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.


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


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.”

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

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.

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.”

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

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

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

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

ACTOR Stephen Spinella: “Unlike other arrogant, pompous men who are full of themselves, Oedipus is searching for the truth. That’s what makes him a tragic hero.”

Stephen Spinella

Stephen Spinella

There are many challenges facing Stephen Spinella, the two-time Tony Award®-winning actor, in playing the role of Oedipus in The Cecilia Chorus of New York’s oratorio of Oedipus the King by the Brothers Balliett. But they are challenges he welcomes.

The story itself is daunting: first written around 430 B.C. by the Greek tragedian Sophocles, the tale of Oedipus, the mythical king of Thebes who kills his father and marries his mother, has been told in many forms throughout the ages and in different cultures around the world because of its primal warning of the incest taboo. It is one of mankind’s most enduring myths. The Balliett piece is based on the bloodier, more visceral version by Seneca, the Roman philosopher and tutor to the Emperor Nero in the first century A.D. “Oedipus is a complex character,” says Spinella. “He is arrogant, full of ostentatious self-regard, in love with his own cleverness with words. But he’s not a phony, he’s not trying to con the people. He truly wants to find out who killed the former King, and punish that person so that the plague will be lifted as the oracles have predicted. He doesn’t know it is he himself who is the killer, though he slowly comes to that realization and punishes himself mercilessly.”

And then there is the form: the Oedipus role is spoken, whereas all the other roles in the play—Oedipus’ wife Jocasta, her brother Kreon, the blind prophet Tiresias, the shepherd who saved the infant Oedipus’ life—are sung by the Chorus. Since Oedipus not only declaims in speeches and soliloquies but also interacts with the other characters, this requires a timing even more precise than if all the characters were speaking or all were singing. There is a rapid back-and-forth between Oedipus (speaking) and Kreon (singing), whom the King has sent to the oracle at Delphi to find out what is causing the terrible plague that is devastating Thebes:

KREON: It was confusing.
OEDIPUS: OK, and what did the prophet say?
KREON: It was confusing!
OEDIPUS: Now’s no time for mincing words like scallions! If you value the truth you’ll volunteer every ingredient!
KREON: It was dark and terrible, twisted like an ancient root. It was confusing!
OEDIPUS: You forget that I have a degree in solving riddles. Don’t fret, don’t delay, paint us a picture. 

Spinella especially appreciates the language used by the Balliett brothers, who did their own translation from Seneca’s Latin, using an earlier English translation as a guide. Having acted in an earlier Sophocles play, Electra, on Broadway, he knows how challenging formal classical language—its syntax and rhythms—can be to the actor trying to make the character sound human. And there is always a danger with translations that they become too colloquial. “The Ballietts did an amazing job, using such ornate language that the text has immediate resonance for the audience without falling into the mundane.” 

One year ago, for The Cecilia Chorus of New York’s concert of Messiahs: False and True by Rex Isenberg, Spinella played a narrator, who declaimed speeches by historic figures such as Martin Luther King, Shakespeare, Jim Jones, and Ronald Reagan in between sections sung by the Chorus. That was his first experience with a genre of this type, and after the sold-out concert was met with standing ovations, he said to Music Director Mark Shapiro, “If you ever want to do something like this again, count me in!”  

Stephen Spinella won two Tony and Drama Desk Awards for the original Broadway productions of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America plays, which marked his Broadway debut.

Mr. Spinella has since starred on Broadway in the Tony Award®-winning musical Spring Awakening; revivals of A View from the Bridge, Electra, and Our Town (with Paul Newman); and James Joyce’s The Dead, for which he won a third Drama Desk Award, as well as an Outer Critics Circle Award, and was again a Tony nominee. His most recent Broadway credit is The Velocity of Autumn, co-starring Estelle Parsons.

Off-Broadway, Mr. Spinella won an Obie in Love! Valour! Compassion! He also appeared in An Iliad (Lucile Lortell and Obie Awards); alongside Meryl Streep in The Seagull directed by Mike Nichols; and in Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. Most recently he was in the critically acclaimed production of Coriolanus.

Among his feature film credits: Alfonso Cuaron’s Great Expectations; Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock; Gus Van Zant’s award-winning Milk; Quentin Dupieux’s cult hit Rubber; and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Mr. Spinella has guest-starred on Will and Grace, Frasier, Heroes, Grey’s Anatomy, Nip/Tuck, and Alias. He’s had recurring roles on The Education of Max Bickford, 24, Desperate Housewives, Royal Pains, and Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick.

The Joy of Commissioning

Doug and Brad Balliett have wanted to create a musical piece based on the Oedipus story for a very long time. The commission of Oedipus the King by The Cecilia Chorus of New York was initiated and guided by Music Director Mark Shapiro, one of a handful of artistic leaders in North America to have won a prestigious ASCAP Programming Award five times in recognition of his programming of new and developing musical genres, thus helping shape the future of music.   

