Charles Sy, Tenor: Singing is Learning to Understand Myself

Charles Sy

Charles Sy

When Toronto native Charles Sy lost his voice at the end of his senior year in high school, his world fell apart. “I was devastated. I had complete aphonia, due to the extreme swelling of my vocal folds. I couldn’t speak for a month, and I couldn’t sing for three months. But singing was my life! I was terrified that it was all over.”

Sitting in Lincoln Center’s Indie café with Charles as the words tumbled out of his mouth, it was hard to imagine him being unable to talk. Nor was there any evidence from the smiling, outgoing 25-year-old that he had ever been shy and socially awkward. But the path to where he is now—a member of the highly selective Juilliard Opera Studies program and poised to make his Carnegie Hall debut in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio—has been strewn with obstacles.

Charles’s parents, immigrants from the Philippines, had a contentious marriage, which ended in divorce when he was very young, forcing his mother to support him and his sister on her own. Difficult as that already was, Ms. Sy developed cancer three separate times and was sick for much of Charles’s childhood.

He was an excellent student, wanting to please his mother by getting the highest marks. He especially loved science and dreamed of becoming a doctor one day. But between his schoolwork and caring for his mother, there was no time for Charles to make friends. He was isolated, terrible at sports, and very insecure. But the Catholic school had a choir, and it turned out he had an aptitude for singing. This became his one hobby, his one social event at school.

In seventh grade, when his voice changed, he found that he couldn’t control his voice anymore. “I had to deal with octave displacement. I couldn’t make the connection between my brain, my ear, and my vocal folds.”

It was clear that he needed voice training to correct this, and although the thought never occurred to his family nor to him that he might become a professional singer, he auditioned and was accepted at the Cawthra Park Secondary School which is specialized in the arts. That is where his life began to change.

In addition to the usual subjects, music majors learned theory, harmony, and music history. They learned to sing pop, musical theater, ensemble singing, and classical music, and although Charles loved musicals and still does, he did not have the brassy belting voice required to sing in them. (He did perform in a school production of West Side Story, however, playing a member of the Puerto Rican gang, The Sharks. “My Asian face passed for Latino.”). Charles met other students like him who were passionate about music, many of whom hoped to pursue a career in it. It started to dawn on him that that might be an option for him, too.

At the age of 15, Charles was urged to audition for the Ontario Youth Choir, a summer program for young singers aged 15 to 24, where the older members were studying voice at the university level. Charles decided to follow the same path. He found a voice teacher, Barbara Prins, who prepared him for auditions at the top-rated University of Toronto’s voice studies program. He was accepted, eager to graduate high school and start his professional training, when he lost his voice. “It was extremely traumatic for me, but I got through it and it taught me to take care of my voice and my health in general. So now I am very careful about using my voice correctly, not overtaxing it, and about diet and exercise.”

His mother was sick again and couldn’t work, and Charles had to help support the family as well as paying for his college tuition. Unable to afford living on campus, he lived at home, which was about two hours away by bus. In addition to that daily commute, he worked in a restaurant in Oakville, another hour and a half each way by train, from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. But in spite of the grueling hours, he actually loved that job.

“The place was called ‘Seafood, Steak, and Song,’” he recounts with a smile.  “It’s closed now, unfortunately, but I was glad to have that job. No other restaurant would hire me as a waiter because I had no experience. But at the Three S’s they had singing waiters! We were all singers and they taught us how to wait tables. That’s a lot easier than hiring experienced waiters and teaching them to sing! I’d be taking someone’s order or picking it up from the kitchen when a bell would ring, and I’d say, “Excuse me a moment,” then set down my tray and break into an aria. I can’t tell you how many times I sang ‘O Sole Mio.’”

But he was exhausted and his academic grades started to slip. His voice teacher and mentor, Dr. Darryl Edwards, noticed he was losing focus and helped him find resources to apply for grants and scholarships, which eased his financial burden considerably, all the way through to his master's degree. (For a complete list of Charles’s accomplishments during and since his academic studies, see his website: http://charles-sy.com.)

An epiphany of sorts happened when Charles saw a Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of Der Rosenkavalier, with Renee Fleming as the Marschallin. The final trio, where she relinquishes her lover Octavian to his true love Sophie, was performed with such depth of feeling that Charles found himself overcome with emotion. “I actually wept. I had always cried a lot privately as a child, worried about my mother. But I was never moved to cry at a performance, only paying attention to technique. Suddenly it struck me that being an artist is about connecting emotionally with one’s public, one’s stage partners and, above all, oneself. I realized how I had gotten through my difficult childhood by blocking out emotions. Now it was my job to make myself vulnerable in front of thousands of people, connect with them, take risks, and not be afraid of making a mistake. For me, singing is learning to understand myself.” (J.W.)

BIO CHARLES SY

Toronto native Charles Sy has been recognized internationally as a promising young artist with a “softly lyric sound, a natural sense of phrasing coupled with a rare willingness to project beyond the apron” (National Post). He is described as “vocally and dramatically mature with a delicious dark tenor sound that [stretches] easily into shining high notes” (Schmopera). Sy is a recent graduate of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio and received both First prize and Audience Choice in their 2014 Centre Stage Competition. He is currently completing an Artist Diploma in Opera Studies at the Juilliard School.

A graduate of the University of Toronto (BMus, MMus), Sy is also an alumnus of several training programs including Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the Art of Song Fellowship at the Toronto Summer Music Festival, and the Opera as Theatre program at the Banff Centre.

News of our guest soloists

Rebecca Farley, soprano

Rebecca Farley, our soprano soloist for our December 9th performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, has advanced to the regional (Chicago) round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions is a program designed to discover promising young opera singers and assist in the development of their careers. The Auditions take place in 42 Districts and 12 Regions throughout the US and Canada. Starting with the Auditions of the Air in the 1930s and continuing today, the Auditions have been a defining step in the careers of many of North America's greatest opera stars.
For more on Rebecca Farley, see her profile in our October 2017 and November 2016 newsletters.  

William Guanbo Su, bass

October brought two major accolades for young William Guanbo Su, the bass soloist for our performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on December 9, which will be his Carnegie Hall debut. First he won the Gerda Lissner Lieder/Song Vocal Competition, for singers between the ages of 20 and 30 (William has just turned 23). William studied German Lieder at the Franz Schubert Institute in Vienna during the summer of 2016.

Then, later in the month, he was awarded an Opera Index Encouragement Award. Opera Index is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide advocacy for opera and support for its artists, in the form of financial gifts and sponsored performances.

For more on William Guanbo Su, see his profile in our October 2 newsletter.

MEZZO-SOPRANO RENEE TATUM: TURNING THE CORNER

Renee Tatum

Renee Tatum

Seated before a window, with the morning light filtered through gauzy curtains, Renee Tatum smiled into the camera of her computer when my Skype call came through. She was at her home in Boston, where she is now based and where she relaxes between travels and performances. Just this summer she covered her first Fricka in Wagner’s Das Rheingold with the New York Philharmonic, sang Flosshilde in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s production of the same work at Tanglewood, and performed two roles in Van Gogh’s Ear with the Ensemble for the Romantic Century in New York City.

After singing the mezzo-soprano solo part with The Cecilia Chorus of New York in Carnegie Hall on December 9, she will perform in Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera in January and February, followed by roles in both Durufle’s Requiem with Back Bay Chorale and Threepenny Opera with the Boston Lyric Opera in March. Further engagements this season include Penderecki’s Credo with the Indianapolis Symphony in April and Der Ring des Nibelungen at the San Francisco Opera in June and July.

Originally from Southern California, Renee attended New York’s Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard. After spending a summer in The Mereola Opera Program and a year in the Adler Fellowship at The San Francisco Opera, where she sang five roles on the MainStage, she was accepted into the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. She stayed there for three years, in what she describes as a tough but essential experience. “The Lindemann program was something of a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment for me. I already had the tunnel vision, the athletic focus necessary to pursue a career in opera and classical music, but there I was confronted with the basic questions one has to ask oneself when embarking on a career like this: Why do I love music? What is this I am preparing myself for? Who am I, why am I doing this, and does it make me happy? Am I willing to see myself not just as an artist, but as someone who is going to work in a very hard job?”

