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.”
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.
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.