Birthdays and anniversaries—major milestones of any sort—are occasions for reflection. Glances backwards provide opportunities to assess origins; future plans build on current achievements, mixing pride and optimism in equal measure. The New Amsterdam Singers’ May 30, 2018 concert, Rejoice in the Lamb: A Century of Favorites was the culmination of the chorus’ season-long fiftieth anniversary celebrations.
Clara Longstreth founded the New Amsterdam Singers and has been its Music Director for all fifty of its busy seasons. NAS’s rich repertoire of both a cappella and accompanied repertoire stretches from the sixteenth century forward and has, from the beginning, included contemporary pieces, some of which they have commissioned. Typically, NAS concerts feature as many as 80 singers, including the smaller Chamber Chorus—whose individual members often take solo parts in larger works—and the full Chorus. As one of the tri-state region’s premier avocational choruses, NAS has cultivated and consistently maintained a musical tone of thoughtful intelligence, careful attentiveness to texture and nuance, and elegant artistry.
For their spring-time fiftieth anniversary celebratory concert, Longstreth chose all twentieth and twenty-first century music, including a world premiere. Overall, the evening’s pieces offered and examined two of contemporary choruses’ major repertoire anchors: works by Arvo Part (b. 1935) and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) represented a formal, classically-developed tradition and works by Robert S. Cohen (b. 1945), Alice Parker (b. 1925) and Shawn Kirchner (b. 1970) represented adaptations of more informal, folk traditions. The premiere, The Wave Rises by Ben Moore (b. 1960), embodied the best of contemporary choral composers’ engagement with a centuries-old challenge: how to write music for texts not conceived with any musical association or expectation.
The concert opened with Part’s gorgeous 2001 Nunc dimittis followed by two 1950s Britten works, excerpts from Gloriana and from Five Flower Songs. Though these composers’ sensibilities differ, Longstreth found and highlighted their shared fluidity. The divine lumen/light celebrated by Part revealed humanity’s capacity for both noble, processional grandeur and intimate, tender hopefulness. The folk qualities of Britten’s Green Broom led naturally into Cohen’s lovely I see and his jazzy, doowoppy Do You Believe?
The last piece of the concert’s first half was Moore’s full-chorus The Wave Rises, “commissioned by New Amsterdam Singers in honor of its founder and Music Director, Clara Longstreth on the occasion of the chorus’s 50th anniversary.” At Longstreth’s invitation, the composer spoke briefly about his purposes in writing the piece, a three-section setting of Virginia Woolf writings taken from her diaries, A Room of One’s Own and The Waves. Moore noted that in choosing texts to set to music, one must “get under the skin” of the author’s words, feeling the full range of a text’s power to unnerve and inspire. Moved by the “fearlessness” of Woolf’s writing and by her “unflinching” ability to write about human experience, Moore divided his Woolf texts into three categories, On Life, On Beauty and On Death.
Moore successfully associated musical sound with words and phrases, illuminating the intensely poetic quality of Woolf’s prose, and weaving together clear, distinct melodies with alternating passages of lush sensuality, mystery and haunted restlessness, delicacy and ravishing sweep. The closing lines of On Death—“Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding. O Death! The waves broke on the shore” worked simultaneously as the story’s conclusion and an affirmation that death is a meaningful part of life. Though a fairly short work—less than 20 minutes—The Wave Rises is both accessible and complex; it is a rewarding and satisfying work; it deserves to become a part of any first-rate chorus’ repertoire.
The music of the concert’s second half—Britten’s popular and marvelous Rejoice in the Lamb followed by Parker’s Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal and Kirchner’s Unclouded Day—was celebratory and open-hearted, a fine conclusion to both the evening and the anniversary.
Twentieth and twenty-first century choral music such as the New Amsterdam Singers have been presenting for the last fifty years is music of community: singers become a community, bound together in passionate devotion to music and in disciplined preparation for performance, and the audience becomes a community of response and appreciation. The music itself comes from a variety of historical origins: it is liturgical and religious, sacred and ceremonial; it is social, secular and entirely human. Throughout the United States, there are many first rate choruses; the New Amsterdam Singers is one of them. NAS’s particular success lies in its effective application of high performance standards to first rate pieces of music: their commitment to the commissioning of new works ensures that an old-fashioned activity—singing in community—maintains its secure future.