Domine ad adiuvandum Claudio Monteverdi
John Schaefer: This rousing opening fanfare from Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 was recorded live at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. The choir and the orchestra there started performing music in New York before there was even a United States. Not surprisingly the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, as it's officially known, is the oldest in the city.
And you'll get to hear them in action as part of New York in Concert, your guide to the city's classical music scene. I'm John Schafer, and look, as a native New Yorker I know just how much we all love, and maybe even need, to make our voices heard. Of course some people do it more gracefully than others. And in the next hour, you'll get a taste of some of the city's great voices, including one of its youngest choirs. But we'll start with the oldest. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra. Performing Dixit Dominus from Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, Julian Wachner conducting.
Dixit Dominus - Claudio Monteverdi
Choir of Trinity Wall Street
Trinity Baroque Orchestra
Julian Wachner, Conductor
John Schaefer: That is the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra conducted by Julian Wachner, performing the Dixit Dominus section of Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610.
New York in Concert is the show, and concerts in New York are the subject of the show. Our next one took place at Merkin Hall, and featured the eight voice contemporary music choir known as Roomful of Teeth. There's a name you won't be able to forget. They draw on vocal techniques from all over the world, and the piece we'll hear is by Caroline Shaw. Shaw does a little of everything. She's an instrumentalist, a singer herself, the youngest composer to ever win a Pulitzer Prize in music. And she's a member of the ensemble.
Caroline Shaw: I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to join Roomful of Teeth when it first started, when it was a, a workshop of people, just kind of experimenting and being curious about all the colors that we have in our voice. And for me, I'm lucky to get to write for people that I genuinely like, my friends, that I sing with and trust, and they trust me. And there's no greater gift, I think for, uh, a music maker than to have, um, to be able to make in that kind of environment of trust.
John Schaefer: That collaborative atmosphere led to a piece based on Shakespeare's the Tempest, but also inspired by the so-called shape note hymns that Caroline Shaw heard growing up in North Carolina. Shape note hymns were an important part of Southern culture in the 19th century, because you didn't have to read music. The notes had shapes, so you could sing along.
Caroline Shaw: I love homophony, which is everyone, you know, multiple parts singing, kind of at the same time on the same words. And that's how I set the kind of famous line, Full Fathom Five, um, Thy Father Lies. And, um, it's something I can say that as a member of Roomful of Teeth performing it, it's always, um, it's deeply satisfying to sing that in harmony with others. And I say that now as a person who has not sung with my friends in over a year.
John Schaefer: Here's Caroline Shaw and Roomful of Teeth, performing Full Fathom Five and Be Not Afeard from her composition, The Isle, recorded live at Merkin Hall.
The Isle - Caroline Shaw
“Full Fathom Five” and “Be Not Afeard”
Roomful of Teeth
John Schaefer: Music by Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw. Text by Shakespeare, who must've won something, somewhere along the way. A live recording of Full Fathom Five and Be Not Afeard, both part of her larger work, The Isle, based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. The performers were the eight piece choir known as Roomful of Teeth. And we recorded that at Merkin Hall in the Spring of 2017.
Voices are front and center this time around on New York in Concert, your guide to the city's classical music scene.
John Schaefer: There's something kind of poignant about focusing on choirs right now, because we quickly learned that singing and especially singing in groups was a very bad idea when the pandemic hit, because it was a very good way of spreading the disease. But what are you going to do? Not sing? One of the city's leading choral directors cast about for ways to keep the music going.
Kent Tritle: I'm Kent Tritle, I'm music director at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, I'm music director for the Oratorio Society of New York, I'm music director for Musica Sacra, a professional Chorus in New York.
After everything shut down, the first organization that we actually did generate virtual content with was the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
So I had just gotten into mind that we needed to go into virtual format, in terms of the Cathedral choir actually recording themselves in little boxes that we would assemble both their audio and their video together.
The mechanics around doing that, we will typically record the organ track...
We'll send the organ track out to four singers to have them lay down their perception of timing with the organ.
So we have those together for each section.
And call that a guide track. Send that guide track out to the rest of the choir -- roughly 15 to 18 singers to sing along with that. Then we're able to put together the choir singing on a screen.
The emotional outpouring that we had from the congregation, people saw in this choir themselves, the unity and our isolation was something that we could transcend by being together in this virtual format.
Meanwhile, of course, the pandemic was just getting, you know, worse and worse and Oratorio Society every year since 1874 has performed Handel's Messiah and we were grappling with how do we continue this tradition, in the time of COVID? We were scheduled for Carnegie Hall, Carnegie closed. We scheduled at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the cathedral closed. We tried to see about outdoor venues to see what we could do if everyone masked, tested, distanced.
We decided finally that we would come to the barn that my partner Arthur and I have up here in Ulster County, Stone Ridge, New York.
Everyone tested. They arrived on a cold October, Saturday morning. We carefully measured out the space inside the bar and we had the orchestra in the barn, except for the trumpets and timpani who were outside.
And then the chorus when they arrived were shepherded to the other side so that they weren't walking through people's, you know, aerosol space. So we did this video...
Which was then put together and released on the date that we would have been at Carnegie.
