Maestro Ted Sperling’s Polite Passions – from Broadway to Bach

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PROFILE: Interview with Ted Sperling, artistic director of MasterVoices (formerly the Collegiate Chorale);

PREVIEW: MasterVoices’ new presentation of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion – Carnegie Hall, February 9, 2017.

He’s soft-spoken, genial, elegantly self-possessed. It’s difficult to imagine him indulging in tirades, or hurling withering invective. He’s a nice guy.

He’s also brilliant, prodigiously talented, professionally indefatigable, and apparently liked by everyone.

Ted Sperling is, in short, a bit of a blessed paradox: probably the most mannerly guest at any dinner party, he is also one of today’s most accomplished, versatile – and, yes, passionate – practitioners of a craft long associated (at least in legend and popular perception) with overweening ego, ruthless demands, and dictatorial control. Ted Sperling is a classical conductor.

“What the world needs,” said famed Hollywood wag and pianistic prodigy Oscar Levant in an oft-quoted quip, “is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left.”

Stripped of facetiousness, the sentiment could well be about Sperling.

Ted Sperling, Photo: Laura Marie Duncan

Ted Sperling, Photo: Laura Marie Duncan

Actually, Sperling’s cv runs to quite a bit more than just conductor. Orchestrator, arranger, music director, stage director – even instrumentalist and vocalist – Sperling has notably straddled the worlds of commercial music theater and classical repertory with an ataractic poise and a seemingly native magnetic power to attract critical successes and professional accolades. He won both a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for his orchestrations (along with Bruce Coughlin and composer Adam Guettel) of 2005’s A Light in the Piazza, and has been hailed for his musical direction of a slew of hit Broadway revivals, including The King and I, The Full Monty and Sunday in the Park with George; all of this while, on the classical track, manning the podium of the Westchester Philharmonic Orchestra (of which he is principal conductor) and, since 2013, leading the internationally renowned “MasterVoices” – the new-minted name for the previous Collegiate Chorale, founded by Robert Shaw in 1941 – as the group’s artistic director.

The full, fierce authority Sperling exerts over orchestra and chorus alike invariably elicits expressive marvels. Where does it come from? One can but wonder at the submerged emotional resources, so discreetly plied by such economy of technique.

Of course, any appearance of effortlessness is really a product of long-cultivated discipline and deeply-rooted (if – in Sperling’s case – rigorously controlled and precisely channeled) passion.

And, indeed, that word “passion” took on its full freight and range of meanings – from rapturous emotion to salvific suffering – during a recent conversation with Sperling, on the cusp of his and his MasterVoices cohort’s premiere of their new rendering of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion, at Carnegie Hall on the evening of February 9, 2017.

What follows is a generous sampling of Sperling’s personal reflections and self-disclosures during that conversation, from his discussion of his profound appreciation for and grounding in the music of Bach, to the many happy accidents that have undergirded and enriched his career – the latter all welcome corroboration that, at least some of the time, the good guy finishes first.

Oh, and also look for one wee, early Easter-egg bonus of scandal, recounted from the early history of the Collegiate Chorale – a tidbit only inadvertently and obliquely glanced at by Sperling but, by fiat of ink-stained journalistic original sin, impossible not to exploit here.

So be it. “From the bonds of my sins” (with an assist from Sperling, MasterVoices, and the raptures of Bach’s choral trip to Golgotha) “set me free.”

Charles Geyer (to Ted Sperling): Now, you studied music as an undergraduate at Yale [an arbitrary initial remark, as by the time he entered Yale Sperling had already studied violin and keyboard from the age of 5, and done pre-college training at Juilliard]where you were a music major?

Ted Sperling: I was. I studied a lot of different things at Yale, including Baroque music. At the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments I learned to play harpsichord and continuo for pieces like [The St. John Passion]. I also took classes with Lawrence Dreyfus, a Bach scholar.

Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano, Photo: Dario Acosta

Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano, Photo: Dario Acosta

But when I left college, I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go in. I postponed auditions for Juilliard and Curtis [Institute of Music]. I didn’t feel quite ready to take those very strenuous conducting auditions.

I was looking for work in the City, and I decided to apprentice myself in both areas [classical and popular]. I was assistant conductor at the Stamford Symphony in Connecticut for a year, and I also applied to work with Paul Gemignani, Stephen Sondheim’s long-time musical director, as his intern. And he ended up offering me a job on Sunday in the Park with George, which started rehearsals in January of that year. So I did both [the orchestra work, and the Sondheim musical]for about half a year. I fell in love with the Broadway work – there was a lot of excitement about it, a lot of enthusiasm for new writing. And I loved the collaboration with all the different kinds of artists.

