Founded in 1988 by conductor Harold Rosenbaum, The New York Virtuoso Singers has become this country’s leading exponent of contemporary choral music. To celebrate it’s 25th anniversary, the group commissioned America’s leading composers to each write a work, creating a unique panorama of contemporary choral music.
Mark Adamo/Bruce Adolphe/William Bolcom/John Corigliano/Richard Danielpour/Roger Davidson/David Del Tredici/David Felder/John Harbison/Stephen Hartke/Jennifer Higdon/Aaron Jay Kernis/David Lang/Fred Lerdahl/Thea Musgrave/Shulamit Ran/Joseph Schwantner/Steven Stucky/Augusta Read Thomas/Joan Tower/George Tsontakis/Richard Wernick/Chen Yi/Yehudi Wyner/Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
New! 25x25 named one of Sequenza's 31 Memorable Albums of 2013
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"It’s surprising that more ensembles have not thought of this idea. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the New York Virtuoso Singers, a highly skilled chorus founded and directed by Harold Rosenbaum that specializes in contemporary music, commissioned 25 composers to write 25 short works. The results are terrific, over all, with vibrant new pieces by Stephen Hartke, Chen Yi, David Del Tredici, David Lang, William Bolcom, Fred Lerdahl and many more. They gave the premiere performances in two concerts and recorded all the pieces on this excellent two-disc album." - Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times
"...a dazzling little jewel-box of choral writing that demonstrates the ensemble's willingness to live up to their name." - Daniel Stephen Johnson, Q2
"...a milestone of what is happening now, 21st century choral music at its very best..." - Grego Applegate Edwards, Classical-Modern Music Review
THE NEW YORK TIMES
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Published: October 23, 2012
Now this is the way for an ensemble to celebrate an anniversary. TheNew York Virtuoso Singers, founded 25 years ago by the conductor Harold Rosenbaum, are an invaluable professional chamber choir that focuses on American contemporary music. For the group’s anniversary Mr. Rosenbaum commissioned 25 composers to write 25 works. On Sunday afternoon at Merkin Concert Hall he and his 16-voice ensemble presented the premieres of 12 of these pieces. The other 13 are to be introduced at Merkin in March. Previously the group had a list of more than 50 works it had commissioned over the years. In one season it will up that number by half. Not bad.
Understandably, the new pieces, most for a cappella choir, are relatively short. Still, this ambitious project shows an ensemble celebrating past accomplishments by furthering its artistic mission.
There was one problem with the program. The chosen composers, among them Fred Lerdahl, Bruce Adolphe,George Tsontakis, Jennifer Higdon, Steven Stucky,Shulamit Ran and John Harbison, write in various languages that explore modern harmony while maintaining loose ties to tonality. And there are only so many ways to compose for a cappella choir. Inevitably, many of these pieces had surface similarities. I almost longed for an example of steely 12-tone writing or undulant Minimalism.
But there were some striking differences in the scope and character of the works. John Corigliano’s setting of the poet Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Clothes” is a short, modest piece, beautifully done. The poet describes his lovely Julia passing by, a whoosh of beauty in a silk dress, that “liquefaction of her clothes.” The music flows in a gently swinging rhythm, with glowing harmonies and overlapping phrases.
But Yehudi Wyner’s “Save Me, O God,” a setting of Psalm 69, is an elaborate, complex work. Mr. Wyner was drawn by the psalm’s anguished imagery of a desperate man drowning in “muddy depths.” The music is alive with piercing harmonies. At the line, “I am wearied with crying out,” the choir breaks into a gaggle of frantic solo voices.
The words to David Del Tredici’s “Alphabet II” are from an alphabet poem found in a 1727 New England primer. The music is sometimes playful, with punchy chords, sometimes agitated, with lines that push voices into extreme high ranges. But this renders these charming words unintelligible.
In contrast, the beauty of Chen Yi’s beguiling and animated setting of “Let’s Reach a New Height” comes from the way her music interacts with the vivid verbal imagery, a metaphorical take on a Tang dynasty poem about striving higher in years to come.
A standout work was Stephen Hartke’s “Audistis quia dictum est,” in which he sets biblical passages from Matthew — those that relate Jesus’ countering the old dictum of an eye for an eye with a new, much harder message to turn the other cheek — with harmonic writing that shifts from glowing sustained sonorities to astringent cluster chords.
