In a recent interview Maestro
Lyndon Woodside, Music Director of the Oratorio Society of New York, talked about the
Oratorio Society's upcoming concert of Bach's Magnificat at Carnegie Hall (March
Q. I am told that the Oratorio Society of
New York (OSNY) will be performing Bach's Magnificat on Monday March 12th at
Carnegie Hall. Is this the first time the group will be performing the work?
A. No, the OSNY first performed the work in 1915, with other
performances in 1956 and 1971. In the 1915 performance at Carnegie Hall the soprano
soloist was Marie Sundelius. A soloist at the Metropolitan Opera (who created the
roles of La Ciesca in Gianni Schicchi and the Monitor in Suor Angelica) she
was a very important voice teacher in NYC. Her students included many opera stars of the
first half of the 20th century, as well as famed voice teacher Edward Zambara.
Q. So the OSNY hasn't performed the work since 1971. The Bach Magnificat
is one of the most popular works in the choral repertoire. Why have 30 years passed
since the OSNY last performed it?
A. I became music director in 1973, and early on felt that this work
wasn't really appropriate for a chorus the size of the OSNY. (After all, Bach first
performed it with less than 20 singers and a similarly sized orchestra.) Performing the
complicated contrapuntal writing of the piece with the proper clarity is quite difficult
for a chorus our size. But now I feel that the OSNY has reached a level of much
greater musical skill, with the ability to sing it accurately. I think it will prove
to be quite an accomplishment for the OSNY.
Q. Tell me about the piece. What do you think inspired it?
A. Basically I think he was simply fulfilling the duties of his
position; to supply music for the occasions of the liturgical year.
Q. A practical man. When did Bach compose it?
A. It was first performed in 1723 on Christmas Day, Bach's first year
as in Leipzig. Bach had just recently become Cantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig, the
post he would hold for most of the rest of his life. This was his first work for a
major holiday for the good burghers of Leipzig, so it was important. They were accustomed
to high quality liturgical music. So it was important he provide an impressive
Q. In which he most definitely succeeded. What about the
A. The text was chosen from the seasonal Advent liturgical text of the
time, as Bach was writing for Christmas services. Remember that in this new position
Bach was responsible for providing music to the 4 leading churches of Leipzig on a weekly
basis. He wrote nearly 300 cantatas as Cantor of Leipzig, two of which we are also
performing at this same concert.
Q. As opposed to the usual four part SATB format of choral
works, Bach chose to use 5 choral and 5 solo parts. Why?
A. My guess is that it follows his usual practice of writing for the
particular forces at hand. Not to mention that he didn't have to worry about paying
union scale to the musicians.
Q. Somewhere around 1730 Bach made changes to the work. What
changes were made, and any speculation as to why?
A. This later version is the one we will be performing at Carnegie
Hall. The most significant change was shifting the key to D Major. The initial
version of the Magnificat was in the key of E-flat Major. If you absolutely
forced me to make a guess, I might suggest the key change was for the trumpets, as D Major
is a much easier key for them to play in. He also took out 4 hymns that had been
sung as part of the work; "Von Himmel hoch, da komm ich her" sung after the Et
exultavit, "Freut euch und jubilierat" which followed the Quia fecit,
after the Fecit potentiam came "Gloria in excelsis" and "Virga Jesse
floruit" was heard after Esuriantes implevit. Plus in various places
the harmonies were smoothed out, some rhythmic changes were made in various spots, and
there were some orchestral adjustments.
Q. Why did you choose to perform the latter version?
A. Personal taste -- I don't care much for the Christmas insertions.
Q. What is it that attracts you to the work?
A. It is a wonderfully crafted, exciting and satisfying piece of
music. The intricate construction is astonishing, made even more so by how
accessible it is for the listener. Plus, in selecting it, I knew it was wonderful
music that I was sure the chorus would love singing.
Q. Having conducted the work nearly a dozen times, how do you keep it
fresh each time?