She decided she was, and she accepted a dizzying array of roles in opera and concert performances (click here for a complete biography). “They were smaller roles in bigger operas,” said Renee. “I had to bide my time, letting my voice develop. Some voices settle in around age 25 and don’t change much after that. But I am blessed with a voice that keeps growing and changing, so I can sing an ever-wider variety of pieces. I feel that it is now turning the corner into a full, lyric voice capable of larger roles in a wide range of repertoire. And I love exploring new roles and new genres.”

Van Gogh’s Ear was a new genre for Renee. An interdisciplinary play with chamber music produced in an off-Broadway theater by the Ensemble for the Romantic Century, the piece combined music, drama, and the visual arts into a salon-scaled Gesamtkunstwerk where the various art forms are melded together to provide a cohesive unity. Renee performed two roles: that of  Gabrielle Berlatier, the young woman in Provence who received van Gogh’s mutilated ear, and Johanna, the wife of Vincent’s brother Theo. The piece required as much acting as singing. “This was a wonderful experience for me. There was no orchestra, no pit, no conductor. We were all on the stage together, directing ourselves, as it were. And I really love acting. Immersed in a character, I don’t monitor myself the way I do while singing. As a singer I am always checking in with myself. As an actor, the main thing is forging a connection between the character and the audience, and we sometimes forget that in the opera, where the audience is holding us to a very different standard. So while I remain passionately committed to opera and classical music, I think acting from time to time will help me be a better performer in any role I sing.” (J.W.)

BIO Renee Tatum

Noted for her “commanding and dramatic presence” (Opera News), mezzo-soprano Renee Tatum is rapidly gaining critical acclaim on the most prestigious opera stages in the United States. This season’s engagements include Flosshilde in Das Rheingold with Tanglewood Music Festival; Flosshilde in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung and Waltraute in Die Walküre with San Francisco Opera; Jenny in Threepenny Opera with Boston Lyric Opera; Flower Maiden in Parsifal at The Metropolitan Opera; and Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s production of Van Gogh’s Ear at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City. She also sang a concert entitled “Opera Italiana Forever Young” as part of the Central Park Summer Concerts series and Das Rheingold in concert with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center.

MAKING THE WHEELS GO ROUND: Sherry Chapin and Katie Davis

In addition to singing beautiful music, members of The Cecilia Chorus of New York volunteer their time, talents, and expertise to making sure the chorus functions perfectly and its concerts go off without a hitch. In this newsletter, long-time members Sherry Chapin and Katie Davis lift the curtain just a little to reveal some of the many ways in which they make things happen behind the scenes.

Sherry Chapin - Auditions

Sherry Chapin

Sherry Chapin

Nearly 40 years ago, working at the time as the director of training and development for Chase Bank (now JPMorgan Chase), Sherry joined The Cecilia Chorus of New York, and our December 9th performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio will mark her 137th concert sung in Carnegie Hall. At various times, her two sons were also members of the Chorus: “It was such a thrill to stand on that stage and sing with my boys!” she recalls.

For nearly 35 of those years, Sherry served on the chorus’s board in one capacity or another. Although she has now left the board, she is no less involved in the day-to-day workings of the chorus. Her most visible role is that of handling auditions.

“Everyone who wants to audition first fills out an audition form on our website and those go straight into my inbox. I then have a conversation with the applicants, asking them strings of questions, and I schedule an audition for them with Mark Shapiro, our music director. If their audition is successful, then I get to work: I generate a welcome letter and I send out notices to those responsible for membership, our mailing lists, our attendance sheets, our database, all the ways in which new singers are incorporated into our organization.” Sherry especially likes meeting the new members, sharing with them her enthusiasm for the chorus and making them feel welcomed and comfortable. “While  Mark is auditioning the singers, I sit at a table outside the studio and make name tags for them. I make them for all of the applicants, ‘on spec’ as it were. If they emerge with thumbs down, I say something comforting to them and quietly dispose of the name tags. But if they come out with a big smile and thumbs up, I give them their tag right away. That way, they can wear them to their very first rehearsal with us, be instantly recognizable as a new member, and already feel part of the community.”

Katie Davis - Logistics

Katie Davis

Katie Davis

Katie Davis is a vice president at Nomura Americas, a global financial services firm where she works on the operations business management team. A member of The Cecilia Chorus of New York since 2005, she has held various board positions, and currently chairs the logistics committee, among several other volunteer duties. “Logistics fits my personality,” says Katie. “I’m a problem solver. That’s what I do at work on a larger scale, and that’s what logistics is all about!”

She pulls up an eye-popping spreadsheet with a detailed checklist. Just overseeing the workings of one of our concerts in Carnegie Hall starts many months before the event. “I make sure the date is secured and the contracts are out to the soloists, the orchestra, the composer if it’s a commissioned work, and the Hall. Those include countless details, down to how many music stands are required. Then an orchestra rehearsal has to be organized, which includes securing a venue, having the various scores prepared, and being the point person for the union and notifying the chorus and soloists of the time and place.”

“Meanwhile, we start preparation for the dress rehearsal and the performance at Carnegie Hall:  reminding chorus members of our dress code, their call times, their placement onstage, and when they sit and stand during the concert. We have a point person for the soloists and someone in charge of the entrance-and-exit lineup. There is backstage security protocol that has to be followed and a thousand other things to remember! Thank heaven for checklists!”

Logistics are involved in similar ways at all of our concerts as well as our weekly rehearsals. Many other chorus volunteers are involved in carrying out Katie’s dizzying to-do list, as are staff members at the venues, and Katie’s experience as a business manager helps her keep everything and everyone on track. “The fun for me is being on-the-spot, running around, encountering a concrete problem and finding a solution fast. To do that, I need to plan everything. I like to be ready!”

REBECCA FARLEY: PREPARED AND READY

Rebecca Farley

Rebecca Farley

She was already a tall, striking, vibrant redhead when she sang the soprano solo part in Bach’s Magnificat with The Cecilia Chorus of New York last December.  But now, as she strode through the revolving doors into the crowded lobby of the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, all heads turned to follow her. Perfectly made up and sporting a soft brown fedora (“Got it in New Zealand, where I just did a three-week tour. Such a beautiful country!”) and an off-the-shoulder top as green as her eyes, with a long russet braid hanging down one side, she had the look of someone who was well aware of being observed.

“That’s one of the many things I learned at Juilliard,” said the recent Master Program graduate. “You have to have a look—a brand—that you stick to every time you go out. And that even includes going to events unrelated to your career. You never know who will be there, or even who may recognize you walking on the street. But they want to recognize the persona they’ve seen onstage, not some sloppy version of that person.”

A veteran public relations executive who represented the likes of Renée Fleming gave a course on exactly this topic at Juilliard. “It was tough on some of the students who looked perfectly presentable but didn’t project a carefully considered image. The teacher said my look was in the right ballpark, but wasn’t detail-oriented or tailored enough. She was right.” Asked how she would describe the brand she is now projecting, she said “Approachable Diva. I love elegance, but I don’t want to come across as an intimidating, untouchable type of performer. Connecting with people is my top priority—not alienating them.”

Rebecca has been connecting with people since her early days in Kentucky. Born and raised in rural Henderson, she lived with her parents and four older siblings on an acre of her grandfather’s farmland, surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins. Rebecca did her undergraduate work in voice at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where a chance opportunity led to her acceptance at Juilliard (read about this important event, and her account of her first year at Juilliard, in last November’s Cecilia Chorus of New York newsletter).

Now, feeling completely at home in New York, with her Master of Music and a wide range of roles and performances under her belt, Rebecca is “happy, arrived, and ready to start my career.” She was immediately rewarded with a 10-concert tour of New Zealand with Juilliard 415, the school’s famed early music ensemble, conducted by Masaaki Suzuki, “the Bach guy.” She is now auditioning for the Young Artist programs at the country’s major opera houses and she has also, to her delight, been cast in two pieces by women composers: Sherry Woods’ chamber opera Mara with a libretto by the Buddhist teacher and author Stephen Batchelor (at the Rubin Museum, October 18 and 20), and Angela Rice’s Easter oratorio Thy Will Be Done at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center (March 16). Her performance in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with The Cecilia Chorus will be her second time on the Carnegie Hall main stage.

