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NY Virtuoso Singers Celebrate 25th Anniversary
By Christian Carey , Sequenza21

When a musical omnivore such as Harold Rosenbaum declares that the concert you are about to hear is “the most diverse program I have conducted in my forty year career,” hang on to your seat! On Sunday March 3rd, Rosenbaum led the New York Virtuoso Singers in the aforementioned amply diverse program in a concert at Merkin Hall. A baker’s dozen of new pieces, part of an ambitious commissioning project: 25 pieces to celebrate the group’s 25th anniversary.

While the selections were stylistically diverse, there was a unifying thread. All of the composers had done their homework, and composed with the formidable capabilities of NYVS in mind. The ensemble lived up to its reputation for peerless preparation, assaying all of the pieces with fortitude and an almost intimidating level of technical skill. Intonation and rhythm, regular pitfalls for mortal choirs, proved scarcely to be hurdles for the singers, even in the thorniest of passages. And there were plenty of those provided to them on Sunday afternoon.

Particularly impressive were works by David Felder and Augusta Read Thomas, which pushed at both the harmonic fabric with daring chromatic writing and at the capacities of the voices with parts written in punishingly high tessitura. Others, such as Roger Davidson, opted to revel in the group’s sound and suave divisi in a more straightforward setting.

One of the challenges in being part of a bouquet of occasional works: how expansive should one’s piece be? Both Thea Musgrave and Richard Danielpour opted for aphoristic yet attractive tributes, while Richard Wernick and Joseph Schwantner created evocatively atmospheric works that probably overstayed their welcome a bit. David Lang created a slowed down spiritual for the singers, poking fun at the perky arrangements of doleful texts by choral mainstays such as Alice Parker and Robert Shaw. For all of her protestations that setting text doesn’t suit her, Joan Tower’s memorial tribute to her recently departed sister was eloquent and unforced.

Sadly, I found another of the memorial works on the program, Memorial by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, more problematic. In the midst of snatches of the requiem mass’ text, the use of children’s choir intoning the names of Sandy Hook victims is heavy handed and borderline exploitative. No doubt, some will argue that the work’s topicality and pacifistic message is moving. Indeed, it was moving, but, to me, manipulatively so. One could have gotten the subtext from a more subtle use of forces and an approach to the topic that was sensitive and less opportunistic.

Most of the works hewed to the celebratory mood of the occasion. William Bolcom provided a puckish setting of a Blake poem about Cupid; a footnote to his mammoth Songs of Innocence and Experience project, but a savory and supple one. Mark Adamo contributed the only work with piano accompaniment, in which the singers and instrument nimbly dance around the subtext of a grimly jocular Stoic postmortem. Aaron Kernis was on hand not only to introduce his piece (as did several of the other composers) but also to substitute as a “clapper” (hand percussionist) for his jubilant setting of the translation of a Hebrew spiritual poem.

All in all, it was a fine afternoon of singing. The commissions are being recorded for release on Soundbrush Records. Hopefully more choirs will hear them and want to program them.


11/12/2012
The New York Virtuoso Singers: Twelve World Premieres
By: Jean Ballard Terepka

On October 21, Harold Rosenbaum opened the 25th Season of The New York Virtuoso Singers with the first of two celebratory concerts featuring new works commissioned especially for the year-long anniversary celebration.

For more than two decades, New York City audiences have been able to count on Rosenbaum's commitment to contemporary choral music for artistic excellence and integrity. A relationship of camaraderie, respect and trust exists among the musicians, the composers, Rosenbaum and The New York Virtuoso Singers' audiences. This first concert of the celebratory season had an almost intimate feel to it: this was not an afternoon of pomp and grandeur, but of artistic conviviality and musical felicity.

The musical performances were preceded by an informal panel discussion. Several composers assembled in a semi-circle on the stage; Rosenbaum asked general questions about the composers' experiences of writing choral music and about the challenges of their craft. A conversation unfolded about early influences, text choice and musical standards; the exchange was thoughtful and relaxed.

Steven Stucky remarked on what he described as the essential conservatism of much choral music and chose for his text a conservatively structured sonnet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's “Say Thou Dost Love Me.” Stucky's music captured the lyricism and sway of Browning's poem in a melody that began delicately and ended with strong peacefulness. Though at one level Browning's sonnet is a love poem, Stucky chose to read it as an homage to musical friendship and collegiality. The poem's thematic consideration of sound and silence as part of the rhythm of love was echoed in the mood and tone shifts in the music. The work's last line, its most musically dense resolution, praised silence as part of love's conversation; it was an elegant conclusion to the piece.

