NYCS Music Director David Hayes on Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts and Reimagining Concert Experiences

The New York Choral Society (NYCS), in partnership with The New School College of Performing Arts, will present Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts on November 18 at 7:30pm and 19 at 2:30pm at The New School’s Tishman Auditorium; admission is free. Ellington’s colossal work has not been staged in a concert hall setting in New York City in 35 years due to the complex scale of the production: the Sacred Concerts combine elements of jazz, classical music, choral music, spiritual, gospel, blues, visual art, and dance. The evening will feature acclaimed jazz vocalist Brianna Thomas, baritone and composer Milton Suggs, painter James Little, whose work was on display in the 2022 Whitney Biennial, Broadway performer Daniel J. Watts, most recently seen in Hamilton and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, the New School Studio Orchestra, and more than 100 voices of The New York Choral Society under the baton of David Hayes and Keller Coker. NYCS Music Director, David Hayes—who also serves as Music Director of the Mannes Orchestra and Staff Conductor of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra—tells us about this momentous cultural event, and more.

How did you decide to take on Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Concerts”?

During the pandemic I spent all the time rethinking about the kinds of programming we’re doing. I always did a lot of contemporary music, but I realized that I wasn’t really exploring as broad a palette of composers as I should be. So, I began exploring a lot of African-American, Latin, and Asian composers, historical and contemporary. I came across a very cryptic, small reference to a series of pieces by Duke Ellington called Sacred Concerts. I knew Duke Ellington’s music, but the Ellington I knew was of the 40s. He is a genius composer, one of the greatest composers of the mid-20th century. He was much more than a jazz idiom composer as most people got to know him early on. At the same time, he wanted to explore bigger compositional ideas; he was even doing that in the 30s. In the 50s and 60s Ellington explored how to integrate his language in symphonic music and this culminated in the Sacred Concerts. He was commissioned by Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to do the first one in 1965, the second one came along a few years later, and the last one was in the early 70s just a few months before he died.  Of course, this wasn’t the only thing he was composing between 1965 and 1973. He was writing ballet scores for Alvin Ailey, which is amazing! It shows how he was, again, expanding his way of thinking. 

So, I listened to the Sacred Concerts and thought, wow, this is really eclectic! It’s solo jazz, jazz orchestra, choral music in so many different guises like a cappella or as backup or spoken rhythm. I thought, as we’re coming back into live performance, it just seems like the right thing at this time, a way of showing that we are expanding our concerts and our composer table. We hire our orchestras all the time and in New York we have fantastic jazz musicians. But I realized that this was a little out of my element: I can rehearse the chorus but I’m not sure how to rehearse a jazz orchestra and put together the right people. My colleague at The New School, Keller Coker was music director of the American Metropole Orchestra in Los Angeles for 15 years. So, we decided to collaborate and found wonderful solo partners, Brianna Thomas and Milton Suggs, and Daniel J. Watts for the tap dance concerto—the Sacred Concerts include a tap dance concerto for jazz orchestra, tap dancer, and chorus called “David Danced Before the Lord.” We wanted to do something more than present this work as static concerts at The New School’s Tishman Auditorium. The Tishman’s back wall becomes a video screen, so I thought, why don’t we project imagery? What would complement what’s going on musically? So, we’re working with James Little who’s selecting certain images from his paintings over 40 years to match certain moments in the music. It’s a big production!

Sacred Concerts collaborators: top row: Brianna Thomas, Milton Suggs, Daniel J Watts; bottom row: David Hayes, James Little, Keller Coker (Photos courtesy of the New York Choral Society)

Yes, and you’re bringing the “Sacred Concerts” back on stage here after 35 years! What do you think this initiative means for New York City’s cultural life?

It is part and parcel of what many of us are doing in the arts. It helps with the kind of opening of people’s cultural minds where they’re willing to have experiences that they never considered. The silos are breaking down and, as a result, maybe people are thinking: “Normally I hear Tchaikovsky, maybe I should go hear some Ellington.” As people are becoming more eclectic, they’re looking for concert experiences as opposed to just specific repertoire where they’re going to just sit and listen for an hour and a half. We see that going on at Geffen Hall: on opening week, there was special lighting and all kinds of interesting stuff.  We’re trying to show that there are so many more elements to a concert. If we’re going to take all of this music that we love and keep it meaningful and appealing, we have to realize that the way people are consuming music is changing. We have to think about how we’re presenting it so that it speaks to their contemporary experience. What are the factors that make you want to go to a concert? You want to feel like it’s a special event. Let’s face it, the pandemic showed us that we can click on a link and see anything around the world. It’s not the same as experiencing it together with other people but clicking is easy to do. So, if you want people to come out you have to think more expansively about what the concert experience is actually giving them.

You’ve been the Music Director of the NYCS since 2012 while also maintaining an orchestra-conducting career. How does your orchestral conducting inform your choral conducting and vice versa?