(J.W.)

 

BIOGRAPHY, REBECCA FARLEY

Rebecca Farley, soprano, holds a master's degree from The Juilliard School. While at Juilliard she appeared as the Controller in Flight, Bubikopf in Der Kaiser von Atlantis, and covered Amina in the Met+Juilliard production of La Sonnambula. Other recent roles include Pamina in Die Zauberflöte and Gilda in Rigoletto. As a concert soloist, she has sung in Orff's Carmina Burana, Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, Handel's Messiah, and premiered the role of Mary in Angela Rice's oratorio Thy Will Be Done which she will reprise at David Geffen Hall this March. Ms. Farley is delighted to be back with the Cecilia Chorus of New York after having debuted with the ensemble last December in Bach's Magnificat. Even more recently, Ms. Farley has performed works of Bach and Handel conducted by international Bach authority Masaaki Suzuki. She participated in a ten-concert tour with Maestro Suzuki this May/June in New Zealand.

WILLIAM GUANBO SU: THE DISCIPLINE OF AN ATHLETE

William Guanbo Su

William Guanbo Su

Bass-baritone William Guanbo Su, 23 this month, discovered his voice by accident when he was in elementary school in Beijing. Like all the other schoolboys in his choir class, William sang soprano. But their teacher had a beautiful, deep bass voice; and so, wanting to emulate him, William suddenly started singing several registers lower. The teacher, thinking that William was making fun of him, threw him out of the class. The second time this happened, the teacher accused him of insolence and of singing too loud. William didn’t return to choir class.

Instead of upbraiding her son for disrespecting his teacher, William’s mother—whose own father had a deep bass singing voice that was never trained—set out to find him a voice teacher. A student at the Central Conservatory was willing to train the young boy, and the results were enough to get William admitted to a highly selective private middle school on a voice scholarship. While there, a teacher urged him to go to America if he was serious about singing Western classical music; her American husband helped William with all the necessary forms, documents, and applications. He was accepted on scholarship as a boarding student at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, MA, near Boston.

At the age of fourteen, William arrived alone in the United States. He knew no one and spoke no English. In addition to following a full curriculum of normal high school classes, he would have a full roster of music and voice lessons, and be coached by singers and teachers from Boston University and the New England Conservatory—a daunting prospect.

“But from the moment I arrived at the Walnut Hill School, my confidence started to build,” says William. “There was only one other Chinese student, so I had to learn English quickly, and of course all the courses were taught in English. I joined several choral groups and entered competitions, some of which I won. I desperately needed to earn money to pay my expenses, but because of visa restrictions, I couldn’t go the usual Chinese immigrant route, which was to work in a restaurant kitchen. I was only allowed to work at the school itself, so I got jobs in the computer lab and at the gym, which gave me a certain status.”  During his senior year, he was featured on the NPR “From the Top” radio program, where he was praised for his “expressive sound, and the variety of his voice.”

By now that voice had deepened to a bass/baritone. He was accepted at the Manhattan School of Music and graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree last May. He spent the summer of 2016 in Vienna at the Franz Schubert Institute, studying German Lieder. “This was a life-changing experience. I learned how entwined the text and the music are. I was taught not to sing the words, but to speak the notes.” He often took long walks in the woods where Schubert and Mozart had also walked, listening to the bird songs, the river, and all the other nature sounds that had inspired them.

Now in his first year of Juilliard’s Master of Music program, William needs all the self-confidence he can muster. In addition to attending classes, auditioning, practicing, and performing, he is learning that a successful singing career depends on a lot more than just talent. “It’s the whole package: your look, your presentation, how well you understand the maestro or the director, and most of all, your relationship with people.”

Although he is not naturally extroverted—he avoids parties, especially at bars and discos where he knows no one—William has an easy way of talking, engaging and carrying himself. But his relaxed manner belies a steely personal discipline which has supported him throughout his young life. His only leisure activities, he says, are working out at the gym and cooking with his girlfriend. Otherwise, it’s work, work, work. “I learned that from my parents, especially my dad, who was a gold medalist on the Asian Olympic windsurfing team.  I also did competitive swimming in China, but I gave that up when I started focusing on my voice. But when I was born, my father gave me the first name Guanbo. In China, names have meanings: guan means “champion” and bo means ‘fight for it.’ I’m not fighting to become a champion athlete—maybe a champion singer. But it’s too hard for Americans to pronounce right. So I came up with William. You can just call me that.”

Singing bass in The Cecilia Chorus of New York’s performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio will be William’s solo debut at Carnegie Hall, but he already knows the thrill of standing and singing on the Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage: while a student at the Manhattan School of Music, he sang there as a member of Kent Tritle’s Oratorio Society. It was there that he heard about The Cecilia Chorus. “And now I’m singing solo with them—wow!”

It has just been announced that William has been awarded First Prize in the prestigious Gerda Lissner Lieder/Song Vocal Competition.

(J.W.)

 

BIOGRAPHY, WILLIAM GUANBO SU

At the age of 18, New York City based singer William Guanbo Su (1994) was featured on National Public Radio’s “From the Top” program, where he was praised for his “expressive sound, and the variety of (his) voice.”

Mr. Su has performed in solo recitals around Europe, Asia, and the United States.  He’s operatic roles range from Monteverdi’s L'incoronazione di Poppea to Janacek’s The Adventures of Vixen Sharp Ears. He has also concentrated on German Lieder at the Franz Schubert Institute in Vienna, where he was coached by Emmy Ameling, Olaf Bar, Helmut Deutsch, Robert Holl and others. He recently won first prize in the 2017 Gerda Lissner Lieder/Song Vocal Competition.

Born in Beijing, China, Mr. Su moved to the United States at the age of 14 to attend The Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick MA.  He continued his voice studies at the Manhattan School of Music, graduating last May. He is currently pursuing his Master’s degree at Juilliard under the guidance of Cynthia Hoffmann. 

MAKING THE WHEELS GO ROUND: YOUR NEWSLETTER TEAM, JEANNE WIKLER AND NICK YOUNG

In the public eye, The Cecilia Chorus of New York is a smoothly running machine. A season is selected, and new works are commissioned. Flyers, posters, and newsletters are written, designed, and distributed. The Chorus website is kept updated. Concert halls are booked and soloists engaged. Notices appear in print media and on the radio. The Playbill programs are filled with background information about the concerts, the performers, and donors. Singers enter, sit, stand, and take bows at the right times and in the right order.

Chorus members see even more: music scores are ordered and sold at rehearsals, which take place in a rented hall where hot drinks and snacks are available during breaks. Membership and attendance lists are kept up to date, dues collected, fundraising events organized, grant proposals written and appeal letters sent out, auditions arranged, and social events are organized for members. The list goes on and on, and all of this is being carried out by volunteers from the ranks of our singers, organized into committees led by members of the board of directors. In this and future newsletters, we will be highlighting the work of a number of our volunteers and committee chairs.

YOUR NEWSLETTER TEAM: JEANNE WIKLER AND NICK YOUNG

Jeanne_cropped.png

Jeanne Wikler is a director-at-large of The Cecilia Chorus of New York’s board, and in that capacity she has assumed the newly created role of communications coordinator. With a background as a producer and director of documentary film and television, she puts her long journalistic experience to use as writer and co-editor of the Chorus newsletter. “My favorite part of this job is interviewing our guest artists, the soloists, and, when we are commissioning new work, the composers. I have always loved engaging with artists, hearing them talk about their work and their lives as artists, and finding out what drives their passion and what we can learn from them.” Jeanne works closely with Nick Young, who, among other things, brings great digital expertise to the production and distribution of the newsletter.

