is free!

Camerata will be performing:

Bach          Lobet den Herrn
Palestrina   Sicut Cervus Desiderat
Sweelinck   Hodie Christus Natus Est
Hughes      Lo, how a rose e’er blooming
Massa        Kyrie
Hogan       Great Day
Meader      While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
and various carols

Voices Unite

I wonder what forces of the universe collided to see Masterwork’s last and next concert occur just after a national tragedy. First Newtown, Connecticut, and now Boston, Massachusetts weigh heavy in our hearts as we get ready for a performance.

I am thankful that I belong to a group like Masterwork, who, spontaneously and naturally, always make it a priority to share music that embodies generosity and unity. This weekend, that natural spirit will be a welcome refuge from the tragedy our sisters and brothers in Boston faced on April 15 during the Boston Marathon Bombing. Our spring concert this year is a very special collaboration between us and Cäcilien-Chor, a chorus based in Frankfurt, Germany, whose members have travelled across the Atlantic to share this performance. Called Voices Unite, the concert will represent both American and German cultures in both music and spirit.

The members of Cäcilien-Chor are our true family in more ways than one. Not only are they part of that unique group of people worldwide who make it a point, like us, to dedicate hours our of their week to sing with each other as a community; we also share a member between us. Martina Molner, a member of Masterwork for five years, joined us from Cäcilien-Chor after she moved to the United States. In fact, it was Martina who conceived the idea of a collaboration between the two choruses.

Director Andrew Megill recalled how the idea came into being:

“After her first year, Martina told me how much she loved Masterwork Chorus and how it reminded her of her home chorus in Germany,” Andrew said. “Her feeling was that it was shocking how much we had in common. We’re about the same size, we have the same repertoire, we work at the same speed, we both have the same warm friendly atmosphere. We shared a lot of values. She was so happy to find a chorus she fit into so easily and so fast. Two years after that, she approached me because Cäcilien-Chor has a tradition of doing tours outside of Germany.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The structure of the concert will be a true joining of cultures. 20 minutes will be dedicated to American choral music directed by our own Andrew; 20 minutes will be music from Germany, conducted by the director of Cäcilien-Chor, Christian Kabitz. Then, 40 minutes of music will be sung by the two choruses together, with the conducting split in half between the two directors.

Cäcilien-Chor has a storied history. “The people sing along with so much fire and so it is a joy,” said Felix Mendelssohn about the choir. The chorus was founded in 1818, and Mendelssohn himself conducted Cäcilien-Chor for some years shortly after its birth. How cool is that?

The music Masterwork is singing was chosen very deliberately to represent the United States. Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms is sung in Hebrew, and excerpts the 108th, 23rd, 2nd, 131st and 133rd Psalms. The piece focuses on praise and peace.

Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb has similar themes, but is based on text written by poet Christopher Smart while he was held in an insane asylum. I challenge audiences to listen to us sing about “my Cat Jeoffrey . . . a cat, surpassing in beauty, from whom I take occasion to bless Almighty God” and decide whether Smart was indeed insane or just saner than the rest of us.

November 22 this year will also mark Britten’s 100th birthday.

Andrew was able to find two pieces that are uniquely connected in ways that many audiences may not be aware of:

“The Bernstein and the Britten were both commissioned by the same person—Reverand Mark Hussey of Chichester cathedral in England. He was a strong believer that the contemporary church needed to connect to the people through the highest examples of modern art that they could. He commissioned 4 or 5 of the greatest composers of his time, great visual artists such as Henry Moore and Alexander Calder, and great Christian poets of the time.”

Though Bernstein and Britten are “accessible,” Andrew explained, to audiences who may not be highly educated in music, they are still two of the greatest composers of the 21st century.

“I think that that’s something that’s related to the basic theme of Voices Unite,” he continued. “This concert is about building community. We’re doing it between the two choirs, but there’s also a way in which without dialing down the level of accomplishemtn of the music in any way, we did want this program to be widely appealing to people who may not know anything about  choral music. We’re inviting people into our world rather than saying if you love our world already, come join us—which is a valuable and important thing to do.”

Cäcilien-Chor and Masterwork will unite to sing Josef Rheinberger’s Mass in A. Rheinberger was considered the most important composer of sacred music for the Catholic church in the 19th century, and is often compared to Brahms and Mendelssohn.

