Columbus Symphony Chorus: A Premiere and a Celebration

Ronald Jenkins, ready to conduct the Columbus Symphony Chorus for another 30 years.(Photo: First Community Church)
Ronald Jenkins, ready to conduct the Columbus Symphony Chorus for another 30 years.(Photo: First Community Church)

The Columbus Symphony Chorus is front and center in concerts this weekend in the Ohio Theatre. My desert island piece Brahms’ German Requiem is something our singing neighbors have always done splendidly.

Jean- Marie Zeitouni conducts the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Brahms’ German Requiem, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville Summer of 1915 and the world premiere of Of Songs and Singing by Stephen Paulus, this weekend in the Ohio Theatre. Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.

Stepen Paulus will join me for pre-concert talks a hour before each performance in the Ohio Theatre.

Classical 101 will broadcast this concert on Sunday, May 12 at 1 pm.

New to everyone will be Of Songs and Singing for Mixed Chorus and Orchestra by Paulus. Based in Minnesota, Paulus is America’s pre-eminent composer for choral music. Our symphony and chorus get the premiere of this work, commissioned by the CSO Chorus honoring their conductor, Ronald Jenkins.

I spoke with Messrs, Paulus and Jenkins, although not together but in consecutive conversations. I’ve woven each into this interview.

CP: Ron, what did you think when you first saw the score of Of Songs and Singing?

RJ:  Well, it was a composer’s score in Stephen’s handwriting, and like most composers very hard to read. The first time I actually got a printed score I played through the second movement and I liked it. I didn’t really love it until the chorus sang it in rehearsal. It was so much different hearing it sung rather than just looking at it. After the first rehearsal, the chorus just sat in silence for several seconds. Then, there was instant applause!

CP: The way this came about is a special story.

RJ: The CSO Chorus got together and formed a committee.  Kim Boyd, who teaches at Otterbein and who was chair of the chorus of that time, said, “I think we should commission something for Ron’s 25th anniversary.” So they came to me and said, “Who would be your composer of choice?” That was not difficult. Stephen Paulus, without question the finest American composer for chorus and orchestra together. I was honored and humbled.

CP: How was the money raised for the commission?

RJ: The chorus raised the money. This was five years ago now, and you’ll remember the orchestra was then in “transition.” When we came back to it, some additional funding needed to be raised and that happened very quickly.

I think from a couple of CSO board members who stepped forward. Finally the chorus passed the hat and raised another $5,000. It’s amazing the chorus has for the most part paid for the work but have also done the work to learn the music. Quite frankly, the credit goes to the chorus.

CP: Stephen, you have great poetry in this work with Walt Whitman, Rumi and Shakespeare. How do you choose texts for your choral music?

SP: The direction was from Ron that he wanted to have something having to do with the joy of song. I said let’s narrow it down to the joy of song, singing, singers — all that he wanted to celebrate having led the chorus for 30 years.

CP: Do you need to be familiar with an ensemble before you can write for them?

SP: Most of the time, no. When you work with the Columbus Symphony Chorus, you know they’re good. It’s only if you have a specialized group or a community group that might be strong in one area and not so strong in another.

CP: You have your texts, you have your commission, how do you decide on your voicing and orchestration? Take me through your process.

SP: The orchestration is of course dictated by the ensemble. You have the raw materials, and I stuck to the text and wanted four movements. I thought of a four movement work. I liked the Walt Whitman poem talking about “That Music Always Round Me.” The text suggested a swirling or active orchestral accompaniment, and yet, I’m always careful to make sure the text comes through.

Ron had asked for one movement to be a cappella so they could excerpt something without having to hire an orchestra. Then Birdsong with its first line “Birdsong brings relief” is sort of a quirky little movement. I thought it would bring contrast to the other two movements. The last one, If Music Be the Food of Love, is a favorite text of Ron’s that I like a lot.

CP: Tell me about Ron Jenkins and this music.

SP: I’ve known Ron for many years and have always admired his work and his musicianship. I was approached a few years ago. We had quite a few discussions about texts.  I love the diversity of authors Whitman, Shakespeare, Rumi and a Sufi mystic. It’s one representation of what life is like today, full of contrast and diversity.