NickYoung2017_cropped.png

Nick Young is co-editor and designer of the Chorus newsletter. His background is in international relations with a focus on China, which brought him to New York to work at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. He has been at the nonprofit for more than four years, managing a variety of communications, including the monthly newsletter! “It seemed like a no-brainer to volunteer for the Chorus, as I’m able to provide skills that I use every day in the office. Working with Jeanne is a real pleasure—we make a great team—and I’m thrilled that my role has grown so I now get to strategize content with her. I feel more connected to the community and the music itself, which are both important to me in these chaotic times we live in."

CHRISTMAS ORATORIO by J.S. Bach: Program Notes from Mark Shapiro

Mark Shapiro Music Director The Cecilia Chorus of New York

Mark Shapiro
Music Director
The Cecilia Chorus of New York

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, one of the composer’s most lavish musical achievements, comprises six cantatas that were written to be performed on consecutive feast-day mornings from the Nativity through Epiphany. Although each cantata stands alone effortlessly, in the aggregate they constitute, by evident design, a magnificently cohesive whole. 

Ever the practical visionary, Bach, probably in cahoots with his trusted librettist-collaborator, the lawyer-by-day/poet-by-night Picander, seems to have anticipated multipart audience-pleasing extravaganzas such as Wagner’s Ring, or for that matter the service-music equivalent of the Netflix series. Those of us who have happily binge-watched [insert favorite show here] might have no difficulty imagining ourselves cozily settling in for a half dozen back-to-back episodes of Bach. 

The Christmas Oratorio is one of three late-career blockbusters Bach wrote for high feast days in the Christian church (the other two are his oratorios for Easter and Ascension). In addition to composing from scratch, Bach recycled music he had previously written for secular tributes to royal members of the House of Saxony. One such work bears the emphatically not biblical (and for this reason not strictly kosher) title Hercules at the Crossroads.

Though the economic and quasi-environmental benefits of Bach’s recycling practice are self-evident – nor was he at all unique in adopting this procedure; Handel, among others, did it too – scholars of music history have long fretted over its philosophical implications, especially when the recycling repurposes the secular as sacred. Many years ago, when researching this practice, whose technical name is “parody,” for a college assignment, I read an essay by the 20th-century Yale-based scholar Leo Schrade. Schrade’s luminous argument was that for a soul like Bach’s, there was no functional demarcation between the secular and the sacred. All experience was sacred, all the time. Not a bad way to live.

The six cantatas of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio were first heard in Leipzig in December/January 1733-4, and then – astonishingly – not again until 1857, having lain fallow for five generations. Since 1955, Bach’s oratorio has been recorded at least thirty times, sometimes twice by the same conductor. A takeaway here may be that, while some music catches the popular imagination immediately, other music might have to wait, ever so patiently, for its historical moment and the happenstance of a timely and convincing revival. Destiny counts on passionate cadres of committed musical excavators to ensure that worthy artifacts do not vanish forever in the silences of eternity. (In this vein, we proudly draw your attention to our May 2018 New York premiere, a mere four-score years after she wrote it, of English composer Dame Ethel Smyth’s amazing oratorio The Prison that dates from 1934.)

Perversely enough, the conscientious conductor comes face to face with the transcendent beauty of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio when reluctantly choosing what to leave out. (Clocking in at nearly three hours of music, it’s just a bit too long for a single concert sitting.) Our version tonight has been discreetly Feng-shui’ed to privilege the evening’s dramatic flow and tension. That is, we’ve done a bit of streamlining so as to maximize the oratorio’s narrative effectiveness in a concert hall as opposed to a worship context, while nonetheless preserving the intervals for deep contemplation that are so integral to Bach’s poetic and spiritual sensibility. For the sweet loss of what we have omitted we console ourselves with the promise that on a next occasion we may do things differently. (If your favorite moment has gone missing, do let us know, and perhaps we can restore it in a future performance!)

Bach’s (and Picander’s?) narrative structure lucidly delineates the Nativity story, which is further supported by the key sequences of Bach’s large-scale harmonic design. (The involvement of Picander – the nom de plume of the part-time writer Christian Friedrich Henrici – is in some doubt because his personal compendium of his complete works omits the Christmas Oratorio libretto, which otherwise incorporates verses from Luke and Matthew, Martin Luther, and a handful of lesser-known contributors.) Successively, the six panels of the double triptych that comprises the Christmas Oratorio trace a cogent narrative arc through the Birth, Annunciation, Adoration of the Shepherds, Naming, Journey of the Magi, and Adoration of the Magi.

Demonstrating how a skillful, busy composer exploits opportunities afforded by circumstance – in this case, the possibility to engage different players for different days – Bach’s instrumentarium for Christmas Oratorio is exceptionally variegated. To give just one example: corni da caccia” (“hunting horns”) appear in the fourth cantata, wrought in the warmly pastoral key of F major.

Throughout human history, the dark winter solstice has been a time to turn on the lights (or light the bonfires) and, with the harvest completed and the next round of planting still in the offing, to feast unabashedly and in large numbers on perishables and preserved meats. Though there is, to be sure, a legitimate musicological basis for advocating on behalf of Bach performances by small musical cohorts, there is also something important to be said in favor of turning out the whole community to celebrate, as we do this evening. Sometimes it does take a village. 

The winter solstice is equally a moment for stillness and peaceful reflection. The firework brilliance of Bach’s concerted choruses (to name two: “Jauchzet, frohlocket”; and “Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen”) magnificently offsets the oratorio’s contemplative passages, such as the ineffably tender lullaby “Schlafe, mein Liebe.”

You may have noticed our promotional artwork for tonight’s performance, a rainbow display of macaroons. Meaning no irreverence, we nonetheless wanted to evoke a happy mood of color and abundance. May this evening be a feast for each of you – as it is for us.

— ©Mark Shapiro 2017

MAKING THE WHEELS GO ROUND: a look behind the scenes at the heavy lifting of Chorus volunteers

In the public eye, The Cecilia Chorus of New York is a smoothly running machine. A season is selected, and new works are commissioned. Flyers, posters, and newsletters are written, designed, and distributed. The Chorus website is kept updated. Concert halls are booked and soloists engaged. Notices appear in print media and on the radio. The Playbill programs are filled with background information about the concerts, the performers, and donors.  Singers enter, sit, stand, and take bows at the right times and in the right order.

Chorus members see even more: music scores are ordered and sold at rehearsals, which take place in a rented hall where hot drinks and snacks are available during breaks. Membership and attendance lists are kept up to date, dues collected, fundraising events organized, grant proposals written and appeal letters sent out, auditions arranged, and social events are organized for members. The list goes on and on, and all of this is being carried out by volunteers from the ranks of our singers,, organized into committees led by members of the Board of Directors.

In this and future newsletters, we will be highlighting the work of a number of our volunteers and committee chairs, starting with the publicity and development committees, currently chaired by Erika Renae Keith, Steven Salzgeber, Elaine Bergman, and Gina Carroll. Click on the photos to learn what they do for the Chorus.

ERIKA RENAE KEITH and STEVEN SALZGEBER: publicity co-chairs (outgoing)

The publicity co-chairs work collaboratively with the communications coordinating committee to develop and implement a publicity and marketing strategy that focuses primarily on promoting The Cecilia Chorus of New York’s concert season. Chairs work with fellow board members to ensure that all communications to patrons, donors, and Chorus members have a streamlined look and feel across all mediums, including print, social media, the website, and email communications.

Erika Renae Keith

Erika Renae Keith

Erika Renae Keith has concentrated primarily on the design and production of all promotional concert materials, working directly with the Chorus's designer, Jieun Yang. With her co-chair Steven Salzgeber, Erika has overseen print production and mailings, and she has taken over the position of webmaster which she will continue to fulfill. Erika: “What I have loved best about this volunteer job is the creative side: working over the summer with Jieun, with important input from our Music Director Mark Shapiro, to determine the design of the coming season’s concert posters, flyers, and postcards. The rest of the year is more the production side, making sure that these designs are printed and distributed correctly and on time.”

Steven Salzgeber

Steven Salzgeber

Steven Salzgeber has worked tirelessly with our paid publicist to develop press releases and conduct outreach to publications across New York City. The New York Choral Consortium lists some 65 member choruses, all performing for the public and, inevitably, competing for press coverage. Steven: “My finest moment, I think was in February of this year when I managed to get a listing of our March concert (Oedipus the King, by the Brothers Balliett - ed) in the arts section Goings on About Town of The New Yorker magazine - and then again in their April issue, when they gave us a terrific shout-out for our Jabri-Brahms concert in May. Press work is a relentless push, but it’s so satisfying when it yields results like that!”

