MESSIAH by G.F. Handel: Program Notes from Mark Shapiro

A confession: I never tire of Handel’s Messiah. By now I have conducted it many times. In years past, when it would come around again, I occasionally worried that I wouldn’t enjoy rehearsing it anymore, or that listeners wouldn’t be inclined to hear it afresh. These concerns reliably evaporated from the moment I set to work on it, and now I never think of them. On the contrary, I cannot wait to hear the first chords. I know I will be immediately and completely won over by the music’s radiant beauty, its expressive range, its effortless technique, and its ineffable rightness for the voices and instruments, perhaps a by-product of its famously compressed period of composition (three weeks).

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SHAKÈD BAR, SOPRANO: Bringing the World into Her Singing

The first thing that strikes you upon meeting Shakèd Bar, 29, the Israeli soprano and soloist in the December 8 concert of Handel’s Messiah, is her perfect command of American English. This is especially surprising since, until she moved to New York a year ago to enter Juilliard’s Master of Music program, she had never lived in an English-speaking culture.

“Well, of course you pick it up early on, from movies and from songs on the radio, but as a singer, knowing languages is extremely important. Not just the accent and the intonation, but also the phrasing and the cultural context. All those things add to your interpretation of the music.”

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NICHOLAS TAMAGNA, COUNTERTENOR: An Opera Singer Who Loves the Drama of Oratorio

“The alto part in Messiah isn’t one person, or character – you’re a narrator of sorts, but you definitely have a point of view. That, to me, is the genius of Handel. He brought in the drama he wrote in the first half of his career, when he was creating Italian operas for English audiences, and used it in his oratorios when opera started to fall out of favor. Look at the joy, the exuberance in the announcement of the miracle to come: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name, Emmanuel, GOD WITH US.”

As he recites the line, Nicholas Tamagna’s already animated face becomes infused with the wonder and excitement of that moment in Part I of Handel’s Messiah, which he will perform with The Cecilia Chorus of New York on December 8. The sentiment is infectious and genuine, even though he has sung Messiah countless times. “This role is a staple of my repertory. The combination of Baroque arias, a libretto written in English, and the subject—being the life of Christ—with texts drawn from the New Testament, makes it fairly unique in the canon.”

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MICHAEL ST. PETER, TENOR: Wonder and Gratitude

With a father who toured as a trumpet player with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, and Frankie Valli, and a pianist mother who taught music in Chicago suburban schools for nearly four decades, is it any wonder that Michael St. Peter sang so beautifully that he made the mothers cry when he performed in elementary school? Well, yes, in a way. Michael did grow up in a musical family and learned all about music from his parents, but his vocal talent came from his birthmother Jennifer.

Jennifer was a 19-year-old student of vocal performance when she unexpectedly became pregnant and decided to bring the baby to term and place him into an open adoption. When she learned that a couple of professional musicians wanted to adopt her child, the choice was clear. Michael was adopted into a musical family, who, from the start, also included Jennifer, her own parents, and later her husband and their two daughters in their intimate circle.

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WILLIAM GUANBO SU, BASS-BARITONE: My Future is Here

Sliding his tall frame onto a small wooden café chair, bass-baritone William Guanbo Su, 24, plops his water bottle on the table as he catches his breath.

“What a day! It’s been a crazy week already, but I’ve just come from something so exciting!” That something was participating as a singer for prospective instructors in their interviews at Juilliard, not to teach at the famous campus at Lincoln Center but as future faculty for a new campus to open in a couple of years in Tianjin, China, about 80 miles outside Beijing.

“This is an amazing project,” says William. “It will give a huge boost to the classical music scene in China, and it will undoubtedly help raise the level of the other conservatories there. But it will also serve the rest of Asia, because the lessons will mostly be given in English, so students from, say, Japan and Korea can also attend.”

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Mozart and Smyth: Their Final Works

On Friday, May 11, the audience in Carnegie Hall will hear The Cecilia Chorus of New York, with full orchestra and six soloists, singing Mozart’s Requiem, written as he lay dying, and The Prison, the last major work of Dame Ethel Smyth before she lost her hearing, which put an end to her prolific musical career. Our mid-winter concert on March 4 ended with Gounod's Requiem, written for his four year-old grandson but completed only days before Gounod's own death. 

What can we learn from composers’ last works?

 Mark Shapiro, Music Director

Mark Shapiro, Music Director

Music Director Mark Shapiro: “Composers, like any of us, engage in soul-searching later in life. An artist’s ‘late style’ typically entails both a summing up and a concentrated seeking that are charged with the wisdom and perspective earned through a lifetime of art-making. All of us are deepened—our lives become fuller and more joyful—when we are confronted with the inevitability of our own mortality and that of those we love. Artists especially can invoke and communicate this deepening, and lead us to experience it ourselves in a beautiful, exhilarating way.”

Read our Carnegie Hall Playbill program notes by Dame Ethel Smyth expert Liz Smith here and Music Director Mark Shapiro here.