Mark Shapiro

Mark Shapiro

As a music director, conductor and teacher, I am profoundly committed to commissioning new works for every ensemble and situation…till the end of time! The value of commissioning is multi-pronged. Most obviously, commissioning new works ensures the growth and refreshment of the repertoire. More subtly, commissioning, which brings us into living contact with that unique entity that is a composer’s mind, heightens the alertness of performing musicians, enhancing our ability to hear and transmit the musical thought of any composer from any era. The Ballietts came onto my radar several years ago when Brad was a composition student at the European American Musical Alliance, a summer institute in Paris where I am on the faculty. I was immediately struck by the uniqueness of Brad’s talent: his keen intellect and wry wit; his tartly sweet sensibility. I have since worked with both Brad and his brother Doug several times. Each project has confirmed my original judgement, and I’m delighted to be collaborating again!
— Mark Shapiro

For the composers, receiving a commission to create a musical work is vital to giving meaning to the art form. “A musical score is a little like a cookbook,” Brad says. “Having a recipe on paper is nice, but unless you can actually cook the dish, it stays in the head of the cook, not on the plate of the person meant to eat it. A musical score that isn’t orchestrated and performed is just an idea in the head of the composer. It needs to be experienced by an audience.”

Doug pulls a small black Moleskine notebook lined with musical staffs out of his backpack. It is full of musical notes, scribbled in pencil. “These are notes for Oedipus the King, jotted down in trains, in waiting rooms. We have been thinking about this project for a full year now - that’s how long it’s taken to come to fruition. We could never devote the time needed for this without it being supported with a commission.” 

Brad: “Commissioning works of art is a noble thing to do. Think of Beethoven’s patron, Archduke Rudolph. And Haydn’s last patron, Prince Esterhazy. They are in the history books because they sponsored these composers and made it possible for them to create music for the generations. It is an investment in the spiritual legacy of the art.”

During this 2016-2017 season, The Cecilia Chorus of New York has commissioned three new works by some of the most exciting new composers of our times: Brad and Doug Balliett (Oedipus the King), Jonathan Breit (Der Zippelfagottist), and Zaid Jabri (A Garden Among the Flames). Please donate to our Composers Fund and, in so doing, help these and other composers create the classics of the future. 

A Complex Oedipus

The Brothers Balliett

The Brothers Balliett

We all know the story of Oedipus, the tragic Greek king who, without realizing it, murders his father and marries his mother. What led up to these events, and what happened once Oedipus discovered the awful truth have, for the past 2500 years, been the subject of plays, operas, films, and poems (there’s even a rap version). Soon, on March 12 at the Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side, Oedipus will appear to New York audiences in a different form, that of a choral work “somewhere between an oratorio and an opera.” The piece, entitled Oedipus the King, was commissioned by The Cecilia Chorus of New York and written by the twin composers Doug and Brad Balliett, commonly referred to as the Brothers Balliett. 

“It’s an incredibly exciting story, a real psychological thriller, and we wanted to make it a cinematic experience for the audience,” says Doug. “We are pulling out all the stops here. There’s a narrator playing Oedipus (the Two-Time Tony ® Award-Winner Stephen Spinella); a children’s chorus (the Boston City Singers) playing the Children of Thebes; a septet of some of the best new music artists in New York City (the Deviant Septet); and then there’s the enormous and wonderful Cecilia Chorus of New York. In our version, the Chorus is not playing the role of the traditional Greek chorus, just supplying commentary to the action. They ARE the action - playing - or rather, singing - all the roles except Oedipus and the children of Thebes.”

For the libretto, the Brothers Balliett sourced an English translation of the Seneca version of the play. Seneca (4 BC - 65 AD) was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and dramatist. He was also a tutor and later advisor to Emperor Nero.  “We chose the Seneca play over the earlier Greek Sophocles version because the Seneca is the more visceral and immediate. This was during the time of Nero’s empire, the most degenerate period in Roman history. This was the time of the gladiators, when audiences wanted their entertainment violent and gory. Seneca obliged them with his version of ‘Oedipus.’ 

The various elements included in the Ballietts’ Oedipus the King were staples of the ancient theatrical experience: song, declaimed text, dialog, and musical accompaniment. The Brothers have chosen the instrumentation provided by the Deviant Septet, which they themselves co-founded in 2011, to heighten the drama through the music. “The brass underlines the military moments in the story, the strings the lyrical ones,” explains Brad. The wind instruments - especially the clarinet - provide spooky tension, and the exciting moments are punctuated by the percussion.”   