It takes confidence for an ensemble to put the word “virtuoso” in its name. The New York Virtuoso Singers have long earned it. All the performances were excellent.
NY Virtuoso Singers Celebrate 25th Anniversary
By Christian Carey , Sequenza21
March 4, 2013
When a musical omnivore such as Harold Rosenbaum declares that the concert you are about to hear is “the most diverse program I have conducted in my forty year career,” hang on to your seat! On Sunday March 3rd, Rosenbaum led the New York Virtuoso Singers in the aforementioned amply diverse program in a concert at Merkin Hall. A baker’s dozen of new pieces, part of an ambitious commissioning project: 25 pieces to celebrate the group’s 25th anniversary.
While the selections were stylistically diverse, there was a unifying thread. All of the composers had done their homework, and composed with the formidable capabilities of NYVS in mind. The ensemble lived up to its reputation for peerless preparation, assaying all of the pieces with fortitude and an almost intimidating level of technical skill. Intonation and rhythm, regular pitfalls for mortal choirs, proved scarcely to be hurdles for the singers, even in the thorniest of passages. And there were plenty of those provided to them on Sunday afternoon.
Particularly impressive were works by David Felder and Augusta Read Thomas, which pushed at both the harmonic fabric with daring chromatic writing and at the capacities of the voices with parts written in punishingly high tessitura. Others, such as Roger Davidson, opted to revel in the group’s sound and suave divisi in a more straightforward setting.
One of the challenges in being part of a bouquet of occasional works: how expansive should one’s piece be? Both Thea Musgrave and Richard Danielpour opted for aphoristic yet attractive tributes, while Richard Wernick and Joseph Schwantner created evocatively atmospheric works that probably overstayed their welcome a bit. David Lang created a slowed down spiritual for the singers, poking fun at the perky arrangements of doleful texts by choral mainstays such as Alice Parker and Robert Shaw. For all of her protestations that setting text doesn’t suit her, Joan Tower’s memorial tribute to her recently departed sister was eloquent and unforced.
Sadly, I found another of the memorial works on the program, Memorial by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, more problematic. In the midst of snatches of the requiem mass’ text, the use of children’s choir intoning the names of Sandy Hook victims is heavy handed and borderline exploitative. No doubt, some will argue that the work’s topicality and pacifistic message is moving. Indeed, it was moving, but, to me, manipulatively so. One could have gotten the subtext from a more subtle use of forces and an approach to the topic that was sensitive and less opportunistic.
Most of the works hewed to the celebratory mood of the occasion. William Bolcom provided a puckish setting of a Blake poem about Cupid; a footnote to his mammoth Songs of Innocence and Experience project, but a savory and supple one. Mark Adamo contributed the only work with piano accompaniment, in which the singers and instrument nimbly dance around the subtext of a grimly jocular Stoic postmortem. Aaron Kernis was on hand not only to introduce his piece (as did several of the other composers) but also to substitute as a “clapper” (hand percussionist) for his jubilant setting of the translation of a Hebrew spiritual poem.
All in all, it was a fine afternoon of singing. The commissions are being recorded for release on Soundbrush Records. Hopefully more choirs will hear them and want to program them.
The New York Virtuoso Singers: Twelve World Premieres
By: Jean Ballard Terepka
On October 21, Harold Rosenbaum opened the 25th Season of The New York Virtuoso Singers with the first of two celebratory concerts featuring new works commissioned especially for the year-long anniversary celebration.
For more than two decades, New York City audiences have been able to count on Rosenbaum's commitment to contemporary choral music for artistic excellence and integrity. A relationship of camaraderie, respect and trust exists among the musicians, the composers, Rosenbaum and The New York Virtuoso Singers' audiences. This first concert of the celebratory season had an almost intimate feel to it: this was not an afternoon of pomp and grandeur, but of artistic conviviality and musical felicity.
The musical performances were preceded by an informal panel discussion. Several composers assembled in a semi-circle on the stage; Rosenbaum asked general questions about the composers' experiences of writing choral music and about the challenges of their craft. A conversation unfolded about early influences, text choice and musical standards; the exchange was thoughtful and relaxed.
