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Dessoff Choirs Ends Walt Whitman Season With Eve Beglarian And Matthew Aucoin


Hailed as "one of the great amateur choruses of our time" (New York Today) for its "full-bodied sound and suppleness" (The New York Times), The Dessoff Choirs ends its 94th season on the 200th anniversary of the birth of American poet and journalist Walt Whitman (1819-1892). For the final concert of a season-long celebration of Whitman's bicentennial, Dessoff's 50 singers will perform exquisite choral settings of Whitman's poetry, including works by Howard Hanson and Gregg Smith as well as the world premieres of Eve Beglarian's None More Than You, Ian Sturges Milliken's Quicksand Years, and Matthew Aucoin's choral settings of Crossing, both commissioned by Dessoff. (Please read below for complete program details.)

"The Dessoff Choirs is thrilled to be premiering new works by two of the most innovative composers in the business today, Eve Beglarian and Matthew Aucoin," says Malcolm J. Merriweather, ninth Music Director and conductor of The Dessoff Choirs. "I am delighted that we are contributing to the Whitman choral repertory."

In None More Than You, a new Dessoff commissioned work, Eve Beglarian sets texts taken from the poem "A Song of the Rolling Earth," published in Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The piece alternates the choral sounds of Dessoff singing Whitman's text live with pre-recorded soundscapes by the Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. By using fragments of words-consonants alone, and then vowels-the recording creates a backdrop for the chorus. As Beglarian recently told The New Yorker, "It's a rare breed of singer who's able, through feats of diction, to make English intelligible in opera. But if you're going to set a text, presumably you care about the fucking text!"

Closing the concert is the world premiere of choral arrangements of scenes from Matthew Aucoin's critically acclaimed opera, Crossing. Aucoin is both Artist-in-Residence at Los Angeles Opera and co-Artistic Director of the newly formed American Modern Opera Company. In 2018, he was a recipient of a John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly referred to as a MacArthur "Genius Grant." According to Aucoin, Crossing "is a musical fantasia that imagines and realizes the many forces-generosity, insecurity, longing, selflessness, bravery, unfulfilled sexual desire, a need to escape his own life, a boundless kindness-that caused a man named Walter Whitman, Jr. to forge an indelible embodiment of the American spirit in his poetry." According to The New York Times, the opera's score "draws upon myriad modernist and Neo-Classical styles, with hints of Britten, Bernstein, Thomas Adès, techno and much more. With his acute ear and abundant technique, Mr. Aucoin deftly folds diverse musical strands into this restless score, which can shift from skittish frenzy to stretches of aching lyricism."

Dessoff's concert begins with the 12-minute Song of Democracy (1957) by Howard Hanson. Setting excerpts from Whitman's "An Old Man's Thought of School" and "Thou Mother with thy equal brood," Hanson tried to imbue the work with "all of the dramatic impact of which I was capable." The program continues with the world premiere of Quicksand Years (2017) by Ian Sturges Milliken. Named for the 1855 Leaves of Grass poem, "Quicksand Years" embellishes Whitman's observations about the afterlife. The Dessoff Choirs also presents an encore performance of As Adam, Early in the Morning (2018) by Douglas Geers, commissioned and premiered by Dessoff in November 2018. Known for integrating technologies into concert music, Geers includes sound frequencies from an audio recording of Whitman reading from his poem "America."

The choral celebration of Whitman would not be complete without Two Whitman Songs (1984) by Gregg Smith. Smith's devotion to choral music was greater than that of almost any composer of his generation. During the second half of the 20th century, Smith elevated the standard for professional choral singing. Two Whitman Songs is drawn from a two-part Whitman poem, "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun," which was written during the Civil War and is part of the collection Drum-Taps. The first part of the poem is a paean to nature, while the second extols the excitement of New York City. The Hunter College High School Senior Chorus will join Dessoff for the performance of this work.

Walt Whitman, born May 31, 1819, is one of the most influential voices in American and world literature. "He was an American icon whose life and works have been an inspiration for artists and musicians everywhere," says Merriweather. "His is a kind of distinct and distinctive American voice that has brought joy to so many people in our country and around the world." Whitman himself described music as "a god, yet completely human...supplying in certain wants and quarters what nothing else could supply." Not only was Whitman outspoken in his love for music, he also inspired more than 500 composers who have drawn from his work. "Many composers have been attracted to Whitman's exuberant spirit, democratic ideals, and timelessness," adds Merriweather.

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