“We are incredibly excited about this project,” says Doug.  “It is a challenge for us to stage a Roman spectacle with a cast of hundreds in a modestly sized Episcopal church in New York City, but what a beautiful church it is! And composing a piece of nearly an hour’s length for a massive chorus like the Cecilia is an even bigger challenge. But we have accepted those challenges with pleasure and excited anticipation.”

Brad Balliett

Brad Balliett

Brad Balliett ('Impressive' - New Yorker) is in high demand as a composer, bassoonist, teaching artist, and speaker. He is principal bassoon of the Princeton Symphony and an artistic director of the chamber music collective Decoda (Affiliate Ensemble of Carnegie Hall), with which he regularly leads and participates in creative projects in prisons, homeless shelters, and schools. He is also an active member of Deviant Septet, Signal, and Metropolis Ensemble, and has performed with the Houston Symphony, Metropolitan Opera Musicians, New York City Ballet, International Contemporary Ensemble, and Hartford Symphony Orchestra. As a composer, he has recently received commissions from Carnegie Hall, The Cecilia Chorus of New York, Metropolis Ensemble, Ensemble Echapée, and Cantori New York, and, as a bassoonist, he has commissioned over a dozen new works. He is on the faculty for The Juilliard School and hosts a weekly radio show on WQXR's Q2 Music, both with his twin brother, Doug Balliett. His festival appearances include Chelsea Music Festival (where he was a composer-in-residence in 2011), Marlboro, Tanglewood, Newport Jazz Festival, Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommen, and Lucerne Festival. Mr. Balliett holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a master's degree from Rice University.

Doug Balliett is a composer, instrumentalist and poet based in New York City. The New York Times has described his poetry as “brilliant and witty” (Clytie and the Sun), his bass playing as “elegant” (Shawn Jaeger’s In Old Virginny), and his compositions as “vivid, emotive, with contemporary twists” (Actaeon). Popular new music blog I Care if You Listen has critiqued Mr. Balliett’s work as “weird in the best possible way” (A Gnostic Passion) and “light-hearted yet dark…it had the audience laughing one minute and in tears the next…” (Pyramus and Thisbe). With a constant stream of commissions, a weekly show on New York Public Radio, and nearly 200 performances per year, Mr. Balliett has been identified as an emerging voice for his generation.

Doug Balliett

Doug Balliett

Der Zippelfaggotist: The Original Court Documents

The comic intermezzo called Der Zippelfaggotist, which Jonathan Breit has written for The Cecilia Chorus of New York’s A Bach Family Christmas, is based on a factual altercation between J.S. Bach and a bassoon player named Geyersbach in 1705. The first page of the original court document, containing Bach’s complaint against the bassoonist, is shown below. 

Music Director Mark Shapiro and ASCAP Award-winner The Cecilia Chorus of New York (180 voices with orchestra) present A Bach Family Christmas on Saturday, December 10th at 8:00pm. Join us at Carnegie Hall (Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage). Featuring J. S. Bach's Magnificat, seasonal works by Bach's relatives, and the world premiere of Jonathan Breit's comic intermezzo Der Zippelfagottist. Soloists include Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist Rihab Chaieb and Wolf Trap Young Artist Matthew Swensen. For more information and to buy tickets, click on the button below!

Source: The National Archive of Thüringen - State Archive Rudolstadt.

Source: The National Archive of Thüringen - State Archive Rudolstadt.

Cody Quattlebaum, Bass-Baritone: As a Teenager Alone in the Basement in the Dark, Listening to Bach

Listening to the music of Bach was a major factor in the development of Cody’s fascination with the art form. One of his favorite works, which he listened to over and over, was Glenn Gould’s interpretation of Variation 25 of the Goldberg Variations. “There is an air of acute tension and feeling,” he explains. “The counterpoint creates the sensation of little strings attached to the brain, and each step through the harmonic progression is like a little tug of a tooth you’re ready to pull.” 

Cody grew up in suburban Ellicott City, Maryland. He credits his primary and secondary school music teachers with instilling in him an interest in music and arts. In his junior year of high school, he enrolled in voice lessons with a private teacher, Carol Schuster Yunkunis, thus opening the door to classical singing. 

Although Cody, now 23, began singing in choirs and musicals at a young age, continuing as a professional was not on his agenda - in fact, he had planned to attend college for business or design. But after just a little persuasion, he applied exclusively to several music schools, and was accepted into the top-rated College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, OH. After a semester of getting acclimated to college, he made a habit of attending concerts and recitals during all of his free time, sometimes showing up to two performances in one evening. It was this high exposure, he says, which lead him to fall in love of a wide spectrum of musical styles.

Under the tutelage of Kenneth Shaw, he decided to fully commit to a career as a singer. “I notice many people wait to fall in love with something before they approach it with energy and focus. But I have found that I must focus on something and put forth my best effort before I am able to fall in love with it,” Cody says. “Upon deciding to pursue a life of music, I shouted out and awaited an affirming echo. I’m still performing, so I suppose I heard something reassuring.”