THE LEVIN COMPLETION

Mozart died in late 1791, before he could complete his Requiem. Many attempts have since been made to complete the work, the best known being that of his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr. For our May 11 performance, Music Director Mark Shapiro has chosen the 1995 edition by Robert D. Levin. "I had the privilege of attending classes taught by Robert Levin when I was a student and then administrator at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau. I vividly remember Levin's astounding intellect and musical mind. He is extraordinarily qualified to tackle the delicate challenge of providing a new completion of Mozart’s unfinished Requiem. As beloved as the traditional Süssmayr version is, I, like many other conductors, have always been aware of its occasional infelicities and heaviness. Levin has a lighter touch, and his deeply considered solutions are markedly elegant and graceful."

Danielle Beckvermit, Soprano: From Rollerblades to the Minnesota Opera

 Danielle Beckvermit

Danielle Beckvermit

The first piece Danielle Beckvermit performed in as a student of Vocal Performance at SUNY Freedonia, near Buffalo, was in the alto section of the chorus in Mozart’s Requiem. Now, on May 11, she will perform the soprano solo in that same beloved work with The Cecilia Chorus of New York in her Carnegie Hall debut. But she almost chose a path that would never have brought her there.

“I am the second of six kids. My father works in construction and my mother is the caregiver for my grandmother. I have always loved to sing, but we couldn’t afford private voice lessons so I earned money as a rollerblading car hop at the Sonic drive-in to pay for them. My high school in Kingston, NY, had a wonderful three-year voice program and I was able to take part in it. I found myself singing in Italian and learning art song in a group setting. But I never thought of performing as a career. I wanted to be just like our choir director and teach music for a living.

“So, I auditioned at SUNY Fredonia for the Music Education program. After I sang, I was asked to leave the room. My heart sank: was I that bad? Then after what seemed like an eternity, I was called back in. They told me, “We want you for our Vocal Performance program,” And with that, I was brought into a program with full opera productions, character study, music theory and history, analysis and ear training, and a wonderful opera seminar that I took every year.”

From Fredonia, NY, Danielle went on to the Mannes School of Music Professional Studies, a two-year Masters program. There, she has a team of teachers and coaches who help her focus on whatever she is working on at any time: roles, competitions, outside engagements. In addition to helping her improve her technique, language, inflections and character development, her ‘team’ advises her on her repertoire and also on the promotional aspects of her career, including the choice of publicity photos and what to put on her website. One program she especially appreciates is Mannes Performance Lab, where mock auditions are held. The students serve as panelists for one another’s auditions. “I think I learn more from being on the panel than from auditioning myself,” she says. “I’ve learned that panelists aren’t there to judge you negatively. They want you to do well. They want you to tell a story.  I realize how important character interpretation is—it’s just as important as technique. And how important communication skills are to get that character across.”

The program has paid off.  In addition to landing full operatic roles and winning or placing in numerous competitions, Danielle is currently a finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, competing with 8 other singers, down from an initial 1000, from across the United States.

As highly as she values her training at Mannes, Danielle is actually leaving the program at the end of her first school year to join the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis. “The Professional Studies degree is important, but it’s all about prepping you so you can get a job. And that’s what I’ve done! This will be my first time not in school since I was four years old, and I’m incredibly excited."

For more information on Danielle Beckvermit, visit http://www.daniellebeckvermit.com.

BIO Danielle Beckvermit, Soprano

Soprano Danielle Beckvermit is a graduate of Mannes The New School for Music in Manhattan, where she developed a strong affinity for new music. She previously received her Bachelor’s Degree in voice from SUNY Fredonia in 2015. She has sung with several festivals, including: Charlottesville Opera, Chautauqua Festival, SongFest, and Hawaii Performing Arts Festival. Danielle will join the Minnesota Opera for the 2018-2019 year as a Resident Artist. Notable roles include: Fiordiligi, Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Anne Trulove. This summer she will sing Alice in Verdi’s Falstaff with the Crested Butte Opera Studio. Danielle has been recognized in several competitions, including: The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions as a region winner,semi-finalist, and finalist; a finalist and award winner in The George London Foundation Competition; first place winner in The Classical Singer Online Competition; and first prize winner in the Civic Morning Musicals Competition in 2017.

John Songyoon Noh, Tenor: “When I hear you sing, I see that there’s a God.”

 John Chonyoong Noh

John Chonyoong Noh

The assignment in preparation of his high school choir trip to Rome was to do research on Puccini and his music. John Chonyoong Noh was very excited about the trip. It was the summer between his junior and senior years, and the Madrigals Group, an advanced section of the Annapolis Area Christian School, had been invited to participate in the International Sacred Music Choir Festival in Vatican City, performing Puccini’s Messa di Gloria.

John loved singing, but he was set to enter the ministry, just like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him, pastors and a deacon in the Korean Holiness Church. The ministry was more than just a tradition in John’s family. It was a calling, strengthened by a traumatic past. In 1950, John’s great-grandfather had been murdered for his faith by a group of communists under the direction of North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung—the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un—who had him and a group of other clerics locked in a wooden house which was then set on fire.

John’s grandfather, who was 8 at the time, vowed to take up the mantle, come what may. John’s father followed suit, studying at Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, NY, and then, just after John was born, at the Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. When John was six, they moved back to Seoul. So it wasn’t such a leap when John was sent to attend the private Christian high school in Maryland, which offered theology classes along with the regular high school curriculum.