Last Christmas I quoted Bernstein, who famously said “This will be our reply to violence: To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Bernstein also happened to be a friend of Irving Fine, a composer and native son of Boston. Bernstein once said of Fine, “he was rather a tragic person inside, but he never bothered anybody with those problems of his.” This seems to embody the gritty, hard-as-nails spirit of Boston, famous for its harsh winters and its forever-heartbroken sports fans. Voices Unite will join communities in more than a few ways this April, but most of all, we will participate in the joy of music, which has throughout human history soothed hurting hearts. Next week, we will sing for Boston and those around the world who suffer from violence.

We hope you will join us.

Sunday, April 21, 2013 · 4:00pm
Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Newark, NJ
Suggested Donation: $15.00
This concert is part of the Cathedral Basilica Concert Series

Thursday, April 25, 2013 · 7:30 pm
Calvary Episcopal Church, Summit, NJ
Individual Ticket: $30.00
Click here to purchase tickets.

Friday, April 26, 2013 · 7:30pm
Princeton University Chapel, Princeton, NJ
Freewill Offering

Masterwork’s 250th Messiah, Part II: O Thou That Tellest

250One of our choristers, a baritone by the name of Pete Tamburro, had a Messiah Moment at will-call on the day of our 250th performance. He was there with his veritable entourage of friends of family that had come out to see him, and he got into a conversation with a couple from Iowa who were visiting New York City for the first time. It turned out they were a brother and sister, he a finance student and she an aspiring opera singer (perfect place for them to be visiting). They were there to pick up their tickets, and it was just before noon. Pete introduced himself as a chorus member, and I’m sure they were very excited to meet him. But – they had mistaken the start time for 12 instead of 2 pm. Not to be deterred, once Pete informed them of the correct start time, they went off to occupy themselves until curtain.

In the dressing rooms, Pete told me about it, and said how it made him happy because as a musician steeped in the arts, you just don’t know how wide the appeal of what we do is. Well, as it turns out – wide enough to attract two tourists from the Midwest who made Masterwork’s Messiah the last stop on their trip, which is pretty gratifying to know (kudos to our marketing team!)

“I wish I had gotten their names,” Pete told me.

Lo and behold, though, during the concert Pete managed to spot the pair in the audience of almost 3000 (!) a few rows from the front, and was able to sing to them for the rest of the oratorio. Magic! And he even got to see them after the show, when they spotted him and waved. He got to do what Andrew always tells us – to sing with generosity – to two special people who bumped into just the right person at just the right time.

It’s especially lovely to know that people, both local and not-so-local, make it a point to include Masterwork’s Messiah as part of their Christmas. We love singing to each and every one of them.

From the Iowa brother and sister, to the little boy (a friend of a chorus member) who was just fascinated with everything that was happening on stage, to the gentleman who mouthed every single word of only the bass solos, to the woman who brought her Messiah score with her and flipped through it as she followed along every movement, to the curious man in the lower balcony who was wearing elbow-length leather gloves and a skirt – every single one of those people chose to include us, and we were privileged to include them in our Christmas too.

Masterwork’s 250th Messiah, Part I: Comfort Ye

Tags

, , , , ,

250”Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:1-3, KJV).

This year, Masterwork Chorus performed Handel’s Messiah for the 250th time over its 57-year history. The event merits several blog posts (this being the first) which will be reflections on the particular experience of the 250th performance, which was held at 2pm, Dec 23rd, on the Perelman stage in the Stern auditorium of Carnegie Hall.

Truly, the value in what we do as a chorus is the joy we bring to people. I don’t say that lightly –it’s an honor to do what we do, and it’s an honor to hear how people are blessed by the music we produce under the able baton of Dr. Andrew Megill, and David Briskin and David Randolph before him. It’s an equal honor to work with the wonderful musicians we do time and time again.

I’ve only been a member of Masterwork for two years, but I’ve noticed that every performance day, Andrew brings us a singular message: Generosity. I have heard him say, several times, that what he loves about Masterwork is the generosity with which we make music. So no matter how hard the journey has been to a particular performance; no matter how busy or challenging the semester has been; come performance day, Andrew never fails to remind us why we do what we do, and what we bring to the audience. “Looking up” is not just a reminder to watch the conductor: It’s also a reminder to connect and communicate with the audience.

During our 249th performance, held on Dec 23rd at Drew University, Andrew noticed a young boy in one of the front rows. On Sunday, he told us that every time he glanced at the boy, he seemed so interested in whatever was happening at that moment on stage. “And that’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?” Andrew said on stage at Carnegie during warm-up. “Because somebody introduced us to this at a young age.”

It’s true. There is so much talk of the arts dying, and it is times like these—times of war, struggle, and violence—when art is needed most. The one certain way to ensure creativity and the arts survive is to expose young people to it, so they, like us, can fall in love.