ELAINE BERGMAN AND GINA CARROLL: development co-chairs (outgoing)

The development co-chairs create and manage the development plan of the Chorus based on the strategic goals adopted by the Board of Directors. The co-chairs recruit volunteer choristers to work on appeal letters, fundraising events (including an annual Auction), donor relations, grant writing, endowment growth, and other activities as needed. An important part of the job, recurring annually, is the grant application for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) as well as the required Cultural Data Project.

Elaine Bergman

Elaine Bergman

Elaine Bergman has served as board member and development co-chair for the past six years. She has developed and implemented a segmented, multi-tiered fundraising strategy as well as crafting new ways of reaching and appealing to existing and new donors in order to help keep the Chorus in good financial health. To this end, she started a bi-monthly email newsletter, which has since expanded its readership to include fellow Chorus members and attendees, as well as donors. “What I have enjoyed most is coming up with strategic ways to reach  donors and get them excited about what we do,” Elaine says. “We need to do more than just ask for money. By creating various levels of giving, and instituting specialized funds like our recently created Composers Fund for commissioned works, I hope I’ve helped create a program of giving that will sustain itself in the long run.” Elaine plans to continue working on donor relations alongside her successor.

Gina Carroll

Gina Carroll

Gina Carroll is stepping down from her role as co-chair, which has largely meant assisting Elaine in all the many responsibilities that job entails. But she will continue her work as grant writer, most importantly for the annual DCA grant, which the Chorus has received for each of the four years that Gina has been in charge of the application. Gina: “For grants, especially government grants, more and more information is required as the demand for accountability and transparency grows. It’s a huge job to get everything together in the right order, the right wording, and the limited space given to us. But what I love is the fact that in order to write these grants, I have to know practically everything about the workings of the Chorus: the finances, the talent, the philosophy behind our programs, the outreach, ticket sales, publicity, and technical aspects, down to how many musicians are in the orchestra at each concert. For that I get to talk to all the various member volunteers involved in these activities: really getting a front-row view into the workings of the Chorus. What a privilege!”

CHELSEA SHEPHARD, soprano: “Music is a safe place to grieve”

Chelsea Shephard

Chelsea Shephard

“I am incredibly excited about the chance to perform both the Brahms Requiem and A Garden Among the Flames. How admirable of The Cecilia Chorus of New York and Maestro Shapiro to commission that piece by the Syrian composer Zaid Jabri, calling out for peace and tolerance while describing the trauma of the refugees fleeing the horrors in the region. None of us can get the images of the young boy covered in blood, or the child washed up on the shore, or the most recent photos of the horrifying chemical attacks out of our minds, but we can’t take on the pain of the whole world all the time. Music is a safe place to experience this. It gives us permission to grieve in a way we can’t experience in our everyday lives. And, after hearing A Garden Among the Flames, who can listen to the Brahms Requiem without hearing it as a requiem for Syria?”

For Chelsea Shephard, the Requiem strikes an even more personal note. She is still grieving for her mother, who died two years ago of injuries from an accident. “In my experience, art is constantly following life. Brahms wrote the Fifth Movement—the soprano solo which I sing—after the death of his own mother. The soprano is not a character, like in an opera; the part is written to represent an angel, promising comfort to those who mourn. I was practicing this piece with one of my coaches and it was so beautiful, the music so ethereal, that I was on the verge of tears. But my coach said no, you must not cry. It is the audience that has to cry. Your voice needs to serve the music.”

And that music, finds Chelsea, is technically highly challenging. In most operas, a soloist doesn’t sing her great dramatic aria until well into the piece. The composer usually lets her “warm up” first with a duet or some shorter phrases in an easier range, allowing the singer to get her breath and rid herself of nerves before exposing herself with a demanding aria. “But in the Brahms Requiem, I sit silently through four whole movements until, in the fifth, I have to stand and pour out a gorgeous, high, ethereal, seemingly unending phrase. And it has to be perfect!”

Shephard to Morris and back

Many professional women with public careers struggle with the choice of whether or not to take their husband’s name. The young soprano Chelsea Shephard had no such hesitation when she married at the age of 24. As the romantically inclined, freshly minted Chelsea Morris, she began to rack up rave reviews and notices as she started building her career following her voice studies at DePaul University in Chicago and Rice University in Houston. Singing operatic roles such as Beth in Little Women, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte and Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, winning top prizes at competitions around the country, and performing recitals and choral works in Chicago and New York, Chelsea was faced with the opposite dilemma when her marriage ended last year. “That name was no longer part of who I was. So I took the plunge and changed it back to Shephard.”

Having sung in public since she was five years old, Chelsea got leading roles in all of her school musicals. Knowing very little about opera or other forms of classical singing, her dream at age 18 was to star on Broadway, but she did want a classically-trained voice. Her first music teacher at DePaul was the mezzo-soprano Susan Mentzer, whose career spanning opera, concerts, church music, and working with composers was an inspiration to the young student. “I learned that singing classical music wouldn’t box me in. Even today, I still don’t want to have to choose one particular form. I love all kinds of song performance and I think each of them informs the others.”

Born and raised in Michigan and having performed extensively in Chicago and in Madison, Wisconsin, Chelsea feels very much a Midwesterner. Still, at age 30 she decided it was time to move to New York City to take advantage of its myriad opportunities for classical singers. "I know the competition is very stiff. There is so much talent pouring out of the schools here and into the city from all over the world. But I am ready for this. I have my own plans and I’m excited about pursuing them.”

Those plans include her Carnegie Hall debut on May 6 with The Cecilia Chorus of New York. A beloved mentor of hers, Steven Blier, the artistic director and co-founder of The New York Festival of Song, offered her her NYC recital debut in 2015. Blier then introduced her to Maestro Mark Shapiro, who engaged her to sing in Dame Ethyl Smyth’s The Prison with his chamber choral group Cantori New York last year. He followed that up with an invitation to perform in A Garden Among the Flames and Brahms’s Requiem with The Cecilia Chorus of New York.

Chelsea Shephard is dedicating her Carnegie Hall debut performance to the loving memory of her mother.

BIOGRAPHY, CHELSEA SHEPHARD

Chelsea Shephard, soprano, gave an “exquisite” NYC recital debut in 2015 with New York Festival of Song, garnering praise for her “beautiful, lyric instrument” and “flawless legato” (Opera News). In the 2016-2017 season, Ms. Shephard joined the roster of Lyric Opera of Chicago for a new production of Das Rheingold and will be making her Carnegie Hall debut with The Cecilia Chorus of New York on May 6.  Other current season highlights include recitals and a recording of Paul Bowles’ Pincin Cantata (NYFOS), return engagements with the Madison Bach Musicians (Scarlatti’s Christmas Cantata, Bach’s St. John Passion), as well as her Chicago Chorale debut in Bach’s B Minor Mass. Previously, the versatile soprano has performed operatic roles including Beth/Little Women, Calisto/La Calisto, Pamina/Die Zauberflöte, Susanna/Le nozze di Figaro, Lauretta/Gianni Schicchi, Lisa/The Land of Smiles, Emily Webb/Our Town, and Poppea/L’incoronazione di Poppea with companies such as Madison Opera, Opera Grand Rapids, Haymarket Opera Company, and Caramoor International Music Festival. Ms. Shephard was featured as a Finalist for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center (2015), won First Place in the Madison Early Music Festival Handel Aria Competition (2014), The Schubert Club (2013), and National Opera Association (2011) competitions, and was a Finalist in the Jensen Foundation Competition in NYC (2014). She was also awarded an Education Grant from the Metropolitan Opera National Council (2016). The Michigan native holds degrees from DePaul University and Rice University, and she recently released her first CD, in collaboration with fortepianist Trevor Stephenson: Songs by Mozart, Haydn & Schubert (Light & Shadow Label). This summer, the pair will collaborate on a second album featuring songs by Debussy, Strauss, Ives, and Brahms with Mr. Stephenson’s lovingly-restored 1855 Bösendorfer piano. More information can be found at www.chelseashephardsoprano.com.