Shulamit Ran's remarks in the pre-concert conversation had included an account of her very first piece of choral writing: after composing extensively in a variety of genres during most of her career, she found herself, ten years ago, required to compose a manageable, acceptable and worthy choral piece for her son's bar mitzvah. In the decade of prolific choral composition since, Ran has returned over and over again to sacred texts for inspiration and material. The piece she composed for this 25th anniversary celebration was adapted from Psalm 37 of the Hebrew Bible. Building on the same themes that have characterized other works she's written, including her Credo/Ani Ma'amin, performed by The New York Virtuoso Singers last spring, this new work, The Humble Shall Inherit the Earth, presented Ran's familiar examinations of music on a continuum between conservative liturgical tradition and experimental modernity. The solo male voices tended to carry a more traditional cantorial sonority and pace, while the blended women's passages contained more innovative harmonies. The work's emotionally intense conclusion, asserting that the meek's inheritance of the earth will be imbued with “the abundance of peace,” was joyful.

During the pre-concert discussion, Yehudi Wyner had discussed some of his musical influences. He noted, with unostentatious modesty about his heritage, that he had grown up in a musical household with a father who was “a choral conductor.” He then indicated that Paul Hindemith's requirement that his Yale students sing in his Collegium Musicum had provided him with a different and complementary perspective on choral music: it was here that he learned more about shared pitch of voice and instruments and about techniques for making words flow within music. It was Wyner's work, Save me, O God, based on Psalm 69 that concluded the concert. Like the psalm chosen by Ran for her piece, this psalm is a personal plea to God, but unlike Ran's, this one explores anxiety and anguish in the face of peril. It is a wail of fear that is acute but unashamed, founded in certainty that God will listen and save. Wyner's music skillfully captured nuances of fear in complex, taut melodic and rhythmic turns. Within the rigorous discipline of the writing, each voice maintained its individual integrity, contributing uniquely to the choral whole.

The final topic of the pre-concert conversation concerned some of the problems that contemporary choral composers face. Of the hundreds and hundreds of amateur, semi-professional and professional choruses in the United States, there aren't very many that can handle complex scores. It's not easy to find publishers. It's not easy to find audiences. The consequent dumbing-down of choral texts – Rosenbaum's phrase – is pernicious and meretricious.

The composers who work with Rosenbaum have the happy knowledge that there is little they might compose that The New York Virtuoso Singers can't perform: contemporary composers can count absolutely on these singers' stunning musicianship and superb technique.

This mutual trust among composer, conductor and chorus proved to be the program's sole unifying element. Some works had something in common with other works, but the commonalities were divergent. Because the works were all relatively short and rather different each from the other, the concert had no unifying conceptual theme other than the fact of shared musicianship.

In some respects, David Del Tredici's work, the first one on the program, served as a fitting introduction to the concert as a whole. The 1727 New England Primer poem, “Alphabet II,” is an idiosyncratic colonial pedagogical text, a poem presenting the characters of sacred Christian narrative – Adam, Job, Esther, Rachel, Peter and Zaccheus – with more local and domestic figures, like cats and dogs, and examining in terse couplets a complete human narrative, “Youth … slips./Death … nips.” Del Tredici's music was deft, dance-like, alternately delicate and acrobatic, briefly lyrical, and then, quite suddenly and crisply, done.

Fred Lerdahl and John Harbison both chose poems by contemporary American poets for their pieces. Lerdahl's setting of Richard Wilbur's “Cornstalks” evoked the poem's tercets in small, self-contained bursts of music, each containing brief discordances almost resolved, and ended with a resolution into harmonious possibilities, “the sole thing breathing.” Harbison explored Michael Fried's “The Pool,” a poem about movement and pause, preparing and forgetting, with music that alternated smoothness with sudden breaks and harmonies that moved in loops and swells.

Sacred texts set to music were not limited to psalms in this concert. Stephen Hartke set selected verses of Matthew 5: 38-59 – Jesus's exhortation “to turn the other cheek” – to music that moved from attempted harmonies to beauty itself. Jennifer Higdon's The Prayer – the “Our Father” – began with an American sureness that managed to be both contemplative and sensible and then ended in a triumphant arc of joy and glory.