Many of Cody’s classmates at CCM had already studied music intensely for several years prior to college. A few had attended performing arts high schools, with focused studies in opera. Cody’s competitive nature prompted him to work endlessly to catch up, thus propelling his immersion in classical music.

Cody, who has often been told he was a natural actor, feels that opera is a perfect fit for him, although he admits one of his greatest pleasures is recital singing. “In many ways, it is one of the most difficult styles of performance”, he claims. “It’s all about your interpretation of the music and text, which can be extremely fulfilling. On the other hand, poor preparation of just one song can ruin the whole evening for you and with recitals, there is no one to blame but yourself. It seems dramatic, but ultimately, your assessment of your performance determines whether the applause is made up of accolades or consolation. It sounds stressful, but this is the kind of pressure under which I tend to thrive.”

Concerts, such as A Bach Family Christmas with The Cecilia Chorus of New York, propose different challenges, but offer a great deal of security. “You’ve got the Maestro right in front of you, leading you; you’ve got a full orchestra and the chorus nearby. Even though I am sensitive to my fellow collaborators, I tend to practice a degree of tunnel vision in solo singing. Every bit of text must have meaning, and it takes deep inward focus to create that experience.”

Bass-Baritone Cody Quattlebaum, from Ellicott City, Maryland, is currently earning an M.M. in Voice Performance at The Juilliard School. He received his bachelor’s degree from CCM - University of Cincinnati. He has performed Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro, Lautsprecher in Der Kaiser von Atlantis, Der Fischer in Matsukaze, Melisso in Alcina, and Colonel in a premier workshop of Daniel Catán’s Meet John Doe. He recently performed Guglielmo in Così fan Tutte with Merola Opera. He won the Seybold-Russell Award in the 2015 Corbett Opera competition, the 1st place and “Audience Favorite” award at the 2016 James Toland competition, and 2nd place in the 2016 Gerda Lissner Liederkranz competition. In February 2017, he will perform Claudio in Handel’s Agrippina in Alice Tully Hall and Wilson Theater in New York City. He will also perform under the baton of Maestro Michael Morgan with the Oakland Symphony next season.

Matthew Swensen, Tenor: “I know I'm living every singer's dream!”

The only child of a pair of world famous opera singers - tenor Robert Swensen and mezzo-soprano Kathryn Cowdrick - Matthew was born into song.

At the age of 9 he performed with his father in a Benjamin Britten canticle about Abraham and Isaac.  One summer he performed with his mother in a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. But whether Matthew was destined to be a professional singer himself only became clear to the family when he was 14.  His father called him over to the piano, did some vocal exercises with him, and his future as an opera singer was set in motion.

There is no generational conflict between Matthew and his parents: they are like three peas in a pod. Rather than resenting his parents’ frequent absences while traveling and performing as some children of celebrities do, Matthew was proud of his parents. He grew up always feeling loved and appreciated by his grandparents, his nannies and most of all by his parents, who took him along with them whenever possible. He never felt the lack of a sibling.  “One child lost at the airport is better than two,” his mother always said.

Born in Berlin in 1992 while his father was performing with the Berlin State Opera, Matthew moved back to the U.S. when he was one year old. The family settled in Rochester, NY where his father and later also his mother taught voice at the Eastman School of Music. It was a given that Matthew also study music there. Ranked at the top amongst undergraduate schools for voice, the Eastman program is dedicated to nurturing young singers, allowing them to mature without undue pressure, and giving them the opportunity to do vocal work that is appropriate for their age. Renee Fleming once said to Matthew:  “I love your singing because you sing your age.” Well aware of his young age (he is now 23) Matthew has repressed the desire to emulate the singing of his idol Pavarotti and other tenors of the past, because he knows his body and voice are just not ready. 

Having learned to pace himself at Eastman and grow gradually into a professional singer, he is now at Juilliard, the dream of nearly every singer. “Juilliard offers us polishing, experience, and exposure. Eastman prepared me for a life of singing with longevity. Here in New York, at Juilliard, I am presented with the resources to achieve success. And I am encouraged to push my limits and my boundaries.”

One of the roles he was cast in at Juilliard was the Poulenc opera Les Mamelles de Tirésias. In it he played a child born from a chemistry experiment, and he sang an aria dressed in nothing but a custom-made diaper, after which he was carried offstage. (“The diaper was quite nice, actually. But I did have to shave off my beard for the role.”)  At the reception afterwards, a woman walked up to him and said he looked and sounded so nice in that diaper. Somewhat flustered, he mumbled a thank-you. Only after she left did Matthew find out that that woman was Kathleen Battle.