It’s a very interesting question and I have talked about this over the years, because there are very few people who actually straddle both worlds equally. People are either more chorally focused and maybe occasionally they’ll do something orchestral or they’re orchestrally focused and do very little choral conducting. Unfortunately, it has been treated as two separate worlds. I grew up around a big symphony chorus; my grandmother sang in the Tanglewood Festival chorus which is the Boston Symphony chorus. As a kid I would go to rehearsals, and for me, chorus and orchestra weren’t different; I would happily listen to both of them together or separate. So, this idea that it’s either this or that never really entered into my mind, even though I trained orchestrally. I was a string player and trained at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia as an orchestral conductor, ostensibly. When I graduated, I found a position as assistant conductor of both the opera company in Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Singers which is a professional vocal ensemble. I got the job and later became the director. At the same time, I was back on faculty at Curtis working with the orchestra, so I had a first-class orchestra and first-class chorus, and I was living and working in both worlds constantly. That has continued to this day. I work with the Mannes Orchestra, I guest conduct orchestrally and chorally all the time, and of course I’m Music Director of the New York Choral Society. 

I feel that my choral conducting makes my orchestral conducting better and my orchestral conducting makes my choral conducting better. For orchestral conductors, clarity and rhythm are of utmost importance.  One of the things that they don’t talk about in training is the importance of the breath as initiator. The breath can be used to initiate a phrase and tempo and all kinds of different things. You can look over at the horn player, make eye contact instantly, and just breathe, and that’s the cue. It’s the best kind of cue because, with the breath, you are inviting them into the texture. If you work with singers a lot, you get used to the idea that you have to breathe with them. You have to be able to communicate their breath through your technique to the orchestra. If it’s a pianist, you have to communicate the musical breath, if you will, between the pianist and the orchestra. So, this issue of breath which very much comes from a vocal standpoint, is something that not many people pay attention to. 

The opposite side of that is that choral conductors tend to be more focused on texture and word color. They tend to be less technically clear which is what drives orchestras nuts when they work with a choral conductor. But that sense of color and shaping, that sense of the breathing line, if you could take all of that, bring it to the orchestral side and marry it to technique, you’ve got something interesting. On the other hand, if you can bring some of the orchestral technique, the rhythm and precision, to the choral work, then you’re starting to use influences between the two kinds of ensembles and the way that they make music. The bottom line is that there’s no such thing in my mind as choral conducting or orchestral conducting. It’s learning how to communicate with each ensemble and their different psychologies. At the same time, when you combine elements of both together, it makes for a really beautiful musical experience, a very flexible experience.  Anybody that works really assiduously in both kinds of ensembles can’t help but move elements of one to the other. 

New York Choral Society members (Peter Lau Photography)

What is your hope for the NYCS for the next decade? 

I hope the chorus continues to explore this idea of what a concert experience can be. I mean, what are the kinds of things that the chorus can do? Can we have chorus with dance or film? Yes, there are scores written for that. For instance, that there’s a very famous 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. In the 90s, Richard Einhorn wrote a score inspired by it, called Voices of Light and it’s meant to be for chorus, orchestra, and film. Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky is another perfect example. Most people know it through the cantata which is distilled down from the movie score, but the movie score itself is spectacular and many orchestras do it now because it’s so great to hear it live. There are so many composers that have written music of this kind. Why is it only orchestras that are thinking of programming in this way? Why aren’t choruses doing that, and why aren’t they commissioning new work that crosses these kinds of genres? 

We are in a visual society now, and a static image after a certain point is just not as compelling as something that has other elements that excite the senses. Some people say, just close your eyes and it should be all about the music. Yes, that’s great, but the bottom line is there’s a small percentage of people who can and want to do that. It’s not enough to sustain the art form. The question becomes: how do we present concerts in a way that doesn’t offend those people who want just a purely musical experience without what they would consider the trappings? How do we serve that constituency while at the same time creating a whole different constituency willing to come and support the organization and concert-going? I would love to see the chorus start commissioning. Well, we are commissioning in some way: visual responses to our performances, but I would like to see us commissioning new works and maybe works that are purposely multigenre. 

So, I hope NYCS stays adventurous and willing to expand boundaries. I hope they continue to reference the works of choral music that have come before us. It would be a shame if we did not hear the B-minor Mass or the Verdi Requiem in performance—these are important pieces in music history which should still be part of choruses’ offerings. But at the same time, it’s great to be curious about as many things as possible. Sometimes that means performing in a concert hall and sometimes in a museum or in the middle of a black box theater. Just be open to the possibilities and think about the best way for each piece of music to be experienced. 

Reserve tickets for Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts 

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Top Photo: David Hayes, Music Director of the New York Choral Society, courtesy of the New York Choral Society.

About Maria-Cristina Necula (178 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and the collection of poems "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have been featured in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Opera America," "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center, CUNY. In 2022, Maria-Cristina was awarded a New York Press Club Award in the Critical Arts Review category for her review of Matthew Aucoin's "Eurydice" at the Metropolitan Opera, published on Woman Around Town. She is a 2022-24 Fellow of The Writers' Institute at The Graduate Center.