The Canticum Novum Youth Choir sang Richard Rice's setting of the fifteenth century anonymous folk-hymn “Adam lay y-Bounden” with skill and sweetness; the final “Deo gratias!” was sturdy and confident.

Three works proved richly evocative of particular times and places. Chen Yi's brief Let's Reach a New Height embodied a fully realized fusion of formal Western and Asian influences but retained enough echoes of folk music to locate the text in the tradition of central Tang Dynasty nature poetry. George Tsontakis's setting of “A Dream within a Dream,” written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1849, presented layers of harmony and sound that conjured both Poe's fluid spookiness and his deeply serious confrontation with mortality: the singers' only moment of absolute unison arrived in the very last line, the certain confirmation of all the preceding uncertainties.

John Corigliano's piece Upon Julia's Clothes, based on a poem by Cavalier poet Robert Herrick was a true song – like songs plopped into Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas – and was as gently sultry as a cottage rose. The marvel of Upon Julia's Clothes is that Corigliano, such an American composer, has written a very intimate England praise-song, a virtual obeisance to Ralph Vaughan Williams. In its ephemeral, gauzy lushness, this little song was as evocative of English aesthetic history as Frederick Ashton's four-minute Salut d'Amourchoreographed to music by Elgar in 1979 for Dame Margot Fonteyn on the occasion of her 60th birthday.

The most surprising text of all the pieces performed in this concert was Bruce Adolphe's Obedient Choir of Emotions, based on a passage from Self Comes to Mind by contemporary neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, co-founder and now co-director of the ground-breaking Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Adolphe has collaborated with Damasio on a number of research projects on music, creativity and perception within the context of neurobiology and has, since 2008, been Composer-in-Residence at BCI.

Adolphe's Obedient Choir of Emotions called for The New York Virtuoso Singers' full complement of sixteen singers accompanied by a pianist. The music of the piano supplied a context of warmth, something like an embrace, for the singers' voices whether individual or in small groups, whether offering one melody or a blend of melodies. Damasio's prose focuses on a single moment of perception – “I am looking at the Pacific Ocean” – and allows it to unfold into a discourse on consciousness. Adolphe's music in turn had its own architecture and development: voices carried lines that took chords apart, considered individual strands and then rewove them. The most mysterious of internal processes – awareness, consciousness – was translated into external accessibility not just by Damasio's prose but by Damasio's and Adolphe's conjoined gifts.

The contemporary composers with whom Rosenbaum works routinely challenge themselves and their audiences with texts that vary from the most familiar and traditional to the unexpected and unusual to the genuinely obscure and esoteric. Each kind of text presents its own musical challenges. How can new music make familiar texts feel fresh? How can new music make the arcane more intelligible? Underlying these questions is an even more fundamental one: how do composers make their music serve texts even while words themselves are vehicles of musical sound?

These questions aren't ever actually answered. They are simply explored, with the works of each composer providing particular insights.

During the course of the concert, the choral pieces were interspersed with piano pieces. Brent Funderburk played a piece by William Bolcom in the first half and Donald Isler played a piece by Louis Pelosi in the second. Both pianists played well and the works they presented were interesting, but the presence of these piano “interludes” did not contribute helpfully to a program that, by its very nature, had no overarching thematic unity. The informal conversation with composers before the concert could have been extended longer in place of the time consumed by the piano works.

The idea of celebrating 25 years of music-making with 25 new commissions is a lovely one. The concert was like an afternoon of present-opening shared with many friends.

On March 3, 2013, the celebration will continue with thirteen more works. More presents for conductor, singers and audience alike!


Q2 Music Album of the Week

New York Virtuoso Singers Celebrate 25 Years with 25 Premieres

25 years, 25 composers: founded in 1988, the New York Virtuoso Singers are celebrating a quarter century of music-making by commissioning and performing works by over two dozen of today's most celebrated composers. Under conductor Harold Rosenbaum, the Virtuoso Singers have always been friends of contemporary music, but with this latest project, they've created – all at once – a little repertoire of important contemporary choral works.

The proof is in the recording. "25 x 25," a new two-disc set compiling their anniversary commissions, is a dazzling little jewel-box of choral writing that demonstrates the ensemble's willingness to live up to their name. These composers have come up with 25 different approaches towards the process of writing for the human voice, and the results are 25 different examples of choral virtuosity.

