You've been the Choir’s artistic director and conductor since 2004, what made you decide to leave now?
You know, I love Handel Choir and what a community chorus represents to its singers, instrumentalists, and audiences. It was a very hard decision, but I just knew. Time to trim my responsibilities and time for fresh vision and energy to take the organization to the next level. I invite everyone to meet the new conductor at our Spring Gala [May 4] where I’ll hand over the baton! It will be bittersweet for me!
What are your plans after you retire?
Well, I’m “retiring” from Handel Choir after nine years, but now I will have two jobs instead of three. I’ll continue my half-time position at Dartmouth College on the music department faculty. I’m looking forward to teaching a new course at Dartmouth this fall on Brahms and Berlioz. And I’m excited to have time to devote to my research and writing on the music and life of Hector Berlioz. Now I’ll get to work on my new book under contract, Experiencing Berlioz: A Listener’s Companion to be completed by 2015.
You also conducted Dartmouth’s Handel Society for 25 years. What is it about Handel’s music that speaks to you?
It may come as a surprise to some, but Handel’s music is incredibly pictorial and dramatic, vividly so. Think of the chorus “All we like sheep have gone astray” from Messiah, where all the voices’ lines are actually going every which way melodically. Or the aria “Comfort Ye” where the tenor sings that phrase all alone, unaccompanied. There is a stillness there, a profound sense of wonder—we are comforted! I just think Handel gets right to the essence of the text’s meaning through his choices of musical means. This is why his music has endured and why people like the founders of Handel Choir 78 years ago, name their groups after a preeminent composer.
We don’t always perform Handel’s music, but we like to think we program music that has similar reach and depth. We just premiered a work by composer Donald McCullough, and we do a wide range of repertoire. But we try to concentrate our programming on performing works of similar quality to that of Handel’s.
But be honest, did you ever get sick of performing Messiah year after year?
Once we start rehearsing, the music is so fabulous that it’s impossible not to be drawn in, no matter how many times you perform Messiah. Honestly, the only time I experience a moment’s pause is when that time comes each year for me to choose which movements in this three-hour oratorio we are going to perform in our two-hour concert. Handel never performed the work exactly the same from year to year; he would often revise an aria to better suit a singer he had available at the time, or he would change his mind about pacing, key relationships, etcetera. You know, once we get into the rehearsal groove, performance countdown and concert itself, I am absolutely convinced Messiah is worth performing year after year. And our audiences keep coming back!
Your leadership has been credited with revitalizing the Choir, which was seen as fusty. Go ahead, brag a little: What are you most proud of concerning your work with the choir?
I’m proud of starting the period instrument orchestra with my colleague Christof Richter, our concertmaster and contractor. So, when we have performed baroque and early classical style music such as Handel’s oratorios (Messiah, Semele, Jephtha) or Mozart’s Requiem or Haydn’s The Creation, the transparency and elegance of this new “old” sound has been transformative for everyone’s understanding of these periods’ sounds. Our period instrument orchestra has been a signature innovation of the Handel Choir since 2004, along with our very carefully drawn interpretations of the vast variety of music we perform, several commissions, and the increased integrity of our vocal sound. These changes have made the Choir incredibly relevant and exciting and not the least bit “fusty!”
You’re originally from Maryland, but weren't familiar with Baltimore when you accepted the position. What did your time here teach you about Baltimore?
Yes, I grew up in Bethesda-Chevy Chase. But by the time I moved to Baltimore in my mid-50’s, I learned it is richly diverse from neighborhood to neighborhood. It has a fantastic symphony and concert hall. And, through serving on the board of GBCA [Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance], I learned of the depth and diversity of the arts here, from world-class musicians to cutting-edge black-box theatre. I love my own neighborhood of Oakenshawe. I love Baltimore! It’s really quite a unique and satisfying place to live.
Your final concert with Handel Choir is an April 14 performance of Brahm’s Ein deutsches Requiem. Why did you want to end on that note, so to speak?
This is a unique Requiem because, while it is a very personal send-off to the greater beyond, it is without question a profound consolation to those of us who remain. Who among us has not lost a loved one? In this sense it is universally compelling. In addition, it is not laden with judgment or condemnation. This work resonates in a profoundly poignant way for everyone who performs it or hears it, and consequently it is among the three or four works generally considered both the foundation and pinnacle of choral-orchestral music.
But I must say, it was the artistic committee that recommended we do Brahms’ Requiem this year, and this was before I announced this season would be my last. The work requires an orchestra of at least 42 professional instrumentalists (in contrast to Handel’s Messiah where we need 19), and a chorus of close to 100. It was decided that if our 50 singers could collaborate with another chorus, and if we reached deep into our pockets to be able to compensate our more numerous orchestra players, that this would be a wonderful highpoint for the organization and for Baltimore. Our collaborator is a university chorus, UMBC’s Camerata, which makes terrific sense to me since I’ve conducted community and college singers for so long.