This blog contains reflections on my life as a musician and how music has influenced my life over the many years. The entries begin with childhood experiences, continue through college – undergraduate and graduate – and my current career as both performer and teacher.
Years in Rochester, New York (1990-2011)
I first got to know Rochester in 1990, while still living in Ithaca. It’s not that I had never been to the city; I brought a student ensemble called the Oberlin Chamber Choir to Rochester back in 1985 while a student at Oberlin. We performed a concert at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church, as one of our choir members had ties to its congregation. I have fond memories of the concert and the hospitality that we were shown by church members, making it a special and memorable experience. The tour took place during a semester break, and was my first time taking an ensemble on the road. Needless to say I was quite green as both a conductor as well as a tour manager. But I was fortunate to have talented classmates in the ensemble, and we acquitted ourselves quite well in performances of music by Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Brahms, Morales, Debussy and Oberlin’s own composer, Randy Coleman.
It would be fully five years between the concert at the Downtown Presbyterian Church and when I next had the opportunity to visit Rochester. In 1990 I went to to hear the Wisconsin University Choir under the direction of the venerable Robert Fountain, a conductor who had been the best-known faculty choral conductor at Oberlin, and presided over the College’s choir in its heyday during the 1960s. I don’t remember much about the concert, except that the choir performed the Bach motet Fürchte dich nicht from memory. I recall the performance being solid, but not fantastic. They sang the work a cappella, something that I never do when I perform these works, as they so clearly need some accompaniment to make them really shine. They are just too instrumental and, especially for young voices, too hefty to pull off without at least keyboard accompaniment. But it is no doubt still quite a feat to pull of one of these works without any instrumental assistance, and the choir earned my respect through the attempt. I remember that being the first time I met Massimo Ossi, a musicologist who is a specialist in the music of Claudio Monteverdi, one of my very favorite composers. As I mentioned above, I toured with music by Monteverdi in 1985, quite a time before I programmed any of the Bach motets. I did have some experience with Bach’s choral music, however, having performed my first Bach cantata my freshman year in college, so I can still say that technically, Bach was slightly ahead of Monteverdi on my list of “must do” composers.
These experiences were, however, just brief encounters with Rochester – the first really extended interaction I had with the city and its music and arts community was when I was appointed conductor of the Rochester Bach Festival. I was the ensemble’s third conductor after Ted Hollenback, who founded the group in 1956, and who had passed the baton on to Mel Butler in 1982. When Mel stepped down in 1991, I auditioned and won the gig, and for the next thirteen seasons I would lead the organization, resigning in 2004, after many wonderful and successful musical ventures.
My first two seasons were very rich as I began to explore Bach’s cantatas. The Festival hired members of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra as its instrumental counterpart, and when I took over the organization as Director, the choir had about 90 members. The orchestra was always very good and played beautifully but already bitten by the performance practice bug, I began to reshape the choir into a leaner and more historically oriented ensemble. Beginning in my third year I convinced the board of directors to let me contract an orchestra comprised of players that I knew would be more experienced with, and sensitive to my musical ideas and performance practice bent, and so that year I introduced Thirteen Strings to the Rochester community. I had formed the ensemble a few years earlier in Ithaca, comprised mostly of players from the Ithaca School of Music, Cornell University, and freelancers that played for some of the Southern Tier’s community orchestras. Our first concerts in Rochester as part of the annual Bach Festival contained performances of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, as well the Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings, BWV 1060, one of my favorites. The orchestra acquitted itself well and now I had more control artistically. Furthermore the Bach Festival’s board of directors were pleased with the results. The choral program that year also featured the Ascension and Easter Oratorios; works that are wonderful, yet usually take second place to the Passions of St. Matthew and St. John, the Mass in B Minor and the Christmas Oratorio.
Over the next few years I introduced solo cantatas into the mix, as well as chamber music. Unlike many other Bach festivals of similar size and scope in the United States in the 1990s, I did not venture into other unrelated repertories, despite the popularity of “non Bachian” favorites such as the Requiems by Mozart, Brahms and Verdi, but refocused on the music of the Festival’s namesake. I did, however, occasionally perform music of other composers and time periods, but I imposed strict guidelines on myself in these instances, requiring that any music other than that of Bach had to be connected in some way to him – whether through theme, style or historical context. Along with this re-dedication to the music of Bach, the Festival expanded its mission and presented more concerts that spanned the entire calendar year instead of doing only one annual Festival – a way to keep audiences interested and engaged. Some of these added programs included music by other baroque composers, and I did a number of thematic programs that included music by Thomaskantors, relatives (uncles, cousins and sons) of J.S. Bach, music of Monteverdi and other Italian composers who influenced Bach, as well as a program of Masters of the German Motet, which centered on Bach’s motets. This program also included music by Brahms, Mendelssohn and Bruckner, all devotees of Bach. I also did smaller programs that featured choral music of earlier and lesser-known composers like Thiele, Buxtehude and Calvisius, and others in the generation or so before Bach.