A. I never have to think about keeping it fresh, for every time I
start working on it I find more that I never discovered before. And I make changes
in the performance based on these new discoveries, such as how to better voice the
thematic relationships more successfully. I change the aspects that I emphasize in
different movements. I change tempi, trying to select the most success ones for the
work. This time, for example, I've made the first movement slower than my prior
performances, while I have made the Gloria slightly faster.
In general, I think I have a more complete architectural/dynamic plan for each
movement. Having had experience with the Magnificat before, I now have a
better sense of where the difficulties are, and I can better prepare and perform the work.
Q. Any points that an active listener might want to take special note
of in the performance?
A. Ideally, I would hope that the listener will most receive what they
hear and let the music speak to them. I think it will be most helpful for the
listener to read the text and consider how Bach has musically colored the text, striking
just the right relationship between the spirit of the text and the musical depiction of
Q. Can you give me any specifics?
A. In the Gloria, to match the text "in the highest",
Bach builds a beautiful, yet complex, ascending line. To start, the choral lines
overlap in an ascending figure, and follow the natural progression from Bass to first
Soprano. Yet as Bach changes from that basic structure, intermingling, and even
reversing, the vocal entrances, you still get the feeling of the music ascending even
higher. In the Tenor aria Desposuit potentes, listen to the strength it takes
to "tear down the mighty", with the first and second violins in unison. In
Fecit potentiam, hear how square and stable it begins, and yet when the text talks
about "scattering" how Bach suddenly brings in 16th notes and makes
the music sound scattered. In the final movement, when the words are "as it was
in the beginning" note how Bach references the music from the first movement,
matching the meaning of the text.
I have also spoken at length with the chorus about the underlying rhythmic nature of
the piece, which has a very jazzy feel to it, which I want them to bring out in the
performance. There is actually a very strong dance quality to the rhythms of Bach's
Q. For the choral musical fan, how will this upcoming performance
differ from other recent performances they might have attended around New York?
A. Basically, it will be different because of what my approach is to
the work. No two conductors fully agree on all aspects of an interpretation.
More specifically, I have instructed the chorus to use the Germanic pronunciation of
Latin, as opposed to the Italian style Latin listeners are used to; in which the
consonants are pronounced as they would be in Italian. For instance, I have asked
the choir to sing a hard 'g' in generationes, as opposed to the soft 'g' they might
be accustomed to. Furthermore, I am partial to the scholarship behind the Muller
edition of the score that we are using, which is fairly new. You may not know it,
but Bach scribbled his compositions, not always making each note particularly clear.
I think Muller has a good handle on what Bach really did write.
Q. Speaking of special things about this upcoming performance, you
have a wonderful group of soloists slated. Tell me about them.
A. Cyndia Sieden is an extraordinary Soprano with an unbelievable high
range; able to truly sing a G above high C. She has recorded the arias that Mozart
specifically wrote for Aloysia Weber. (The CD is Arias for Aloysia Weber on
the Glossa label, with the great John Elliot Gardiner conducting.) She is on the
roster at the Metropolitan Opera. A soprano with a brilliant, silvery- sounding voice,
with great flexibility.
Carla Wood, Mezzo-Soprano, is now singing with opera companies all around the country
and sings often with Eve Queler and the Opera Orchestra of NY. She produces a
very warm, very lovely sound. She is also on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera.
Jane Dutton, Mezzo-Soprano, is also very busy with opera companies all over the
US. She is also on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera. In addition. this
season she had a great success in the Donizetti at City Opera. She has a beautiful,
Daniel Weeks, a new young tenor on the scene, has a wonderful, exciting voice and is
already looking forward to performances around the country. He is a very complete artist
and an exciting performer. This performance marks his Carnegie Hall debut.
Robert Pomakov is a most accomplished young bass at about the age of twenty. He
won the OSNY Solo Competition last season. This will be his Carnegie Hall debut. He
is amazingly vocally mature for a man of his young age and should have a brilliant career.
He is an extremely dynamic singer with a wide range. The audience should really
Q. Do you have any special musical goals for the concert?
A. To do it well.
Q. What do you hope people take away from the concert?
A. I hope that they are physically and spiritually uplifted by an
upbeat evening that should be invigorating to the listener.
Thank you, Maestro.
--Bob Unterman, March 2001