Marking its first live, in-person performance in almost two years, The Dessoff Choirs kick-starts its 97th season with the New York premiere of Considering Matthew Shepard co-directed by WQXR’s Elliott Forrest and Rod Caspers. This year’s traditional holiday programs include Dessoff’s debut performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, presenting Margaret Bonds’s Christmas cantata, The Ballad of the Brown King, along with works by jazz great Mary Lou Williams. The season concludes with the New York premiere of the orchestral editions of two neglected Bonds cantatas: Credo (edition by Dr. Rollo Dillworth of Temple University) inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’s essay, and Simon Bore the Cross (edition by Malcolm J. Merriweather), a collaboration with Langston Hughes. Dessoff welcomes some of today’s rising opera stars as soloists including Matthew Cahill (New York City Opera), Laquita Mitchell (San Francisco Opera), Markel Reed (Metropolitan Opera), Noah Stewart (Covent Garden), Lucia Bradford (New York City Opera), and more. (The complete season schedule is below.)
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As Malcolm J. Merriweather, Dessoff’s ninth Music Director explains, “The Dessoff Choirs has been bringing beautiful music to New Yorkers for nearly 100 years. It was challenging and heartbreaking to not perform with each other and for our audiences for the past two years. We look forward to returning more resilient, energetic, humble, and generous. I have no doubt our choristers will sing their hearts out!”
The 2021-22 season shines a spotlight on African-American composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), a significant figure in the fight for civil rights. This season’s concerts mark the latest in Dessoff’s ongoing exploration of Bonds’s important work. In 2019, Dessoff released The Ballad of the Brown King (ArkivMusic/Avie) to much acclaim. According to WQXR Radio it was one the Best Classical Recordings of the year. “
The Dessoff Choirs
The Dessoff Choirs, one of the leading choruses in New York City, is an independent chorus with an established reputation for pioneering performances of choral works from the Renaissance era through the 21st century. Since its founding in 1924, Dessoff’s concerts, professional collaborations, community outreach, and educational initiatives are dedicated to stimulating public interest in and appreciation of choral music as an art form that enhances the culture and life of our times. With repertoire ranging over a wide variety of eras and styles, Dessoff’s musical acumen and flexibility has been recognized with invitations from major orchestras for oratorios and orchestral works. Past performances include Britten’s War Requiem and Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 with Lorin Maazel in his final performances as Music Director with the New York Philharmonic.
Over the course of its nearly 100-year history, Dessoff has presented many world premieres, including works by Virgil Thomson, George Perle, Paul Moravec, and Ricky Ian Gordon; the first American performance in nearly 100 years of Montemezzi’s opera La Nave with Teatro Grattacielo; and the American premieres of Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 5 and Sir John Tavener’s all-night vigil, The Veil of the Temple. Dessoff’s recent discography includes REFLECTIONS, featuring music by Convery, Corigliano, Moravec, and Rorem; GLORIES ON GLORIES, a collection of American song featuring composers from Billings to Ives; and MARGARET BONDS: THE BALLAD OF Nearly 60 years after its premiere, conductor Malcolm J. Merriweather and the phenomenal New York-based Dessoff Choirs have at last provided a way to experience Margaret Bonds’ genius cantata, The Ballad of the Brown King.” Dessoff brings this Christmas cantata to the stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of the choir’s annual holiday programming. Wrapping up Dessoff’s season is the New York premiere of the orchestral version of Bonds’s little-known Credo. THE BROWN KING AND SELECTED SONGS, a debut recording of Margaret Bonds’s crowning achievement, which was cited as a “Best Classical Recording of 2019” by WQXR-FM Radio. The Dessoff Choirs is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and by funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature. Please visit dessoff.org for more information.
Malcolm J. Merriweather
Conductor Malcolm J. Merriweather is Music Director of The Dessoff Choirs, founded in 1924, and known for pathbreaking performances of choral works from the pre-Baroque era through the 21st century. Merriweather enjoys a versatile career with performances ranging from the songs of Margaret Bonds to gems of the symphonic choral repertoire. The baritone can be heard on the GRAMMY-nominated recording of Paul Moravec’s Sanctuary Road (NAXOS). Hailed by Opera News as “moving…expertly interpreted,” Margaret Bonds: The Ballad of the Brown King & Selected Songs (AVIE) has earned considerable praise around the world.
An Associate Professor, he is Director of Choral Studies and Voice Department Coordinator at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, and the Artistic Director of “Voices of Haiti,” a 60-member children’s choir in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, operated by the Andrea Bocelli Foundation.
Merriweather is excited to resume in-person rehearsals and concerts. Highlights of his 2021-2022 season include the world premiere performance and recording of Credo and Simon Bore the Cross by Margaret Bonds; a performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of Margaret Bonds’s Ballad of the Brown King; and performances with Syracuse Opera, North Carolina Opera, and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. During the pandemic, Merriweather’s 2020-2021 season has been enriched with guest lectures and virtual appearances around the world, most notably at Yale University and Columbia University. He has inaugurated a series of virtual events entitled “Dessoff Dialogues.” These conversations emphasize matters of social justice, equity, and inclusion as they relate to classical music and the choral art.
