Island of Hope: New American Choral Music

For our second compact disc recording, New Amsterdam Singers has chosen to focus on contemporary American choral music, and especially on two works with chamber orchestra commissioned by the chorus from composers whose music we have long admired, Ronald Perera and Paul Alan Levi. We have added a 1958 a cappella work by Randall Thompson, a 1998 cycle by Ricky Ian Gordon, and a short prayer from Mass and the finale from Candide, both by Leonard Bernstein.

Ronald Perera

New Amsterdam Singers had performed two major works of Ronald Perera before the commission, Earthsongs for women's voices, recorded on our 1993 CD from Albany, and The Outermost House for chorus and orchestra, presented in 1994, the work's New York City premiere. The Golden Door was commissioned in 1997 by New Amsterdam Singers and was a sponsored project of the New York Foundation for the Arts, with funding provided by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Inc. Its first performance was at Merkin Hall on June 8, 1999. Perera dedicated the work to his grandfather, Gino L. Perera, who first entered New York Harbor on November 11, 1891.

Ronald Perera was born in Boston in 1941. He studied composition with Leon Kirchner at Harvard and electronic music with Gottfried Michael Koenig at the University of Utrecht. He also worked independently with Randall Thompson in choral music and with Mario Davidovsky in electronic music. Perera's compositions include operas, song cycles, chamber, choral, and orchestral works, and several works for instruments or voices with electronic sounds. He is perhaps best known for his settings of texts by authors as diverse as Joyce, Sappho, Francis of Assisi, and Ferlinghetti. Seven major pieces are represented on recently released compact discs. Reviewing The Outermost House on Albany (TROY314), John Story writes: “When he is on form, Ronald Perera is among the finest living combiners of words and music.…The music is simply lovely.” His chamber and orchestral works have been widely performed in America and London.

Ronald Perera has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, ASCAP, the National Association of Teachers of Singing, the Artists Foundation of Massachusetts, Harvard University, the MacDowell Colony, the Paderewski Fund, the Bogliasco Foundation, and Meet the Composer. His music is published by E. C. Schirmer, Boosey and Hawkes, Music Associates of New York, and Pear Tree Music. It is recorded principally on the Albany, CRI, and Opus One labels. Perera has taught at Syracuse University, Dartmouth College, and, since 1971, at Smith College, where he holds the Elsie Irwin Sweeney Chair in Music.

The composer writes:

Immigration is a vast subject. Early on I realized that my text could not even begin to reflect the sweep of time and cultures involved or the currents of political upheavals, ethnic and religious persecutions, and natural disasters which drove so many people from so many lands to America. What I thought I could do was to present a quasi-narrative of simple stories culled from interviews with actual immigrants who came through New York in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and juxtapose or frame these with documentary materials, primarily the list of 29 questions which the inspectors at Ellis Island were supposed to ask of all arriving immigrants. Rather than looking for a specific representative of every race and creed, I found myself looking for an immigrant “everyman/everywoman” whose experience would speak for many. In the simple, flat prose of these interviews I found poetry, and I found universal human themes of uprooting and transplanting, longing and hope, suffering and fear, courage and despair, and—perhaps most characteristic among immigrants to America—gratitude.

Paul Sigrist, Director of the Ellis Island Oral History Project, provided me with research for and preparation of my text. The immigrants from whose recollections I have drawn range in age from 5 to 19 and include newcomers from Ireland, Greece, and central and eastern Europe.

No. 3 is a ship advertisement translated from a South Slavic language, while No. 5 includes a Sicilian malediction. Members of the New Amsterdam Singers supplied information about their own ancestors who had immigrated through New York; it was from these sources that I compiled the list of names and occupations at the beginning of No. 7. The names at the end of No. 7—immigrants naturalized in the 1980s—were supplied to me by Robert Morris, of the National Archives and Records Administration in New York. The poem text in No. 7 is from the famous poem, “The New Colossus,” which was written by Emma Lazarus for the dedication of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Perera's work is tightly knit, with major themes appearing in many guises throughout the piece. The last movement, “Names,” summarizes what has gone before, with brief quotes from previous movements. After the chorus sings the chorale-like Emma Lazarus passage, the orchestra continues with a coda. The chorale melody is heard in augmentation in the double bass. The names that are intoned now are those of recent immigrants to the United States, heirs to a long line of men and women seeking asylum, economic opportunity, or a new beginning on our shores.

