The first time I ever truly enjoyed a concert at Carnegie Hall was when I attended a choral concert featuring Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana as a teenager. Since the concert also featured a performance of Kurt Weill’s Der Berliner Requiem, I bought a cheap seat in the upper balcony (an area that, at the time, had limited leg room). I was a Weill obsessive at the time. I constantly played through a book of sheet music of songs from his latter-day American musicals, and I had just discovered his earlier German music theatre pieces—I went to a free production of The Threepenny Opera at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park (which was normally reserved only for Shakespeare), and I luckily managed to see (far from free but when Broadway was still relatively affordable) the New York debut of Happy End (starring Meryl Streep!). I couldn’t get past my discomfort in that narrow seat during the brief Berliner Requiem (as a teenager I was already somewhat ADD challenged), but Carmina transported me to another realm for nearly an hour. So much so, that I had to relive the experience as soon as possible. I saved up money for a vocal score at Patelson’s, bought an LP, and also immersed myself in other Orff pieces. It was the beginning of my conversion from Broadway composer wannabe to new music nut. Anyway, that’s why when the New York Choral Society presented a public sing-along of Carmina at Symphony Space last week, I was there with my faded score raring to go. (Full disclosure: It also helped that the NYCS’s guest conductor was Phillip Cheah, whom my wife accompanies and who has premiered several pieces of mine.)
Despite the fact that once upon a time I sang regularly (even priding myself on my vocal prowess) and that some 35 years ago I had practically memorized Carmina Burana (having repeatedly banged my way through the entire piano reduction in order to mine all its secrets), I was completely out of my league singing it last week. While Cheah’s beat was always clear, it was next to impossible to pay requisite attention to him and keep my eye glued to the score, which I had to do in order to read all the words. Plus, those words race by so fast that it’s very challenging to properly ennunciate them, the vocal range for each part goes both higher and lower than a comfortable tessitura (I attempted singing both tenor and bass), and there were many long held notes that I did not have enough of a breath span to execute. Luckily there were ample opportunities for breaks; Carmina has lots of solos, and those were admirably dispatched by seasoned professionals—baritone Peter Walker and soprano Mary Thorne, plus Cheah himself who made the notorious solo tenor aria, which is really a countertenor aria, seem like child’s play. As for when the rest of us had to sing, some parts turned out to be more than respectable—with enough people singing, my own frequent drop outs probably had little aural impact. (Although I could not help but listen to folks who were singing in my immediate vicinity and therefore I know I was not the only person having difficulties.) But ultimately we all managed to get through the whole piece without any train wrecks and everyone was euphoric afterwards. Virtuosity is not what a public sing is about; rather, it’s about having fun with a piece of music that you love.
And, strangely, it was fun. It was a thrill to be a part of something, even if that part was extremely imperfect. It also was a rare opportunity for me to experience an aspect of community music making that I have never partaken in. When I was younger, I played piano for singers as well as instrumentalists. I also sang in my high school chorus and, nine years ago, I got talked into participating in a chorus for a concert a friend put together. Nowadays, if I perform at all, it’s for a performance of my own music, but I usually prefer letting others who are more proficient on their instruments or with their voices take the stage. None of these performance activities is remotely like a public choral sing, since each involves an immense amount of rehearsal before exposing the music to the audience. In a public sing, the performer/audience dichotomy gets turned upside down. The audience, with some guidance, is responsible for its own performance which—despite the inevitable imperfections that result from sight reading a piece cold in a group with varied abilities—creates a truly uplifting experience.
Of course the more I thought about it, the more I tried to imagine how new music could be part of such a paradigm. Public choral singing experiences usually involve standard repertoire. The rest of the New York Choral Society’s Summer Sing series—they do this every week, who knew?—is devoted to works like the Verdi Requiem and the choral movement from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Carmina Burana, from 1936, is the sole piece of music on their schedule that was written less than a century ago. This, of course, is a practical matter. Standard repertoire pieces are in the public domain and are easily obtainable. For Carmina Burana, the NYCS had to buy or rent enough choral materials to provide to singers who didn’t have their own scores; this is not a small expense. But even if there was a bottomless budget for these things, in order to convince enough people to attend the event, most would have to already be familiar with a piece enough to want to participate in a run-through of it.
Or would they? I chose to participate in Carmina Burana because of a decades-long attachment to it. I don’t have as deep a personal attachment to the Verdi Requiem or Beethoven’s 9th. But I do have a meaningful relationship to the Penderecki St. Luke Passion (a much harder piece, granted), Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music, and the John Cage number pieces for chorus. If a public sing of any of these were scheduled and I was in town, I’d be there. But would there be enough other people to make it viable? Or what about a public sing of Caroline Shaw’s 2013 Pultzer Prize-winning Partita? It would certainly be extremely timely. Better yet, might people show up to a public sing of completely new works, commissioned explicitly for such a presentation? It could be a viable way for members of the general public to participate in the actual first performances of pieces of music, which could be an extremely exciting prospect.