“Resounding Joy” — an interview with Chris Shepard

This Spring, Masterwork is performing two spring concerts, each led by one of our two finalists for new music director. You can read our interview with our first finalist here. Our seconChris-Shepard-200x300d finalist, Chris Shepard, will be conducting our final concert for the season on May 9th. The theme is “resounding Joy,” and he has selected pieces that reflect that sentiment.

Shepard received his Bachelor of Music degree in music education from the Hartt School of Music in 1987, and his Master of Music degree in choral conducting from the Yale School of Music in 1992. He received his Ph.D. in musicology from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music at the University of Sydney (Australia) in 2012, where he worked under the direction of Dr. Kathleen E. Nelson. He has had a distinguished career, and has over the years been closely associated with the works of Bach. In 2010, he joined The Dessoff Choirs as the group’s 8th Music Director. Under his leadership, the group has launched an annual Midwinter Festival, performed in Mexico City and London, and expanded its focus on contemporary music as well as established masterpieces.

Here he is, in his own words.

Tell us a little bit about how conducting and teaching styles, and how your past experiences have informed them?

I have been lucky enough in my career to work with the widest age range possible of singers, from 5 to 95!  It always amazes me how one is able to borrow techniques from one age group for another.  For example, with kids, I’ve always tried to inspire them to bring the seriousness and musical high-mindedness that comes with working with sophisticated adults, creating wonderful challenges and high goals.  The same is true for working with adults: I love to bring the high energy and joy that kids bring to my rehearsals with avocational choirs like the Masterwork Chorus.  I figure that everyone is a little tired from a full day of working, so a quick pace can be really rejuvenating.  At the same time, I’m not afraid to be a “teacher” on the podium, bringing vocal and musical techniques that I’ve learned over the years to my work with adult choirs too.

How did you select the upcoming program for the spring concert? Can you tell us a little bit about the music selection, such as the history of the music itself and what history you personally have with the pieces? What does the theme “Resounding Joy” mean to you?

Since this venture is really a “getting to know you” exercise, I’ve chosen pieces that I especially love, and works that I have a long relationship with.  A number of them are written or edited by composers and conductors whom I have known for many years.  Richard Charlton’s To See a World was written for my Sydneian Bach Choir; I have known Gwyneth Walker and her music since my undergraduate days; Chris Eanes, whom I taught at the Taft School– and who taught at Blair Academy– rediscovered the Galuppi for his doctoral thesis, and Lex Dashnaw, who arranged the Ives, was a professor of mine at Hartt.  Of course, I had to do some Bach and Handel, since Baroque music is such an important part of my musical heritage, and I first hear the Franck Psalm 150 when I pulled organ stops in a concert in high school!  Although the Brahms quartets were chosen for me, I know I would have chosen some Brahms in any case– after Bach, I think he is the composer with whom I have the greatest affinity.  And all of it is under the umbrella of “Resounding Joy” because so much of this music is powerfully joyful, the same emotion that I hope we create together in our rehearsals and performances!

How has the rehearsal and preparation experience process been, now that we’re a week out from performance?

Though I can’t speak for the Chorus, this has been such a wonderful experience for me!  I have been repeatedly stunned by just how open the singers are to new ideas, and by how exceptionally well they have been trained by Andrew.  We’ve had so many laughs because I’ve given a direction and then asked, “Have you heard this before?”– and everyone laughs because Andrew has been placed such an emphasis on it in his own rehearsals.  My greatest joy in rehearsal is watching singers take musical and vocal risks– and feeling trusted by them as they encounter my new ideas.  It has been a privilege to work with this storied ensemble, and I think the concert is going to be great!  To that end, a special nod should be given to Carol Walker, who is such a fine pianist and choral accompanist…what a joy to work with her, and how lucky you are to have her at the keyboard.

“Come Away” – an interview with Sun Min Lee

This Spring, Masterwork is performing two spring concerts, each led by one of our two finalists for new music director. The first finalist, Sun Min Lee, has spent the last four years as our associate conductor. She has also taken on the role of conductor of Masterwork’s chamber choir, Camerata, with whom she has developed a varied repertoire. She is the Robert Cutler Professor of Practice in Choral Arts at Lehigh University, where she leads the women’s choir Dolce, is an assistant conductor of Lehigh Choral Arts, teacher of aural skills for both beginners and advanced musicians, and overseer of the voice program.

I talked to Sun Min to get insight into the upcoming spring concert, titled “Come Away,” to be held on March 7 (details at the link). Here she is, in her own words.

Talk a little bit about how you came to be associated with Masterwork. What have you learned from your time being associate conductor with us?

