Brooklyn singers help breathe life into traditional choral gems alongside newly composed music
“The Art of Seeing” by Michael Milton
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep into our ears; soft stillness, and the night, become the touches of sweet harmony. Lorenzo, Act Five, Scene One, Merchant of Venice
When Ralph Vaughan Williams wound Lorenzo’s rapturous speech into his Serenade to Music, Williams presented us with an embarrassment of riches; Shakespeare’s breathless prose is balanced flawlessly with Williams’s pitch perfect embodiment of a sound that is, for me, a euphonic picture of pastoral England.
The pull of music at our hearts is undeniable; a composer’s ability to send us tumbling through space and time to faraway places or into chambers deep within ourselves is magical.
Our last few generations of music listeners have had the luxury of being able to go on these journeys easily, with access to music by way of CD’s, tapes, albums or the radio.
Yet, there was a time not too far out of memory when music was far less accessible; the concert hall, an opera house or church were the only forums for a serious listener’s introduction to new music.
I recall reading a story about a simple farmer in 1734 Germany who walked five miles, trudging through deep December snow, to hear the first performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig and then walked the five miles home that night.
What must have been playing through his mind on that long haul home? Was he humming the bouncy Jauchzet frohlocket or was he recalling the gorgeous Wie sol lich dich empfanger after just one hearing? Or, did he reflect more wistfully on the possibility that this could have well been the only time he would hear this oratorio in his lifetime?
Think right now of your favorite piece of music and then imagine you will never get to hear it again. Unlike the farmer, you, at least, have probably already listened to your favorite dozens of times. Of course, our farmer had far fewer distractions than we have today. So perhaps he was simply better able to take in more on a first listen.
Regardless of my fascination with how audiences of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries digested music, ultimately it was the power of the music itself that brought our farmer out on a cold Weihnacten night to hear sweet harmony.
Such harmony is in immortal souls; But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come ho! And wake Diana with a hymn:
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear, and draw her home with music.
And it is the power of music which brings seventy or so singers out each week to rehearse with New Amsterdam Singers in Manhattan. NAS is a mid-sized, mixed voice avocational chorus and is, this year, celebrating its 50th anniversary, all fifty years under the direction of the vastly talented and grand spirited Clara Longstreth.
“Coming home to Brooklyn can be a real pain if the MTA is having issues… But I don’t think I’ll ever change choirs.”
NAS also provides listeners an experience which mirrors our German farmer’s; we often sing especially commissioned music heard for the first time by our audiences.
I sing with NAS and live and work in the neighborhood where we both rehearse and perform; my sole criteria to audition for NAS was its convenience. Clearly, I didn’t share our German farmer’s intrepidness. But then, I didn’t know the extraordinary talent of our singers nor the enormous creative energies and excellent taste shared with us by Ms. Longstreth.
I reached out to the Brooklyn residents who make the long trip up the western side of Manhattan each week to sing with New Amsterdam Singers in hopes of better understanding their individual impulses to journey so far from home to raise their voices in song.
Rebecca Harris (Soprano): “I love the collective passion to create beautiful music and that we practically always succeed at doing so! Coming home to Brooklyn can be a real pain if the MTA is having issues… But I don’t think I’ll ever change choirs.”
Steve Holtje (Bass): “I love our repertoire! Such a great mix of eras and styles. Irving Fine’s ‘Design for October’ is a piece that has stayed in my mind the longest. I am so happy that whenever I want to, I can listen to our recording of this with the late, great Andre Guthman as the tenor soloist.”
Mike Landy (Bass): “I’ve stuck with NAS despite the geographic undesirability. I like the varied repertoire that emphasizes living composers and the high level of quality achieved by our singers. The best pieces I find are hard to rehearse because I choke up with tears while rehearsing them. We did a Ben Moore piece about a letter from Vincent van Gogh and it was heart rending.”
Jayanthi Bunyan (Soprano): “When I first moved here, I asked David Bernard (conductor of Park Avenue Chamber Symphony) for recommendations of choirs to audition for. His first and highest suggestion was NAS. Even though I’m no longer in Manhattan, I have chosen to continue singing with NAS… There are members who have been singing for decades here. I think that speaks volumes to the community NAS has created. And I stay because I think Clara is wonderful. She’s inspiring. Premiering Carol Barnett’s The Darkling Thrush was a highlight for me and our audience.”
Jaime Leifer (Soprano): “Although rehearsal space is on the Upper West Side and quite a distance from my home in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, it’s worth it to have the opportunity to keep singing. I am constantly impressed by the musicianship of the singers… We have some of the fastest sight readers and most competent musicians I’ve ever sung with. Another major aspect is Clara: She is the most prepared, organized and focused conductor I have ever sung under. I think it would have to be Dear Theo by Ben Moore that stands out to me most.”
It is your music of the house,
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it.
How many things by season seasoned are
To their right praise and true perfection!
NAS has performed premiere works by Matthew Harris, Ronald Perera, Paul Alan Levi and many others, side by side with a wide repertoire ranging from Bach to Orban. This celebration of our 50th anniversary has been marked by commissioned pieces by several gifted contemporary composers, including Lisa Bielawa and Ben Moore, and Carol Barnett.
Perhaps when you come to hear us, you will recall that German farmer. You will hear newly created works, new to you and to the world. It will be fun to see what you remember of the performance on your way home.
Hymn to the Dawn, songs of serenity and joy
March 9, 8 PM Broadway Presbyterian Church
Broadway @ West 114th Street
March 11, 4 PM The Church of the Holy Trinity
316 East 88th Street
Rejoice in the Lamb
May 30, 8 PM St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church
552 West End Ave.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of BK Reader.