Exploring Choral Music in New York

By Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
November 14, 2016 Updated: November 16, 2016

Imagine the sound of a hundred voices coming together to interpret works by some of the greatest composers in history, with the ideas of transcendence, beauty, and compassion resonating between the chorus and audience. 

It can be undeniably festive to be in the presence of such a vast sound and sharing it with hundreds more in the audience. It can also be contemplative, convey a sense of nostalgia, longing, or a host of any other emotions, in great waves.

Soprano Angela Brown says for her, singing is like flying. But even better, singing is a way to enable others to really feel. 

Brown is typically a soloist. She remembers the goosebumps she got while performing Aida at the Metropolitan Opera House for the first time; she has incredible memories of being in fully adorned in costume and makeup and bringing characters from the classics to life. “I can just fly and be something, someone totally different,” she said. 

Then there is a different, but just as thrilling, experience in singing as part of an ensemble.

There is no stage costume or set to hide behind, she said. You have to bring only yourself and be just as committed.

Brown remembers being in a narrow basilica in Paris, singing the Verdi Requiem to a rapt audience, in such close proximity to the other singers and the audience that she could see them breathe and absorb every note.

“There’s something about the synergy of singing with the chorus that just makes you feel like one,” Brown said.

There are soloists in choral singing as well, and the Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 performance she will be giving with the National Chorale on Nov. 18 at Lincoln Center has four. But even the soloists sing together, which requires attention to blending and to creating a synergy with the other three singers, Brown said. 

When everyone is on the same page, when singers create a sense of camaraderie, it creates a togetherness that Brown said can communicate so many feelings to the audience.

New York is home to a diversity of amateur, semi-professional, and professional choral groups who sing works from antiquity to the 21st century with a wide range of roots, in a variety of languages, giving audiences much to explore. Around this time of year, they make the effort to put together grand performances, and our major venues like Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall bring thousands in to witness, or even sing, these large, encompassing pieces.

Epoch Times spoke to those preparing for major performances this season about what makes for a great choral concert.

Kent Tritle conducts Musica Sacra at Carnegie Hall. (Richard Ten Dyke for Musica Sacra)
Kent Tritle conducts Musica Sacra at Carnegie Hall. (Richard Ten Dyke for Musica Sacra)

What Is It? 

The history of choral music extends through antiquity. The oldest known are the hymns of ancient Greece and the choruses sung in ancient dramas. The first music notation we have in the West, the Gregorian chant, was all sung in unison.

“I like to say that choral music has the one-two punch,” said Kent Tritle, who is a dedicated, driving force behind choral music in New York. “We have words. Not only do we have the sheer beauty of the music, but we have words—text.”

The music itself is well known and dear to many, but the text is what really lends these songs power, according to those who sing in and work with choral groups.

“I believe that composers throughout history have actually communicated their most profound thoughts through choral music,” Tritle said. Take any of the major favorites in choral repertoire, like Mozart’s Great Mass. “We’re finding out what Mozart is thinking about God.” 

“We’re finding out through the way [Mozart] set the text,” he said. “It’s just incredibly profound.” 

Most of the repertoire is set to sacred texts of specific faiths. But despite their different backgrounds, choral singers work to deliver the meaning of the texts with conviction, with no inherent conflict, Tritle added. One of the groups he works with, the Oratorio Society of New York, is made up of a cross section of people. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and those who don’t believe in any higher power or anything specific all come together weekly to sing and commit to these texts. 

“You get very deep levels of engagement and imagination through a multitude of openings for people to come in,” Tritle explained, referencing different interpretations of a single line. “Ultimately, it is a transformative experience for the singer, who goes through that emotional transformation.”

(Sacred Music in a Sacred Space)
Enrico Lagasca (third from right) performs with Sacred Music in a Sacred Space. (Joshua South Photography)

Text Through Song

Choral music is endlessly interesting to Enrico Lagasca, a professional bass-baritone choral singer. He genuinely enjoys researching the history and meaning of this music through the ages, and for him, it all begins and ends with the text.

“I’m pretty sure when I was 12 or 13 I didn’t know what ‘kyrie eleison’ meant,” said Lagasca, who began singing when a friend asked him to join the school’s glee club. But he became more and more interested in the music and text as he continued to sing—what musical gesture is best suited to deliver this line? What is the significance of the overlapping textures in that song?

In understanding what the music means, he comes to love it, to sincerely enjoy it, Lagasca said. And in turn, that allows him to share and convey beauty to the audience. 

“It’s my responsibility as a singer to learn and understand the text,” Lagasca said. “That’s the most important thing for me: to be able to communicate to the audience.”

Interpreters say that the fact that choral music has text means there is a specific idea composers meant to share with the audience. 

James Bagwell considers himself a caretaker of the music. He works with pieces that have been performed for hundreds of years before he came to them and will be performed for hundreds of years hence.