Randall Thompson

Randall Thompson (1899-1984) was a much-respected American composer and teacher. A Harvard professor of composition, he wrote three symphonies, two string quartets, and other instrumental music, but is best known for his choral music. His style is conservative, based on Renaissance models and on the German masters. Thompson's musical idiom (“my same old style,” he called it, with winning self-deprecation) is cultivated art music, bearing no imprint of American folk roots whatever. However, his music has been so widely sung by American high school and college choruses (especially his popular “Alleluia”) and his setting of Jefferson's words (The Testament of Freedom) is so appropriate to ceremonial occasions, that the music has become “typically American” in a kind of reverse process.

The Garment of Praise is Part Four of Thompson's Requiem, commissioned by the University of California in 1958. It is a major piece and a choral tour de force. Using biblical texts, Thompson writes for unaccompanied double chorus. The style has much in common with the polychoral works of Schütz. With its moving simplicity and direct appeal, it needs no explanation in order to be appreciated.

Paul Alan Levi

Acts of Love was commissioned by New Amsterdam Singers in connection with the chorus's thirtieth anniversary in 1998. It was written by Paul Alan Levi to poetry by Sally Fisher.

Paul Levi's music is well known to the New Amsterdam Singers. In 1994 the chorus commissioned and performed Journeys and Secrets. The chorus also performed “The Awful German Language” from his Mark Twain Suite and gave the premiere of Scene 1 of his one-act opera, In the Beginning. The chorus has also performed Levi's “Holy Willie's Prayer,” which the New York Times praised as “a lively, amusing setting.” Paul Levi, born in 1941, received his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College and his master's degree and doctorate from the Juilliard School. He also studied at the International Summer School in Darmstadt and at Columbia University. His principal teachers were Hall Overton and Vincent Persichetti. Levi is currently on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. He has also taught at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, New York University, and Rutgers. He has received a Guggenheim fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and is recorded on the Centaur and CRI labels. Levi's music is published by Margun Music, Mobart Music Publications, Lawson-Gould Music Publishers, and Merion Music.

Besides Acts of Love, Levi's recent works include his Passover oratorio Dayenu, commissioned by the New York Choral Society and Central Synagogue and performed in Carnegie Hall and the Central Synagogue in New York. Other works include a song cycle, Zeno's Arrow; a large piano work, Touchings; and an orchestral piece, Transformations of the Heart. He has been commissioned by, among others, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the New York Chamber Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and Music Today Series. Among the performers of his music have been the conductors Pierre Boulez, Jesús López-Cobos, Robert DeCormier, Gustav Meier, and Gerard Schwarz.

Here are Paul Levi's notes on Acts of Love:

When this commission from the New Amsterdam Singers first came through, I had a lead time of about three years, maybe more; I wanted to use that long stretch of time to work on a piece that would create interesting challenges for me, and these challenges would be determined by my choice of texts. I selected three “normal” length poems and seven very short ones, shorter than haiku. The seven short poems would orbit as satellites around the three longer ones.

I usually look for texts in which the writer has something interesting and unusual to say. I especially like working with vernacular American English, a wonderfully expressive medium. Sally Fisher's poetry, with its wit, depth, clarity, and contrasts of the mythic and mundane, the historic and the personal, was inspiring on all counts.

The overall progression of Acts of Love is from past to present to future, and from issues of the outside world to increasing intimacy. The piece opens with a miniature, “I'm Here,” which I hear as the poet's statement about her calling as a poet. Creating art is an act of love, the sharing of what moves or fascinates or delights us.

I also like collisions of contrasting or incongruous topics and musical styles. In two successive moments in Acts of Love, you will hear the chorus sing about Pharaoh's daughter and Jimmy Durante. Not much later, you will hear about Noah and his painful dilemma, followed shortly by a child's-view experience of a car wash. “6 PM: Best Friends Fugue” is a loving fantasy of everything that our friends might be doing at the same moment on an ordinary evening. The fugue is jazzy, the counterpoint increasingly confusing—so many friends. “In Praise of Humans Making Love” features a sensual chromatic lyricism; often two voices move simultaneously as one or as mirrors of each other.

Ricky Ian Gordon

When Ricky Ian Gordon's music was recently performed in a concert devoted to his work at Alice Tully Hall (part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series), the New York Times wrote: “If the music of Ricky Ian Gordon had to be defined by a single quality, it would be the bursting effervescence infusing songs that blithely blur the lines between art song and the high-end brooding music of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.” The prolific Gordon has produced operas, ballet and theater music, many songs, choral works, and musical comedies over the past decade. He has won awards from ASCAP, Meet the Composer, the American Music Center, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as many music theater awards. Among the artists who have recorded Gordon's works are Dawn Upshaw, Audra McDonald, and Andrea Marcovicci.