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Katherine Hoover and Harold Rosenbaum:
Recording Her Unique Requiem for the Innocent

By Ronald E. Grames

HOOVER: Requiem for the Innocent
Audio CD
4TAY
Pre-order from 4TAY


When I interviewed flutist, poet, and composer Katherine Hoover for the July/August 2016 issue (Fanfare 39:6) I commented that Parnassus records had, with its several releases, touched on every aspect of Hoover’s art. I was wrong, as this new CD proves. Hoover is a fine composer of choral music as well, and thanks to a new recording initiative by Harold Rosenbaum and his acclaimed chorus, The New York Virtuoso Singers, we are now able to hear a good sampling of her small but significant body of work for vocal ensemble. That includes a striking setting of poetry by Walt Whitman, in the form of a liturgy for the dead, titled Requiem for the Innocent.

The last interview was with Hoover alone, but this time the composer asked that her partner in this project be a partner in the conversation. So we got a three-way email discussion of the music and the recording started even as the audio and documentation were in final preparations for publication.

Hoover wrote in her program notes that the Requiem for the Innocent was inspired by the attacks of September 11, 2001, but that she withdrew the work as a result of the military campaign against Baghdad in 2003. To start with, I asked her to say a little about her response to both events, and why she decided to pursue a recording of the Requiem, and a performance in concert, 13 years after it was withdrawn.

“I live in Manhattan, about seven miles above the 9/11 site. There was no avoiding the shock and consequences of this, and the first poem I actually had published is called ‘Dust’ and is about that tragedy. I began the Requiem not long after that. The poetry of Walt Whitman which I used was originally written about the Johnstown flood, which was also entirely human-caused, and killed about the same number as the 9/11 attacks.

“Then, when we began our tremendous bombardment in 2003 of a city whose country had nothing to do with 9/11, using that as some kind of strange excuse, I was appalled. Many, many more innocents were victimized. Morally, I could not mourn the 3,000 when my country was bombing tens of thousands who were just as innocent. So I put it away.

“The first outing of the Requiem was done under Tom Schmidt at St. Peter’s Church at 54th and Lexington Avenue, in the Citicorp Building. That was in November 2002, as part of a yearly Service of Remembrance. It was interspersed, in parts, in an immense church service of well over two hours. There was no continuity. As grateful as I was to the singers, the choir plus a few ringers, and to Tom, a fine musician and a terrific pianist, rehearsal time was very short, a prominent player got lost, and the acoustic was problematic.

“When I looked at it about two years ago, I realized I could dedicate the piece to all of these innocent victims. I think you have the words that I used: ‘I would now like to dedicate the work to the innocent victims of both bombings: the 3000 killed in the U.S., and the tens of thousands of men, women, and children who perished in the explosions and flames in Baghdad during March and April, 2003.’”

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Honoring the ‘Uphill Battle’ of a Champion of New Choral Music

By Roberta Hershenson, The New York Times, June 22, 2008

 

The conductor Harold Rosenbaum, recent recipient of the Laurel Leaf Award from the American Composers Alliance, sees choral composers today as a neglected species. Avocational or school choruses, which account for most choruses in the United States, are reluctant to tackle music they fear will be overly complex, he says. Music publishers fear contemporary works will be too atonal to sell. But Mr. Rosenbaum has made it his mission to open resistant minds and ears. “There’s so much wonderful contemporary choral music out there,” he said. “Composers are very frustrated.”

 

So it was not surprising that when Mr. Rosenbaum received his award in Manhattan on June 4 – presented in recognition of “distinguished achievement in fostering and encouraging the performance of new American works” – he deferred to composers themselves in his acceptance speech. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for gifted composers around the country,” he said from the stage. “I wouldn’t be here tonight if it weren’t for their unbelievable talent and passion for the music of our time.”

 

Mr. Rosenbaum, who lives in South Salem, joins a prestigious list of previous winners of the award, which has been given yearly since 1951. These include the Juilliard String Quartet and noted symphony conductors like Leonard Slatkin, Leopold Stokowski and George Szell. After the award ceremony, which was held after intermission during a concert of new music that Mr. Rosenbaum conducted, he asked, with a smile, to be allowed to “get back to work.” Then he led the New York Virtuoso Singers, a professional chorus he founded 20 years ago, in works by Louis Karchin, John Eaton and Steven R. Gerber, among others. Many of the composers on the program were in the audience.