Of Song and Singing by Stephen Paulus has its world premiere this weekend in Columbus. The music is embargoed until then. Here’s another of Paulus’ choral works: Pilgrim’s Hymn

CP: Ron, this commission celebrates your 30 years as conductor of the Columbus Symphony Chorus. Thirty years ago, what did you find when you began work?

RJ: The chorus has been existence for about 20 years already. Evan Whallon, the long-time Columbus Symphony Music Director, wanted a chorus. He got together with Gertrude Kuehfuhs, who taught at OSU, and with Wilbur Walters and Donna Harper. They got the chorus organized and Evan directed it for years.

When we went to Carnegie Hall in 2000 to celebrate the orchestra’s 50th anniversary, we were celebrating also the chorus’ 40th anniversary. The chorus, the orchestra too, of course got a splendid review in The New York Times!

We rehearse every Tuesday night for two-and-a half hours, every week, all through the season. We actually begin work in August for the opening concerts in October.

I’m looking for good musicians, good ear, good intonation. Can you sight read a Bach chorale? We give them some ear training. Is the voice blendable?  Can they sing the rich 19th century sort of sound but can they also sing a straight tone? But above all that, there’s a certain personality of a person who loves music and you can tell would be committed to it.

I had a gentleman last year whose sight-reading wasn’t too good. But he made such an impassioned speech to me saying, “This is my time in life. I’m married, I have children, and now I want to do something for me. If you take me into this chorus, I will memorize my music. I will be the best chorus member you’ve ever had.” Sure enough, he’s been great.

There’s a young woman who sang in Sandy Mathias’ children’s chorus. She came back from college and auditioned for our chorus. She married and eventually she got pregnant. She did a rehearsal on Tuesday evening, had the baby on Friday, and was back 10 days later with a sitter. Went out at intermission to feed the baby, and then came back to sing! That’s extraordinary commitment.

CP: Aside from the Paulus premiere and Carnegie Hall, come on, after 30 years there must be other highlights.

RJ: One of them was the Brahms Requiem in 1992. At Weigel Hall. And the baritone was Nathan Gunn. I told Alessandro [Siciliani] that my father had died and I wanted to conduct the Brahms Requiem for my dad. Alessandro helped me get the soloists. We had his then-sister-in-law. Wonderful. And we got Nathan who had just won the Met auditions.

During the performance I had some kind of an experience in the last movement. I went out-of-body. It felt like I was watching it happen, like I was still conducting. I panicked. I thought, “What’s happening? Did I get lost in the music?” It was other worldly. The Brahms Requiem can do that for you.

The Brahms is an emotional piece, but it’s so incredibly constructed. The first movement has no open strings at all and has that darker color.  And with the text, the people are comforted immediately. In the third movement, “I hope in thee” leads into that wonderful fugue “And nothing shall move them.” There’s pedal point D going on forever. Rolling that D, holding one note with this incredible piece going on on top of that. God indeed will provide and protect.

CP: The Paulus is written for you and the chorus. We will broadcast the premiere as we do all the Columbus Symphony concerts. Are there plans for a commercial recording of Of Songs and Singing?

RJ: That would be wonderful. I like to describe Paulus’ music as “cleansing the palate.” It’s big and clear. Big chords, lot of melody and emotional punch. He’s modern and he’s tonal.

CP: In listening to Paulus’ other music, I always want to start singing!

RJ: The big thing was the text.The project was on the shelf for a few years. When we came back to it a few years ago, we started exchanging ideas of texts. Paulus said, “Let’s narrow it down.” I told him the work could be spiritual but not overly religious. We have many religious backgrounds in the chorus and many secular people. The one thing we all agree on is music and singing.

We did a lot of this through the mail. Shakespeare and Rumi, and then he found this Walt Whitman poem:

“The music is always round me, unceasing, unending, yet long untaught. I did not hear, but now the chorus. I hear and am elated.”

What a great line for the chorus to sing! The Rumi is called Birdsong. It’s the third movement.

“Birdsong brings relief to my longing. I’m just as ecstatic as they are, but with nothing to say. Please universal soul, practise some song or something through me.”

That’s the hope of every musician. They will be given something to sing that will enrich their lives and enrich the lives of the people they are singing for.

And at the end,  ”If music be the food of love, sing on.” Shakespeare says play on, but we’re singing on! And there’s one refrain repeated four times, “You are music everywhere,” that comes back to a final “Sing on.” So powerful!

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