Merriweather’s 2019-2020 season included Fauré’s Requiem; Rutter’s The Sprig of Thyme; and Gregg Smith’s Continental Harmonist with The Dessoff Choirs. He was engaged by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra for Paul Moravec’s Sanctuary Road, and at the Eastman School of Music for the American Choral Directors Association Eastern Division Conference in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. The COVID-19 global pandemic forced cancellations with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic.
Merriweather holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Conducting from the studio of Kent Tritle at the Manhattan School of Music, where his doctoral dissertation “Now I walk in Beauty, Gregg Smith: A Biography and Complete Works Catalog” constituted the first complete works list for the composer and conductor. He received Master of Music degrees in Choral Conducting and in Vocal Performance from the studio of Rita Shane at the Eastman School of Music, as well as his Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from Syracuse University, summa cum laude. His professional affiliations include membership in Pi Kappa Lambda, the American Choral Directors Association, and Chorus America. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram @maestroweather.
The Dessoff Choirs 2021-22 Season
Considering Matthew Shepard
Saturday, November 6, 2021, 4:00-6:00 p.m.; Pre-concert talk: 3:15 p.m.
New York Society of Ethical Culture Concert Hall, 2 West 64th Street, New York City
Marking its New York premiere, Dessoff presents a lightly staged performance of Considering Matthew Shepard, a three-part fusion oratorio about Matthew Shepard, a young, gay student who was kidnapped, severely beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die. The story is illustrated by a variety of musical styles seamlessly woven into a unified whole and a wide range of poetic and soulful texts by poets Hildegard of Bingen, Lesléa Newman, Michael Dennis Browne, and Rumi. Passages from Matt’s personal journal, interviews and writings from his parents Judy and Dennis Shepard, newspaper reports and additional texts by Johnson and Browne are poignantly appointed throughout the work. Performers: The Dessoff Choirs, Dessoff Orchestra, Matthew Cahill (Matthew Shepard), Tami Petty (soprano), Markel Reed (baritone), Brooklyn College Conservatory Singers. Co-directed by WQXR’s Elliott Forrest (Peabody-winning broadcaster, producer and director) and Rod Caspers.
Considering Matthew Shepard Craig Hella Johnson (b. 1962)
Friday, December 3, 2021, 7:00-9:00 p.m.
Union Theological Seminary, 3041 Broadway, New York City
Dessoff holds its popular annual Handel Messiah Sing. Audience members are invited to join the choir for Messiah choruses; solos are performed by Dessoff members.
Messiah George Friderick Handel (1685-1759)
Christmas at The Met
Sunday, December 19, 2021, 3:00-5:00 p.m.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Avenue, New York City
The Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra usher in the winter solstice with Margaret Bonds’s Christmas cantata, The Ballad of the Brown King, along with shimmering choral works by Mary Lou Williams, featuring Black Christ of the Andes as the centerpiece. These works display the bittersweet intersection of music, poetry, religion, and the Civil Rights movement in America.
The Ballad of the Brown King was written in 1954/1960 to a libretto by Bonds’s long- time collaborator, Langston Hughes. The cantata focuses on the journey of the Three Kings through the lens of Balthazar, the Black king. Dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., the piece is characterized by call-and-response textures, jazz harmonies, gospel vocalizations, calypso rhythms, and syncopated gestures. Using these styles Bonds affirms Black identity and its place in classical music during a tumultuous time in United States history.
Similarly, jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams wrote Black Christ of the Andes out of inspiration from the Second Vatican Council and the Civil Rights movement. A devout Catholic, Williams often infused her music with themes of social justice, and she served as an activist from the stage and podium.
Performers: The Dessoff Choirs, Dessoff Orchestra, Laquita Mitchell (soprano), Noah Stewart (tenor), Lucia Bradford (mezzo-soprano), Ashley Jackson (harp), Nathaniel Gumbs (organ), Steven Ryan (piano)
The Ballad of the Brown King Credo
Act of Contrition
St. Martin de Porres I have a dream
Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981)
Thursday, April 28, 2022, 7:30-9:30 p.m.; Pre-concert talk: 6:45 p.m.
Church of the Heavenly Rest, 1085 5th Avenue, New York City
Dessoff continues its mission to perform rarely heard choral masterpieces with the New York orchestral premiere of Margaret Bonds’s Credo. Portions of the work were performed in 1972, just four weeks after the composer’s untimely death. In the mid- 1960s, Bonds focused her attention on the writings of civil rights activist and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois’s essay Credo (1913) so inspired Bonds that she immediately began to compose her cantata on its text. The seven-movement piece was dedicated to the memories of poet Langston Hughes and singer-actress Abbie Mitchell. The text promotes unity and social equality, and Bonds expertly portrays the sentiment with rich harmonies and exciting motifs.
Simon Bore the Cross, an Easter cantata written in collaboration with Langston Hughes, is another rarely performed Bonds work. As in Ballad of the Brown King, the protagonist is again a black man, Simon, a role model for helping lift the lives of others. By performing and recording these overlooked works, Dessoff shines a light on Bonds’s neglected but important contribution to the American music canon.
This concert is made possible in part through the support of the Church of Heavenly Rest NYC and Reverend Matthew Heyd.
I BELIEVE: CREDO (world premiere) Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) Simon Bore the Cross