Andrew [Megill] and I have known each other since 1996 at Westminster Choir College, first as a teacher (Andrew) and a student (myself) and later as colleagues.   It’s hard to believe that we have enjoyed almost twenty years of friendship.  In 2011, Andrew asked me to be the associate conductor of the Masterwork Chorus, and I enthusiastically said “Yes!”.  Working with the Masterwork Chorus and Masterwork Camerata has been quite remarkable.  You are a group of dedicated and passionate music lovers.  Your commitment to bringing high quality choral arts to the community is extraordinary.

How did you select the upcoming program for the spring concert? Can you tell us a little bit about the music selection, such as the history of the music itself and what history you personally have with the pieces? What does the theme “Come Away” mean to you?

Let me answer the last question first.  The theme “Come Away” means a warm invitation to a musical journey together in celebration of love and life.  We begin with “Evening Hymn”, a solemn prayer for the end of day (also known as Compline) set for organ and choir.  Paulus’ “The Road Home” and Brahms’ “Geistliches Lied” are songs of assurance which describe the hope for guidance throughout our life.  The former song presents a simple but beautiful melody and the latter one a double canon that ends with a glorious “Amen” section.  Next, “Come Away” and “ My love dwelt in a northern lands” are madrigals composed by English composers 300 years apart.  If “Come Away” carries the lovers delight, the latter draws the relationship with its lover in the picturesque scene of a cold land.  The next three pieces by Brahms are the highlight of the program and they present three very characteristic stories about lovers.  “Wechsellied zum Tanze” tells the story of two dancing couples with opposing emotions.  You will hear very distinctive musical shifts between these two couples.  “Neckereien” is a dialogue between a man and a women as he tries for her heart impatiently.  “Der Gang zum Liebchen” presents a walk to the beloved under the moonlight.  All three pieces are accompanied by piano, which adds to the expressions of the story.  We conclude our program with three sacred works.  “Magnificat”, written by Steven Sametz, joins rich harmonies and powerful singing with a majestic organ accompaniment.  Spirituals have always been inspiring to me.  “Hear my prayer” has become one of my favorite songs, with its melody and profound words incredibly drawn together.  Our final song, “Great Day”, will lead you with uplifting joy to come away!

How has the rehearsal and preparation experience process been, now that we’re a week out from performance?

I cannot wait for our performance this week!  I am thrilled to share this wondrous music with the choir and the audience.  Rehearsals are foreshadows of the ultimate performance.  For the last nine weeks, we have experienced some incredible sounds, many laughs, amazing musical expressions, and deep inspiration.  I believe we will all journey together for the greater experience this Saturday.

Two Andrews: Andrew Megill’s Legacy and the Next Generation

As Masterwork completes yet another successful Messiah season, we are saying goodbye to our dear friend, mentor, and music director of 15 years, Andrew Megill. As we do so, we turn the bitter into sweet by focusing on his legacy.

Andrew taught us to sing first and foremost with generosity. While precision, artistry and musicality were of utmost importance in our training and rehearsing with him, Andrew always taught us that empty perfection was not the final goal. Rather, a connection with the audience and the music would bring the most richness to the experience.

Before each performance of Handel’s Messiah, Andrew would remind us that there may be someone in the audience hearing the piece for the first time…and someone hearing it for their last. I thought sharing the view of Masterwork’s number 1 fan, 12-year-old Andrew Hanrahan, would be a fitting tribute to the Maestro as we bid him adieu.

Andrew attends Masterwork’s Messiah every year. He brings his own score and knows every movement of the work almost by heart. His face is now a sight we all look forward to seeing when we get on that stage. A budding conductor himself, he looks up to Andrew M., and was very excited to meet him backstage this past Christmas season.

Here is Andrew H., in his own words.

Andrew, tell us a little bit about yourself. 

I am 12 years old and have lived in Randolph, NJ my whole life. I love to read, knit, art projects, and music! I don’t really have very many dislikes, and my dream for the future is to be a surgeon as well as conductor one day. I would also love to play my piano and sing in a chorus and maybe even be a soloist too!!

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I heard you want to be a conductor. How did you become interested in that? 

I became interested in becoming conductor because I like to be able to see all the instruments on a score, then onto a stage and help all of the instruments come together to perform a beautiful piece of music! I also love being the closest person to the music! I have composed my own scores for different instruments on my own staff paper. It’s a lot of work but I love to do that, too!

How did you first become interested in Messiah?

I became interested in Messiah just from hearing it play in my home, year round. My mom starting taking me when I was little. My grandfather loved classical music and used to take my mom to Messiah since she was little and other pieces of music too. My mom continued the tradition every year and brought all three of us children (I have 2 older sisters) to Messiah since we were little. When my sisters were little (before I was even born), they used to listen to Messiah in the playroom, on their own. They know every word to Messiah, just like me and my Dad too! My mom has taken my sisters to see Messiah in England too.

