Q & A: Harold Rosenbaum & William McClelland on Putting Together The New York Virtuoso Singers’ ‘American Invention’

By David Salazar

On Sunday, Feb. 19, the New York Virtuoso Singers will present “American Invention,” a concert featuring seven world and New York premieres by such composers as Anthony David, Tania León, Elena Ruehr, Peter Zummo, Edie Hill, William McClelland, and David Paterson.

Leading the performance will be conductor Harold Rosenbaum.

OperaWire spoke with Rosenbaum and McClelland about the program, how it was organized, and the challenges of putting this concert together.

OperaWire: What inspired “American Invention,” and how does it fit in with your organization’s goals and mission?

Harold Rosenbaum.: The composer William McClelland and I collaborated on this concert. It is being presented, in part, to support William’s recent Naxos recording, “Where the Shadow Glides,” which includes three choral works performed by the New York Virtuoso Singers (NYVS). At the concert, we will give the concert premiere of one of his works, “Hail Lovely and Pure,” along with several world and New York premieres by some extraordinary American composers. There will be a wide variety of works, some very challenging and “modern,” but also many that are simply beautiful, moving, and joyful. NYVS concentrates intensively on the music of living American composers, and we do not shy away from extreme complexity while we seek exciting compositions on all levels to perform.

OW: Can you speak about the music selections on the program and how they work together and complement one another to create the musical journey you will take audiences on?

William McClelland: We wanted to create a concert that would highlight the innovative as well as the beauty and profound spiritual qualities of American choral music, beginning in the 18th century with William Billings and going up to today. We selected three short works by Billings which show his wide range of styles, as well as one each by Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Florence Price, and Milton Babbitt—four incredibly inventive and important composers of the 19th and 20th centuries—along with a gorgeous Spiritual arrangement by William Appling.

We also wanted to perform works by many living composers and were particularly interested in including music by female composers and composers of color. These two groups too often have been excluded from programs like this (though, thankfully, this is gradually changing!) The chorus will perform two premieres, “Great Lights” by Anthony Davis for chorus and organ and “Rezos” by Tania León. Davis and León are two of America’s most prominent composers, both recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize. Davis’s work will be a World Premiere, even though it was written in 1996, and León’s will be its East Coast Premiere. We are also doing music, several of them premieres, by several wonderful living female composers: Annea Lockwood, Jessie Montgomery, Elena Ruehr, Mari Esabel Valverde, Edie Hill, and Nancy Wertsch. Their works cover an enormous range of styles and texts and will give the audience a sense of the wide variety of choral works being written today.

There is also a newly commissioned work from the legendary “downtown” composer/trombonist Peter Zummo entitled “Blue Headlights.” It is Peter’s first work ever for chorus, and it will include percussionist Bill Ruyle. We think the variety, beauty, and depth of the music will absolutely dazzle the audience of “American Invention.”

OW: What are the greatest challenges of putting together a program like “American Invention?”

WM: Without a doubt, the greatest challenge is trying to decide which works will NOT be done. There is such an enormous amount of wonderful American choral music being written today; it’s really overwhelming. For this program, we wanted to emphasize what makes American music unique, and one thing that makes it so is how the country’s composers have always been breaking new ground. While the European influence has been great, the greatest American composers have forged their own paths. As William Billings wrote way back in 1794, “When fancy gets upon the wing, she seems to despise all form, and scorns to be confined or limited by any formal prescriptions whatsoever.” So many of our best composers have done this—”rules” have not confined them—and their music has been all the stronger for it. Trying to select just one program’s worth was the ultimate challenge.

OW: The program is full of many premieres. What are the particular challenges of performing works for the first time? What are the benefits of having a composer on hand for this kind of performance?

HR: There is no particular challenge in performing works that have never been done before, in part because I never listen to performances of pieces I am going to conduct! Getting input from composers during the rehearsal process is important because I always want to do the best I can to follow their intentions. Also, there are often mistakes or inconsistencies in the score, which I can ask the composer about if they are present, and I can make suggestions of my own that composers can accept or reject.

OW: What do you hope audiences take away from this experience?

HR & WM: We simply hope our audience will come away with a greater appreciation of the amazing breadth and depth, and scope of American choral music over the last 250 years. We also hope to continue the process of what Charles Ives intended to do with his music: to open people’s ears to new sounds and new ideas. It’s how we grow. We hope to show our audience that there is a great tradition of originality and inventiveness, and beauty in America’s music, which is truly second to none.

OW: Your season also features a series of concerts dedicated to Bach cantatas. What was the inspiration for that series, and how has it impacted audiences?

HR: Having performed Bach’s motets, dozens of cantatas, the passions, and several masses, I realized there was so much more choral music that I simply HAD to conduct while I still could. And I wanted my singers and the audience to experience Bach’s humanity and the power of healing through faith which is imbued in so much of his music.


Behind the ScenesInterviews