SIDNEY OUTLAW, baritone: "SINGING IN HD AND 3D"

A quick Google search will turn up two Sidney Outlaws.  One, known as “Da Gun,” is a Mixed Martial Arts fighter and the #12 ranked Pro Men’s Welterweight in the Northeast U.S. The other one is Sidney Outlaw, baritone, lauded by The New York Times as a “terrific singer” and by the San Francisco Chronicle as “an opera powerhouse.” “As far as I know, we’re not related and we’ve never met each other,” says the singer. “But we do get emails and Facebook messages from people looking for the other one of us.”

Sidney Outlaw

Sidney Outlaw

The family name derives from the Scottish Outler and was Americanized to Outlaw, which was the name of the slave owner who took one of his slaves as a mistress and produced Sidney’s great-great-great grandfather. “This was in Wrightsville, in central Georgia, where loads of people are named Outlaw. But my paternal grandparents moved up to North Carolina during the Great Migration to work in the paper mills, and that’s where I grew up, in Brevard.”

Sidney credits his mother’s side, almost all of whom have perfect pitch and who traveled in a gospel group called the Smith Singers, with his musical talent. “I love my voice. I am in love with it, like a musician will be in love with a beautiful instrument that he owns. My voice is a gift from God; my responsibility is to take care of it and to learn to play it correctly, just like someone who owns a beautiful cello. He happily carries it around on his back and doesn’t mind buying an extra plane ticket for it.”

Sidney studied voice while still in high school and entered the College of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. “There, I came under the wing of mezzo-soprano and music professor Levone Tobin Scott, who became my Yoda. She taught me how to sing, how to walk, how to be curious about music and to preserve my voice.” Later, at Juilliard, as his voice started to settle in, it rose from bass to baritone. “I was so lucky to have only good teachers. They never pushed me, which is why my voice purrs now: it has never been in distress.”

Singing in HD and 3D

“Brahms’s musical world fits me like a glove, both when I sang bass and now as a baritone. I am lucky to have performed the Requiem under the direction of Christopher Johnson at the Riverside Church, where I have sung with the choir for 12 years. The thickness, the density of the orchestration: it means that as a singer you have to sing on the core of your voice, on your breath. It adds presence and it helps make your voice HD and 3D—high definition and three-dimensional.”

Performing and beyond

Sidney Outlaw knows that a singing and opera career requires complete dedication, but also that it is finite. “I want to sing as long as I can do so at the top of my game, but I don’t want to hang on any longer than that.” Luckily for him, he has many interests beyond performing and already teaches voice at Queens College. “My students there have fewer opportunities than what I and my classmates have had at Juilliard. So I pass on to them what I have been privileged to learn. I refer them to top voice teachers and coaches at Mannes, Julliard, and the Manhattan School of Music who will often work with them at a discount. And when I see interesting ads or posters at Lincoln Center inviting singers to apply for a fellowship here, an audition there, I take photos, print them out and hang them on my office door in Queens, where there are fewer of those notices. My students have to do the work, but I feel I need to level the playing field a little.”

Sidney also has dipped his toe into cultural diplomacy. Four years ago he performed in Guinea, West Africa, under the auspices of President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s State Department. And at the end of May, Sidney will travel to Moscow to perform at the U.S. Embassy there as part of a four-city tour which will also include Kaliningrad, Ryazan, and Voronezh. “I am very excited to represent my country and use the arts as a means of diplomacy. We will be singing a selection of Gershwin songs and I will also sing the part of Jake in selections from Porgy and Bess. Do I resent being ‘typecast,’ as it were, in a black musical? Perhaps I might have when I first started out. But by now I have sung Figaro, Don Giovanni, Demetrius, and Papageno. I have sung in Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, Avery Fisher Hall, and the English National Opera. So I can enjoy singing Jake. He is where I come from. He’s a part of who I am.”

BIOGRAPHY, SIDNEY OUTLAW
Lauded by The New York Times as a “terrific singer” with a “deep, rich timbre” and the San Francisco Chronicle as an “opera powerhouse” with a “weighty and forthright” sound, Sidney Outlaw was the Grand Prize winner of the Concurso Internacional de Canto Montserrat Caballe in 2010 and continues to delight audiences in the United States and abroad with his rich and versatile baritone and engaging stage presence. A graduate of the Merola Opera Program and the Gerdine Young Artist Program at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, this rising American baritone from Brevard, North Carolina, recently added a GRAMMY nomination to his list of accomplishments, for the Naxos Records recording of Darius Milhaud’s 1922 opera trilogy L’Orestie d’Eschyle, in which he sang the role of Apollo. Last season for Mr. Outlaw included the role of Dandini in La Cenerentola with Greensboro Opera, appearances with the Charlotte Symphony, the Bridgehampton Chamber Music and Colour of Music Festivals, his Spoleto Festival debut as Jake in Porgy and Bess, and Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park. The 2016-2017 season includes Mercutio in Roméo et Juliette with Madison Opera and Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Outlaw has been a featured recitalist with Warren Jones at Carnegie Hall and abroad.  He performed his Carnegie Hall debut as Elijah with the Oratorio Society of New York. He traveled to Guinea as an Arts Envoy with the U.S. State Department, where he performed a program of American music in honor of Black History Month and in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In May 2017 he will travel to Russia, again as an Arts Envoy with the U. S. State Department.

For more information on Sidney Outlaw’s career and to hear excerpts from his performances, visit www.sidneyoutlaw.com.

MUSIC DIRECTOR MARK SHAPIRO: Building on Brahms’s ecumenical theme

Mark Shapiro Music Director The Cecilia Chorus of New York

Mark Shapiro
Music Director
The Cecilia Chorus of New York

The Cecilia Chorus of New York commissioned the Syrian born, Polish educated composer Zaid Jabri to write a piece to accompany Brahms’s beloved Requiem for the Chorus’s May 6 Carnegie Hall concert. Jabri’s work, A Garden Among the Flames,  completes a cycle of newly commissioned works which the Chorus, under the direction of Maestro Mark Shapiro, has performed at each concert of the 2016-2017 season.

“I was looking for someone who could create a work that might be thought of as beginning, spiritually and philosophically, where Brahms left off in his Requiem," says Shapiro. "Something poetic and lyrical that could build on the ecumenical theme of Brahms’s piece. For that we needed a creative, exacting, and highly-trained composer, and Zaid Jabri is all of those things. His deep understanding of counterpoint, harmony, and orchestration gives him complete control over the sound he is creating.”

Librettist Yvette Christiansë wrote a poem complementing the original text by Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi upon which Jabri based A Garden Among the Flames. Her choice was to contrast the message of tolerance and peace in the 13th century poem with the reality of refugees fleeing intolerance and war today. (You can read interviews with Zaid Jabri and Yvette Christiansë in our March 27 newsletter.)

Shapiro had no trouble deciding on the soprano and baritone soloists for the Brahms and the Jabri. “I had worked with both Sidney Outlaw and Chelsea Shephard before and I knew what amazing artists they both are. Chelsea’s voice is a rare combination of sweet and powerful. Sidney’s is flexible, versatile, rounded, and supple. Both are terrific musicians—very smart and very disciplined. I have tremendous respect for both of them.”

“All music should be sung as if it were new music.”

Referring to the cycle of new works that Shapiro has commissioned for the current Chorus season, he says, “When we learn new music that has never been performed before, we have to work our way into it. We have to build new ways of learning music and of hearing it in general. In fact, that’s how we should prepare the classical repertoire as well, hearing and singing work we have long loved but with fresh ears.  It is good for experienced singers to be confronted with less familiar sounds that don’t have the patina of music we know well from prior performances.”

“The relevance of A Garden Among the Flames in today’s world brings us right to the heart of the music. And with Oedipus the King by the Brothers Balliett, which we performed in March, an ancient story was retold in a fresh, new way. Both of these approaches spark singers’ curiosity as they delve into the pieces, and that’s how we should approach the well-known works as well. All music should be sung as if it were new music.”

