The Dessoff Choirs
Requiem for Whitman
The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral
November 11, 2018
Sing Out He Says and They Do
The Dessoff’s core group of about forty singers was in great form, presenting a short work by Bach followed by William Shuman’s Carols of Death and then As Adam Early in the Morning, a world premiere by Douglas Geers as the first half of the program. The second half consisted of Messa di Requiem, composed in 1923, by Ildelbrando Pizzetti.
The setting inside the elaborate church which is on the National Register of Historic Places (which was freezing cold—according to Mr. Merriweather, because the changeover from summer to winter wasn’t quite complete), was elegant from the apostles behind the apse to the stained glass windows. The program began with a talk by Karen Karbleiner, Ph.D, a recognized scholar of Walt Whitman and his cultural legacy that included brief recordings of Whitman speaking.
From the opening piece played by Mitchell Lyon on cello and Andrew Henderson on organ, it was clear we were in for a serious late afternoon. The choir filed in with Malcolm J. Merriweather, conductor, fully in command. Tall and charming, he conducts with economical gestures that are graceful and clear to the performance and even to the audience.
The Gates of Death, music by William Schuman set to Whitman’s words, takes the text from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, including three carols that are somber yet simultaneously uplifting.
Dessoff commissioned the third work, a setting of As Adam Early in the Morning by Brooklyn composer Douglas Geers. This includes snatches of electronic music coming from behind the singers, an effect I found odd and a little unsettling. According to the composer, the piece “is derived directly from the sound frequencies present in an audio recording of Walt Whitman reading from his poem, “America.”The composer derived 24 chords from Whitman speaking the word ‘love’ in the recording.’
The final piece on the program was the Pizzetti Requiem, an a capella work with complex harmonies.
One of the most engaging features of the Dessoff Choirs, (plural because there is the 40 voice group of this program as well as the Symphonic Choir for larger works and a smaller chamber choir for more intimate pieces), is its ninth Music Director. Mr. Merriweather, assistant professor and director of choral studies and voice department coordinator at Brooklyn College, radiates charm, intellect and warmth. That he is accomplished is evidenced by his many excellent performances including upcoming premieres of works by Eve Beglarian, Tania Leon and Matthew Aucoin, part of Dessoff’s celebration of the bicentennial of Whitman’s birth. What I find especially engaging is his total command of his work coupled with his obvious connection to the singers. He conducts without wasted motions. It’s a pleasure to watch him (and hear him sing and play the organ) and a delight to listen to the chorus as they respond. The singers carry music; in a nod to today’s technology, one man had his score on an iPad. I wouldn’t care if they had held bits of parchment. The Dessoff Choirs are recognized for singing with conviction, expressivity, and passion. Yes indeed.