Steven Stucky remarked on what he described as the essential conservatism of much choral music and chose for his text a conservatively structured sonnet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's “Say Thou Dost Love Me.” Stucky's music captured the lyricism and sway of Browning's poem in a melody that began delicately and ended with strong peacefulness. Though at one level Browning's sonnet is a love poem, Stucky chose to read it as an homage to musical friendship and collegiality. The poem's thematic consideration of sound and silence as part of the rhythm of love was echoed in the mood and tone shifts in the music. The work's last line, its most musically dense resolution, praised silence as part of love's conversation; it was an elegant conclusion to the piece.
Shulamit Ran's remarks in the pre-concert conversation had included an account of her very first piece of choral writing: after composing extensively in a variety of genres during most of her career, she found herself, ten years ago, required to compose a manageable, acceptable and worthy choral piece for her son's bar mitzvah. In the decade of prolific choral composition since, Ran has returned over and over again to sacred texts for inspiration and material. The piece she composed for this 25th anniversary celebration was adapted from Psalm 37 of the Hebrew Bible. Building on the same themes that have characterized other works she's written, including her Credo/Ani Ma'amin, performed by The New York Virtuoso Singers last spring, this new work, The Humble Shall Inherit the Earth, presented Ran's familiar examinations of music on a continuum between conservative liturgical tradition and experimental modernity. The solo male voices tended to carry a more traditional cantorial sonority and pace, while the blended women's passages contained more innovative harmonies. The work's emotionally intense conclusion, asserting that the meek's inheritance of the earth will be imbued with “the abundance of peace,” was joyful.
During the pre-concert discussion, Yehudi Wyner had discussed some of his musical influences. He noted, with unostentatious modesty about his heritage, that he had grown up in a musical household with a father who was “a choral conductor.” He then indicated that Paul Hindemith's requirement that his Yale students sing in his Collegium Musicum had provided him with a different and complementary perspective on choral music: it was here that he learned more about shared pitch of voice and instruments and about techniques for making words flow within music. It was Wyner's work, Save me, O God, based on Psalm 69 that concluded the concert. Like the psalm chosen by Ran for her piece, this psalm is a personal plea to God, but unlike Ran's, this one explores anxiety and anguish in the face of peril. It is a wail of fear that is acute but unashamed, founded in certainty that God will listen and save. Wyner's music skillfully captured nuances of fear in complex, taut melodic and rhythmic turns. Within the rigorous discipline of the writing, each voice maintained its individual integrity, contributing uniquely to the choral whole.
The final topic of the pre-concert conversation concerned some of the problems that contemporary choral composers face. Of the hundreds and hundreds of amateur, semi-professional and professional choruses in the United States, there aren't very many that can handle complex scores. It's not easy to find publishers. It's not easy to find audiences. The consequent dumbing-down of choral texts – Rosenbaum's phrase – is pernicious and meretricious.
The composers who work with Rosenbaum have the happy knowledge that there is little they might compose that The New York Virtuoso Singers can't perform: contemporary composers can count absolutely on these singers' stunning musicianship and superb technique.
This mutual trust among composer, conductor and chorus proved to be the program's sole unifying element. Some works had something in common with other works, but the commonalities were divergent. Because the works were all relatively short and rather different each from the other, the concert had no unifying conceptual theme other than the fact of shared musicianship.
In some respects, David Del Tredici's work, the first one on the program, served as a fitting introduction to the concert as a whole. The 1727 New England Primer poem, “Alphabet II,” is an idiosyncratic colonial pedagogical text, a poem presenting the characters of sacred Christian narrative – Adam, Job, Esther, Rachel, Peter and Zaccheus – with more local and domestic figures, like cats and dogs, and examining in terse couplets a complete human narrative, “Youth … slips./Death … nips.” Del Tredici's music was deft, dance-like, alternately delicate and acrobatic, briefly lyrical, and then, quite suddenly and crisply, done.