It was the warhorses like the Passions, the Oratorios and the Mass in B Minor, however, that garnered the most attention. They were also the most complex and expensive to put together for performance. The pinnacle of my entre into the world of these massive works was a performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1995, marking the 40th anniversary of the Rochester Bach Festival’s founding. We had a standing room only audience in the Asbury Methodist Church on East Avenue, just up the street from the most famous house in the city – the George Eastman House. It was perhaps more than a bit ironic that this iconic work would be performed right down the street from Eastman’s residence, as he was known for his dislike of Bach’s music, despite his love for Bach’s most beloved instrument, the organ. For the performance, I was able to assemble an ensemble that included great soloists: the soprano Ann Monoyios for example, who was recording for the likes of John Eliott Gardiner, at the time. Other big works in those few years from 1995 through 2000 included the Mass in B Minor, which also doubled as one of my recitals in partial fulfillment of the doctoral degree that I was pursuing during this time at the Eastman School of Music. After my appointment as the Bach Festival director in 1992, I was admitted into the Eastman School of Music in 1996, where I began my doctoral studies. Simultaneously I also held a position as Director of the choirs on the River Campus of the University of Rochester. I also taught the odd course here and there. In addition to these weekday duties, I also worked for Cornell University in the position of Sage Chapel Choirmaster from 1997-2000. Twice a week I would make the two-hour drive to Ithaca (each way) to conduct the choir and to perform at the weekly Sunday chapel service.
It would certainly have been quite enough to keep two of the three posts, but to keep them all – even for a short amount of time, along with being a doctoral student, makes we wonder, all these years later, where all of my energy came from. The short answer is that I loved what I was doing; I was young and ambitious, and I could not get enough of the music that ignited my passion. Some of the things that I endeavored to do were introduce my choirs to as many of my favorite composers and their music as was possible – especially notable was the introduction of the Bach Festival Chorus to the music of Henry Purcell. We performed his music Funeral Music for Queen Mary, as well as mounted a semi-staged performance, with baroque dance, gesture, and costume, of the opera Dido and Aeneas. Somewhere during these years was a performance of the St. John Passion as well and, in anticipation of the choir’s 50th anniversary, a complete cycle of performances of all of the Bach’s harpsichord concertos, as well as concerts that included more than 30 cantatas in a variety of smaller venues that filled in the time between larger concert offerings. The Bach Festival Chorus even ventured outside of Rochester, performing at another festival that I organized, the Finger Lakes Bach Festival in Ithaca. For the Bach anniversary in 2000, I organized a series of performances of the complete organ works of Bach, with noted organists from around the country, performing on the best organs in Rochester.
Eventually I incorporated my professional early music ensemble, The Publick Musick into the Bach Festival mix, further moving the Festival toward a more research and performance practice oriented organization. This ensemble, the focus of my professional and global aspirations, was incorporated in 1996 and became a standard part of the Rochester Bach Festival for several seasons, beginning in 1995. The Publick Musick gave the Rochester Bach Festival the added distinction of being one of the oldest continuous Bach Festivals in the United States devoted to performance practice techniques and the use period instruments; keeping J.S. Bach and his music as the core of its mission. I am particularly proud of the fact that this Bach Festival did not capitulate, as so many did, to leaving Bach’s music behind in favor of large later and better-known musical masterpieces.
While serving as Conductor of the Bach Festival and The Publick Musick, I was also engaging in other musical projects around Rochester. I was always on the lookout for new spaces in which to perform, as well as for collaborations with other organizations. I was a very active member of the local arts council as well as a panelist for three years on the New York State Council on the Arts, based in New York City. During this time I finished my doctoral degree (2003), culminating with a performance in the Eastman Theatre of Benjamin Britten’s rarely performed Cantata Academica, a work that I first sang in 1983 as a member of the Oberlin College Choir. I also did a lecture recital on the work and wrote a thesis and eventual article on its merits.
While on the faculty of the University of Rochester (1994-2000), I performed with both university vocal ensembles (university choir and chamber singers) throughout the academic year. In addition to regular semester concerts, I provided music for the annual Viennese Ball. The choirs would sing selections from Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzer, as interludes during the orchestra’s break from performing the standard Strauss waltzes. Each December, I rehearsed the choirs for the annual Boars Head Banquet, another hallowed tradition at the University. There was also the annual collegiate choral festival as well as in-house projects such as the Arts Showcase – an ambitious project involving other university departments such as Theater, Music, History, Dance and Languages. Our largest project was a complete performance of the Madrigali Guerrrieri et Amorosi of Claudio Monteverdi – using the Eastman Collegium under the direction of lutenist Paul O’Dette, as well as a fully staged performance of the Combattimento del Tancredi. I arranged for baroque dance specialist Ken Pierce to come in from Boston to train the student dancers. Unfortunately we only performed two of the scheduled four performances as Mother Nature intervened with a blizzard of epic proportions (actually 2 storms) during the concert run in March of 1999.