With A Bach Family Christmas, Matthew will make his Carnegie Hall debut. He sang the Magnificat four years ago at his family’s church in Rochester. Singing Bach - which sits high in the tenor voice - is an easy fit for him. But Matthew knows that his voice - the physiological mechanism as well as the intellectual force behind it - will not mature fully until he is in his late 20’s, when he can better understand where his voice is headed.  His goal is to sing for as long as he can at as high a level as he can. 

Tenor Matthew Swensen is completing his master’s degree at The Juilliard School under the tutelage of Robert C. White. Most recently, he covered Sospiro (L’Opera Seria-U.S. Premiere) with the Wolf Trap Opera Studio. Recent masterclasses include Stephanie Blythe, Roger Vingoles and Graham Johnson. Recent roles at Juilliard include Pane (La Calisto), 2nd Priest (Die Zauberflöte), and Le Fis (Les mamelles de Tirésias). Matthew graduated from Eastman School of Music, studying with Robert Swensen and Kathryn Cowdrick. Recent recital and concert appearances include The Song Continues Festival at Carnegie Hall, Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin in Paul Recital Hall, and his Alice Tully Hall debut with songs from Scandinavia. This November he sings the role of Bill in Jonathan Dove’s opera Flight. Next February, Matthew will be the tenor soloist in the Mozart Requiem, with Juilliard 415 and conductor Gary Wedow in Alice Tully Hall.

Nicholas Tamagna, Countertenor: “I can play a king of a troll crawling under a rock!”

During his musical studies, Nicholas sang mostly in a high baritone but felt that somehow the use of his voice in that register was limited. It was only later that his voice teacher, Alissa Grimaldi, heard his easy facility with head voice and falsetto and suggested he switch to countertenor. “From that moment, everything fell into place for me.”

Nicholas (34) grew up in New York, partly in the Hudson Valley and partly in New York City. He studied music at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro and at the Manhattan School of Music, where he received his B.A.  He went on to earn a Master's degree in music at Hunter College, graduating in 2007.

Doesn’t singing countertenor limit your repertoire?

“A lot of people think that, but nothing could be further from the truth. Countertenor is used mostly in early and baroque music, both of which I have always loved, but baroque especially is coming back these days in full force. So there is a wide repertory there.

“But I also get the chance to sing a lot of modern music, like Der Zippelfaggotist! The countertenor voice type has a unique character - it’s a bit mysterious. Is is male or female or castrato? Or is it otherworldly? In the baroque era, there was a hierarchy in voices: the King would have the highest voice. So I get to play everything from a king to a troll crawling under a rock! In Magnificat I sing the alto part, and in Der Zippelfaggotist I play the young student, Geyersbach. I think a tenor has less choice, as they tend to be typecast.”

Nicholas Tamagna.jpg

Nicholas performed Bach’s Magnificat once before, early in his career. He loves Bach and is often invited to sing concert music, but he does mainly opera, which takes up a great deal of his schedule, not only with performances but with much more extensive rehearsals than a concert requires. Opera obviously provides more opportunity for acting, with movement, gesture, costumes, makeup, sets and fellow actors. But in both opera and concert music, he tries to excel in being a vocal actor, exploring what colors are available to his voice. “There is so much you can do with your voice: different emotions, feeling, brightness or darkness of vowels, articulation. How long you hold a consonant can change the meaning of your text, which of course you need to know and understand perfectly. All this can be brought into concert singing even if you’re just standing there, to bring out the dramatic elements in the music. Just hitting the right notes is not enough: every good concert should have the intention and the expression that will connect with the audience.”

Winner of the Nico Castel Mastersinger award, Nicholas Tamagna is a countertenor singing internationally in opera and concert, and makes his debut on the main stage of Carnegie Hall with The Cecilia Chorus of New York. In 2017-18 he will make his Dutch debut singing the title role of Hasse's Siroe with the Nederlandse Reisopera, in joint production with Staatstheater Oldenburg in Germany. He will also sing the role of the Refugee in James Darrah's production of Jonathan Dove's Flight with Opera Omaha. In 2016 he made his Australian debut in a special presentation of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, with David Kram, of Opera Australia, conducting. He is a regular soloist with the baroque orchestra Poème Harmonique in France, performing at Opéra de Vichy, de Rouen, and the Opéra Royal de Versailles. In 2015, Mr. Tamagna returned to the Badisches Staatstheater Händel-Festspiele in Karlsruhe, Germany as Oronte in Benjamin Lazar’s critically acclaimed production of Händel’s Riccardo Primo. He also sang for Theater Münster in Kobi van Regensburg’s production of Händel's Ariodante as Polinesso, and in operamission NYC's production of Händel's Rinaldo as Goffredo. In 2014, he made his European debuts in Germany with the Badisches Staatstheater and in France with Opéra de Rouen and Opéra Royal de Versailles. Discography credits include his Akhnaten in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten with Indianapolis Opera and Indiana University in live broadcast in 2013, le Poème Harmonique's Dido and Aeneas on DVD, and ¡Sacabuche!: Early Italian Motets, Arias and Duets on the Canadian label ATMA Classique. He will be featured on Le Poème Harmonique's next album in 2017. An active concert soloist, Mr. Tamagna has sung in renowned venues including the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, and Avery Fischer Hall.