Bagwell conducts choral, operatic, and orchestral music. He also trains amateur volunteer groups, high school choirs, and prepares professional choruses for major orchestras like the Concert Chorale of New York for New York Philharmonic’s December Messiah performance.

He says his approach to communicating the meaning of the texts is a great emphasis on the diction, using creative techniques to make sure people can hear the consonants.

“Especially with an orchestra, it’s very hard,” he said, because the volume of the orchestra may cover the chorus’s sound. Many times people will attend a choral concert unable to tell what is being sung, which deters their ability to grasp the meaning.

“I want to communicate; that’s the main thing. It’s vital,” Bagwell said. Even if the audience member doesn’t understand that particular language, it’s important. “We want to try to communicate the beauty of those languages. … [And] you have to just be so persuasive in the way that you communicate the text.”

The words set to these pieces of music are typically few; a couple of lines can make for a two-hour mass sometimes, but the ideas are still capable of being large and universal.

“Music is able to kind of crack open a text and tease out more meanings and subtleties than the text by itself without music,” said Scott Warren, who leads about 400 liturgies annually at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola and about 120 choral liturgies annually at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York. Warren is also Artistic Director of Sacred Music in a Sacred Space concerts at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola.

Despite different styles of music and the different faiths from which the text originates, Warren finds that the same ideas can still be communicated. 

“I’ve often said I don’t care what the style of music is, we have to do it really well, and we have to effectively communicate the text,” Warren said. “We can say the same thing at Temple Emanu-El doing a piece of folk music that we can say at the church doing a Gregorian chant.”

(Sacred Music in a Sacred Space)
Scott Warren conducts Sacred Music in a Sacred Space at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. (Joshua South Photography)

Homer’s epic poetry was sung long before it was written down, Warren added, and this method of communicating is innate to us as humans, even more so than speech. “That’s a very powerful testament to how human beings rely on music.”

It also speaks to how the text, through music, can convey something bigger than just the words, Warren explained. You may have one or two understandings while reading the text itself, but come to a previously unimagined ones through hearing it sung.

“It’s part of the reason why in the spiritual traditions we sing, because the great spiritual truths run at such a deep level they elude language,” Warren said. “We have to talk about them; but we’re better off if we sing about them.”

The Human Voice

Bagwell said singing is the most personal form of music that he knows of. “Singing is sort of primal, there’s no buffer,” he said. “It’s coming straight from the vocal folds, from the person.”

You listen and you realize, “this is what we are capable of as human beings. When you look at it that way, it’s a little intimidating and awe-inspiring,” he said.

Bagwell, who says he got into choral music from the inside out, remembers an early experience. 

“I was having some sort of out of body experience, when the music really hit,” he said with a laugh. “During the actual act of singing, you can feel it down in the solar plexus.”

Conductor James Bagwell at rehearsal for the Bard Music Festival. (Courtesy of James Bagwell)
Conductor James Bagwell at rehearsal for the Bard Music Festival. (Courtesy of James Bagwell)

Bagwell sang in choirs in high school, then later under American choral music giant Robert Shaw. He later served as the music director of one of the ensembles Shaw founded, The Collegiate Chorale, now called MasterVoices.

“I thought, well, if I can have that feeling, I bet other people can, too. I want to strive to have other people have that similar feeling,” Bagwell said.

Tritle said the human voice is the instrument that preceded all instruments. “We came out of the womb, our mothers sang to us. That was the first thing we heard, most of us,” he said. “That is something that is very deep spiritual human connection.”

Even when many people are just speaking together, there is a resonance there, Tritle explained. And to sing gives that sound shape and melody and an emotional quality that “communicates beyond languages.”

Collaboration and Unity

“Choral music is one of those rare situations where, especially if you’re not a professional musician, you can still get together and make music well, with other people who are like you,” said Bagwell. “There are amateur choirs. I mean that in the truest sense—amateurs who’d love to sing at Carnegie Hall, and they do.”

According to a Chorus America study, about 42.6 million Americans sing in 270,000 choirs in the country, many voluntary. That’s over 1 in 5 households that have a family member who is a choral singer.

Lagasca says choral music brings collaboration to an art form.

“Singing in a choir, singing in an ensemble, collaborating with other singers, there’s a community there,” he said. “Choral singing is an art, and it requires a lot of working with other singers to make this beautiful sound come together, and that is a beautiful thing.”

In studying choral music through the ages, Lagasca has the understanding that this music was created to be shared, with other musicians and with the audience. 

Choral singing is about community, and the audience “completes that circle,” he said.

Different Groups, Different Sounds

Choral groups come in all shapes and sizes, and so do their productions. The crafting of the experience is the conductor’s role—like sculpting the sound of the ensemble and minding the architecture of the music, which can determine whether a concert seems to drag on forever or just fly by. With smaller groups, conductors may be responsible for everything from booking venues and outside contracting to drawing up seating charts and approving ad copy.