 

After a rehearsal with the New York Virtuoso Singers a week earlier, Mr. Rosenbaum said he hoped the award, with its highlight on American music, would help build interest in music written today. “Maybe people will be more curious about this body of work, most of which is lying dormant,” he said. “Every time I’m onstage conducting great music, it makes up for the struggle.” He referred several times to the “uphill battle” he and other orchestral conductors face in championing new works.

 

At 58, with gray shoulder-length hair that neatly skims the back of his tuxedo, Mr. Rosenbaum seems to be thriving on his efforts. At any one time, he said, he is working on 15 to 20 projects involving one of his seven choruses. These include the 35-year-old Canticum Novum Singers, which performs music from Bach to Schnittke, and two choruses at the University of Buffalo, where, as a full-time faculty member, he spends one and a half days each week. Composers constantly send him new works; he has received nearly 3,000 scores during the past 20 years, he said, and has performed about 100 of them. Mr. Rosenbaum also edits a choral series established in his name by G. Schirmer, the music publisher. After the interview, he said, he was returning home to study an opera score by Marie Barker Nelson, one of Hindemith’s students, that he plans to conduct in 2010.

 


Choral Conductor Leads Resounding Career  >

by Donna Shoemaker, from the alumni magazine of Queens College.



With his baton, Harold Rosenbaum ’72, ’74 MA directs both renowned soloists and amateurs, from youths to seniors, up dizzying choral heights. Over four decades he has sounded these high notes: choral conductor with 450-plus world premières and more than 1,500 concerts—almost 100 in Europe . . . founder of six choral groups and maestro of about 30 others . . . collaborator with more than 100 leading orchestras, opera companies, and other ensembles . . . associate professor of music at the University of Buffalo . . . faculty member at his alma mater (1972-1998) . . . namesake of the choral music series of the world’s largest music publisher, G. Schirmer Music . . . organist and choir director at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Katonah, NY . . . pianist, editor, composer, coach, consultant, and clinician.

pages from queens magazine

Rosenbaum “is not scared stiff of anything offbeat,” notes Allen Brings ’55, composer, pianist, and QC professor emeritus of music. Contemporary choral composers find in Rosenbaum and his New York Virtuoso Singers the ideal interpreters. This professional chamber choir, which he founded in 1988, is undaunted by their most complex compositions.

 

While he has commissioned 50 of today’s best choral composers, Rosenbaum also champions what he calls “the up-and-comers who need the money.” For his annual competition and from unsolicited stacks, each year he reviews 400 to 500 scores—8,500 to date. “I get immense pleasure in finding a jewel,” he says. “I always call the winners because I like to hear their happiness.” Rosenbaum “has perfect pitch of a very highly refined nature,” says Raymond Erickson, QC professor emeritus of music, early music authority, and harpsichordist. “That’s one of the reasons he can take on this extremely difficult music—he can hear it in his head.” Adds Erickson, “Intense, uncompromising, Rosenbaum lives for the art and not the applause. There are few people in the artistic world who are so fundamentally self-effacing.”

 

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Harold Rosenbaum Featured in AtBuffalo Magazine

Harold Rosenbaum talks quickly, his voice breaking up momentarily on his cellphone as his Manhattan-bound train pulls into a station.

 

“I love what I do. I guess I’m just driven,” Rosenbaum says of his head-spinning schedule. In addition to directing two student choirs and heading the graduate program in choral conducting as an associate professor of music at UB, he leads weekly “Sunday Seminars” in conducting at Columbia University in New York, and regularly shuttles between Buffalo, New York and Europe juggling several conducting, consulting and judging projects.

 

During one crazy season, he recalls, he was artistic director of 11 choirs in New York, most of which met weekly at opposite ends of the state.

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harold sketch
Harold Rosenbaum Shares His Alphabetical Favorites With Westchester Magazine

County people and places that strike a chord with renowned choral conductor Harold Rosenbaum.

 

Ancient houses. Not by European standards, but who cares?

Barber in Cross River, who also replaces watchbands. It reminds me of the Wild West, where barbers also extracted teeth!

Copland House in Cortlandt Manor. Yes, Aaron actually lived there. I conducted his choral masterpiece In the Beginning at his 80th birthday celebration at Symphony Space in NYC.

Dirt roads. Sure, they can be a muddy mess when it rains, but they are a nice reminder of our past.
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