I once had a conversation with a mentor who was conducting Handel’s Messiah for the umpteenth time.
[Full disclosure: Messiah is definitely NOT on my bucket list, and I’ve long wished the choral world would make space for one of the other 1,001 major works for chorus and orchestra specifically designed for the Christmas season…or one of Handel’s many fantastic but nearly forgotten works (Israel in Egypt, anyone?) I mean that particular performance was one of THREE productions of Messiah that season. But I digress… ]
I asked my mentor how he could keep going back to the same piece of music year after year. How could it still be fresh after so many performances? His response?
"It’s like seeing an old friend again."
Choral conductors face a major challenge. How can we be curators of more than six centuries of music while also embracing and championing the music of our time? Given the tremendous breadth of skills and knowledge required to sing music of every style period—including the current one—I’m not even sure this is possible without sacrificing some level of authenticity. No matter what, we’re going to leave out a lot of really great music. There just isn’t time to do it all!
In a group like Triad, we’ve intentionally focused on the music of our time, leaving the previous 5.75 centuries to other ensembles, many of which also focus on particular segments of historic practice. Like all choirs who specialize, we perform music that often has no other outlet. Without us, the pieces we program would be little more than ink on a page or ones and zeroes on someone’s hard drive.
Still, we find ourselves wrestling with the same questions as choirs that perform multiple style periods. Is presenting a piece once sufficient? Or should some of our repertoire be reprised from time to time? Given that we have only 2-3 concerts a year, how much repetition is too much? Too little?
If only Goldilocks were one of our conductors!
Last night, Triad presented a concert with the intent of resurfacing gems from our first four seasons (and like any historian, we didn’t have time to perform every piece we wanted to include). Like Messiah to my mentor, each returning piece felt just like “seeing an old friend again”. As in any mature relationship, familiarity revealed new dimensions of understanding and connection.
Since our first concert, I’ve improved my vocal technique and sense of pitch (a musician’s work is NEVER done). I’m still far from the best singer in our ensemble, but I’m definitely better than I was four years ago. Additionally, I remembered quite a bit from our earlier performances of these works. As a result, last night’s concert was so much more personally meaningful than any of our previous outings.
I was able to immerse myself beauty of Emerson’s transcendental world, brought to life through Thomas Stumpf’s sensitive and poignant setting. I found myself pleading for mercy in the dramatic climax of Karl Henning’s Agnus Dei. My heart leapt for joy among all generations in Sarah Riskind’s Hariyu—even (perhaps especially) through the high G’s. And I smiled for the hundredth time as “standing” and “running” give way to “falling” and “crying”, “sleeping” and “dreaming” in Charles Turner’s Sing Child.
I don’t mean to downplay the significance of the “new to us” works on the program either. Sudie Marcuse, Eileen Christiansen, and Charles Turner mesmerized us with their solos in Osnat Netzer’s Paths of Stone and Water. My own Green Is the Color of Its Flame is really a duet for choir and piano, and Thomas Stumpf electrified the room with his dynamic performance at the keyboard. The choir rose to meet his challenge with intensity and excitement! Jeremy Faust’s enigmatic Croyez vous commanded…or questioned…our belief in God (depending on how you read the French), and Jing-ga-lye-ya made us all tap our toes—even if on completely different beats (if you’ve ever sung it, you’ll understand why).
I could go on and on and on. Every piece had its highlight, and each work was unique. Of all the concerts I’ve performed with Triad, this was by far my favorite. I think it was in large part because of the depth that comes with familiarity. I’m not sure that every concert should include this many returning works, but I’m convinced that this shouldn’t be the last time we sing these pieces. Much of the world missed out on hearing them last night, and they deserve another chance.
Most importantly, I would hate to deprive Triad of the opportunity to turn a new friend into an old friend.