Schenectady

Union College Choir set for Carnegie Hall; will perform free concert Sunday on campus

The Union College Choir; inset, director Shou Ping Liu. (Ryota Matsue)
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The Union College Choir; inset, director Shou Ping Liu. (Ryota Matsue)

Every aspiring musician has heard the question: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

The answer: “Practice.”

That’s what the Union College Choir has been doing over the last year and their efforts will be rewarded.

On Sunday, March 20, the 31-voice choir will be singing at Zankel Hall, the 599-seat theater that is the middle-size venue of Carnegie Hall in New York City that includes the larger Stern Auditorium and the smaller Weill Recital Hall. (Meanwhile, the Union College Choir and Orchestra will present their winter concert Sunday, March 13, at 2 p.m. at Memorial Chapel on campus. It is free and open to the public.)

The Carnegie performance is the inspiration of the choir’s director, Shou Ping Liu.

“I knew we must do something,” she said. “We were at a low morale.”

A bit of backstory: When Liu joined the college’s faculty as a lecturer and the director of the choir in 2017, she said the prevailing attitude seemed to be that it was more of a recreational group. This despite that a chorus had been part of the college’s culture since the mid-19th century, and had not only sung at the White House in 1978 at President Jimmy Carter’s first State Dinner, but had toured Venezuela, England, Germany, Austria and Canada.

But that autumn in 2017, Liu got only four people who signed up during Freshman Week. After much effort, she said, 24 more people joined but the attitude was still very “nonchalant.”

“I wanted to create goals and to do it well,” Liu said.

She knew discipline was the key. Originally from Taiwan, Liu had studied piano at the New England Conservatory. During her graduate years her interests turned to choral and orchestral conducting that led to apprenticeships and workshops with such conductors as Marin Alsop, then-music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She also pursued an advanced degree in conducting from a school in Berlin, Germany, and later received a doctorate from the University of Southern California.

While her background was entirely based in music, Liu knew that the students at the college were mostly future engineers.

“So five years ago, I took anyone whether they could read music or not,” she said.

One of those is Nguyen Nguyen, currently a junior with an economics/math major.

“I’m from Vietnam and I’d not heard of Bach or Vivaldi or classical music,” she said. “I knew nothing about what a chorus was — we don’t have them and I’m not a Christian so I don’t know about churches — or why I was singing this music.”

But that first week as a freshman and new to this country and looking for ways to meet people and maybe have fun, she sang for Liu.

“I was amazed she took me and said I was an alto. But I didn’t know what a soprano or alto was,” she said laughing. “I didn’t read music.”

Not a problem as far as Liu was concerned. She said she figured as long as Nguyen was near someone who could read music, she’d learn when to “move.” Which is what happened.

“I tried to follow what everyone else was singing and I’m better now,” Nguyen said. “But I still can’t read music.”

Neither can 50 percent of the other singers in the choir.

“But it’s so beautiful to be inclusive and be here in Schenectady,” Liu said.

Getting inspired

With three concerts given each year, two of them on “serious” music and the other on “good musical theater,” the students’ attitude slowly began to change. To get them even more inspired, Liu invited her old teacher from Germany, Raphael Alpermann, who is the baroque keyboardist for the Berlin Philharmonic, to come to Schenectady and present a lecture/recital on Bach cantatas. Alpermann was so impressed with the choir, he invited them to come to Germany to sing three of Bach’s cantatas for 2020. The students also sang the “O Fortuna” segment from Orff’s “Carmina Burana” at a college capital campaign, which really invigorated the choir, Liu said.

Then, the German trip was canceled and again in 2021 because of the pandemic. Nguyen headed home from March 2020 to September 2021 and took classes online and stayed in touch with Liu.

The chorus had always rehearsed twice a week for 75-minute sessions with Max Caplan on piano. These continued but Nguyen missed all of them because they were at 4 a.m. Vietnam time.

Tenor Adam Ginsburg, a senior math/music major, however, was able to make them all.

“I’d been with the chorus for three and a half years and sang in choirs since fourth grade,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed it. But it was a little disappointing not to go to Germany.”

Since last spring, however, Ginsburg has had a chance to get into musical theater, which he said he’s come to love, and become involved with more difficult vocal classical music that led to the formation of a 15-voice chamber group. This ensemble will be featured at the March 20 concert.

When Nguyen returned last fall, she “jumped back in.”

“I discovered I’d missed chorus. Professor Liu had been so supportive,” Nguyen said. “It’s really intense and sometimes stressful but I have no other extracurricular activities that I participate in . . . and I don’t feel too left out.”

By last fall with no trips planned and the chorus feeling let down because of the cancellations, Liu went into action. She decided a solo performance at Carnegie Hall, and not as part of a choral festival, would work wonders, she said. Once the college’s board of trustees knew the students were serious, support began to pour in.

The repertoire includes: a selection from Bach’s Cantata 72 and Vivaldi’s “Gloria” for the Choir; Randall Thompson’s “The Last Words of David” with the Chamber Singers; “Rainbow Connection” with four soloists; and college pianist Samuel Oram and the college string ensemble in a Bach Piano Concerto No. 2. The concert will be repeated March 22 at Washington, D.C.’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

And the Germany/Czech Republic tour is on for 2023.

Tickets for the Zankel event are $20 through www.carnegiehall.org.

 

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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