And we've had just incredible stories from people, you know, across the country and elsewhere. In particular, a woman wrote from Michigan and said that she had been able to spend a moment with her grandfather, who was in COVID lockdown in a nursing home in southeast Iowa and watching this Handel Messiah together, they had their Christmas moment. I mean, it just was extraordinary.
John Schaefer: Well, all of Ken Tritle's work with socially distanced musicians and putting a virtual choir together over zoom paid off in this piece we'll hear next. It's called You are the Light, written by Ara Dinkjian, with text by the late Congressman John Lewis. And in it, you'll hear Kent Tritle conducting a virtual choir from the cathedral of St. John, the Divine. And the Rose of the Compass ensemble, a group that includes Renaissance and near Eastern instruments. Ara Dinkjian, the composer, here plays the Arab lute or Oud.
You are the Light - Ara Dinkjian, music
Congressman John Lewis, text
Cathedral of St. John the Divine
Kent Tritle, Conductor
Rose of the Compass Ensemble
Nina Stern, recorder and chalumeau
Tamer Pinarbase, kanun
Ara Dinkjian, oud
Arthur Fiacco, Jr, cello
John Schaefer: That's called You are the Light. Text by the late Congressman John Lewis, set to music by Ara Dinkjian, whom you heard playing the Arab oud in that ensemble, the Rose of the Compass ensemble, it's known as. It also includes the kanun, a type of zither, the good old cello. And the recorder and chalumeau, which is a sort of proto clarinet. You also heard a virtual choir from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, all conducted by a very busy Kent Tritle.
And on this hour on New York in Concert, we are focusing on choruses and here in New York, we start them young.
The Brooklyn Youth Chorus led by Diane Berkun-Menaker is almost 30 years old, way older than any of its members. They have an active education program and an impressive list of composers who've worked with them. One of those composers is Caroline Shaw. Singer from Roomful of Teeth, violinist, fan of shape note hymns, Pulitzer Prize winner. That Caroline Shaw.
Caroline Shaw: It's Motion Keeps is my first piece, uh, that I ever wrote for Brooklyn Youth Chorus. So I've done about three now, and really one of my first commissions ever. And I wanted to write a piece for them, for these bright young voices and young people. And I found a text from an old shape note hymn, where there's one line that says: Time, like the tide, it's motion keeps. Still, I must launch through endless deeps. And this idea of time and thinking about, you know, what time means when you're young versus when you're older.
You know, it starts out with this repeated viola pizzicato line, that Shaw sings opening. I had to sing it through myself cause I think it's, I think as a palindrome, actually. Just if I go back and get really nerdy about it. Um, but this idea of something kind of repeating constantly, never, never stopping, but actually it's sort of folding in on itself. Um, and then the, the choir comes in and just sings these very simple opening lines. My days, my weeks, my months, my years. Um, Just this contemplation of, of time. I mean, especially in this year, what is time? Uh, in the past year of COVID. Um, as it goes, it kind of spins a little bit out of control the viola spins out of control. Um, and then there are these cannons that happen with the, the voices where they're singing an imitation and kind of cascading over top of each other. Um, at a certain point, everything stops. Um, the Viola cuts out and I think it's my favorite place in the piece where the chorus just by themselves sing: Time, like the tide its motion keeps.
John Schaefer: It's motion keeps is the name of the piece, and this performance was live in the Green Space: our own downtown performance venue. The Brooklyn Youth chorus conducted by Diane Berkun-Menaker with Caroline Shaw playing not the violin, but the Viola.
Its Motion Keeps - Caroline Shaw
Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Dianne Berkun-Menaker, Conductor
Caroline Shaw, viola
John Schaefer: It's Motion Keeps, written by Caroline Shaw for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus conducted by Diane Berkun-Menaker, Caroline Shaw playing the viola. And we recorded that live in the Greene Space in 2014.
Let's wrap up with something by Wynton Marsalis. The famed jazz trumpeter is also a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, and he wrote his Abyssinian Mass for the 200th anniversary of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church.
The excerpt we'll hear is performed by Le Chorale Le Château, conducted by Damien Sneed who founded the chorus to sing everything from Renaissance music to gospel. Now, this was a smaller version of the choir recorded live in the Green Space and instead of an orchestra, Damian Sneed conducted the a cappella choir.
Abyssinian Mass - Wynton Marsalis
Le Chorale Le Château
Damien Sneed, Conductor
John Schaefer: That's an excerpt from the Abyssinian Mass by Wynton Marsalis. Sung by Le Chorale Le Château, a smaller version of that choir led by its founder, Damien Sneed. This is New York in Concert, your guide to the city's classical music scene. Next week, we'll guide you through and even under Brooklyn.
Oh by the way, there is one other chorus I’d like to mention. It’s based in the Bronx, and it can have over 50,000 voices in it. At least when the Yankees win.
New York in concert is a production of WQXR in New York. Our team includes Lauren Purcell-Joiner, Eileen Delahunty, Sam Kim, Matt Boynton, and Matt Abramowitz. You can find a playlist for the show at wqxr.org. I'm John Schaefer. Thanks for listening.
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