NYSSSA choir brings young voices to Amp


New York State Summer School of the Arts students sing during the group’s 2011 Amp performance. Daily file photo.

Sydney Maltese | Staff Writer

The younger generation will take over the Amphitheater stage for an afternoon when the New York State Summer School of the Arts choir performs at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

The choir and its subdivisions, a men’s chorus and women’s chorus, are comprised of a selective group of students, ages 13 to 19, from throughout New York State — Buffalo to Brooklyn.

They are from all different backgrounds, said Hugh Floyd, artistic director of the NYSSSA School of Choral Studies.

“Some of them come from a musical theater background, some come from a gospel background and some come from a children’s choir background. So they have naturally different voices from one another,” Floyd said. “What we want to do is create a blended sound of individuals rather than just make them all sound alike.”

NYSSSA is a four-week program, with schools of ballet, dance, media arts, orchestra, theater and visual arts, in addition to their choral studies program. Students who audition for the School of Choral Studies and are selected for the program spend July 1 through July 28 at the State University of New York Fredonia, studying music and the voice for nine hours each day. The program is co-sponsored by SUNY Fredonia and the New York State School Music Association, and financial aid is available for students who audition.

Many of the students continue on to study music in college, in such prestigious programs as the Eastman School of Music, the New England Conservatory and the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Others continue to sing in choral ensembles throughout the country.

In addition to weekly recitals, two opera scenes concerts and a final performance at the King Concert Hall in the Rockefeller Center for the Arts at SUNY Fredonia, the students will present their work for Chautauqua.

“It’s one of the concerts where they get to really perform for the community,” said Jared Berry, NYSSSA assistant director for administration.

The program, though diverse, contains several water-related songs.

“Dr. Floyd tries to encourage very diverse programming for them. You’ve got music that’s been composed back in the Renaissance, some early motets, spanning all the way to current music by living composers,” Berry said. “In there, you’ve got a wide variety of sacred, secular, some spirituals. And we also try to expose students to a variety of languages.”

Floyd, who will conduct the NYSSSA choir, is a professor of music at Furman University, coordinator of choral ensembles and director of the renowned Furman Singers. He has served as a guest lecturer at Eastman and Yale University and was the director of choral studies at Oberlin Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College. He frequently serves as a guest conductor and clinician, and he has conducted all-state choirs and regional honors choirs throughout the country.

Floyd said the ensemble identifies most with the sound of American choirs and counts the Robert Shaw Chorale among his influences. But he does not wish to limit the tonal possibilities of the chorus.

“I try to make the tone fit the style of the repertoire rather than have one sound that we use for everything. I hope there’s a variety of sounds — different colors,” he said.

Among the pieces that the NYSSSA choir will perform are settings of e. e. cummings and Tennyson poems, and a Vaughan Williams English folk song.

“The Williams folk song is called ‘Just as the Tide was Flowing.’ It’s especially fun because the adults that come to the concert will know the tune, but for the students, it’s the first time,” Floyd said. “It has this energy. It’s fun to see kids responding to a Vaughan Williams story.”

The e. e. cummings set is called “The City and the Sea,” composed by Eric Whitacre.

“They’re beautiful, and the kids really love them,” Floyd said. “It’s an interesting set of pieces, because the piano represents the ocean a lot. There are a lot of different colors that represent the different sounds of the ocean.”

Floyd anticipates some Chautauquans recognizing the words to the Tennyson poem, “A Farewell.”

“It’s really about the end of life — about going off into the ocean forever. It’s connected, I think a little, to C. S. Lewis’ Narnia — the idea that the ship goes off to the edge of the sea. It has that same feeling to it. The students really respond to that,” Floyd said.

Although it may seem surprising that high school students connect to Tennyson in any context, Floyd believes singers at that age are more emotionally engaged and less inhibited than performers at any age level.

“That’s the wonderful thing about teaching high-school students. When they connect to something, they are just completely emotionally involved. They aren’t guarded, as college students or adults are,” Floyd said. “A kid will come up to me to say, ‘I always get goosebumps when we do that part.’ He just absolutely feels it.”

Connecting to music on an emotional or spiritual level is crucial for young performers.

“I’m afraid that we’ve wiped out the emotional response of children in the need to have them be intellectually or academically OK,” Floyd said. “We have a tendency to forget the aesthetic part, which I would personally call the spiritual part.”

The aesthetic or emotional component to music is what invisibly ties together an ensemble, according to Floyd. Singing with a choir provides a sense of community that all people need.

“It builds community out of almost nothing. It’s very human, in that sense. People can do it under any circumstances,” Floyd said. “To me, that’s a beautiful thing.”