Born in 1956 into a show business family (his mother was a singer), Gordon studied piano and then composition at Carnegie Mellon University, where he discovered theater, acting and writing songs for drama department productions. His passion for American twentieth-century poetry and drama is evident in his choice of lyrics for recent compositions. Too Few the Mornings Be, a song cycle commissioned by Renée Fleming and set to poems by Emily Dickinson, was premiered in February 2000. Later that year Ms. Fleming also premiered Night Flight to San Francisco, an operatic monologue from Tony Kushner's Angels in America.

Three by Langston, commissioned by Keynote Arts Association for the 1998 Manhattan Choral Festival, is set to poems by Langston Hughes and is a blend of the best in popular and classical American music. A steady offbeat swing rhythm is maintained by the piano in “New Moon,” while the chorus parts elaborate words and melody in an elegant contrapuntal texture. “Luck” offers a restrained contrast, with the unfolding of the brief text in a slow, often unison setting characterized by harmonic richness and homophonic texture. “Joy” returns to the sun again, with rapid tempo, Latin rhythms, and a twice-repeated text that is humorous and exuberant.

Leonard Bernstein

The multitalented, larger-than-life Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) is too familiar a figure in twentieth-century American music life to need a biography in these notes. As a composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, and author, he had a worldwide career. His symphonies, choral works, operas, and ballets are an important part of the repertoire. In the field of musical theater he had unqualified success with Wonderful Town and West Side Story.

Bernstein wrote Mass for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. “Almighty Father” is a subdued a cappella chorale from the work. Candide, based on the story by Voltaire, with lyrics by Richard Wilbur, may be considered more operetta than musical comedy. It opened in 1956 and after many performances and revisions was recorded in 1989 with Bernstein conducting in the final revised version. New Amsterdam Singers concludes our recording of American choral music with the finale to Candide, “Make Our Garden Grow,” by Bernstein as arranged for chorus by Robert Page. The hero and heroine have traveled the world. Most of their illusions about life have been cruelly dashed. They reunite and vow to return to the land, to a simpler life, to “solid ground.”

—Clara Longstreth, 2002

New Amsterdam Singers

Clara Longstreth, Music Director

Teresa Niss, Assistant Conductor • Pen Ying Fang, Accompanist

Botstein at Tanglewood and Carnegie Hall. NAS also performed with Anonymous Four and the Concordia Orchestra in Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light at Avery Fisher Hall, under Marin Alsop. Ms. Longstreth conducted NAS and the Mannes College Orchestra in the folk opera Down in the Valley during Symphony Space's “Wall to Wall Kurt Weill” program, which was broadcast on public radio in 2000.

NAS appears internationally under Ms. Longstreth's direction. The chorus has sung at the Irakleion Festival in Greece, the Granada Festival in Spain, the International Choral Festival at Miedzyzdroje (Poland), the Festival of the Algarve in Portugal, and Les Chorégies d'Orange in France. In 1993 the chorus competed at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod in Wales. Most recently the chorus appeared in Turkey, Scandinavia, and Croatia.

New Amsterdam Singers celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary season during 1992-1993 with the release on the Albany label of a compact disc entitled American Journey. The CD, featuring twentieth-century American composers, was chosen by Fanfare magazine's critic Elliott Hurwitt as one of his top five recordings of 1994.

CLARA LONGSTRETH has conducted the New Amsterdam Singers since its formation in 1968. She has served on the faculty of Rutgers University, where she conducted the Voorhees Choir of Douglas College. A student of G. Wallace Woodworth at Harvard, Ms. Longstreth trained for her master's degree at the Juilliard School under Richard Westenburg. Further study included work with Amy Kaiser and Semyon Bychkov at the Mannes College of Music and with Helmuth Rilling at the Oregon Bach Festival.

Ms. Longstreth is a frequent guest conductor at the annual Messiah Sing-in at Avery Fisher Hall and at summer sings in the New York City area. She has guest-conducted the Limón Dance Company in performances with NAS and the Riverside Church Choir. She has also served as adjudicator of choral festivals, conducted the Riverdale Country School choral groups, and conducted the Juilliard Chorus and Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall.

ELIZABETH RODGERS has performed widely in her native New York City and in tours that have taken her across the United States, to Europe, and to Puerto Rico. She has appeared as soloist with the Springfield (Mass.) Symphony Orchestra. Known primarily as an ensemble player, she has performed with the Metropolitan Players, Downtown Chamber Players, Friends and Enemies of New Music, and the Lark Ascending. Ms. Rodgers has also participated in the preparation and performance of operas for several different companies, taught at Bard College and the Manhattan School of Music, and premiered numerous pieces for piano, including works by Miriam Gideon, Dean Drummond, and Robert Dennis. She is pianist-in-residence with the Berkshire Choral Festival.