A HOLE IN THE VINYL: Zaid Jabri’s own journey

Zaid Jabri’s father had studied theater in East Berlin, taking advantage of the historically strong and friendly relations between Syria and the Soviet Union and the cultural exchange opportunities they offered. Returning to Syria, he brought home a great treasure: a collection of classical 33 RPM LP’s. When Zaid was nine years old, he put Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana on the phonograph, and, enchanted by the O Fortuna movement, played it over and over again. Worried that the boy would burn a hole in the vinyl by putting the needle on the same spot, his father ordered him to listen to the whole piece. “And that,” says Jabri, “is how my love of classical music began.”  

He played the rest of his father’s LP’s and decided to take up the violin. But the Syrian composer Nuri Iskandar remarked to his parents that the boy had the mind of a creator, not of a performer. As there was no way to study composing in Syria, Jabri, upon graduation from high school, applied to the Academy of Music in Krakow, which was known for its high level and relative artistic freedom amongst conservatories in the Soviet bloc. Entering the school at the age of 19, he first spent a year learning the Polish language and history. He then followed the rigorous five-year combined Bachelors/Masters program and went on to earn his Ph.D. at the Krakow Academy, where he taught from 2008 to 2015. He was twice elected to the board of the Polish Composers’ Union, and his prolific career as an award-winning composer and lecturer has taken him around the world.

Changing times

In late 2015, a new government of the extreme xenophobic right wing took power in Poland, and Jabri’s status as a “foreigner”—his naturalized Polish citizenship notwithstanding—caused him to lose his job at the Academy of Music, along with other indignities and threats the current regime levels at unwanted ethnic groups.

Luckily, the United States opened its arms to him. In short order, he was awarded a Bellagio Residency by the Rockefeller Foundation in Italy, a stint as a Weiss International Visiting Scholar at Barnard College in New York, a MacDowell Colony Artist’s Residency in New Hampshire, and a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University, which will continue until the end of this academic year.

Last December in Cologne, Zabri’s Song Without Words for cello and orchestra was part of a concert in which former members of the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra, now war refugees without work, were recruited from all over Europe to play with the West German Radio Orchestra. As he had done on several occasions during those first months of his Radcliffe residency, Zabri flew to Germany to attend this performance of his work.

But when in February of this year the German Symphony Orchestra invited him to Berlin for a recording of a new clarinet concerto, he felt it was too dangerous for him to leave the United States. The President’s first executive order banning Syrian visitors made it unclear whether he would be allowed back into the country, despite his current visa and the fact that he has Polish citizenship. He hopes the situation will change for the better so that he can continue visiting the United States, but for the meantime, his next move is to Norway. There, he has been offered a newly created position as composer in residence at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, which plans to establish a top-notch conservatory of music.

Though he is a celebrated international artist, Jabri can relate to the plight of refugees, which is the subject of Yvette Christiansë’s additional lyrics in A Garden Among the Flames. “I’m an E.U. citizen because of my Polish citizenship, but look where that got me! My Syrian citizenship is causing me problems in the United States. Norway seems like a lovely place where I’ll be left in peace to teach and create my music.  If not—well, I’ll be on the lookout for another planet!”

YVETTE CHRISTIANSË: “Zaid’s music unlocks the emotions to which my lyrics point you.”

Yvette Christiansë

Yvette Christiansë

“In the faces of the refugees, you see the cost of extremism.”  That statement by Yvette Christiansë, novelist, poet, scholar, and the librettist of A Garden Among the Flames, sums up the relation between the tolerant, ecumenical message of the title poem and the searing lines Christiansë has added to depict the hardship and trauma suffered daily by people fleeing oppression and persecution.

I believe ...
My brother’s heart stopped
      at the side of the road.
I believe …
My sister, I see her still
      chasing the train.
I believe in the religion of love
We pray for water
      And water takes our son.

“The Ibn Arabi quotation that Zaid drew upon reflects the ideals of Sufi tolerance,”  says Christiansë. “Its peaceful message soothes us. But it can also lull people into complacency. It is an ideal. The reality is the refugee crisis that is going on right now.  I wanted to bring the reality of all those people fleeing extremism into the idealistic view of those few lines from the poem.”

Yvette Christiansë, born and raised in apartheid-era South Africa, is Professor of English Literature and Africana Studies at Barnard College in New York City. Having sung professionally as a young girl but turning to the written word as her primary means of expression, her work as a librettist combines her love of music with her love of language. “The music unlocks the emotions to which my lyrics point you,” she says of  Zaid Jabri’s score for A Garden Among the Flames.

Christiansë met Zaid Jabri in 2012 when she was searching for a composer for an opera which she had written with Rosalind Morris called Cities of Salt, based on the novel of the same name by Abdelrahman Munif. The story takes place “in a country that could be Saudi Arabia” in 1932, when oil was discovered beneath the sands.

“We listened to work by 200 composers before we settled on Zaid,” she says. “We were struck by his ability to combine exquisite lyricism with modern dissonance, and his range of comfort with modern chamber orchestras, electro-acoustic composition, and traditional Mediterranean forms. And we were struck by his ear for the emotional registers of words and phrases. Perhaps this is because, as a speaker of six languages and as a migrant, he has had to listen so carefully.”

“He hears where and when vowels can be opened, like keys to meaning, or where and how consonants shape and help contain whatever might come streaming toward a listener from these openings. What I am saying is that, although he grasps emotion, he never overwhelms a listener. That would be manipulative melodrama. His integrity as a composer would never permit that.”

While the three-hour Cities of Salt (“Massive! Bigger than Ben Hur!” exclaims Christiansë with a laugh) is being completed and developed—four scenes of it were showcased in 2015 at London’s Royal Opera House in Covent Garden—the two have continued to collaborate on other projects, like A Garden Among the Flames, which they plan to include in a song cycle. The concert on May 6 will be the Carnegie Hall debut of both composer and librettist.

BIOGRAPHY, YVETTE CHRISTIANSË
Poet, fiction writer, and librettist Yvette Christiansë was born in South Africa under apartheid in 1954 and immigrated with her parents to Australia at age 18, studying at the University of Sydney, where she received a Ph.D. in English. Her work has been published internationally, and her poetry collection, Castaway, was a finalist for the 2001 PEN International Poetry Prize. Her acclaimed first novel, Unconfessed, based on the life of a slave woman in the Cape Colony, was a finalist for the 2007 Hemingway/PEN International Prize for First Fiction, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2008, and nominated for the Ama Ata Aidoo Prize in 2010. Christiansë is the recipient of the Harri Jones Memorial Prize for Poetry (Australia). She currently lives in New York City and teaches at Barnard College.

ZAID JABRI: “For me, the highest value is the human being.”

Zaid Jabri

Zaid Jabri

O Marvel,
A garden among the flames!
My heart can take on any form:
A meadow for gazelles, a cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground, Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim
The tablets of the Torah, the scrolls of the Qur ‘an.
I believe in the religion of love
Whatever direction its caravans may take.

-Ibn Arabi

The Sufi poet, philosopher, and mystic Ibn Arabi wrote those lines at the turn of the 12th century. Born into the Moorish culture of Andalusia, Spain, where Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought came together and influenced one another, he left Spain at the age of 35 and traveled throughout the Islamic world, finally settling in Damascus where his tomb is now a revered shrine.

Zaid Jabri, born in Damascus in 1975 and trained as a composer in Krakow, Poland, where he has resided since 1994, was inspired by those lines when he set about creating a new piece for The Cecilia Chorus of New York, two soloists, a children’s chorus, and an orchestra. The South African-born poet Yvette Christiansë provided additional lyrics.

Jabri’s humanist vision is echoed in Ibn Arabi's famous poem. “The text is timeless and universal, just like musical language. If we focus on one spot on the map, then yes, it fits a certain place and a certain time, like Syria right now. But the message is broader than that. Music has the ability and the capacity to fit many places and many times. But because we live in such a critical moment, Yvette’s additional lyrics draw it sharply into the here and the now.”   

