In the spring of 2016 I received an email from Deanna Mallory asking me if I would be involved in a very special Music at the Museum Concert on Nov. 6th that same year. I can't even begin to describe how pleased I was, especially since it was my dear friends Alison Nowak and Bob Cane who had suggested that she utilize me as a resource. The performance was to be the second of two concerts programmed that fall to accompany a very important exhibition of paintings by Milton Avery. The event which I would be involved in was eventually entitled: Musical Landscape: Concert Music Amidst Milton Avery's Vermont - 1935-1943. I could not have been more honored and thrilled and as time went on I would truly understand the enormous scope of this magical creation.
The premise was simple: Milton Avery had created his works in Jackson, Vermont each summer during this time period. For the purposes of our event, it was impossible to ignore the fact that the world was simultaneously undergoing enormous events and changes outside of this idyllic reality. Music was, in many respects the best way to re-live those realities. A previous performance featuring Kerry Ryer-Parke and some other wonderful musicians, gave us all the music of that period from the standpoint of Sinatra and the other great performers of that time.
My mission was to create a performance which would equal the power of those wonderful songs and remembrances. Almost immediately a number of works thrust themselves at me. Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen and Randall Thompson's Alleluia, both of which were composed in 1940. However, the Quartet was premiered on the 15th of January, 1941 in Stalag VIII-A in the town of Görlitz. Which meant that the Alleluia would rightfully represent 1940. Frankly each work, on that days program, deserves to be represented in this blog and at some point I will talk about them, but for today's post I will focus on the Alleluia.
Randall Thompson was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, the great conductor and music director of Tanglewood and the BSO for the first opening concert of that eternal summer festival. Thompson of course, accepted the commission and went through his life composing and teaching during that year. The commission was appropriately on his mind and as is often is the case with composers he had it on his list of things to do. Although Koussevitzky had asked for a fanfare, it eventually became clear to Thompson that he would not be writing one. The world was in chaos and as he was approaching the deadline of July 8th the date of Tanglewood's opening day performance, a very explosive event happened. The picture above rocketed across the planet, June 14th, 1940, on the front page of countless newspapers giving Thompson the catalyst which would bring the work into our reality.
Randall Thompson, with so many others, was horrified by the picture and the reality it represented. The Nazi's were in Paris and it's significance on all levels, including culturally, did not escape him. It is my personal belief, that Thompson also was aware of what was transpiring in Europe in terms of concentration camps and the situation in Poland, all of which added to his sense that a "fanfare" was just not appropriate. On the first of July he began to compose the work. He had a number of different parameters that required his attention.
1. The work would be premiered the same day it arrived at Tanglewood. The Chorus (hundred's of people strong) would receive the music that afternoon and sing it within two or three hours.
Well, as a seasoned choral composer and personality he knew that the text had to be sufficiently easy as well as profound. ALLELUIA. That was it. One word. Well, actually two for at the end, the closing chord expresses AMEN.
2. The piece had to be accessible to the festival choir especially given the 2 or 3 hour rehearsal schedule prior to the first performance.
That settled, he set to work and between July 1st and July 5th the work came to life. It was sent to the copyist, bound and put on a train. The music arrived on time around noon in Lee, Massachusetts. It was then picked up and brought to Tanglewood just in time for the chorus to rehearse. As I said earlier the rest is history. The landmark work resounded throughout the world that day. Not only did it fulfill what was required (even if Koussevitzky himself didn't realize that a fanfare wasn't appropriate) but it has rippled through the lives of countless choristers, choral conductors, church music directors, high school choral conductors, high school choir members, all over the world. I once had the great privilege of conducting an in house rehearsal/performance in Venezuela 1979, while my ensemble "The Lyric Arts Ensemble" was participating ( and the inspiration for) The First International Arts Festival Of Caracas. The choir was none other than the Cantoria Alberto Grau, the conductor who invited me to work with them was a 26 year old, Maria Guinand, now a world renowned choral conductor, who had just formed this choir 3 years prior to my arrival in that great city and country. It was one of the most deeply moving reading rehearsals and performances of my life. And, I'm NOT ashamed to admit that because I had sung the tenor part of this work in high school, at the University of Denver and New England Conservatory, I hadn't truly researched this very history. Yet, I remember specifically that the emotional honesty of the Venezuelan singers, (which was also true of their audiences) stripped any blocks or foolish misguided notions, which I may have had due to my intellectual short comings, and the pain and suffering in this work echoed through our souls. We we were all in tears. In a latin country as opposed to other countries, that is not a detriment.
Curious to me, after my grueling and extremely valuable training within the Yale Conducting Program, which forged me into the practices of true musical scholarship always required whenever conducting any work, the Alleluia, almost from the outset was misunderstood.
Look at what Randall Thompson had to say about his own creation:
"The Alleluia is a very sad piece. The word "Alleluia" has so many possible interpretations. The music in my particular Alleluia cannot be made to sound joyous. It is a slow, sad piece, and...here it is comparable to the Book of Job, where it is written, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."
While he was alive, many different performances were given. Within my choral experiences as a singer, I cannot tell you how many times the heights of this choral masterpiece were filled with almost an ecstatic joy. Performed through tempi which were much faster than the composer had intended. If you want to research this for yourself you can find information quoting Thompson himself as he defended his original intent time and time again.
Our performance was a great surprise to the audience within the Bennington Museum's Educational We were more or less in the middle of the concert and up until that moment they had been treated to works requiring one or two performers. Then, when the year 1940 rolled around the choir took stage and the audience's reaction was simple. A more or less two minute standing ovation. (in the middle of a concert?) The rest of the concert continued with great gravity and expression as had the works previous to the Alleluia and all the faculty members were just brilliant. But, this ad hoc, mostly student choir, put together a mere 8 weeks prior by Gabriel Ferreras and rehearsed weekly by me, brought the message of the suffering, tragedy and violent reality which obviously tore at the collective soul, back to the forefront for all present, both performers and audience members.
During the entire time, I was also the narrator, so yes, I had a personal hand in preparing the audience with the true intentions of Mr. Thompson, not just through notes, but, through my voice and delivery. Even so, the choir's performance cannot be praised enough. The energy, the power, the emotion, the significance even with such a spartan libretto of two words, carried them away as well. I said then, and repeat now, that the only person in the room who was not surprised was myself. I tried to prepare the choir but, you know how youth is. it always keeps its own council, until the actual experience smashes the abstract within through the fierce diamond enlightened power of the actual event.
It remains an extremely deep and gratifying experience. I can never repay Alison, Bob and Deanna for their confidence and faith in my abilities. And, as always, I was allowed the privilege of delivering an authentic performance a mere 42 miles and 76 years and quasi 4 months distance from the Tanglewood world premier.
I'd like to reiterate something here. The Tanglewood Chorus rehearsed 2 hours or so and did the world premiere. Many choirs today rehearse months on such a work. It is a tribute to their musical prowess which at the time was much more prevalent in the individual chorister than in our current world.
I do hope that you all take away much from this story and especially the truth of scholarship, it does make a difference. In other words, if you intend to conduct, do your homework.
Thank you all for being with me here today. Thomas