Searching on YouTube before the Rome trip, John came across a clip of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s opera Turandot. John had never heard opera before, and he was moved to tears, an emotion which was new to him. Scrolling through the comments, he had what he calls a life-changing experience. “When I hear your voice,” wrote the commenter, “I see that there’s a God.”

“I immediately phoned my parents in Korea and told them I wanted to be an opera singer,” John recounts. This announcement was taken as a spurt of youthful enthusiasm; everyone, including John, assumed he was going to enter the ministry as planned. He applied to a number of seminaries, but just to test the waters he also applied to the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. To his great joy, he was accepted. His parents, amazed to learn that their their son had such a talent for singing, scraped together the funds to send him there for his first year.

But one year was all they could afford, and John had not received a scholarship, so he left Peabody to serve the required two years of military service in South Korea.

“I was a tank gunner,” he says. “I shot missiles.” The experience had its benefits: since every male of every background and social class is required to serve in the draft, John befriended a widely diverse group of young men, breaking through the protected circle he had grown up in.  He also lost 20 pounds; the demanding physical regimen taught him about health and fitness, so important for maintaining a singing career.

But he missed singing. He practiced as often as possible, alone in his tank. “No one could hear me in there. And the acoustics were great!” Near the end of his service, he requested a three-day furlough, which he used to make a video audition tape of him in uniform—complete with sergeant’s stripes—singing a Mozart aria. Peabody not only took him back; they gave him a full scholarship.

Peabody led to the Juilliard Master of Music program, from which he will graduate a few days after his Carnegie Hall debut on May 11 as the tenor soloist in Mozart’s Requiem with The Cecilia Chorus of  New York. Like his fellow soloist, soprano Danielle Beckvermit, he sang the Requiem as a chorus member during his freshman year of college, and feels he has now come full circle.

In the fall, John will enter Yale’s two-year postgraduate program with a full scholarship. And over the summer, he will accompany his father on a mission to Mongolia. His father will preach, and John will sing.

BIO John Chongyoon Noh, tenor

Tenor John Chongyoon Noh is in the master’s program at The Juilliard School, where he studies with Dr. Robert C White. He appeared as Fenton in Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor,  covered Bill in Flight, and Tichon in Katja Kabanova at Juilliard. He was seen on Medici.tv in Juilliard’s live-stream master classes with Emmanuel Villaume and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Other roles include: Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi, Tamino in Die Zauberflöte, and Ferrando in Così fan tutte. His recent performances include Marilyn Horne's The Song Continues at Carnegie Hall, Juilliard415’s The Genius of Monteverdi led by William Christie at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, and the concert version of L'elisir d'amore in Hahn Hall at the Music Academy of the West. He has won awards by the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in Washington, D.C., the Annapolis Opera Vocal Competition, and the Gerda Lissner Liederkranz, Russell C. Wonderlic Voice Competition, among others.

Kathleen Reveille, Mezzo-soprano: The Seven Intelligences

 Kathleen Reveille

Kathleen Reveille

Her straight, glossy blond hair, wide smile and big blue eyes reminded me of the popular cheerleaders in high school; her height and ease of movement were those of an athlete. And yes, Kathleen Reveille (despite its French origin, the name is pronounced “Revelle” here in the States) had been a swimmer, a softball player, and a cheerleader at her high school in Highland Mills, NY. But here she was, freshly graduated from Yale with a Masters of Music and about to make her Carnegie Hall debut in Mozart’s Requiem with The Cecilia Chorus of New York on May 11.

Kathleen’s father—now retired—was a sergeant with the New York Police Department and her mother is a nurse. They both worked year-round and would send Kathleen to camp for the entire summer since she was an only child and they wanted her to be surrounded by other kids. When she was ten, Kathleen declared that she didn’t want to go to camp, so her father sent her to a “Summer Enrichment Program” offered by her school district. This included a theater program, and Kathleen was cast as Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods. “That creative process and being surrounded by creative people did it; I was hooked!” She tried out for all the musicals in middle school and high school and, looking to improve her craft, she started taking singing lessons from James Rensink, a world-renowned musician who has appeared at Lincoln Center as leading baritone, pianist, composer, and conductor, and who happened to live nearby.

Rensink started Kathleen off with Gershwin and the show tunes she wanted to sing, but her voice started to develop away from musical theater and towards a more operatic quality. “That’s when the floodgates opened,” says Kathleen. She knew nothing about opera and neither did her parents. “They went on a learning journey with me. We read about opera, we attended concerts when we could, we listened to old recordings that James recommended—Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne. I felt that if I could make one person feel like I felt then, listening to those gifted passionate singers, then I wanted to make that my career. If my parents ever had any doubts about that path for me, they never told me, and I’m so grateful.”