I was working as hard as I could all during this time period to establish The Publick Musick as a premier Early Music ensemble. In 1995 and 1997 we gave performances at the Boston Early Music Festival. The 1997 Festival featured a grand performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos 4 and 5, the Lutheran Mass in G Major and the delightful Coffee Cantata. It was during this time period that I introduced the famous Dutch baritone Max van Egmond to the Rochester community. Eventually in 2004 and 2005, Max made two fine recordings with The Publick Musick’s choir and orchestra, and the ensemble reigned for several years as Rochester’s only professional early music ensemble. The Bach recordings followed the first recording by the ensemble, titled Aural Borealis in 2003, when our Executive Director, Dr. Nancy Niemi noticed and followed up on an announcement in the magazine Early Music America. Other notable adventures included The Publick Musick Choir’s appearance at both the Brooklyn Museum of Art as well as a guest ensemble at the Bloomington Early Music Festival in Indiana.
My final year as a faculty member at the University of Rochester was the spring semester in 2001. While on the faculty, I somehow found the time to schedule two trips for the university choir. In 1998, we did a short three-day trip to Toronto and performed at the Sunday service of one of the city’s large downtown churches. The class of 2000 was a particularly active bunch and thus was determined to make a choir trip a part of their undergraduate experience. The “big” trip was to Italy in the spring of 2000. We performed in a number of gorgeous churches in the towns of Arezzo, Therme Abano and in the Duomo (St. Mark’s Cathedral) in Venice. This experience gave the choir a new and lasting sense of the power and beauty of the music from the pens of composers like Palestrina, when this music, instead of being sung in the dull visual and aural environment of a school rehearsal room, was performed in the glorious visual and aural magnificence of some of the Gothic and Romanesque churches that are in every city and town in Italy.
In addition to full time teaching at the University of Rochester, I did occasional stints teaching at both Nazareth College (graduate conducting and history, as well as conducted the two choirs for a semester while the regular conductor was on sabbatical. As an adjunct lecturer in music at St. John Fisher College, I developed a curriculum that included courses in music history as well as music theory.
Also in 2000, I undertook a business venture with the expressed purpose to help support the activities of the ensembles that I directed. This recording business with the company name Sonabilis was accepted as an affiliate at the Lennox Tech Enterprise Institute, a local Rochester business incubator. The company made demo CDs for individuals, recorded ensembles and events for Nazareth College, the University of Rochester, and for local school ensembles, church choirs, and other community music organizations. I believe that the business experience I gained has been invaluable, especially now as I prepare to move to China in order to develop an entire music department as part of a Chinese vocational and technical institute in Nanjing. Sonabilis eventually teamed up with a local Christian Church in Rochester to help in the restoration of an old church. The idea was for the building to be the home for The Publick Musick, as well as a state of the art recording studio. The plan progressed for two years before both entities went in new and different directions.
Fundraising is an issue that never goes away for the artist, and I made contributions to the community through securing grants for the purchase of a harpsichord and continuo organ, owned by The Publick Musick, and rented out to ensembles and organizations throughout the Rochester region. In the beginning I moved the instruments myself, but that became a hassle and increasingly expensive, as I tried to keep a large Ford van on the road, combined with not having enough help to get the instruments loaded and unloaded. There were regular customers such as churches and community music ensembles, and the availability of high quality instruments filled a void in the realm of historical music performance in the area.
Worth quick mention, I was one of the founding members of the Rochester Choral Consortium. The organization presented an annual prism concert in the Eastman Theater, and provided a forum for conductors and representatives of a variety of local choral organization to come together to discuss issues facing their respective groups, and the world of choral singing in general.
One of my most ambitious and satisfying projects was the tribute concert and Festival dedicated to my mentor, colleague and close friend, Dr. Alfred Mann, which took place in April 2007. The three-day Festival celebrated Dr. Mann’s life and work as one of the foremost scholars on the music of Bach and Handel. There were two featured concerts. The first was a complete performance of “Messiah” by The Publick Musick, and the second a performance of Bach’s great Mass in B Minor. The Eastman Chorale performed the Mass accompanied by a student orchestra. In addition to the concerts, there were lectures, a celebrity dinner, and chamber music performances.
I became best known in Rochester as a conductor of Early Music (music composed before 1750) and particularly, a performer of the music of Bach. I collaborated with other like-minded organizations in Rochester by participating in the first three editions of the Rochester Early Music Festival, sponsored by the locally based choral group Musica Spei. The Publick Musick developed and presented its own concert series in a number of venues around Rochester including the Memorial Art Gallery, Hochstein School of Music, and Nazareth College. But mostly the ensemble performed in local churches, especially Christ Episcopal Church, Downtown United Presbyterian Church, and St. Michael’s Church. I relinquished directorship of The Publick Musick in 2011 as my career began to take me more and more out of the area, and out of the country, ultimately to China.
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