Anniversary in the Amp

Doreen Rao leads the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in a concert featuring the works of Bach and Bernstein at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater. Submitted photo.

Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus opens 75th season in concert with CSO

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

Doreen Rao

The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus will celebrate its 75th anniversary with Chautauqua in its season-opening-concert featuring Bach’s “Magnificat” and Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS.” Doreen Rao will conduct the chorus and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater.

“Chautauqua is an exquisite intersection between the arts and spirituality,” she said. “It just exudes the kind of an enlightened energy that makes listening to and making beautiful music immediately understood in so many different ways.”

Though Rao and the chorus have visited Chautauqua every year since she became the chorus’ music director in 2008, this is Rao’s first time conducting the CSO.

“There is a vibrancy in the orchestra that I think comes from reuniting every year as a community of musicians,” Rao said. “That combination of orchestra and chorus is, to me, the most exciting place to be. It doesn’t get better than that.”

Tonight’s concert opens with Benjamin Britten’s “Fanfare for St. Edmundsbury,” a work for three trumpets. Rao said she hopes to have the musicians play in different areas of the Amp for the fanfare.

“My goal with this piece is to help the listeners be surrounded by the three trumpets that define the music of Bach’s ‘Magnificat,’” she said. “At the same time, the music of Britten, in a spatial sense, provides the listener an opportunity to prepare themselves to receive the music of the evening.”

Once the invitation to listen is delivered, the concert continues with the air from Bach’s Orchestral Suite in D Major, BW 1068, which will help to create the stillness of a listening space, Rao said.

“This is created by the lyricism and the melodic beauty of that movement,” she said. “It prepares us, then, for the complex counterpoint that we will hear in the ‘Magnificat.’”

Bach composed “Magnificat” after his appointment to the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, Germany. “Magnificat” was originally intended to be a Christmas piece, but Bach revised it so it could be performed throughout the year.

Rao said the piece is full of wonderful, virtuosic counterpoint and rhythmic dance forms. Its florid musical ideas are exchanged between the orchestra and chorus in a concerto-like format. The piece is challenging for vocalists, because Bach wrote the vocal parts instrumentally.

The choral movements are interspersed with arias, duets and a trio. Soloists for this evening’s performance of “Magnificat” include soprano I Leah Schneider, soprano II Tony Arnold, mezzo-soprano Natalia Kojanova, tenor Jeffrey Thompson and bass Brian T. Zunner.

Thompson is a guest soloist with the chorus and will perform the tenor aria “Deposuit potentes” and alto-tenor duet “Et misericordia.” He has performed with the chorus before and said it is a mature-sounding choir that interprets nuances wonderfully and blends beautifully. He described “Magnificat” as “Bach at his best.”

“It’s harmonically and rhythmically perfect,” he said. “The marriage of that music and the text is perfect and uplifting. It flows just beautifully.”

He will perform “Et misericordia” with Kojanova, who said she enjoys the duet for its sad, melodramatic qualities.

“When you’re happy, it’s generally just one feeling,” she said. “When you’re sad, you can be sad in so many different ways.”

Following “Magnificat,” Rao will lead the orchestra and chorus in Bernstein’s “MASS,” which she edited to shorten the piece and to make it more feasible for school, church and community choruses to perform.

Rao said “MASS” and “Magnificat” complement textually and contrast stylistically.

“Bernstein is saying much the same thing as Bach through his great faith, but uses a 20th-century language, representing American diversity in song styles and a broad sweep of compositional elements,” Rao said.

“MASS” premiered in 1971 during a tumultuous period in American history. Rao said these conflicts are juxtaposed with Bernstein’s personal struggles with his faith and reflected within the text of a Catholic mass.

“He used (the mass) as a unification device to explore the tremendous conflicts of doubt and faith that were occurring at that period of American history and continue, in many ways, to define the problems that we face today,” she said.

“MASS” includes an important role for tenor and guest soloist Joseph Mikolaj, who acts as celebrant throughout the piece. Mikolaj was raised Catholic, which he said helps him have a deeper insight for the role. He enjoys the musical style of “MASS,” which he said has roots in classical music as well as popular music.

“It carries an energy that it borrows from the pop music, but it also carries a weight that, I think, creates something quite brilliant,” he said.
Mikolaj said he’s never heard anything quite like “MASS.”

“I’d like for an audience member to sit down and try to find one thing to hold onto, one thing to take from the piece, because it’s so powerful and can be so moving,” he said. “Be ready. Be forewarned.”

Schneider performs the soprano part in “MASS,” in addition to her aria, duet and trio in “Magnificat.” She said the soprano in “MASS” performs without paying attention to the chorus, creating chaos.

“The soprano represents all that is secular,” she said. “She’s not exactly a character as much as she is representing a feeling.”