Kathleen applied to a number of conservatories but also to Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania. Her parents had accompanied her to a music festival and fair where Mercyhurst had a booth, and had slipped an audition CD to Louisa Jonason, director of the opera program there. Before Kathleen knew it, she was being courted by Mercyhurst, was brought up for a visit (“It was so cold up there in Erie, I almost turned right around and came home!”), was granted a full scholarship, and found herself won over by the one-on-one attention and the caring and nurturing of talent offered there. “I also was attracted by the idea of a liberal arts education. I studied ethics, philosophy, math, and science, which enhanced my ability to connect with other people.” At one time, Kathleen wanted to become a doctor but she chose singing instead. “Singing uses all the seven intelligences at the same time,” she says, referring to Harvard educator Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. They include visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical intelligence. “And learning music is a bit like being a diagnostician. You look at every detail: the music, the words, the language, until you know you’re doing justice to the intention of the composer.”

From Mercyhurst, Kathleen was directly accepted by Yale. “It was a fine-tuning of my musical education. We learned to be professional, to show up prepared; we learned skills for going out into the world and embarking on a career like this.” As high as the artistic level at Yale was, Kathleen experienced no cutthroat competition, but rather support and empathy from her fellow students. “Singers are some of the kindest people I have met so far,” she says. “We are blessed to be able to do this, to be part of such incredible genius. I am a servant of this art form.  Nothing fills my soul like being able to perform this music with my artistry.”

BIO Kathleen Reveille, Mezzo-soprano

Kathleen Reveille, mezzo-soprano, has been praised for her soaring and poised vocal ability. Now, as a twice-nominated recording artist, Reveille has achieved international recognition for her performances in the Polish premieres of Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea (Maurya), Holst’s At the Boar’s Head (Doll Tearsheet), and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw (Miss Jesel). In a review from Gramophone Magazine: “Kathleen Reveille, with her baleful, dark mezzo, is a near-ideal Miss Jessel.” Miss Reveille makes her Carnegie Hall debut as the mezzo soloist in Mozart’s Requiem with The Cecilia Chorus of New York. This summer, Reveille will become a member of the Apprentice Singer Program, The Santa Fe Opera, 2018. Reveille holds a Master of Music from Yale University and a Bachelor of Music from Mercyhurst University. She currently enjoys residing in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley.

Paul Whelan, Bass-baritone: Circular Learning

 Paul Whelan

Paul Whelan

“Paul Whelan’s charismatic orotund bass practically made my fillings rattle.”
“Paul Whelan sang like black oil seeping into the hall.”
“Paul Whelan, bass, demonstrates that one can appear in a single scene and still steal the show.”
“Wondrous tone resounds from top to bottom of his register.”
“His dark voice reaches all corners of the hall.”
“Vocal splendor…”
“… a dark, brooding intensity…”
“… wonderfully sonorous …”

Every one of the above reviews are of Paul Whelan’s performances over the past three years.  At 51, he now understands why his teachers always told him his bass voice would not develop fully until he was well over forty, although he has been singing professionally since his early 20’s.  “I really believe in circular learning,” he says. “That’s the idea that you return to experiences and things you have learned before, but there are always new things that you add to them, your responses are different, and so you improve each time. It’s apparently the same with my singing.”

Paul more or less fell into classical singing. His father was a cathedral organist and choirmaster in Christchurch, New Zealand, where Paul and his two brothers grew up. “From the age of 8 I played viola in the school orchestra—everyone had to play an instrument—and then I got dragged into my father’s cathedral choir when I was a teenager. But as for a career in music—I played and sang in a garage rock band and thought I’d just be a rock musician. Then I did an audition for a music college and suddenly a path appeared. I enjoyed everything about the program: lessons in voice, diction, movement, acting, all the things you have to learn to be able to sing opera. And it was amazing to me that all the fun I was having was actually considered work!”

At music college he won second prize in a contest called the Mobile Song Quest, judged by Kiri Te Kanawa; he sent a video of the televised contest as his application to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, UK, and was accepted on the strength of it. Then he won the bi-annual Cardiff Singer of the World Lieder Competition, which catapulted him onto the world stage. Since then, he has sung in recitals, concerts, and operas on the world’s most famous stages—the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, the Sydney Opera House (performing in Mozart’s Requiem —“The stage vibrated!”), Amsterdam’s Muziektheater—but his performance with The Cecilia Chorus of New York on May 11 will mark his Carnegie Hall mainstage debut.

With all the traveling his career requires, Paul considers it a special treat to make this debut in his hometown. For the past ten years, when not performing, he has lived a typical New York City life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his wife, Madeline Bender, founder and director of Creative Stage, and their 9 year-old son. He serves on the board of their local community garden and is helping their son’s school establish a music program. But where great music beckons, he will go. “There are still new challenges for me, new things to learn, new carrots dangling on a string in front of me. I didn’t wake up one day knowing how to do this.  I’ve had to work hard at it and I still do. But nowadays, being able to give a performance I am satisfied with is a little less out of reach.”

For more information about Paul Whelan, visit https://paulwhelan.co.uk.

Bio Paul Whelan, Bass-baritone

This season, bass-baritone Paul Whelan joins the Lyric Opera of Kansas City as Gremin in Eugene Onegin, the London Song Festival, the Arctic Philharmonic for Haydn’s Creation, and The Cecilia Chorus of New York for Mozart’s Requiem. Future seasons include performances with the Jacksonville Symphony and Santiago di Chile.