Rihab Chaieb, Mezzo-Soprano: Rending and Mending the Family Bonds

“To my immigrant parents, playing in a heavy metal band and singing in the opera were the same thing: fine as a hobby, but not a serious profession.”

When Rihab was two years old, her parents emigrated from Tunisia to Montreal.  Both highly educated professionals, her parents expected Rihab, their eldest daughter, to pursue a highly paying career. But Rihab had a different goal. Music had entered her life.

Rebelling at the age of 17, Rihab joined a heavy metal band - her math teacher in high school had been a drummer, and encouraged her - before moving out of the house and traveling alone to Central America. This was just when she was about to enter the CEGEP, the mandatory preparatory school between high school and university or trade school in Quebec.

At CEGEP Rihab followed a double major in math - her mother’s profession - and in music, her own love - and graduated in three years while working as a lifeguard in a sports center. While there she was encouraged and supported by her sight-reading and theory teacher, Jo-anne Fraser. 

“Jo-anne was like an adoptive mother to me. I was having some difficulties at home at the time. My parents didn’t understand my needs, my feelings or my dreams. Jo-anne took my music seriously and also helped me learn to navigate the world, as a woman and as an adult.”  They say time heals. She has since reconciled with her family and feels that their bond is even stronger than before. Her mother recently came to hear her sing the role of Zulma in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri at the Metropolitan Opera, a performance which the New York Times described as “vibrant.”

After CEGEP, Rihab enrolled in the Major Performance Voice Program at McGill University in Montreal and the roles, grants, accolades and awards started pouring in.  At 29 her resume is lengthy and impressive - but landing in New York last year at the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artst Development Program was overwhelming at first.

“Just the noise pollution of Manhattan - the ambulances, the trucks, the traffic. I share an apartment on 10th Avenue near the entrance to the highway and for the first time in my life I have to sleep with earplugs.” But the exigencies of managing a singing career in New York City are even more daunting. “There’s so much pressure, vocal demands, demands on your lifestyle, and you have to learn to take care of yourself, of your health, to be a better agent for yourself, to manage your gigs. You start from the bottom up here, wherever you’ve sung before.  But that’s the way it should be. It’s like a rice cooker: you have to get cooking and you can’t rush it. I have learned that you have to pay your dues and steadily improve if you want your career to last.  Life as a performer is only going to get harder and more complicated, not easier, so you might as well learn to deal with it early on.”

At the same time, being in the Young Artists program at the Met, the brainchild of Music Director Emeritus James Levine, has made New York a warm and welcoming place for Rihab. “James Levine has got your back.  A half-hour before each performance, he phones each singer in his or her dressing room, reassuring and encouraging us. Because I am also performing with him, my classes with him feel organic and put me at ease. Normally I don’t like to feel too comfortable for fear of becoming complacent. But with Levine that feeling of comfort leaves me feeling excited and strong.”

Rihab Chaieb kicks off her 16/17 season as she makes her Met debut as Zulma in L’Italiana in Algeri, and as Cretan Mezzo in Idomeneo, both productions conducted by James Levine. In summer 2017 Chaieb returns to Glyndebourne Festival Opera as Flora in Verdi's La traviata, following her successful Glyndebourne debut in 2015 as Mércedès in David McVicar's production of Bizet Carmen. This past season, Rihab Chaieb performed Tebaldo in Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Opéra National de Bordeaux, and the season before, she sang Waltraute in Atom Egoyan’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Canadian Opera Company.  She made her role debut as Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro for the Merola Opera Program in San Francisco. Her roles for the Canadian Opera Company include Sesto in La Clemenza di Tito, Juno/Ino in Semele, Hansel in Hansel and Gretel, amongst many others. She is a 1st Prize Winner of the Gerda Lissner International Vocal Competition, winner of the Arthur E. Walters Memorial Award from Opera Index, and 1st Prize Winner of the Christina & Louis Quilico Award competition. She was awarded the 2014 Bernard-Diamant Prize by the Canada Arts Council, which recognizes an outstanding young singer in the Council’s annual competition for grants to professional musicians.

Rebecca Farley, Soprano: From Henderson, KY to Carnegie Hall

Raised outside of rural Henderson, Kentucky, Rebecca heard plenty of music at home, but it was all Elvis and the Beatles. Feeling isolated out on the family farm, she joined her high school chorus mainly to be part of a group of kids.  It was there that her amazing voice was discovered.