I decided to devote myself full-time to the theater; and I never did the Julliard audition, because once I had started working I didn’t feel like I wanted to go back to school. I did some private studying after that – conducting study with private teachers.

CG: So, having gotten into the thick of the commercial Broadway theater world for quite a few years, how did your introduction to the Collegiate Chorale come about?

TS: Well, it was a nice story actually. I’d always had a great love of the music of Kurt Weill, and also an interest in some of the nooks and crannies of the musical theater – not necessarily only the big, famous pieces. I became fascinated with a show of his [Weill’s] that he wrote with Ira Gershwin that nobody really knew, called The Firebrand of Florence, about [Renaissance artist] Benvenuto Cellini, from his own self-praising autobiography. He [Cellini] was a scoundrel – and a genius.

It’s Kurt Weill’s “big American operetta,” but the musical was not a commercial success. And it opened during a recording strike in New York, so it never had a cast album. I thought it was ripe for revival.

So I was trying to put together a concert of it for many years with a high school friend of mine, [but]it was too big a project for us at that time. We were still pretty much newbies. So I abandoned it with regret.

Then I heard that the Collegiate Chorale had programmed it [for presentation at Alice Tully Hall in March, 2009]. I was excited that the piece was going to be heard in New York, but sad that I wasn’t involved. I knew that Roger Rees was directing the evening. Roger and I had done a show together at Lincoln Center. And I ran into him at a cafe in Times Square and congratulated him on doing this program, and said “I’m so excited and sad at the same time,” and he said, “Well, don’t be sad yet. Because we may need a conductor.”

And it turned out that they did. Robert Bass, who was the longtime conductor of Collegiate Chorale [at that time], had gotten ill, and so they had hired Paul Gemignani to do Firebrand – and then Paul had to withdraw for personal reasons. So Roger, along with Jennifer [Collins; the Chorale’s executive director], offered it to me.

That was my introduction to the group, and it was a dream come true.

CG: Wow! Ted – at that point, you may have been about the only conductor around who really could have filled the breach! Who else really even knew the piece – right?

Jesse Blumberg, baritone, Photo: Arielle Doneson

Jesse Blumberg, baritone, Photo: Arielle Doneson

TS: It’s true. And, in a nice coincidence, they had already hired college friend Vickie [Victoria] Clark [currently a four-time Tony-Award-winner].

So that was a great introduction to the group. And after that, I met with Jennifer Collins and asked her to consider me for things that weren’t necessarily Broadway-oriented. I proposed doing a concert version of Ricky [Ian] Gordon’s opera, The Grapes of Wrath, and she took me up on that. We did it the next season [2010] at Carnegie Hall and it was a great success for the group, and it led to an ongoing guest relationship where I would do one program a year, basically, for them. And when they were looking for someone to come in as artistic director, to chart out the future artistic profile of the group and help steer it in this constantly changing environment in New York, they asked me to come aboard. That’s how it happened, and it was great, because it tapped into my earlier interest in classical music. I love working with orchestras and singers in this way. So it’s been a great new chapter for me.

CG: Of course, this chorus has been around a good long time, correct? Founded by the great conductor Robert Shaw back in 1941?

TS: He founded it and he conducted it for several years, before going on to conduct a smaller group called the Robert Shaw Chorale. This [the then “Collegiate Chorale”]was a bigger group that was primarily volunteer, and was meant to be a democratic group that really spanned all ages, all races, all religions – the “people’s chorus.”

But it immediately got into trouble with its host [and sponsor], Marble Collegiate Church. The minister who was in charge asked Robert Shaw to get rid of the Jews and the Blacks.

CG: Oh, my!

TS: Yes. So Shaw moved the chorus to a new place, but kept the name [i.e., “Collegiate Chorale”].

CG: Well, now, wait! Marble Collegiate Church was, famously, the pulpit of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, wasn’t it?

TS: Yes…. It was Revered Peale who made that “request.”

Jennifer Zetlan, soprano, J&J Photography

Jennifer Zetlan, soprano, J&J Photography

CG: Wow! That is strange and disturbing. Very interesting, though!

[Note: Indeed, this unsettling incident appears to be a matter of record, attested by multiple sources. One can find Robert Shaw’s own recollection of the scandalous episode in the full transcript of a late interview with him located here. And, in fairness to the memory of Dr. Peale – the world-famous author of The Power of Positive Thinking – it should also be observed that Shaw says he received a letter from the reverend, many years later, apologizing and repenting for his earlier bigotry. Indeed, Peale’s repentance went so far as to make public atonement in the form of a published piece, called “It’s Never Too Late.”]