Paul is a winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Lieder Prize. Conductors with whom he has collaborated include Sir Simon Rattle, Kent Nagano, Richard Hickox, Yehudi Menuhin, Valery Gergiev, Gary Bertini, and Vassily Sinaisky; he has given recitals at Wigmore Hall, The Purcell Room, Cardiff’s St. David’s Hall, Cheltenham Festival, BBC Pebble Mill, Perth Festival, and at the Châtelet Theatre in Paris. Recordings include: A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis (Philips); Kurt Weill’s Silber See under Markus Stenz (BMG); recordings with the BBC Philharmonic for Chandos and with the BBC Scottish Symphony for Hyperion.

MAKING THE WHEELS GO ROUND: Uschi Niethammer and Linda Cox

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, board members Uschi Niethammer and Linda Cox lift the curtain just a little to reveal some of the many ways in which they make things happen behind the scenes.

 Uschi Niethammer

Uschi Niethammer

Uschi Niethammer’s “day job” is as program officer at the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). As a board member and volunteer for the Cecilia Chorus of New York, she has served this past season as ad interim publicity co-chair, responsible for the production of print and online promotional materials. For several seasons, she has coordinated the work of a three-person social media team and kept the board informed about the Chorus’s social media activities. 

“What I enjoy best is the chance to work with a team of professional and creative chorus members and seeing the number of followers on our social media channels grow. It’s very fulfilling when people actively engage with us and support our work by liking, sharing, and commenting on our posts!”

 

 

 

 Linda Cox

Linda Cox

For 15 years, Linda Cox ran an organization called the Bronx River Alliance, dedicated to reclaiming the Bronx River as a community and natural resource. “When I gave that up a year ago, it gave me some time that I could plow into volunteering, and I decided to put some of that time into serving as membership co-chair for the Chorus.”

In this capacity, Linda greets each new member, supplies a copy of the member handbook, works with the section coordinators and others to keep track of members, and helps members get answers to their questions. She collects dues and serves on the board, and scouts for talent and interest among members in volunteering for the Chorus.

“I love to help people feel welcome—that's basically what motivates me. And I like learning who's who. I'm terrible at names, so if I didn't have the responsibility of entering people's contact info into our database and greeting members, I would never know most of our members. And I do enjoy connecting people with volunteer opportunities they would like to take on; when you get a good match, it's such a win-win.”

Program Note from Liz Wood: The Prison by Dame Ethel Smyth and Requiem by W.A. Mozart

 Liz Wood

Liz Wood

The Prison, symphony for soprano (the Soul) and bass (the Prisoner), chorus and orchestra, composed by Ethel Smyth, 1929-30. Smyth compiled the libretto from The Prison, A Dialogue, by Henry Bennet (“HB”) Brewster, published in 1891; reprinted 1930 with a memoir of HB by Smyth.  

Smyth conducted the world premiere at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on 19 February 1931, and Adrian Boult the London premiere five days later at Queen’s Hall. Tonight’s performance at Carnegie Hall is the New York premiere.

In 1930, the English composer, Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), was aged 72 when she completed The Prison, her first and only symphony and last major work.

Ever since the First World War, she had been suffering what she called a “death grapple” with oncoming deafness and distorted hearing that made it increasingly difficult to conduct her own music and participate in conversations.

She had also lost to the war priceless professional contacts and performance opportunities from her many years in Germany since 1877.

With typical courage in confronting life’s challenges, Smyth tuned her “second string” and in 1919 began to write books (ten in all) of memoir, travel, and biographical portraiture. The books gave her new purpose, an income, new friends (notably Virginia Woolf, met in 1930) and wildly appreciative new audiences, including readers in North America. As for music: her career as a composer was doomed, she believed. She felt condemned to silence.

Smyth was still preoccupied with a sense of loss, dread, and her own mortality when she embarked on a strenuous six-week tour of Greece in 1925. To prepare for her first “journey into antiquity,” she studied in English translation the Homeric Hymns, Hesiod, Phaedrus and Hippolytus, and re-read a small work of fiction, The Prison: A Dialogue, that her dear friend, Harry Bennet (“HB”) Brewster, wrote in 1891.

HB, an Anglo-American born in Paris in 1850, a descendant of Elder William Brewster of “The Mayflower,” introduced Smyth to the study of Socrates, Plato, and the Classical Greek dramatists when they first met at Florence, where he lived in the 1880s. No dramatist himself, he helped her write the librettos for her first three operas, but his real intellectual passion was for metaphysics, philosophy, Eastern religions, and contemporary French literature.

Self-educated, wealthy, unpretentious, and detached from the modern world in many ways unlike herself, HB was her anchor. Though opposites in temperament and personality, they delighted in each other’s company and remained devoted friends until his death in 1908.

HB devised the book of The Prison as a Platonic dialogue between four friends who meet to read a newly-discovered text presumed to have been written by a prisoner on the eve of execution. Each reader voices a different philosophical method – supernaturalist, Neoplatonist, Christian, and positivist, respectively – to comment on moral and philosophical problems found in the text.