At age 16 she attended the Governor’s School for the Arts (GSA), a state-run summer arts camp in Lexington, KY, where she had her first voice lesson, and her dream of a future as a professional singer began to take shape.

Rebecca was accepted into the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music but her family was unable to afford the out-of-state tuition. So with a combination of merit scholarships and a special grant for GSA alumni, she studied music at the University of Kentucky.  It was there, in the summer before her senior year, that a friend encouraged her to come along with her to Chicago, where auditions for the prestigious Chautauqua Institution in New York were being held. Rebecca decided to go along for the ride, sending in her application for the summer training program at the very last minute -  too late to be scheduled for an audition. But the Chair of the Voice Department, the famed voice teacher Marlena Malas, allowed her to sing anyway and signed her up immediately. Now, at Juilliard for her advanced degree, Rebecca is trained by Marlena Malas. “It’s so important to have the right student-teacher chemistry,” she says. “You need to be of the same mind of where you want your voice to go and how you want to use it.”

Her acceptance at Juilliard was the next milestone in Rebecca’s young life, but the cost of tuition as well as of living in New York required her to work evenings as a cater waiter.  A demanding job under any conditions, it was especially challenging for Rebecca as she studied at Juilliard all day and tried to adjust to the pressures and demands of New York life and the Juilliard experience. She would often come home from work at 3 a.m. and have to go to class the next morning.  “As a singer, your instrument is your body. And mine was so, so tired.”

She finished her first year, having been cast in multiple singing parts, and in the summer she was studying German in Munich on a Lucrezia Bori Grant when she got an e-mail from Juilliard saying she had been awarded the highly competitive Kovner Fellowship for her second year.  “I hadn’t applied for this and had no idea I was even being considered.  I was all alone in Munich when I got that e-mail and had a big celebration all by myself!” The Fellowship enabled her to quit her catering job and devote herself full time to her musical training.

Now, at age 26, Rebecca will be making her Carnegie Hall debut with The Cecilia Chorus of New York. Her family from Henderson will be there. 

Rebecca Farley, soprano, hails from Henderson, KY and is a Master of Music student at The Juilliard School. Last season she made her New York debut as Bubikopf in Viktor Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis, which she followed up this season with dazzling performances as the Controller in Jonathan Dove's Flight. Other operatic roles include Gilda in Rigoletto, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Nannetta in Falstaff, and Zerlina in Don Giovanni. Last December she appeared alongside Brian Zeger at Alice Tully Hall where they performed obscure Liszt lieder. 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 the Mother in Angela Rice's oratorio Thy Will Be Done. She is thrilled to be singing with The Cecilia Chorus of New York and adding Bach's Magnificat to her repertoire.  

Ms. Farley received her Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Kentucky where she was an Alltech Scholarhip recipient.  As an Alltech Scholar, she did concert tours in Normandy, Ireland, Peru, and Mexico. Currently, Ms. Farley is a proud recipient of a Kovner Fellowship at The Juilliard School.

A Bach Family Christmas: Program Note from Mark Shapiro & Jonathan Breit

Program Note from Mark Shapiro

Talk about good genes! While it’s not exactly news that the Bachs were an exceptionally talented musical dynasty, many of us know this more as a matter of historical anecdote than of direct experience. Those of us who may have encountered “other” Bachs within the extended Bach clan have most probably come across his sons Carl Philip Emmanuel and Wilhelm Friedmann, strikingly inventive composers both.

Few listeners are likely to know the relatives whose music we’re presenting this evening – in addition to the magister JS – namely Johann Ernst and Johann Christoph Friedrich. Both wrote music that is abundantly communicative, consummately pleasing, and skillfully made. 

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

The Son: Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach

The Son: Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach

The Cousin: Johann Ernst Bach

The Cousin: Johann Ernst Bach

JS Bach’s son Johann Christoph Friedrich must have been a singularly happy character, one of those baffling individuals who are not ever in a bad mood, whom you simply cannot imagine walking through the door and manifesting grouchiness or impatience with the dog. His advent cantata Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme treats an iconic sixteenth-century hymn (by Philipp Nicolai) that was also set by his father, whose glorious chorale harmonization JCF quotes in admiring, uncomplicated tribute. JCF’s setting emphasizes the buoyantly anticipatory mood of the pre-Christmas season with nary a tincture of the mysticism, awe and even foreboding that can characterize this repertoire. 

The work opens with a unison fanfare, and immediately takes off in a galloping stampede of anapests. Notable moments in the first movement include the spooky treatment of “Mitternacht” (“midnight”) and the upwardly surging lines (“Ihr musset ihn entgegen gehn”) that herald the return of the opening music. The middle movement is pure serenade, among whose highlights are a lyrical chain of suspensions on “singen”, a percolating sequence of melismas on “Freuden” (“joys”), and another rising stretto (closely timed imitation) on “Wir mussen ihm entgegen gehn.” The third and final movement opens with a chorale-like setting, segueing to the quotation from JS; a striking, luminous finale offers imitation on a neon-lit chromatic motif: “O When the Saints” with the third note sharped. 