This brings me to show time at Carnegie. Everyone has his or her “favorites” among the Messiah pieces. For many, it’s the opening tenor aria “Comfort Ye.” This year, our tenor was Steven Brennfleck—a slight young man with a beautiful upper register. As he started to sing, you could feel the hush come over the packed house. And right at the moment when the orchestra pauses to let the tenor voice soar over the phrase “Comfort ye, my people”—a child’s voice in the audience could be heard. He wasn’t crying or being obnoxious. It was just a small child whining, and from the second row in the risers I saw a father running with the boy to the nearest exit. Steven, of course, wasn’t fazed. He kept going, and the aria was gorgeous (one wouldn’t expect less).

Fast forward to after the performance. You can never go straight to sleep after an experience like singing the entire Messiah front-to-back—my fellow choristers and I can be found many a Wednesday night after rehearsal, which ends at 10 pm, on Facebook, unable to sleep. Similarly, post-performance at Carnegie calls for celebration and libation! So I went out for dinner with my friend who had come to see the performance. We got to talking about classical music and art in general, and how masterpieces like Messiah last through the centuries because of how they speak to a common thread in humanity. Every time such a piece is performed, it is new again. And that such a piece has a different context every time it is performed, and it speaks to the time it is performed in as well as for the time from whence it came. We talked about how the challenge of such completely unique, original music, can be too much for many, especially if they are introduced to it later in life. Which brought us back to the notion of introducing art like this to children. Which brought us back to that noisy child in the audience. Which brought us back to the idea of context.

My friend was sitting in the fourth row. As Steven was singing “Comfort Ye,” her eyes were closed. She told me that how as she was sitting there, letting the music wash over her, she heard that child’s cry from behind her right at the moment of one of the most poignant phrases in Messiah. And she couldn’t help but recall the massacre at Newtown, Connecticut, which has been coloring all the activity of what should be a joyful season in America. She said she looked up at Steven—he was speaking comfort and he had the most peaceful expression on his face. The child’s voice in the back of the hall was so spontaneous, yet so apt at that moment, that she couldn’t help crying. The innocence of the child reminded her of renewal, and she was comforted.

Masterwork’s 250th performance of Handel’s Messiah was for such a time as this. In this moment, in this time, our music meant something very specific. And I am thankful every day to be a part of that work which we love, that work we call art.

“This will be our reply to violence: To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” – Leonard Bernstein.

Masterwork’s Director, Andrew Megill, is in Montréal!

Image

Andrew Megill

All of us here in the Masterwork Chorus know how lucky we are to be able to sit at the feet of one of the nation’s most respected choral conductors every week. As one member said, it’s like taking a free graduate course in music. Dr. Andrew Megill, who holds degrees from the University of New Mexico (BM, Theory and Composition), Westminster Choir College (MM, Choral Conducting), and Rutgers University (DMA, Choral Conducting), all with highest honors, is taking a sabbatical from his teaching position at the Westminster Choir College of Rider University to do some great work in Canada this year.

While we do miss him on the weeks he is in Montréal, he is spending about half our rehearsal time in New Jersey and providing an extra workshop per semester so we can hone the work we’re doing for the season—Handel’s Messiah (of course), Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Elegischer Gesang, John Tavener’s Funeral Ikos, Frank Ticheli’s There Will Be Rest, C. H. H. Parry’s Never Weatherbeaten Sail, and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Rest (phew).

So what is our fearless leader doing in La métropole? A whole lot, actually.

Andrew has a wealth of knowledge from his years of study, teaching, and experience. He has now sit down to write a book about Baroque music, since there isn’t a comprehensive textbook out there that students can use in a classroom setting. As of now, he has three publishers interested in reading it, and it is about 10 percent complete.

Currently, though, he is also fulfilling an exciting contract with the Montréal Symphony Orchestra (Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal) and Chorus.

“Like the Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco Symphonies, the resident chorus [in Montréal] is a combination of professional and volunteer singers,” he explained. Last year, he spent some time re-auditioning and gathering a fresh group of singers to bring the symphony chorus forward, which had been struggling as of late, and ended up with 110 volunteers and about 50 professional singers to form quite a substantial group. He will, however, pare the group down for some work, including Bach or Handel pieces.

Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal is led by Kent Nagano, the Symphony’s music director and resident rock star.