Fred Lerdahl and John Harbison both chose poems by contemporary American poets for their pieces. Lerdahl's setting of Richard Wilbur's “Cornstalks” evoked the poem's tercets in small, self-contained bursts of music, each containing brief discordances almost resolved, and ended with a resolution into harmonious possibilities, “the sole thing breathing.” Harbison explored Michael Fried's “The Pool,” a poem about movement and pause, preparing and forgetting, with music that alternated smoothness with sudden breaks and harmonies that moved in loops and swells.
Sacred texts set to music were not limited to psalms in this concert. Stephen Hartke set selected verses of Matthew 5: 38-59 – Jesus's exhortation “to turn the other cheek” – to music that moved from attempted harmonies to beauty itself. Jennifer Higdon's The Prayer – the “Our Father” – began with an American sureness that managed to be both contemplative and sensible and then ended in a triumphant arc of joy and glory.
The Canticum Novum Youth Choir sang Richard Rice's setting of the fifteenth century anonymous folk-hymn “Adam lay y-Bounden” with skill and sweetness; the final “Deo gratias!” was sturdy and confident.
Three works proved richly evocative of particular times and places. Chen Yi's brief Let's Reach a New Height embodied a fully realized fusion of formal Western and Asian influences but retained enough echoes of folk music to locate the text in the tradition of central Tang Dynasty nature poetry. George Tsontakis's setting of “A Dream within a Dream,” written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1849, presented layers of harmony and sound that conjured both Poe's fluid spookiness and his deeply serious confrontation with mortality: the singers' only moment of absolute unison arrived in the very last line, the certain confirmation of all the preceding uncertainties.
John Corigliano's piece Upon Julia's Clothes, based on a poem by Cavalier poet Robert Herrick was a true song – like songs plopped into Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas – and was as gently sultry as a cottage rose. The marvel of Upon Julia's Clothes is that Corigliano, such an American composer, has written a very intimate England praise-song, a virtual obeisance to Ralph Vaughan Williams. In its ephemeral, gauzy lushness, this little song was as evocative of English aesthetic history as Frederick Ashton's four-minute Salut d'Amourchoreographed to music by Elgar in 1979 for Dame Margot Fonteyn on the occasion of her 60th birthday.
The most surprising text of all the pieces performed in this concert was Bruce Adolphe's Obedient Choir of Emotions, based on a passage from Self Comes to Mind by contemporary neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, co-founder and now co-director of the ground-breaking Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Adolphe has collaborated with Damasio on a number of research projects on music, creativity and perception within the context of neurobiology and has, since 2008, been Composer-in-Residence at BCI.
Adolphe's Obedient Choir of Emotions called for The New York Virtuoso Singers' full complement of sixteen singers accompanied by a pianist. The music of the piano supplied a context of warmth, something like an embrace, for the singers' voices whether individual or in small groups, whether offering one melody or a blend of melodies. Damasio's prose focuses on a single moment of perception – “I am looking at the Pacific Ocean” – and allows it to unfold into a discourse on consciousness. Adolphe's music in turn had its own architecture and development: voices carried lines that took chords apart, considered individual strands and then rewove them. The most mysterious of internal processes – awareness, consciousness – was translated into external accessibility not just by Damasio's prose but by Damasio's and Adolphe's conjoined gifts.
The contemporary composers with whom Rosenbaum works routinely challenge themselves and their audiences with texts that vary from the most familiar and traditional to the unexpected and unusual to the genuinely obscure and esoteric. Each kind of text presents its own musical challenges. How can new music make familiar texts feel fresh? How can new music make the arcane more intelligible? Underlying these questions is an even more fundamental one: how do composers make their music serve texts even while words themselves are vehicles of musical sound?
These questions aren't ever actually answered. They are simply explored, with the works of each composer providing particular insights.
During the course of the concert, the choral pieces were interspersed with piano pieces. Brent Funderburk played a piece by William Bolcom in the first half and Donald Isler played a piece by Louis Pelosi in the second. Both pianists played well and the works they presented were interesting, but the presence of these piano “interludes” did not contribute helpfully to a program that, by its very nature, had no overarching thematic unity. The informal conversation with composers before the concert could have been extended longer in place of the time consumed by the piano works.
The idea of celebrating 25 years of music-making with 25 new commissions is a lovely one. The concert was like an afternoon of present-opening shared with many friends.
On March 3, 2013, the celebration will continue with thirteen more works. More presents for conductor, singers and audience alike!