Johann Ernst was a cousin of JS, who was also one of his godparents. JE was an organist and church musician who left to posterity just twenty or so cantatas. His music is characterized by contrapuntal deftness, harmonic edginess, and a theatrical handling of text and narrative. In his dark and soulful response to the German-language Magnificat – which is, like Wachet auf, an advent text – the Italianate, operatic inflections of the counter-baroque are everywhere in evidence, the searching for maximal dramatic impact unmistakable. Lines writhe chromatically up and down; rhythms syncopate. The string writing, borrowing from Vivaldi, is extravagant, colorful, virtuosic, impassioned; its gestures include fast repeated notes, spiky rhythms, and flashy arpeggios. The cantata’s many highlights include the tender solo quartet “Die Hungrigen” that follows the jagged aggressions of the fugal “Er ubet Gewalt.” JE did not get the happy gene: his joy is, decidedly, in a minor key. 

JS Bach’s Magnificat must be one of the most beloved works in the repertoire, and deservedly so. As we return to it this season, we are struck anew by the inexhaustible genius of its invention. There is so much variety. No movement resembles another. Solo voices are characterized with lavish imagination; the orchestral palette is multi-hued, the textures richly layered. Among the many attributes of this music that overwhelm us: the feeling it imparts of noble designs unfurling majestically in the forwardly striding medium that is musical time, like a fast-action film of a cathedral being built. Its grandeur and radiance remind us all of that is best in the human imagination.


Jonathan Breit has written his own program note for Der Zippelfagottist. What a pleasure to collaborate again with this talented musical humorist.

© Mark Shapiro 2016

Program Note from Jonathan Breit

Der Zippelfagottist is a 20-minute mini-opera that tells the true story of how the young Johann Sebastian Bach got into a public brawl with one of his music students.

The word Zippelfagottist is the untranslatable insult that J.S. Bach called this student, thereby provoking the brawl. Or I should say allegedly called, and allegedly provoked, for there are as many different accounts of what exactly happened as there were persons present at the scene.

The scene is set in 1705. Bach is 20 years old, and has been hired to his first real job as a professional musician, as organist at the Neue Kirche in the town of Arnstadt, Germany. He got the job two years ago, in 1703, and the church liked him so much that they agreed to pay him twice the going rate.

He was hired as the church organist, and only the organist, as we can clearly read in his contract with the Consistory, which survives in a library in Germany. And yet he finds to his dismay that he is also expected to serve as a Director musices, which means conducting the choir.

Now this choir is made up of students drawn from the local Gymnasium. Here is a contemporary description of these students: “They have no respect for their teachers.… They wear a rapier not only on the street, but also in the school…. They even frequent unseemly locales. They spend their free time playing dice and drinking and doing other wicked things which one shrinks from naming. All night long they make a racket with shouting and music-making.…” (Complaint to the Consistory by the Town Council of Arnstadt, 1706.)

It is one of these students that Bach allegedly offends with the word Zippelfagottist. Some kind of a brawl later takes place in a public square. The very next day, Bach comes before the Consistory, bringing a formal complaint with his version of the events. It is here that our play begins.

The text has been drawn from the real eighteenth-century church records of the dispute, which are preserved in a library in Germany. It is printed in your programs together with an English translation, in case your eighteenth-century German happens to be a bit rusty.

But first, there is one other character in the drama who needs introduction. This is Bach’s cousin, Barbara Catharina Bachin, who, according to the church records, witnesses the brawl. Confusingly, Bach has two cousins named Barbara Catharina Bachins living in Arnstadt at this time. One of them is the sister of Johann Ernst Bach, who will later take over for J.S. as the organist at the Neue Kirche when he gets a job elsewhere. (Unfortunately, this is not the same Johann Ernst Bach who wrote the other piece on tonight’s program: that Johann Ernst was a more distant cousin.) The other Barbara Catharina Bachin is the sister of Maria Barbara Bach, whom Bach will marry in 1707. No one knows for sure which Barbara Catharina is meant.

Before I let you go, I should at least attempt to offer a translation for the untranslatable insult of the title. Fagottist is clear enough: it means “bassoonist”. But what is a Zippel? Here the dictionaries are of little help. Grimm’s offers Zippeler “a student”, Zimpel “a simpleton”, and, most intriguingly, Zippel “a small onion”.

The lesson, at any rate, is clear: If your choral conductor dares to call you a “scallion bassoonist”, do not punch him in the face (not even allegedly). For if you do, some scallion composer may cast you, without your consent, as a character in a play, three hundred years in the future.