“Nagano has been there for seven years,” Andrew said. “Their orchestra is one of the finest orchestras in the world—certainly for me, one of the two or three best orchestras in North America right now. Nagano has done a lot of work with building the new hall and getting them a new home and getting them a new orchestral sound. The choral sound was not good, and part of his feeling was that for his legacy he wanted to have every part of [the Symphony] working. So that’s my mandate—to come in and revamp the choir from top to bottom. It’s a totally new group and they’re singing very beautifully. For their first concert I was really pleased.”

Image

Kent Nagano. Photo courtesy of theartoftheconductor.com

The secret behind Nagano’s rock star status, according to Andrew, is the Symphony’s extremely successful and creative marketing committee. They have managed to make Nagano’s name so ubiquitous that even average, blue-collar workers who don’t typically listen to classical music know who he is and what he does.

“They all think of him as one of their hockey teams that they are proud of,” Andrew said. “Because of that, they have this very interesting statistic that they average 85 percent capacity for every concert he conducts. They only average about 60 percent for every other conductor.”

(Side note: Montréal’s hockey team is the Montréal Canadiens).

Because it is a Francophone chorus, Andrew’s contract states that he has to conduct half of the rehearsals in French.

“….and so they’re mostly in English,” Andrew laughs, “and they’re very gracious to me. Nagano’s advice – he’s an American as well – is if you do all the measure numbers, page numbers, and rehearsal numbers in French, that’s 50 percent of the words one says in a rehearsal, so it works out.”

It can be difficult teaching at the level Andrew maintains in a language not your own: “I can’t talk very much about meaning in a specific way,” he said. “I don’t have the richness of vocabulary that I do in English—but luckily they don’t make fun of me very much.”

One of the best words he has learned, Andrew quipped in one of our rehearsals, is the French word for the radiator dial. When he wants to crank up intense emotion or feeling, he uses that word (and the appropriate hand motions) and the chorus understands exactly what he means.

Music truly is the universal language.

This upcoming year, Andrew will be doing a smaller season, opening with Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ. “It’s a piece I really love but have avoided doing mostly because the biggest difficulty is how much French there is, but to do it with a Francophone chorus will be great. It is really a dream come true because we get to work on the music rather than words and how they sound.”

The chorus will also be performing Brahm’s Requiem (which will be broadcast on CBC radio, and can be streamed online), and will end the season with one of Andrew’s favorite pieces of music: Joan D’Arc au Bucher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) by Honegger.

“I think Joan is [Honegger’s] masterpiece, but it’s virtually never performed because it’s a huge work (about 85 minutes), all of it’s in French, it’s very difficult, and it’s got the most enormous orchestra so it’s very expensive.”

Sounds like a blast to me.

The first concert Andrew conducted with the chorus was Monteverdi’s Madrigaux Querriers et Amoureux (Madrigals of Warriors and Lovers). It was part of a fascinating marketing campaign that Andrew described for us:

They did something fascinating for my first concert, the Monteverdi concert, called Virée Classique [“The Classical Virus,” though the series was marketed in English as “A Cool Classical Journey”]. The concert series was marketed towards people that have not experienced much classical music.

“[Montréal Symphony’s] new hall is part of a complex of five performing halls in one plaza. Most of them are not used for music – there’s an experimental theater, a dance theater, two really big opera houses and then this beautiful hall for the Symphony.

Image

The Montréal Symphony Orchestra’s new home, La Maison Symphonique de Montréal, has no “official” English translation. Photo courtesy of Bob Essert.

“The Montréal Symphony owns a stake in this plaza so we were given all five performing halls for 24 hours. They did I think 72 concerts of 45 minutes in all five halls at $10 a pop. The point was it was supposed to be like tapas. You should try a little classical music, and if you don’t like it, it’s over in 45 minutes. They overlapped with one starting every 15 minutes so people could go to as many as they liked, and they sold out every concert. They sold 15,000 tickets for the day. They were mostly families—they did a lot of free outdoor events in the surrounding plaza, they had the brass orchestra playing with jazz singers, and they had seven pianists who were playing various things throughout the day. They played in the plaza for 10 minutes, whatever they wanted to play. There was such a buzz around it.”

All this work Andrew is doing also serves the purpose of being a respite for him. He’s worked hard for over a decade at Westminster, taking on roles over and above teaching.

“I have found it a little hard emotionally to let go of the responsibility of the school. It’s good for me to go away for a year, and when I come back, I can just be a professor again. I’m really looking forward to that because it’s been too much anxiety—too much Mozart Requiem” he quipped. “I’m looking forward to coming back and being just a musician again.”

And isn’t music the reason we all do what we do here?

We’re very proud of Andrew and all the excellent, exciting work he’s doing up in Montréal. Be sure to follow the work of Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal here.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.