NYChoral has been a major player in New York’s cultural scene for decades. It is referred to as an “avocational” chorus – which is to say, volunteer. The appellation hardly refers to a lack of professionalism; the members are trained and rehearse assiduously. Many of the 170 singers have professional-quality voices and many were music majors, but they have made other career choices and are not pursuing singing as a profession. And nobody who has heard their grand sound ever questions their quality.

In the past six years, since the arrival of David Hayes, formerly Music Director of the critically acclaimed professional vocal ensemble The Philadelphia Singers (the resident chorus of The Philadelphia Orchestra from 2000-2011) and still Music Director of the Mannes Orchestra and Staff Conductor of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, NYChoral has sharpened its profile, its sound and in many ways its approach to the music it sings.

David Hayes © Photo courtesy NYChoral
David Hayes
© Photo courtesy NYChoral

Hayes took over the group in 2012 and his very first offering, Berlioz’ L’enfance du Christ, told of things to come. He chose the intimate work for New York’s grand venue, Carnegie Hall, and his attention to textures and dynamics brought Berlioz’ oddly personal music to every listener in the hall. There and in subsequent shows also featuring many contemporary works, fans and critics have noted a new tightness to the ensemble.

Now, for the group’s 8th May concert at Carnegie Hall, they will climb one of the great choral mountains, Bach’s Mass in B minor. Hayes is excited and is making certain that the chorus is ready to offer a performance that will be anything but rote: “I didn’t set out to actually change the chorus, but I’m relentless about certain things – and I’m pretty sure that’s the word the chorus members would use as well. I am relentless in the pursuit of tight rhythm; that everything is precisely placed; that the intonation is well taken care of – I want these things to be part of their DNA and how they think about the way that they’re producing their sound. This should go hand-in-hand with the pursuit of the expressive qualities of what we’re singing. I don’t think one or the other exclusively works; it has to be both. I try and create an atmosphere where that kind of learning is just part of what we do.”

The chorus consists of 170 singers, but given the vagaries of scheduling and availability, 150 are in force for any given performance. But despite the cyclical nature of the ensemble – people come and go, they retire, they move away – 75 have been there since the start of Hayes’ tenure or before, so there’s great continuity in the sound and approach, with more of a solid base than there are newcomers. Chorus members also re-audition every other year. Hayes feels that every two years is a “reasonable check-in point to have discussions, especially if vocal problems start to become evident.” He gives them feedback, and encourages them to study and fix possible issues. “I’d rather not just say, ‘You’re in, you’re out.’”

The chorus © NYChoral
The chorus
© NYChoral

And now to the B minor Mass. Hayes says honestly that he wondered, prior to this season, if the group could do it justice, and that he had no intention of putting on a performance that was just OK. “Yeah, another big, mushy chorus” are words he never wanted to hear. He was brought up listening to big choruses in the Boston area and at Tanglewood – where his grandmother was a chorister – and was accustomed to a large sound. He had done the work a couple of times before in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Singers, a 40-voice professional chorus as well as a fully professional chamber orchestra (NYChoral’s orchestra, while somewhat larger, is also fully professional).

But he got a fine idea from listening to the great choral conductor Robert Shaw. Hayes is uncertain as to whether Shaw invented the idea, but he certainly popularized it his 1960 recording of the Mass. “There are times when Bach’s orchestration comes down to just a few instruments. At those moments, Shaw used concertists as opposed to the full battery of players. There is that kind of Baroque orchestrational idea that you create texture not through crescendo/decrescendo per se but by layering on, adding instruments or taking instruments away for texture and color. So, he used concertists, one to a part, for those moments where it was much more lightly scored. When I did it with the Philadelphia Singers, using a same-sized 40-voice professional chorus, we went down to a one-to-a-part for the concertist sections. It worked beautifully.”

Hayes is keen to offer an example. “You know at the very start of the Gloria how the instruments make the opening statement complete with trumpets, and a moment later singers take up the tune and rhythm? Well, it’s just the altos and tenors for a moment, then the whole orchestra and chorus, and then a moment later it’s just the sopranos and tenors? Well, those two little duet statements are accompanied by practically nothing, and then bingo – the full complement comes back in and these textured layers of sonority make their effect. Then, at the end of the Gloria, it’s almost a call-and-response, with the concertists singing ‘Cum sancto spiritu’ being answered by the whole chorus, ‘In gloria Dei Patris’. I’ve heard many performances where everybody sings everything and there’s a certain monotony to the color. Dynamics up-and-down can work somewhat but it’s still the weight of the sound of many singers that you’re dealing with."

David Hayes in action © Photo courtesy NYChoral
David Hayes in action
© Photo courtesy NYChoral
Having used one voice to a part with a 40-voice chorus, Hayes judged that if he is using 150 voices, he would need approximately a 35-voice chamber ensemble. So he especially auditioned members of the chorus who will form the core, and they’ll be placed in the center of the first two rows, with the rest of the chorus “wrapped around them.” So one might say that Hayes is touching on HIP – historically informed performance – and thinking about what is texturally appropriate to the work. “Another thing that I’m being hyper-insistent about is articulation. Lengths and weights of notes – the dance rhythm, say, in the Gloria still comes out, and you avoid the undifferentiated ‘Gloooho-o-ria’, which is not what Bach wrote.” And just because we do not go around speaking Latin, does not mean the text should be treated as if it were in a dead language. As we know, Bach did not set the text as a bunch of phonetic syllables: he understood the words and why the text fits together. “We can’t approach it as chant. It must be sung precisely but with great intent and meaning.”

The chorus is currently doing three large-scale shows a year; perfecting the chamber ensemble is something Hayes is working on. He’s already done Randall Thompson’s Frostiana and would love to do Copland’s In the Beginning and William Schuman’s Carols of Death. He’s looking for flexibility: not always a grand, 170-voice Verdi Requiem-type program. As an institution, the chorus will, he expects, “broaden its external face, offer a bigger palette of possibilities.”

“You’re not always going to see us in Carnegie Hall,” says Hayes. “You might see us in a multi-media production somewhere, or in a museum, or in an unexpected place which you may not have presumed was a concert space. I’d like us to be a truly flexible, world-class volunteer ensemble. That might be the ultimate legacy.”

 

This article was sponsored by Hemsing Associates.