For her symphony, Smyth stripped the commentaries from HB’s book but retained the concept of a dialogue derived from the Prisoner’s own words. The Prisoner (Bass), though innocent, in solitary confinement and suffering inner torment, discusses with the Soul (Soprano) the imminent end to life and how best to prepare for it. He aspires through contemplation, mindfulness, concentration, and ethical conduct to detach the self from the ego and free the imprisoned mind, body and soul from the shackles of desire, so as to attain spiritual deliverance.

Imprisonment was no abstraction for Smyth. In 1912, during the Suffrage campaign, as a member of Mrs. Pankhurst’s militant Women’s Social and Political Union, she herself was arrested, tried, and sentenced to serve two months at Holloway Prison (she was released after three weeks) for the crime of throwing stones at the Colonial Secretary’s house and breaking his window.

A chorus of fellow Suffragette prisoners famously sang Smyth’s “March of the Women” in the exercise courtyard while she conducted with a toothbrush through the bars of her cell.

Beethoven’s Fidelio was her favorite opera, with its depiction of a political prisoner rescued from death in a dungeon by a heroic woman (Leonora, his wife) disguised as a man.

The score for The Prison is prefaced by a quotation resonant with an experience of confinement. Purportedly the last words of Plotinus, the ancient Greek philosopher whom HB most admired and emulated, the motto reads: “I am striving to release that which is divine within us, and to merge it in the universally divine.”

In a program note to the first performance, Smyth said she used the title “symphony” (in lower case) to denote an ancient Greek idea of “concordance” of sweet sounds, not the orchestral form. Her work eludes formal analysis. It is neither a “symphony for chorus” nor a “sacred sinfonia” like works composed in the British choral and oratorio tradition by her contemporaries Parry, Bliss, Holst, or Elgar, who described his own setting of a poem by Cardinal Newman, The Dream of Gerontius (1900), as an oratorio on the theme of an ordinary man at the point of death and facing judgement. Nor did Smyth intend her symphony for voices and instruments to be staged, although her papers include her pencil sketches of a prison cell and chapel.

In many ways, hers is a work of symbolic and private remembrance. Fragments of her earlier music reappear: a German chorale for SATB voices, “Schwing dich auf zu deinem Gott,” composed in Florence when she first met HB (and dedicated to him), and subsequently arranged for solo organ in the summer of 1884, now returns as an interlude, “Organ Music in the Chapel,” between Parts 1 and 2.

Sounds from nature she could only hear in imagination become imitative birdsong in Part 1 (at a “twitter of swallows” and “pipe of a thrush”) to illustrate a pastoral passage.

In Part 2, a pair of ancient Greek modal melodies that she had noted down at the museum at Smyrna as “the Aidan (or Aydyn, a province near Smyrna) Manuscript” on her journey through Greece, produce a wonderfully archaic effect as the chorus sings of the indestructibility of human passions.

The first, dated by Smyth as 100 B.C.E. appears at: “the laughter we have laughed…mingled with the sound of the syrinx (or panpipes).” The second, that she identified as a Greek melody of the 5th-Century B.C.E from “Ajax” by Euripides, appears at: “No hearts but ours will ever ache and leap. Our passions are the tingling blood of mankind.”

A member of tonight’s chorus, the alto Elena Kobelevskaya, has identified the original melody Smyth chose at pages 59-60 of the piano score. During a recent rehearsal in preparation for tonight’s performance, Ms. Kobelevskaya notes, she was “struck by the strange familiarity of the melody…To my surprise I recognized the Song of Seikilos – the oldest complete musical composition, including musical notation, from anywhere in the world. It is dated between 2c.B.C. and 1c.A.D. and was found in Turkey near Ephesus inscribed on a tombstone.”

“It is an epitaph by one Seikilos, for his wife, who presumably was buried there,” Ms. Kobelevskaya continues. “It was first discovered in 1883, during the building of the railway, and remained in the possession of the building firm’s director, serving as a pedestal for his wife’s flowerpots. It was rediscovered in 1922 and ended up in the collection of the National Museum in Copenhagen.”

She supplied a translation from her research, suggesting that the Song of Seikilos resonates with the philosophy of life shared by Brewster and Smyth:  

While you’re alive, shine!
Never let your mood decline.
Life exists only a short while
And time demands its toll.

Towards the end of the score, Smyth inserts the music of “The Last Post,” an emblem of military funeral ceremonies which led some critics to think she had written a war requiem. Others deplored such a literal reference. Clearly for Smyth, the daughter of a general raised next door to an army base, the composer of fanfares and marches for the military brass band, who hung an army bugle on her front door in place of a knocker, the tune held multiple meanings, including an in memoriam for Brewster, whose death still haunted her.

For, in the ritual postlude, the Prisoner utters HB’s words, “Let there be banners and music. This is my leave-taking… I am the joy, the sorrow, the mirth, the pride, the love, the silence, and the song.”