CG: Robert Shaw was, of course, a fierce egalitarian and a crusader for civil rights, as well as a fantastic musical figure. Did you ever meet him?

TS: Sadly, no. He led chorale workshops at Carnegie Hall that I could have gone to, but I didn’t know I was going to be [leading the group he had founded]. Those are big shoes to fill. But, when I researched his programming, I found he was interested in a great diversity of music. He commissioned a lot of new works. He would do programs that started with Bach and ended with Broadway, or gospel. So I feel like I’m continuing in a great tradition of doing eclectic programming and commissions, and trying to carve a special niche for this group in a crowded landscape.

CG: Let’s talk about the St. John Passion. This is one of two great Passions by Bach [the other being the St. Matthew]. What is your take on the St. John?

TS: Well, it’s the slightly lesser known of the two, but for me it’s more concise and more dramatic – and more emotional in many ways. And it’s a piece I’ve loved since childhood. I had a big Bach fascination. I spent all my allowance buying Bach records as a kid. I was very interested in different ways of performing it, because in the 70s, when we were in high school, there was a real blooming of interest in authentic historical performance practice, and rediscovering these old instruments and how to play them correctly.

In our performance, we’re going to be working with a group called New York Baroque Incorporated, which is a vibrant young period instrument ensemble. I have our first rehearsal with them in an hour! I’m very excited to be working with them. It will be my first time, actually, working with a period orchestra.

New York Baroque Incorporated (NYBI)

New York Baroque Incorporated (NYBI)

When we do a choral classic with MasterVoices, I’m always interested to see if there’s some fresh way to look at it and listen to it. Robert Shaw performed the Passions many times with his groups, including the Collegiate Chorale, and he did his own English translations of them, because he wanted to make sure that people really followed every nuance of the story.

Our new tag line for MasterVoices is “The Art of Musical Storytelling,” so I felt similarly that if we were going to do this piece, we wanted people to be involved in the drama, not just sit back and listen to pretty music. So we decided we wanted to do it in English, and the question was “which translation?”

I knew I wanted to approach Michael Slattery to be our Evangelist [the tenor/narrator of the Passion]. He’d been a friend for a long time, and he’s a really thinking actor/musician. And when I told him I wasn’t sure of the translation yet, he said, “Well, perhaps I could do a new one.” That really intrigued me. I hadn’t found a translation yet that felt right to me. A lot of them are very faithful to the rhythmic values of all the notes, but as a result seem sort of klutzy in English, and/or very old-fashioned. The idea of the narrator speaking his own version of the text really excited me. I wanted a translation that felt very immediate and contemporary. So that was Michael’s mission.

We worked very hard on the translation, went through a lot of revisions – a lot of extra paper for the chorus! – and we continue to make little refinements even this week.

Michael Slattery, Photo: Fadil Berisha

Michael Slattery, Photo: Fadil Berisha

CG: So you’ve conferred with Michael Slattery on the translation all along the way?

TS: Absolutely. Michael would take a first stab at it, he would sometimes have several different versions to compare; I would say “I love this, but this feels like the stress is on the wrong word,” or “I wish we could convey the vowel sounds that Bach had more closely, because I think it’s going to affect how the singers sound,” et cetera.

CG: Are there any good examples that spring to mind of the kinds of problems and solutions that arose during the translation work?

TS: There’s an aria that for me is almost the whole reason to do the piece – an aria which the alto soloist sings when Jesus is just about at death’s door. There is this moment of satisfaction and relief when He [Christ] says, “Es ist vollbracht” – which can be translated “It is accomplished.” And the same phrase keeps being repeated in different ways in the aria.

In the [Luther] Bible, it’s with an exclamation point [Es ist vollbracht!] – sort of triumphant. “Through death He has triumphed!” But the setting by Bach is very melancholy. The German is four syllables, but there are actually six notes – “Es ist vo-oll-bra-acht” – two notes each for each of the last two syllables. Little sighing gestures.

At first we tried “It is accomplished,” but that didn’t really fit the feeling of sighing, or the vowel sounds and the L’s of “vollbracht,” which give the singer a lot to work with to convey the sadness. So we ended up changing it to “It is fu-ull-fii-iilled,” which seems closer to me to the Bach.

But then that affected the next aria, which refers back to the that text, and the recitative before it, which sets it up. So it was a whole chain of events that came from that little change. We felt we had to use the same for all of them. Jesus actually says it on the cross, and the alto soloist repeats it, and then the bass soloist after that sings a whole aria where he quotes it.

