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The New York Virtuoso Singers: Morton Gould/ASCAP Young Composer Award Recipients

Ten world premieres of exciting choral works by one of the finest choral groups in the country.

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The New York Virtuoso Singers (May 20, 2017) ASCAP Morton Gould/ASCAP Young Composer Awards Concert. Harold Rosenbaum and ASCAP’s Cia Toscanini and Michael Spudic, along with Julie Lapore, with ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award winners Anahita Abbasi, Emily Bear, David Biedenbender, Will Cooper, Elizabeth Kelly, Emily Koh, Michael Lee, Alexander Liebermann, Jared Miller and Eric Nathan (Photo credit: Julie Lapore)

[avatar user=”Jean Ballard Terepka” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic[/avatar]Since 1988, The New York Virtuoso Singers, founded and still conducted by Harold Rosenbaum, have established and maintained elegantly high standards of artistic performance in choral music: subtle expressivity and unerringly accurate technical precision characterize this group’s musical presence and presentations.

From the beginning, one core component of Rosenbaum’s mission has been the cultivation of a contemporary American repertoire and the regular commission of new works. Rosenbaum is, in fact, an enthusiastic champion of young composers. This May concert, consisting of ten new works, reflected this focus … and was a wonderful celebration of young talent and achievement.

Interestingly, although the works of ten very different composers were presented, there was an essentially homogeneous feel to the evening: perhaps this was because the composers were writing to The New York Virtuoso Singers’ particular a cappella sound and strengths or because Rosenbaum is attracted to contemporary works that are, above all else, accessible, no matter what their complexity. With the exception of one composer, a former child prodigy now aged fifteen, almost all the composers – six men and four women – seem to have been in their thirties; almost all have extensive conservatory training; many are now themselves members of music faculties. All are dizzyingly busy. All have won either some or many awards.

The first work was William David Cooper’s Two Yeats Songs. As much a tone poem of shimmery fluidity that moves gradually to a full throated groan, the piece is a subtle examination of ambivalences that inform womanhood: sweet maternal tenderness is often challenged by the certainty that children, growing up, will grow away.

Alexander Liebermann’s De Poeta was a lovely setting of a late eighth century Old High German creation praise text, Wessobrunner Gebet, Wessobrunner Schopfungsgedicht. Without cliché or mere imitation, Liebermann managed a successful translation of medieval sensibilities to a richly textured modern elegance of gratitude for God’s creation. Soloists Alex Guerrero, John Kawa and Steven Moore were particularly fine.

Following nicely after this essentially sacred song was David Biedenbender’s textless Flux, an examination of musical sounds. This exceptionally rhythmically demanding work explored surges, shifts, replications and regressions in various syllables; vowel and consonant emphases alternated. The dramatic fortissimo almost-conclusion followed by a dissolution into infinitely delicate soundlessness was lovely.

Fifteen year old Emily Bear came next. The Canticum Novum Youth Choir of girls sang with The New York Virtuoso Singers; Bear herself accompanied the singers on a portable piano-keyboard. Multitalented Bear adapted portions of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech as lyrics for her We Have A Dream. This piece is stirring and big, the kind of song that might promote special sports or patriotic events; Bear’s wholesome enthusiasm and freshness of spirit made up for the song’s near-predictability.

Immediately after We Have A Dream, Rosenbaum told the audience to settle in for an extra little treat. Bear played a piece – which she evidently wrote – that took the audience on a swift piano journey from Romantic grandeur to groovy boogie-woogie. Bear’s combined modesty and confidence make her a delightful young talent.

The first half of the concert ended with Elizabeth Kelly’s exceptionally interesting We Were the People Who Moved by contemporary American poet David Ebenbach. Kelly makes of the poem, a celebration of the energy it takes to pick up and move from one place to another, an interconnected soliloquy and narrative; rhythmic challenges mimic the difficulties of moving and harmonic richness, encompassing dreamy hopefulness and triumphant arrival, celebrates immigrant achievements. This is a complex, subtle and fun choral piece, entirely satisfying.

The New York Virtuoso Singers, Harold Rosenbaum, Conductor and Artistic Director, (May 20, 2017) ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards Concert at St. Ignatius of Antioch Church, 552 West End Avenue, New York, NY. Emily Bear at the keyboard. (Photo credit: Benji Bear Photography)

The second half of the concert began with how small a part of time, a piece whose lyrics and music were written by Eric Nathan. The text is a found-poem, an assemblage of phrases beginning How, taken from the titles of books found in a single card catalog drawer at the Providence Atheneum. The musical and conceptual theme of the work revolves around mystery – how? – and the lush sound of the work is a series of experiments in repetitions, cascades and echoes.

Within each of the four chorus sections, individual voices materialized fleetingly, only to become part of the section once again, like thoughts unfinished. The repeated how’s evolved gradually into an organic wholeness of sensibility; very high registers and long extended notes made questions ethereal. The quiet end of the piece seemed to offer open-endedness as an answer to the how questions even when book titles might offer stories or solutions. The final two lines, quietly offering reflections on love and time, extended mere question-asking into a realm of pensive meaning-quest.

Anahita Abbasi’s Togetherness followed. Abbasi reported in the program notes that she wrote this piece as a response to the “darkness of our time,” hoping to find affirmation in a notion of shared humanity. Like other composers in this concert, Abbasi experimented with the exploration of pure sounds. Although there was a gradual emergence of choral music cohesion, this piece was less effective in its realization than Abbasi’s ideas for it portended. The last two minutes of the piece were very fine; perhaps editing the work from the back to the beginning would give it greater coherence and success.

Jared Miller’s In Flanders Fields was far and away the most traditional work of the evening. It began with choral harmonies appropriate to an early 20th century war poem. The second stanza of John MacCrae’s iconic poem, beginning with “We are the Dead” was eerie and dreamy; martial nationalism’s terrible sadness built up slowly in music that was richly poignant, without being sentimental.

Emily Koh’s nakuniku, a “patchwork of Chinese sayings and phrases” remembered by Singapore-born Koh from her childhood, was a particularly wonderful work. Though entirely Western in sensibility and musical vocabulary, the music began in tone fragments and conversation snatches that functioned as sound-paintings; traditional choral singing emerged gradually, inviting the listener into a musical world that was at once intimate and wise, simultaneously witty and unintelligible.

The last piece of the evening was come what may with music and lyrics by Michael Lee. The singers were accompanied by Cameron O’Connor on acoustic guitar. This three-section piece was the concert’s most structurally complex work: the exceptionally technically demanding work begins with a fast dance-like movement, is centered by a rhythmically looser section, and concludes with a darker, more abstract movement that refers back to the opening speedy sophistication with intimate, lyrical hopefulness.

All ten pieces were marvelously – and happily – sung. Rosenbaum loves what he does: his close connection with his singers, the rigor and discipline of his musical direction, and his unabashed pride in both his ambitions and his achievements all infuse energy and enthusiasm in New York Virtuoso Singers performances. The young composers who write for Rosenbaum’s singers know that their works will be superbly presented. It’s a winning combination.

Rosenbaum is a significant presence in the New York musical scene. One of his projects is the annual six hour Choralfest USA, “a celebration of the diversity of choral music in America,” scheduled this year for June 3 at Symphony Space. Some of the pieces premiered in this spring concert will be performed again; it will be a delight to hear them again.

The New York Virtuoso Singers: Morton Gould/ASCAP Young Composer Award Recipients – 10 Commissions/10 World Premieres (May 21, 2017)

St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

552 West End Avenue at 87th Street, in Manhattan

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Running time: one hour and 30 minutes including one intermission.

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