Young Musicians Coming Into Their Own: GTCYS, Beethoven and Vaughan Williams

As a singer in the Minnesota Chorale, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in rehearsals over the years. Well… last night’s rehearsal was pretty special.

The Chorale is getting ready for the first concert of our YouthWorks project—a concert that brings us together with the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies (GTCYS) and apprentice singers from Angelica Cantanti Youth Choirs. The program, also part of the Northern Voices Choral Festival sweeping through town, is about sharing music across generations, and helping young musicians put together their first performances of a pair of masterworks.

And I have to say, this concert stirs some very deep memories for me.

Way back in the day, when I was 18 years old and trying to finish up my senior year in high school, I was handed an unbelievable opportunity. My school’s top choir was selected to perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center. This wasn’t strictly a youth performance—everyone else on the stage was a professional musician.

In the weeks leading up to the performance, we rehearsed the Hell out of our music with an increasing sense of panic. The vocal parts of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy are famously cruel, and this monumental work was beyond anything we had attempted. Could we pull everything off? Would we let everyone else down? Would all the other musicians be condescending… or worse? We drove ourselves hard, determined that we wouldn’t be the weak link.

As I walked on stage for the first rehearsal, I remember feeling really, really small… but only for a fraction of a second.

The professionals immediately walked over to us with huge smiles, firm handshakes and slaps on the shoulder, and let us know instantly that we belonged. We were musicians. Just like them. My earlier panic transformed into something else entirely—an odd mixture of relief, joy, insane happiness… and pride.

After the first few bars, the guys I was with pointedly said we were the best-trained group in the room, and subtly started making suggestions, asking questions and provided some good-natured ribbing. The humor was great, but it was their wisdom that I remember. Their powerful words helped me turn a musical line into a refined work of art. With their encouragement, I felt like I could do anything.

All in all, it was a life-changing experience, and I don’t think I can adequately express my gratitude for everything they gave me over those far-too-short hours.

* * *

And it for that reason, I’m deeply honored to find myself in the reversed role for this project… and to serve as a mentor as a group of young musicians prepare Beethoven’s Ninth for the first time.

Trust me, they are ready for it. What a pleasure to hear GTCYS playing at the top of their game! They’ve thrown themselves into learning a famously difficult work, and are doing an incredible job across the board. For example, allow me to give a hat tip to their timpanist for not just technically nailing a complex part, but capturing the visceral excitement of the piece. His playing in the joyous finale will have you at the edge of your seats. The ensemble also does itself proud in the “Prussian March” section, especially with stand-out performances from the bassoon and the piccolo—who captures the jauntiness of the line without becoming shrill. And kudos all around for the string playing, which is rock solid.

It is great privilege to help these musicians find their voices and, in the words of another great conductor, hear them “nail this sucker to the wall.”

* * *

But there’s more on the program, too—I am thrilled that GTCYS has chosen to pair Beethoven’s mighty “Ode to Joy” with one of my absolute favorite pieces, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music.

Talk about a 180° shift!

Where Beethoven is heroic, Vaughan Williams is luminous—one of the most bewitchingly beautiful pieces I know of. It is a hymn celebrating the splendor of music, incorporating some particularly luscious poetry by Shakespeare (taken from Act V of The Merchant of Venice). The text, which is both celebratory and introspective, more than deserves to be listed in full:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Look, how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn:
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.

I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted!

Music! hark! It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it.
How many things by season season’d are.
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion,
And would not be awak’d.

Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

I could sing this work every single day of the week and never get tired of its beauty. And it’s not just me who feels this way. Sergei Rachmaninoff was at the work’s premiere (he had performed his Second Piano Concerto in the first half of the concert). As the work progressed, Rachmaninoff leaned back, closed his eyes, and began to week openly. He later wrote a letter to the conductor and Vaughan Williams that he had never been so moved by music.

I’m delighted to be able to share this music with GTCYS. The challenge is to make the music beautiful, without letting it become cloying or saccharine… or to lose the sense of line and let it become a syrupy mess. Fortunately, the GTCYS musicians avoid both traps. The concertmaster soars in the opening solo—she captures the inherent sweetness of the solo line, but gives it visionary strength and power as well. Indeed, she seemed to be channeling Erin Keefe, concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, who just delivered a spellbinding rendition of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.  The other instrumental solos woven into the texture are excellent, too, including a haunting oboe line and the gentle murmurings of the clarinet. It will be spellbinding.

* * *

I hope you’ll be able to attend this concert, which will be conducted by Mark Russell Smith and the Chorale’s Kathy Salzman Romey. The performance is at 7:00 PM at St. Andrew’s Church in Mahtomedi. Tickets are available here.



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