MV-SJP_Vertical-2

CG: Very interesting, very detailed. So, what else is distinctive and exciting about the MasterVoices approach to this St. John Passion?

TS: The other big thing that we’re doing – which is also something that Robert Shaw did – is invite the audience to sing with us in the chorales. The chorales punctuate the story and they come around every five selections or so. They’re reflections on what just happened in the story. They’re not narrative. They’re more taking in the lesson learned. And Michael [Slattery], in his translation, has also made them very personal. He’s tried to use the words “I” and “we” as much as possible, so that it’s the congregation’s or the audience’s taking on responsibility for what has happened, or thinking about what one could have done differently, or how this story affects us.

So we’re hoping that those people in the audience who feel as though they’d like to will join us with song, and fill the hall from all angles with this beautiful music.

CG: MasterVoices continues to be volunteer-based, right?  It must entail a terrific commitment.

TS: It’s volunteer, [though]when we do a work of this complexity, we usually hire a small group of professional singers (who sing with us often) to come in and help lead and bolster the sound.

Adam Lau, bass

Adam Lau, bass

But by and large, MasterVoices exists to serve the musical needs of a group of volunteers. They range in age from high school sophomores to retirees. There are people who’ve sung in the group for decades – some have been there over 30 years. There’s one woman who commutes weekly from Providence, Rhode Island, to sing in the group.

And there are 16 or so kids whom we sponsor from high schools all over New York City, who are really concentrating on singing in their lives and want a professional experience. So they are each paired with an older member of the chorus as a mentor. And when we do our touring in the summer – which we do every other summer or so – we get sponsorship for them to tour with us.

This [the Passion on the 9th]is an opportunity for them to sing in Carnegie Hall with a professional orchestra and soloists, and do very difficult material they probably would never get to do at school.

CG: Fantastic. So all 16 of those sponsored young people are participating in this performance of the Passion?

Ben Bliss, tenor, Photo: Dario Acosta

Ben Bliss, tenor, Photo: Dario Acosta

TS: They are.

CG: And you say you rehearse with MasterVoices every single week?

TS: Every Monday night for three hours. Currently at the DiMenna Center, which is run by the Orchestra of Saint Luke’s, with whom we also have a nice, ongoing relationship.

CG: So, what else is coming up for MasterVoices this season?

TS: Our other big production will be [Victor Herbert’s] Babes in Toyland, also at Carnegie Hall, on April 27. We have a great interest in early American musical theater and operetta. I chose Babes in Toyland because it’s one of the earliest examples of a Broadway show – its’ from 1903. It’s still performed, but nobody’s really heard anything close to the original version in nearly a century. You’ll get to hear the complete original score, plus probably some extra numbers that were written for the road or written for revivals in the period. We’ll be performing excerpts from the book. We’ve got a great cast that’ll be led by [Tony-Award-winning musical actress] Kelli O’Hara, as well as Christopher Fitzgerald, Lauren Worsham and [Guggenheim Fellow, MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient and multi-award-winning clown, vaudevillian and actor] Bill Irwin, who will be playing the Toymaker.

CG: Wow. And how are you doing the research? Where exactly is the center of Victor Herbert scholarship these days?

Daniel Okulitch, bass-baritone, Photo: Rob Daly

Daniel Okulitch, bass-baritone, Photo: Rob Daly

TS: Well, there’s a man named Larry Moore, who is a music theater historian. He does a lot of work for the Encores! Series [at New York’s City Center]; he’s an orchestrator and scholar. He was hired long ago to work on a production of Babes in Toyland for Houston Grand Opera, and it piqued his interest in this piece. He took it on as his own mission slowly and painstakingly to restore it. So I’m working with him primarily.

CG: Excellent. And where is the material – the veritable secret Victor Herbert “trunk,” so to speak?

TS: The Victor Herbert original manuscripts are all at the Library of Congress. That’s what he’s working from, and they’re all in Victor Herbert’s own handwriting.

CG: Wow. Well, thanks, Ted. I know you’ve got to get to rehearsal for the Bach. All the best with it. I’m sure that Thursday evening is going to be a very special event.

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MasterVoices (formerly the Collegiate Chorale) presents J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion, in a brand new English translation by Michael Slattery, at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, Thursday, February 9, 2017, at 7:00 p.m. Artistic Director Ted Sperling conducts the MasterVoices chorus, the New York Baroque Incorporated orchestra, and vocal soloists including tenor Michael Slattery, baritone Jesse Blumberg, bass Adam Lau, soprano Jennifer Zetlan, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford and tenor Ben Bliss. More information is available here; and, for audiences wishing to prepare for participation in the sing-along chorale portions, practice material is available here.

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About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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