As many members of the music community already know, David Griggs-Janower, the artistic director of the Albany Pro Musica, suffered a stroke in March while recovering from surgery. But before he went into the hospital, he suggested that the chorus should not do the planned Bach “St. Matthew Passion” for its Saturday concert but instead sing Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass.” Timothy Newton, a longtime colleague, was named to conduct the concert.
“It was a big surprise to get asked,” Newton said en route to SUNY College of Oneonta, where he has conducted several student choruses and taught since 2007. “I know the reach the group has. I want to do everything I can to help them through this period. Even the orchestra feels that way. We’re all for encouraging them.”
Although this is the first time Newton has worked with the 67-member chorus, which has its own challenges, he said, he’s glad they’re performing the Haydn. Not only has he sung the work before, but he had read a 1989 magazine article by Griggs-Janower on how to conduct the piece.
“His thumbprint will be on the program,” Newton said with a laugh.
Written during turmoil
Haydn had been commissioned to write a piece in 1798 for the birthday of one of the Esterhazy princesses. Yet, even as he worked on the piece, Austrians were in turmoil. Ever since the previous year, Napoleon had been working his way toward Vienna. Citing economic hardships and financial instabilities, Prince Nicholas II fired all the woodwind players, Newton said. That left Haydn with only the strings, trumpets, timpani and organ. So he re-scored the work and named the piece “Missa in angustiis” or “Mass in Troubled Times.”
Albany Pro Musica
-- May 11: 7:30 p.m. Troy Savings Bank Music Hall; $35, $25
-- May 17: 7:30 p.m. Massry Center for the Arts, College of Saint Rose; $20 (donation)
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That same year, Napoleon had also launched an attack on Egypt to cut trade routes. When British Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated him at the Battle of the Nile, the Mass was nicknamed “Lord Nelson Mass,” according to Grout’s “History of Western Music.”
Music publishers later had the score re-orchestrated to replace the missing woodwinds, but Newton said the concert will use the original version with a 22-piece orchestra. The work is based on the six sections of the Latin Mass. The soloists, who had been scheduled to sing the Bach, will be the same: soprano Kristen Watson, mezzo-soprano Kara Cornell; tenor David Taylor, and baritone Woodrow Bynum.
“I love the brass and the organist, Gwen Toth, is coming from New York City,” Newton said.
“It’s incredibly dramatic. The trumpet and timpani are used to evoke the dangers of Bonaparte taking over Europe from the aristocracy. It’s up front and right away.”
This is Newton’s first time conducting the Haydn, but he knows the piece well from his many years singing professionally. He still travels twice a year to London to sing either with the London Symphony Chorus or the Philharmonia Chorus, where he’s been a regular for several years. He has sung at most of Britain’s major music halls under such conductors as Colin Davis, Charles Mackerras and Marin Alsop and has even sung for HRH Queen Elizabeth II.
But working with a new chorus, especially under the current circumstances, is difficult.
“Every conductor always tries to bring their own aural interpretation to a piece,” Newton said. “I have always loved APM’s sound. Changing it to my ideal feels bittersweet. Personally, it feels vulnerable to get what I want and not what David might do.”
The program includes several other works, some of them a cappella, for which the chorus’ light, inspired sound is perfect, he said. These include Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” the Eliza Gilkyson/Craig Johnson Requiem, Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” Eric Whitacre’s “Lux Aurumque,” and Peteris Vasks’ “Dona nobis Pacem.”
The Whitacre, Biebl and Lauridsen evoke Mary and are haunting, gorgeous pieces. The Vasks is like “a commentary on nowhere,” Newton said. Gilkyson wrote her Requiem in English as a pop song for survivors of the tsunami. Johnson arranged it for his chorus in Texas.
“It captures the mood of the APM,” Newton said. “We’re all hoping David comes back.”
But for the Haydn, he wanted a different kind of sound.
“For the a cappella pieces, the APM can spin a phrase and go on autopilot,” he said. “But I wanted a darker, more dramatic sound from the chorus. It must be a visceral, somber, aggressive sound.”
To get that quality, he said, he’s been focusing on a deeper placement of the vowels and consonants and trying to get the chorus to sing softly but rapturously.
“They’re giving me what I want — it’s like a family,” he said. “But I feel like I’m a guest. I’m just housesitting.”
The May 17 concert of “Albany Sings” is part of the APM’s five-year Artist-in-Residence program with Albany High School. This concert is a benefit for the upstate chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, as well as a memorial concert for Matt Koehler, who struggled with kidney cancer and was a friend of conductor Brendan Hoffman. Hoffman has been the chorus master at Albany High School for 10 years and sometimes sings as a tenor with APM.
The concert will feature the 75-member Albany High School chorus, the 35-member chorus from Mt. Sinai High School on Long Island, where Hoffman went to school, and the APM, each singing selections. Then everyone will sing accompanied by the 45-piece Albany High School orchestra in Fauré’s Requiem. Hoffman will conduct.
“Working with the APM has been an incredible opportunity,” Hoffman said. “My goal has been to get my singers to see they can do this beyond high school. Seeing these adults, who have jobs and went to college, are singing high-quality music establishes that idea.”