Schneider, a soloist and music educator, joined the chorus in 2006 and has enjoyed both performing in the chorus and learning new teaching methods from Rao’s example.

“(Rao is) such a vibrant conductor with lots of energy,” Schneider said. “She really knows exactly how to produce results from singers in the most effective way.”

Kojanova first started singing as a soloist with large ensembles when she joined the chorus three years ago. She said it is incredible to work with the chorus and with Rao.

“She brings so much — everybody says so,” Kojanova said. “Even in concerts, the music changes every time, growing better and better.”

In addition to her work with the chorus, Rao is an associate professor of conducting at the University of Toronto. She is also the founding artistic director of the CME Institute for Choral Teacher Education.

In the near future, Rao looks forward to a new focus in her career, with conducting in the forefront and a continued dedication to music education.

“My career is the bridge between performance and education,” she said. “That is where I live. That is what I love.”

“The Personal and Political in Bernstein’s MASS
Scott Slocum Interviews Doreen Rao

At the heart of MASS was Leonard Bernstein’s passion for peace.  Intended to be ecumenical in both a musical and religious sense, Bernstein used the Latin text of the Catholic Mass as the basis for this monumental and original work.  The mass form unifies the edgy and appealing popular song forms that question the values of faith contrasted with the expressive concert melodies that symbolically reference faith beyond doubt.  The musical tensions created by this mixture of diverse song styles mirrors the tensions of an American period of political unrest.  Bernstein’s prayers for peace and quest for renewed faith heard in his lyrical melodies and probing rhythms in MASS reflect a time in history, not unlike the world today.  Doreen Rao’s concert adaptation, taken from the original full-scale theatre production, celebrates Leonard Bernstein’s life-long dedication to the music education of young people and his passion for peace. 

Conductor Doreen Rao, Music Director and Conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus will conduct her newly edited concert edition of Bernstein’s MASS at the Chautauqua Institution Saturday, July 23.   The concert edition was carefully adapted for the benefit of community, school and church choirs to enjoy the study and performance of this great 20th century classic from the lengthy full-scale theatre production for singers, players and dancers.

Interviewer Scott Slocum is a member of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus.  Scott is a therapeutic masseuse and dancer who sings bass.  The following interview is extracted from a recent discussion between Scott and Doreen Rao in Doreen’s Buffalo home.

SS– I understand that Bernstein MASS was written as a dedication to John F. Kennedy after his death.  I thought it was ironic that President Nixon did not attend the 1971 Bernstein Mass opening of the J. F. Kennedy Center out of a suspected conspiracy that Bernstein was going to try to embarrass the United States Government.  I’m also impressed that Bernstein took the traditional Mass form and developed it in a uniquely contemporary manner.

DR– Bernstein’s music flew in the face of the political climate of the time.  He was considered a subversive by J. Edgar Hoover, and MASS was considered by some critics as a total travesty — a vulgar mélange of ideas.   By others, MASS was considered Bernstein’s greatest composition.  These were not easy times.  Has anything changed?

By using liturgical form alongside American popular song, Bernstein achieved a ‘crossover’ composition that philosophically speaking, united the Church and the people.  He used a liturgical ‘mass form’ to portray faith and hope alongside doubt and despair through the juxtaposition of concert and popular musics.

SS– A garden image comes to mind — the idea of one who knew very intimately how

“life” worked and could bring it forth and cultivate it through the use of sacred tradition set forth in a modern language with modern images – the cultivation of a ‘new’ tradition.  What a wonderful experiment.

DR– It was a glorious experiment.  Perhaps an experiment for all time.  I think Bernstein set the tone for what could be understood as an essentially American musical experience.  By developing an interdependent relationship between the sacred and secular; the concert stage and popular music; celebration and lamentation; faith and doubt, Bernstein was able to portray the relationship between musical styles within the context of a unified work made whole through the mass form.

SS- The thing that really impresses me about that imagery, and the way that you’re putting it, is that contrasting and diversified ideas reflect one another — one face reflects the other somehow — that’s a new and tasty idea, for me.

DR-  Formal religious practice and the liturgical framework for religious faith can provide comfort and assurance.  I think that what Bernstein suggests in MASS is that religion should not be separated from the daily experiences of life.  In MASS Bernstein brings street life to the Church and Church life to the street; the music symbolizes the tensions between doubt and faith.

SS- I think it’s very beautiful if you don’t have to go to church to find church – in this way, you’re always at home.

DR– When I think of the tensions often felt between the experiences of faith and doubt, I remember the ancient Irish saying: “the whole world is sacred.” I think we go to church to be in church, but Bernstein’s music suggests that we can also be ‘in church’ at home, and we can be ‘in church’ in music, and we can be ‘in church’ in a loving relationship.  This I believe is the partial essence of Bernstein’s message.