Tritle is currently preparing for three separate versions of Handel’s Messiah. He will be playing the organ for five performances with the New York Philharmonic under conductor Alan Gilbert, while simultaneously preparing a Baroque scale version for the professional ensemble Musica Sacra, and a grand version in the great tradition of the 19th century for the Oratorio Society of New York. 

The Oratorio Society has gathered 200 people for its Carnegie Hall performance on Dec. 21—something the group has done annually since 1891. With the way this ensemble goes about producing the sound, “you’d think the ceiling of the Carnegie was going to lift off,” Tritle said. 

With Musica Sacra, you still have that dynamic spectrum, Tritle said, but there are 32 singers as opposed to 200, so the sculpting of the sound is done in a very different way. They will be accompanied by modern instruments but with baroque bows, so the overall effect is very different.

National Chorale at David Geffen Hall. (Richard Termine)
National Chorale at David Geffen Hall. (Richard Termine)

National Chorale Artistic Director Everett McCorvey works with 40 professional singers—many of whom are soloists, opera singers with big voices. His approach is to focus on matching the vowels while celebrating the individuality of the voices. The result is a knock-you-off-the-stage, powerful sound.

“The reaction is very visceral,” said McCorvey, who is also the head of the opera program at the University of Kentucky. “If you have big voices, you have to let them sing.”

McCorvey is also leading the 49th annual Messiah Sing-In in the David Geffen Hall. On stage, instead of the singers, there are 17 conductors. Each of them will take a minute to explain the chorus section they will conduct, before leading the 3,000 singers that will make up the audience.

Sharing With the Audience

Choral music is powerful because the music and the text together convey grand ideas such as transcendence, Tritle said, and if the singers can bring together the sounds to convey that to the audience, it can be very powerful. It requires compassion, deep empathy, and the heart to project all that past the footlights, he said.

“If we disconnect from the human heart and just make the right sounds at the right times the impact doesn’t really come across,” he said.

Tritle, after a recent rehearsal, described the experience:

“To have a moment where through music we’re actually living deeply, communicating with each other, and experiencing some pure beauty—this has been something that’s life affirming, transcendent, exhilarating. And it’s not even the performance, it’s the rehearsal,” Tritle said. Hearing the human voice allows for a deep, spiritual, human connection, he said.

“We, those of us who do choral music consider it something that the world desperately needs, because this is a way that we can share with the world what it means to be unified and at peace,” Tritle said. “We experience it in those moments and in the music, and we hope the audience can experience that too, whether doing it knowingly or just subconsciously.”

Dedication is essential to pull off a great performance. Volunteer members are expected to make most rehearsals, and many spoke of the importance of being committed to each note.

For example, Tritle said that the Oratorio Society has been rehearsing since mid-September and less than seven weeks before the performance have seven rehearsals still.  “They’re preparing this so they can sing beyond the page and communicate out into the space.”

Professional groups may only have a handful of rehearsals, if that, and the singers are expected to read, interpret, and deliver in hours.

Regardless of size or level, choral groups are dedicated to this collaborative craft, and each tries to bring as much musical excellence to the performance as they can and ideally to engage the audience.

Brown said her conviction to sing and her constant commitment to bringing the best to it every time is rooted in her belief in herself and in a higher power. In believing, she has love and enjoyment for the music, and is able to convey that. 

“I love being able to give back, and if whatever I sing or do on stage, if it brings comfort, if it brings relaxation, if it makes someone happy—if it makes someone feel,” Brown said with emphasis. “I like to break down all kinds of barriers so that people can feel.”

And if the singer isn’t enjoying it, how can the audience? she asked. “I enjoy what I do and hope to bring others that same joy.”

National Chorale at David Geffen Hall. (Richard Termine)
National Chorale at David Geffen Hall. (Richard Termine)

McCorvey has a pay-it-forward mentality. He, like many in the choral music community, believes that what is communicated through singing is more than just the sum of its parts.

Imparted to the audience is “a sense of joy, a sense of happiness, a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning, an understanding of the text, and a sense that we are in this together,” McCorvey said.

Artists, himself included, have such a deep commitment to communicating something inspiring to the audience because they have experienced it first hand, McCorvey explained.

They often can trace their start in the arts to some specific moment early in their lives, when they were moved by art, McCorvey said. And those moments led them onto paths to develop and share their gifts. Thus, he says, artists have a duty and responsibility to create these profound moments for the next generation.

“All of us in the arts should have it as our mission to educate the next generation of young artists and audiences,” McCorvey said. “Not all of these kids will grow up to be arts professionals, but they may grow up to be arts advocates, art donors, arts participants.”

Excellent art, he said, promotes world understanding. People are brought together in a way that is unique.