© Liz Wood 2018

Conductor's Note from Mark Shapiro: The Prison by Dame Ethel Smyth and Requiem by W.A. Mozart

 Mark Shapiro, Music Director

Mark Shapiro, Music Director

“Banners and music!”  With this clarion invocation, Dame Ethel Smyth, at the close of her composing career, in the autumn of her extraordinary life, calls out a rapturous, poignant farewell. The Prison is an astonishing work: incontrovertibly – I will brook no disagreement on this – a masterpiece. 

Like all great art, The Prison is at once individual and sweepingly universal. Its capacious humanity derives not only from its beautiful music but also its searchingly profound text, tailor-made for Dame Ethel years earlier by her soul mate H. B. Brewster.

Among the things we contradictorily seek in life: to be known and cherished for who we are; to win adulation and fortune, never mind the cost to our true selves. Henry (Harry) Brewster understood this human conundrum in general, and in particular how Dame Ethel managed it.

As our greatest friends can do – should we be fortunate enough to find such friendships – Harry saw with acuity exactly who Dame Ethel really was, grasped the entirety of her immense nature, perceiving and celebrating each of her multiple traits, singly and in the aggregate: her piercing intelligence; her stoutheartedness; her honesty; her unbelievable energy; her vulnerability and sensitivity. He saw these as qualities always, never demerits, comprehending without bewilderment that intellect, practicality, mysticism, tenderness and ferocity coexisted in her. He was unconditionally her champion, a steadfast advocate for all that was authentic and singular within her, including but not limited to her unique musical voice.

How moving that, as her ultimate large-scale artistic labor on this earth, Dame Ethel should undertake to set to music – for massed forces of soloists, chorus, and orchestra – Brewster’s challenging text, deftly fashioning her own libretto from his much longer tract. Brewster had left her – that is, he died – two decades earlier. She must have missed him very much, this once-in-a-lifetime friend, even though her own circle, which included Virginia Woolf and Emmeline Pankhurst, could hardly have been dull. (Dame Ethel was not close to the otherwise exclusively male coterie of English composers, who were, with the sole apparent exception of Arthur Sullivan, sneeringly dismissive of her – and perhaps more than a little afraid of her.  Nor did she have much interest in them.)

The Prison is so distinctive, so compelling, in part because its exquisite music is so closely calibrated to its unusual text.  Dame Ethel, an ethereal soprano, loved to sing – the portraitist John Singer Sergeant captivatingly caught her in the act, in a well-known drawing that was exhibited in New York at the Metropolitan Museum last year – and had a keen ear for prosody. She was a marvelous essayist and memoirist with a bracingly lucid style. Brewster’s text must have resonated with her not only on account of its spiritual message – that a human soul can flourish only after liberating itself from the prison of falsehood – but also because of the vitality, specificity and rhythm of its language.

It is easy to imagine an aging Dame Ethel – with the urgency and tumult of her public life receding into history – rereading The Prison, in the quiet solitude of her cottage, savoring afresh the subtlety of Harry’s intellect and the fineness of his sensibility, her heart warming to the memory of their uncanny meeting of minds. Never one to languish in grief or regret, her mood would have been one of gratitude and pleasure, her impulse to action not contemplation. 

Action meant composing.

In 2013, with The Cecilia Chorus of New York, I conducted the long overdue New York premiere of Dame Ethel’s Mass in D (1892). The Mass was Dame Ethel’s first large-scale work, written when she was in her twenties. Towering and fierce, it is the triumphant achievement of a young composer flexing her imagination’s muscle as she plies the techniques imparted by her teachers and the prominent composers of her era – especially Brahms (whose music Dame Ethel loved, though she overtly deplored his character). 

The Prison is the other bookend.  Dame Ethel has now had the benefit of nearly forty years’ experience as a composer and citizen of the world. She has written multiple operas, traveled widely, and has alertly listened to and absorbed the evolving music of her time: she seems fully aware of Mahler, of Ravel. She has attained perfect mastery of all elements of her art: melody, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, structure and shape.  Her control never falters.

As The Prison concludes, the text speaks resonantly of “home”, and Dame Ethel introduces a bugle call. The trope may seem stereotyped until a listener remembers that Dame Ethel comes from a military family. The bugle is more than a generic summons; for Dame Ethel, it is the soundscape of childhood. The personal and the universal are brought together.  Revisiting at life’s zenith the text penned for her in their youths by her greatest friend, Dame Ethel finds peace, and a deeply moving reconciliation and integration of her life’s many themes.

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My friend Liz Wood is a musicologist who has worked extensively on Dame Ethel. We often muse how the personality is so overwhelming, the life so rich, the mind so elaborate, that she becomes all-consuming. There is much more to say about Dame Ethel and The Prison than either of us, as much as we have said, can say here.

Even Dame Ethel, though, cannot eclipse MozartIn juxtaposing Mozart’s Requiem and Smyth’s The Prison, we invite listeners to contemplate how two different composers, at different stages of life, grapple with mortality. Mozart’s Requiem has many moods, but rarely conveys serenity or acceptance. It is a haunted work, a metaphysical opera that weeps for a life cruelly cut short, and will remain forever unfinished. Robert Levin’s edition, new to The Cecilia Chorus of New York, is notable for the elegance and grace with which it solves the riddles of Mozart’s incomplete manuscript.

