Years ago, when the New Haven Oratorio Choir’s artistic director Daniel Shaw was in graduate school, he walked into a bar in Vienna at 2:30 a.m. and heard, for the first time, Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, blasting through the sound system. “I knew I was hearing something right then,” he said, “that was important to my life.”
We’ve all had those moments—in bars, on buses—when we hear the right song at just the right time. The desire to create that moment for other people is part of what guides Shaw in his choices of music for the choir.
And part of what guides the Oratorio Choir, apart from the desire to sing, is the community of members and audience that has grown up around it—and keeps growing. The choir follows every rehearsal with a trip to Archie Moore’s, and every concert with a party for everyone who shows up.
Though first and foremost, of course, is the music.
Last Friday’s concert at the Church of the Redeemer on Whitney Avenue began with the world premiere of Alleluia by Jacob Reed (b. 1981), a quiet, poignant piece that employed simple, straightforward harmonies to rich effect.
Following this were Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, a wonderfully inventive piece that took as its text a long and truly quirky unfinished poem by 18th-century poet Christopher Smart, and two poems of Robert Frost that composer Randall Thompson set to music in 1959.
A series of shorter pieces rounded out the program, mixing Haydn, Brahms, Samuel Barber, and Ralph Vaughn Williams with young composers Antoine Miannay (b. 1988) and Ryan Homsey (b. 1979), who set Tennyson text to music for his piece, Ring Out, Wild Bells.
Shaw brings such variety and quality to the program by constantly looking for new music, and particularly music by young composers. Some of them he knows or reaches out to personally. Others he finds through acquaintances in the world of choral music.
“I have to make sure that I like the music because otherwise I can’t conduct it,” Shaw said. “And you have to trust that the audience is going to like it. If you start conducting things you don’t like but you know the audience likes, then you start to lie.”
Does the choir like the music? “The easiest way to tell if the choir likes it,” Shaw said, “is to just look at them.”
Judging from choir and audience reactions, they were thrilled.
After the concert, soprano and choir president Mary Clark invited choir and audience alike into a reception room for the afterparty.
There partygoers found food and drink in ample supply.
Accompanist Alexis Zingale put people in the right frame of mind with seasonal tunes on the piano. When the room was full, choir board member and bass Mike Cocchi stood on the piano bench for a moment to announce that they’d start singing carols.
Quickly everyone passed around music books, and the singing began while the party continued.
When the caroling was done, choir members headed out for an after-afterparty at Archie Moore’s. Meanwhile, those of us who were in the audience walked out of the reception hall with all the new music we had heard still playing in our ears.
“I closed my eyes during that one”—Reed’s piece— “so all I could do was hear it,” an audience member was heard to say. It must have arrived at just the right time.