Rochester boasts an unusual number of choral groups, and when summer rolls around, most of those large choruses, small ensembles, school groups, and church choirs take a break. But choral singers still want to sing choral music. Luckily there are a few summertime outlets for them. Rochester's Really Big Choral Show each summer is the Finger Lakes Choral Festival. Since 2003, this group has presented a large-scale concert each July under its founder and director, Adrian "Andy" Horn.
Horn started the Finger Lakes Choral Festival in the summer of 2003; he had moved to the region a few years prior, after a long period of work with several choral groups in the San Francisco area and a stint in Washington. The Choral Festival made its debut with Verdi's Requiem, singing with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and has performed in Rochester every summer since, usually at the Hochstein Performance Hall.
The group meets weekly starting in May of each year, aiming for a concert in late July. "I didn't think of the festival in competition with local choral groups," says Horn. "I did want to have a place where the area's choral singers could sing in the summer, or where we could wean former singers back into choral music." They've been very successful on both counts.
In the last decade, Finger Lakes Choral Festival has concentrated on the big choral works, including another performance of the Verdi and one of the Brahms Requiem at Chautauqua Institution; Beethoven's Ninth with the RPO; and independent performances of Orff's "Carmina Burana," Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis," Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," and perhaps the biggest choral spectacular of them all, the Berlioz Requiem – twice, in Rochester in 2010 and in San Francisco last summer to excellent reviews.
"I do try to offer mainstream choral pieces – the big works that everybody loves," says Horn. "But I try to mix it up, too. There are works by composers that people love that are not performed very often."
That describes this summer's Finger Lakes Choral Festival concert, taking place July 28, to a T: the program includes unfamiliar but highly satisfying music by two well-loved 19th-century composers.
Antonin Dvorák is best known for his symphonies, concertos, and chamber music, but he also wrote several religious choral works, of which his "Stabat Mater" is generally considered the best. A classic in Dvorak's native Czechoslovakia, it is seldom performed in this country. Horn reckons that of the 150 or so people in his chorus, only a half-dozen have ever sung this work before.
"Dvorak is one of the leading classical composers in name recognition, but he was very prolific, and much of his music is not well known," says Horn. "However, everything I have heard has a really fresh feeling about it, including the choral music."
Horn has never conducted Dvorak's "Stabat Mater" before, though he loves the work, a moving, lyrical setting of a medieval poem describing the suffering of Christ on the cross and of Mary at his feet. "At the beginning I told the chorus members that this music was so powerful, there were tear stains on my score. I meant it tongue-in-cheek, but on the other hand, it's true. This music has made a definite emotional connection with me and with the singers."
Horn adds that they'll be singing an abridged version of the work; he has cut the solo vocal movements (soloists will be heard with the chorus in several movements) and one choral movement, so the piece clocks in at about 45 minutes. This allows time for another major work on the program – and an even more unusual one.
Unlike Dvorak's "Stabat Mater," Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt" Suites contain some of the most familiar tunes in classical music. An animated-cartoon sunrise seldom occurs without Grieg's "Morning Mood" on the soundtrack, and rock bands and rap performers have appropriated "In the Hall of the Mountain King," which has also turned up in Woody Allen's "Scoop" and on "Mad Men."
They're two of the most familiar movements from the voluminous incidental music Grieg composed for Henrik Ibsen's play "Peer Gynt," a satirical epic about the life of a Norwegian ne'er-do-well that spans decades and continents. The combination of Ibsen and Grieg was acclaimed at first, but for modern tastes Ibsen's sour satire and Grieg's sweet, tuneful score don't mesh, so play and music have gone their separate ways. As did their creators: the two great Norwegians were friends, but Grieg disliked Ibsen's play, and Ibsen sneered at Grieg's music years later.
But Grieg did deliver the goods, composing a huge score for a huge play. The two popular "Peer Gynt" suites contain only a fraction of the material, which include several choral movements. Horn heard a few of these, and they gave him the idea of turning Ibsen's five-act play into a dramatic sequence that includes many of the best-known numbers in the order in which they appear in the play. They are tied together with narration, which will be delivered by Thomas Paul, the well-known local bass, whose speaking voice is as sonorous as his singing voice.
This creation took some time: Ibsen's play has been translated from Norwegian into English several times, but the words for Grieg's settings of the choruses hadn't, so the conductor took on that job with the help of Google Translate. The men's chorus joins in the "Hall of the Mountain King" (singing some notably bloodthirsty words), the women's chorus in an "Arabian Dance." They join for an a capella hymn and a grand finale combining previous themes from the music, a climax that Horn promises "will blow your mind."
Rare choral music by Dvorak and Grieg doesn't guarantee a packed house, but Horn's enthusiasm for the music on this concert is obvious. "My philosophy has always been: if it's not music that excites me and that I feel passionate about, then why do it?" says the conductor. "After all, you wouldn't walk into the finest restaurant in the world and order a hamburger."
Pianist Yuja Wang on Thursday and Saturday broke into Bartok and helped the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra reach new heights.