What’s your favorite piece in Messiah and why?

That is really hard for me to choose. I love The Trumpet Shall Sound, because of the beautiful sound of the horn, and the solo bass performing together. It gives me the chills! I also love Oh Death, Where is Thy Sting. All of Messiah is wonderful so it’s hard for me to pick a favorite piece.

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Left to right: tenor soloist Eric Rieger, bass soloist David Newman, Andrew Hanrahan, soprano soloist Rebecca Mariman. Backstage at RidgePAC.

How did you first hear about Masterwork? 

I first heard about Masterwork when my mom took me to see them when I was little. I’ve also seen Masterwork perform other pieces like Mozart’s Requiem and others. My mom has been going to Masterwork performances since she little and has kept so many of her ticket stubs which show two other conductors named David.

I see that you play the piano – how long have you been doing that and do you play any other instruments?

I have been playing piano for three years, harpsichord for two, as well as cello and viola.

How do you think Andrew has influenced your musical life? 

Andrew is an inspiration to me. I love watching how everyone looks at him, like he’s truly the leader. The chorus, soloists and an entire orchestra. He makes everything come together. I’ve seen many performances of Messiah and other concerts performed by different groups and conductors but there’s something very special about Andrew Megill. I can tell he loves what he does and he smiles and seems like he would be a good friend to anyone.

IMG_6526I know Andrew has spoken to you backstage – what are some memorable things you have taken from your conversations with him?

I walked in and I was so excited. He shook my hand and I couldn’t believe it!! It is funny because the first thing he said to me was “Ohhh you have the Leonard Van Camp full score!!” He then opened to a random page and he gave me a quiz. He asked, “What’s important on this page?” I said, “I think the breath mark.” He said, “Good Answer!!” and then we laughed. The soloists were all there too. It was like a dream come true for me. He posed for pictures (my mom took so many!) and he wrote a very special note to me on the first page of my score. I made my wallpaper on my iPad a picture of the two of us. The two Andrews!!! I will really miss him and I hope that I’ll see him again one day.

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Special thanks to Andrew’s mother Alyssa Hanrahan for the photos, and for facilitating this interview!

A Landmark Messiah

Many of you know that this will be our director Andrew Megill’s last Messiah with Masterwork. He has served in this position for 15 years and has proven not only an incredible musical director, but also a generous and unparalleled teacher and mentor.

Andrew’s final Carnegie Hall appearance with The Masterwork Chorus will be tomorrow, Thursday Dec. 18, 2014 at 7:30 pm (note time change from last year). Tickets are still available via www.masterwork.org.

And finally, Andrew’s farewell performance will be Handel’s Messiah at RidgePAC on Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014 at 8 pm.

Undoubtedly these two performances will have special meaning, and you will not want to miss them. Bring friends, loved ones (and yourselves) for what promises to be two especially moving performances from Dr. Megill and The Masterwork Chorus.

Camerata concert wrap-up: Grace 2014

This year, Masterwork began November with another warm performance from its chamber choir, Camerata. The chorus, led by Sun Min Lee, performed music around the theme “Grace” at the Denville Community Methodist Church on Nov 1. The concert was well attended by local community, church members, and of course members of the larger chorus.

Sun Min has been leading Camerata for four years, and under her direction the group (which re-auditions every three years) has grown into quite a family of dedicated musicians. For instance for this performance, the group only had four rehearsals before show time! Below are some clips of the performance.

The first is Ubi Caritas (Maurice Durufle), which Camerata has made a regular part of its repertoire now.

The second is a new song for the group, Esti Dal (Zoltan Kodaly), a Hungarian song with the solo performed by Carol Rounds.

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Trying to get ourselves together for a photo…

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And don’t we look great!

Tastings 2014

Every year, Masterwork hosts “Tastings,” our most fun (and sophisticated) fundraiser, at Essex Fells Country Club. This year, each ticket gets you a plated dinner as well as the opportunity to taste a multitude of wines (the best part) donated by the Wine Library paired with various cheeses.

The main attraction is of course the live auction, which as yet hasn’t failed to generate vivacious participation and tons of fun. The pieces range from artwork to antiques to home decor items. Outside the artwork, an exciting offer up for bidding is a 2-night hotel package for 4, together with 4 tickets to Carnegie Hall, anytime between Feb 1 and March 31. The package is valued at $1500!

There will also be some silent auction pieces available. Below are some sneak peaks into what’s to come this Friday (click each image to enlarge).

Tastings will take place Fri. 10/24/2014, 7:30-10pm at Essex Fells Country Club (219 Devon Rd., Essex Fells NJ). Cost is $68/person. RSVP to emilliken_mw@masterwork.org. We hope to see you there!

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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. 

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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

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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

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