SS– That’s wonderful. It would seem that because Bernstein showed the “sacred in the secular,” and the “secular in the sacred,” he did a service to both.  MASS ennobled popular music and brought social relevance to the ancient mass form.  How enriching.

DR– In MASS, Bernstein uses a liturgical form to organize popular song forms. And while he borrowed a fair amount of material from his previous theatre works (including West Side Story and the Skin of Our Teeth) the Catholic Mass sung in Latin unifies Bernstein’s effort to portray his own struggles with sustaining faith in God during troubled times in a uniquely original work.  It’s important to remember that the use of these compositional devices like borrowing old material is not unique to Bernstein specifically or to twentieth century composers generally.  J. S. Bach was doing this long ago.  As a devout German Lutheran living in eighteenth century Leipzig, Bach often borrowed material from his previous compositions (cantatas, motets for example) and often used secular melodies (medieval street songs) as the basis of chorale harmonizations and choral counterpoint. As in Bernstein’s MASS, Bach transformed secular melodic fragments (songs) and previously composed materials into works like Magnificat and Mass in B Minor.

So the idea of the ‘secular in the sacred’ can be found throughout music history. Bernstein brought it to America in a form that we consider very “20th century,” but that particular distinction goes way back in music history. This can be found most brilliantly, I think, in the music of J.S. Bach.

SS– That’s wonderful. It’s exciting to know that what’s impressive about Bernstein has been going on at least as far back as Bach.

DR– The thing is, Bach composed in a compositional language unique to German Lutheranism during Bach’s lifetime.  Bernstein used the compositional language of 20th century American song.   While the way Bernstein composed MASS was new in many respects, philosophically speaking, the practices of stylistic variation and borrowing previously composed themes is not new.

SS– That’s a good point.

DR– If I may cautiously approach a comparison of Bernstein with Bach.  We know that Bach’s music is an absolute manifestation of his faith.  His biblical scholarship and unquestioning religious faith are deeply embodied in his compositions.  There is not a note Bach wrote that was not a symbol of his faith.   I think in some ways, the same may be true of Bernstein.  Bernstein felt very much that the African-American traditions — the Negro spiritual and gospel singing for example, were the spiritual essence of American music.  MASS was for Bernstein, a manifestation of his own religious struggles. Every note of this work is deeply rooted in Bernstein’s commitment to diversity and peace making.  As Bach’s cantatas and passions were a celebration of Christian faith, I see  MASS as a celebration of Bernstein’s faith in American diversity as unity.

SS– Tell me about your experience of adapting and editing the Bernstein MASS into a shortened concert version.

DR – I undertook this project a number of years ago in anticipation of Leonard Bernstein’s 90th birthday.   This newly adapted and edited version of Mass seeks to honor the composer’s life-long commitment to music education and bring what Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton called “Bernstein’s most original work” to school, community and church choirs unable to produce the original full-scale theatre production.  I worked diligently to assure that the work’s liturgical form and dramatic intent were carefully preserved.  Every note of this edition is pure Bernstein.

I have always been a great lover of the work of Leonard Bernstein — certainly his compositions and his conducting, but most importantly, his teaching.  Bernstein was the quintessential American music educator, not only as a teacher to generations of young people, but through his compositions themselves.  His music is a way of investigating the world around us. His music broadens our understanding of the Torah, the Bible and also points to the ethical and moral dilemmas of cultural confusion and societal conflicts today.  It is an investigation of life from historical, sociological, anthropological and purely musical perspectives.

The choices that Bernstein made musically in his theater work, symphonies, and in MASS teach us about life in a new voice.  While the music is often very beautiful in and of itself, his works are not just about music for it’s own sake.  Every note of Bernstein is in some way provocative and challenging.  It evokes intellectual curiosity, emotional response and seems to serve as a form of social inquiry.

I’m drawn to Bernstein’s music because it teaches me not only about music, but also about life itself.  Bernstein was not afraid to examine doubt.  He grappled compositionally with the conflicts that people have always stayed away from.  Bernstein’s music allows us to sit still with conflict and examine our faith in relationship to the suffering and doubt that surrounds us. I have always been drawn to the process of examining, investigating, questioning, not because there is one answer, but because I think as human beings we need to be comfortable with the notion that there may not be an answer to every question.  We need to view doubt without fear.

Bernstein’s music explores all this from a broad, existential perspective.  This comes across in all his music. His melodic material, based as it is on what we would call “popular tunes,” is a perfect example of how gloriously beautiful simple melody can be, in both a harmonically tonal and atonal context.  In other words, turning a melody around on its head and doing something really ‘strange’ with it, then stating it again in the original form demonstrates a kind of non-duality.  Bernstein twists his ideas; he turns them around and examines them from a multiplicity of compositional and social perspectives. Bach did the same thing.  I like that.

SS– Me too. Me too.