Yvette Christiansë’s text describes the plight of people fleeing repressive regimes. How does that fit in with the Sufi philosophy of Ibn Arabi?

“The enemy of every dictatorship—religious, military, political—is thinking. Sufi is an Islamic religion of thinkers. And my music is intended to make you think. For me, the highest value is the human being, and perhaps this puts me at odds with the fundamentalists and dictators in the Middle East, where individual human life does not mean a lot.”

“In my music, I care very much about the human dimension. I always consider the performer, and through the performer, I keep contact with the audience. My music is contemporary, but it does not sound like it was made in a laboratory, like some other contemporary music, which seems not to care about the audience. The score isn’t the music; the performance is the music. So you have to keep the performers in mind.”

A Garden Among the Flames will be sung in English, Arabic and Latin. Why three languages?

“The original Ibn Arabi poem was of course written in Arabic. The words are so well known to everyone in the Arab world that they would feel familiar to an Arab-speaking audience; to our audience here, they will sound enigmatic and exotic.  Yvette’s English-language texts are very immediate to our audience, moving us from Ibn Arabi’s Sufi words to the reality of our day.”

“The children’s chorus will sing in the Biblical language of Latin: Beati pacifici, blessed are the peacemakers. By using this elevated, ritualistic language, we are freeing it from the over-mediated use of the word ‘peace’ and connecting it to the antiquity and universality of the Bible. Latin is also a beautiful language for singing.”

BIOGRAPHY, ZAID JABRI
Zaid Jabri was born in Damascus, Syria in 1975 into a secular, educated family: his father is a retired theater and television director, his mother is a well-known artist in Syria. After studying violin at the Damasus Lycée, Zaid Jabri moved to Poland to study composition at The Academy of Music in Krakow. Graduating with honors from a five-year B.A./M.A. program under the tutelage of Zbigniew Bujarski, he went on to earn his Ph.D. under the supervision of Professor Krzysztof Penderecki.

He won first prize at the Adam Didur Composers' Competition in Sanok in 1997 and second prize at the 2 Agosto 2012 International Composition Competition in Bologna. In 1999, he participated in the International Musikwerkstatt Buckow in Germany. In 2014, he was awarded a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and in 2015, he earned a Bellagio Fellowship in Italy from the Rockefeller Foundation. In 2016, he was a visiting scholar, artist-in-residence and/or fellow at Barnard College in New York, the MacDowell Colony Artist’s Residency in New Hampshire, and he is currently completing a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies at Harvard University.

A member of the Polish Composers Union since 2011, twice elected to its board, Jabri taught at his alma mater, The Academy of Music in Krakow, from 2008 to 2015. He holds dual Polish-Syrian citizenship.

Zaid Jabri’s works have been performed in Poland, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, France, Belgium, Ukraine, Slovakia, Armenia, Dubai, Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. The world premiere of A Garden Among the Flames represents his Carnegie Hall debut.

For a list of Zabri’s compositions and awards, and audio samples of some of his works, visit www.zaidjabri.com.

THE OPERA KIDS play the Children of Thebes

OperaKids members from Boston City Singers. Around two dozen OperaKids will come to New York to perform Oedipus the King with The Cecilia Chorus.

OperaKids members from Boston City Singers. Around two dozen OperaKids will come to New York to perform Oedipus the King with The Cecilia Chorus.

“Our city lies in ruins. I hate this, I hate this. What did we do to earn this misery? Were we bad? Is that why?”

Those opening lines to the Balliett Brothers’ Oedipus the King, where the Children of Thebes complain to King Oedipus about the horrible plague that is devastating their city, will be sung by OperaKids, one of several groups within the youth chorus Boston City Singers. Founded in 1995 by choral director and New Zealand native Jane Money, Boston City Singers provides after-school music and life skills training to roughly 500 mostly inner-city schoolchildren between the ages of 4 and 18 in Boston and adjacent towns. Choruses from Boston City Singers have sung in various venues across the United States, and in Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa, and Costa Rica, among other countries.

“OperaKids is what we call a pull-out program from across our whole organization,” explains Money. “These are kids of various ages who have shown an interest in staged productions, and in whom we invest extra time, extra rehearsals, and individual coaching so that they can perform occasionally in professional operas, plays and oratorios.” OperaKids—a fluid group with no fixed membership—is directed by Wendy Silverberg, Boston City Singers’ director of early childhood education. This season, singers from the group are appearing in various celebrations of the life of Leonard Bernstein; two were cast in the Huntington Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; and several comprised the children’s chorus of the Boston Camerata’s Play of Daniel in January. The world premiere of Oedipus the King on March 12 will be their New York City debut.

For more information on the Boston City Singers, visit http://www.bostoncitysingers.org.

BIOGRAPHY: JANE MONEY AND THE BOSTON CITY SINGERS
Jane E. Money, Founder, Artistic and Education Director, Boston City Singers

Jane Money founded Boston City Singers in 1995 as a division of Youth Pro Musica, Greater Boston Youth Chorus to address a need for youth chorus and development programs in at-risk neighborhoods. In 2003, Boston City Singers became a separate music and youth development program and currently serves over 500 young people throughout Boston and surrounding neighborhoods annually. Extending well beyond the traditional concept of a community youth chorus, Jane has worked with a team of skilled artists and administrators to develop a program rich in offerings, designed to engage and retain the young people of our urban, and often at-risk, communities. Thanks to her vision, creativity and insight, Boston City Singers combines dance, instrument instruction, a world rhythm ensemble, extensive performance and cultural enrichment opportunities, including biennial international residencies that are educational, cultural, and performance-based.

Ms. Money is the founding artistic director of Children’s Voices of Ireland, based on the Boston City Singers model. A native of New Zealand, she has been a resident of Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood for over 25 years. She is a former instructor with the Metropolitan Opera’s Urban Voices program in Boston, and director of youth choirs at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Wellesley, MA. She is past president of the American Choral Directors Association R&S Standards Chair for Massachusetts.  Jane is a frequent workshop presenter (MMEA, ACDA, AGO), speaking most often on establishing a successful urban music program, compelling repertoire, and the development of artistic standards.

Her work with urban youth has most recently been recognized by the Saint Williams Dorchester Fund and the MA Arts for the “Distinguished Community Arts Collaborative - Music” Award. She is also a member of the inaugural Massachusetts Cultural Councils’ META Fellows program founded in 2016.

The Deviant Septet: A small ensemble with an outsize punch

“A high-powered new music ensemble called the Deviant Septet—which mirrors the stripped-down chamber orchestra Igor Stravinsky devised for his iconic L’Histoire du Soldat—showed that music for small groups can still pack an outsize punch.”
-Stephen Brookes, The Washington Post

Wielding a clarinet, a trumpet, a violin, a bassoon, a double bass, a trombone, and percussion, the Deviant Septet will accompany The Cecilia Chorus of New York on March 12 in the world premiere of Oedipus the King. The composers/librettists are the identical twin brothers Brad and Doug Balliett, who will also play the bassoon and the double bass, respectively.

But before that hour-long piece—“somewhere between an oratorio and an opera,” according to the Ballietts—the Deviant Septet will play two short pieces from their repertoire: Recovering by Chris Cerrone and Focusing by David Liptak.

“Thematically, the three pieces are not related,” says Mike Gurfield, trumpeter and the Deviant Septet’s artistic director. “But they all originated with the Deviant Septet and thus have in common our specific set of instruments, which we maintain as we work to  create contemporary music that builds on the vision Stravinsky had with L’Histoire du Soldat.  For David Liptak’s piece, we received a 2013 Serge Koussevitzky Foundation Commissioning Grant, and now The Cecilia Chorus of New York is commissioning the world premiere of Brad and Doug’s Oedipus the King.” For more information on the Deviant Septet, visit www.deviantseptet.com.

Top, left to right:  Brad Balliett, Jared Soldiviero, Mike Lormond, Mike Gurfield, Doug Balliett.  Bottom: Karen Kim and Bill Kalinkos

Top, left to right:  Brad Balliett, Jared Soldiviero, Mike Lormond, Mike Gurfield, Doug Balliett.  Bottom: Karen Kim and Bill Kalinkos