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Tonight’s New York premiere and North American co-premiere of The Prison is the second phase of a joint initiative with The Johnstown Symphony, who gave their North American co-premiere on April 7, 2018 in Johnstown, under Maestro James Blachly. We gratefully acknowledge the heroic contribution and collaboration of Maestro Blachly, who edited the full score and orchestral parts we are using tonight (to which, for practical reasons merely, we have made a few modest adjustments).

© Mark Shapiro 2018

A Musical Titan, Long Underappreciated, Gets Her Due

On May 11 at Carnegie Hall, in a program which includes Mozart’s beloved Requiem, The Cecilia Chorus of New York will perform the New York premiere and North American co-premiere of Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Prison, a “choral symphony” for soprano (Chelsea Shephard), baritone (Tobias Greenghalgh), chorus, and full orchestra, conducted by Music Director Mark Shapiro.

 Dame Ethel Smyth © National Portrait Gallery

Dame Ethel Smyth © National Portrait Gallery

As a skilled composer and tireless suffragist, Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) fought for recognition and equality in Victorian England. Born into a well-to-do military family, she nearly came to blows with her father when she announced that she was going to study music in Leipzig. There, she was taken seriously by her fellow composers, including Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak. But England, it seemed, wasn’t ready for a strong, uncompromising female composer, or for powerful women at all. Unrepentant for breaking the window of a misogynistic member of Parliament, she conducted her fellow suffragists with a toothbrush through her prison bars; they were chanting The March of the Women, the suffragist anthem she had composed.

From breaking glass windows, she went on to break glass ceilings with her 1903 opera Der Wald—the only woman-composed opera ever performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She maintained this dubious distinction until 2016. Audiences loved her, giving her 15-minute ovations, but the male cultural elite dismissed her as a “novelty.” Only now is Smyth’s gift as a composer starting to gain the recognition it deserves.

The Prison is based on a dramatic poem by Henry Bennet Brewster, Smyth’s great soul mate, who gave it to Smyth when she was 33 and he was 41. It wasn’t until she was in her 70s—nearly three decades after Brewster’s death—that she finally set his words to music. It was to be her last major work, because the loss of her hearing put an end to her musical career. The Prison explores the escape from our own metaphorical prison of the mind, of lies that we tell ourselves about ourselves, in pursuit of the truth which will set us free for immortality.

Chelsea Shephard, soprano

 Chelsea Shephard

Chelsea Shephard

In 2016, soprano Chelsea Shephard sang the role of The Soul in a chamber version of The Prison with Cantori New York, Maestro Mark Shapiro’s other chorus.

“It was an honor for me to sing that role. Soprano voices are often used by composers to portray ethereal, otherworldly characters. Last year I sang the role of the angel in Brahms’s Requiem—my Carnegie Hall debut, with the Cecilia Chorus of New York—and in The Prison, The Soul is a calming, soothing voice which comforts The Prisoner in a very dark time of despair.”

Now repeating that role, but in its fully orchestrated garb, Chelsea has had the time to learn more about the composer, Dame Ethel Smyth.

“What a fascinating person! It’s amazing how resonant the struggle that she went through over a hundred years ago—as a strong woman, as an artist trying to make it in a man’s world, as a woman determined to live her life on her own terms—is with us today, in our current moment of reckoning. Women today—and men, too!—need examples of her devotion and determination. No matter how harshly she was judged, no matter how much her achievements were ridiculed, she continued to create the most beautiful music. She was a perfect example of “Nevertheless, she persisted!”

Born and raised in Michigan, educated at DePaul University in Chicago, and having performed extensively in Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin, Chelsea is acutely aware of her native Midwestern accent. Through rigorous training she has learned to neutralize her English when singing or playing a role. Recently, though, she was cast in an exciting new opera in a role that required a Midwestern accent.

“At the Metropolitan Opera I recently workshopped the title role in a new opera, Eurydice, by Matthew Aucoin. It is based on a 2003 play, set in the present day, by Sarah Ruhl, who also wrote the libretto to the opera. Ms. Ruhl is originally from Chicago, and when she heard me talking offstage,  in my Midwestern speaking voice, she said “Yes! That’s what I want for the role!”

BIO Chelsea Shephard:

Soprano Chelsea Shephard has been praised by Opera News for her “pure leggero soprano—with surprises to come,” and her “rich and vibrant artistry” (The Isthmus). Her performances during the 2017-2018 season include the title role in a workshop with the Metropolitan Opera of Eurydice by Matthew Aucoin, concert appearances with the New York Festival of Song in celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th Anniversary, and a role debut as Purcell’s Dido with the Madison Bach Musicians. Other recent engagements include: joining the roster of the Lyric Opera of Chicago for their new production of Das Rheingold; her Carnegie Hall debut last season as the soprano soloist in the Brahms Requiem; a world premiere by Syrian composer Zaid Jabri entitled A Garden Among the Flames (Cecilia Chorus of New York); as well as leading and supporting roles with Madison Opera, Opera Grand Rapids, and Haymarket Opera Company, Chicago’s only dedicated Baroque opera company. More information can be found at chelseashephardsoprano.com.