Richard Allen Roe believes that learning the story behind the music his classical music ensemble will perform enhances the experience of audience members.
Just as a docent illuminates a painting for museum-goers, providing context in the concert setting, including details of the composer’s biography and art as well as the era, takes appreciation to new levels. As such, ChorSymphonica’s founder, artistic director and conductor has incorporated a pre-concert lecture in the group’s Wheaton Conversation Concert series.
“We explore the musical and historical context of the programmed work in order to make the composer’s efforts more accessible to our modern ears, and more relevant to our contemporary way of life,” Roe explained.
The concept is not new. “I first learned how to do this by watching Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts on TV,” he acknowledged. “In college, I had a wonderful teacher, Professor Henry Gibbons, who studied in Germany with Helmuth Rilling, himself a pupil of Bernstein. … It was my years of study with Rilling that gave me the experiences and insight to forge my own way.”
The third annual Wheaton concert, a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s motet, “Jesu, meine Freude,” for five-part choir and orchestra, is set for the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 20 at Hughes United Methodist Church.
The chorus has 27 singers and the orchestra, 11 players. “The instruments in Bach’s motets do not provide independent accompaniment, but rather reinforce the choral voices, giving his motets a powerful sonic profile,” he added.
Distinctive about the Wheaton series is that the introduction is delivered in two languages — by Roe in English and special guest Dr. Diana Sáez in Spanish. The bilingual approach “is part of our outreach in Wheaton, where there are many Spanish speaking persons, who might not otherwise even have a chance to hear something like this, much less have access free of charge in their own neighborhood,” Roe said.
Describing the format, Roe said, “Diana and I will stand in front of the ensemble, and address the audience, first me in a brief sentence or two, and she will immediately translate that. When I have described an interesting facet of the first movement, and she has translated it live, I conduct an excerpt, so the people hear what we have been talking about.
“We go through the entire piece. The audience gets to hear a good deal of the music this way. When we have finished, the orchestra retunes, and we perform the entire work all the way through.”
What Roe considers “perhaps the most musically and technically demanding of all Bach’s motets [that] contains some of the most sublime music ever written for chorus” was chosen for several reasons. “The overall challenge of producing such an extraordinary piece of music — extraordinary even among the rarefied air of Bach’s works — was attractive to us. But the overall reason is the music itself,” he said, observing that many consider the work “the pinnacle not only of Bach’s motets, but of motets in general.”
“The composer’s inspirational ability to set texts with music that renders the words extraordinarily meaningful, is on full display. Symbols, word painting, genre references and contrapuntal writing, that is among the most masterful in all of music, are pointed out in English and Spanish in a way that helps the listener grasp and understand them, in turn deepening their experience and appreciation of the music,” Roe said.
Roe is delighted that Sáez – who led the conversation with him at the first Wheaton concert — will be back; an alto, she also will sing in the chorus. The native Spanish speaker and Towson University faculty member founded and served as artistic director of the now-defunct Coral Cantigas chamber choir that specialized in Latin American music. “She is so well-known in Montgomery County,” Roe said. “We hope that she will attract some of that former audience.”
Speaking to the audience suits Sáez, who described herself as “a teacher at heart.” “During my tenure with Cantigas, I always enjoyed talking to the audience about the culture behind the songs, the different rhythms and the influences that created the music. You will enjoy the music more if you can understand it better,” she said.
Sáez recalled the first Wheaton concert. “For me personally, it felt very comfortable and natural to talk about something so important to me such as music, in my native language. I could even relate more to the information I was sharing with the audience. It was also rewarding to look at some Native Spanish speakers nodding their heads and smiling while I talked.”
“It was a challenge — a fun challenge, indeed — to explain or translate musical concepts for an audience who hasn’t been as exposed to classical music and its history,” she added.
As for the music, Sáez observed, “You don’t get to hear Bach’s motets performed too often. Maybe because it requires a professional group of singers with good vocal technique to manage those long melismatic phrases. But when performed with a good ensemble who understands the style and sings with feeling, Bach music is magical. You feel his soul reaching out to you.”
Sharing Sáez’s enthusiasm for the music is Arthur LaRue, who first sang Bach with ChorSymphonica in 2012. The baritone appreciates Roe’s “high standards,” and enjoys the uncommon opportunity to perform with an orchestra. LaRue has sung this Bach motet before – “perhaps 25 years ago with another excellent, and demanding, conductor [Rilling, Roe’s teacher],” he said. “I know that many consider it difficult. That’s OK with me because I enjoy a challenge –.and I do love J.S. Bach.”
ChorSymphonica’s third annual Wheaton Conversation Concert will begin at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20 at Hughes United Methodist Church, 10700 Georgia Ave., Wheaton. Admission is free, a $20 donation is suggested. Visit https://chorsymphonica.org.