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Meditating in Times Square

How a group of people singing in Times Square became a totally avant-garde event.

Friday, June 22, 2012 - 01:26 PM

Last night, passersby at Times Square were treated to the sight of close to 200 people standing in the middle of the plaza singing classical choral music. (Soundcheck’s technical director Irene Trudel was one of the sopranos.) Our friends at NPR Music had asked Philip Glass to turn his song "New Rule," originally for soprano solo and instrumental ensemble, into a choral piece. That version had its premiere, right there in Times Square.

But it’s what happened after the Glass premiere that made this event so memorable.

(Photo by Chase Cusack, via Instagram

The plan was to do the new Glass arrangement, then a set of choral favorites, and then repeat the Glass - bookending the concert and giving the NPR crew two chances at getting a broadcast-able take. Things started with conductor Kent Tritle bringing the written score into the real world of traffic and horns and passersby. "Please look at your scores. All those mezzo-pianos (literally, "medium soft") are now mezzo-fortes ("medium loud")." He also made sure to warn the singers to be on their toes and watch for all the "repeat" marks in Glass's score - they can easily trip up a musician whose attention wanders for a moment.

Engineer Irene Trudel's soprano sheet music.

(Photo by Irene Trudel)

Anyway, the Glass was dispatched with and the choir then let loose with Bruckner's "Locus Iste" ("this blessed place") – which might have been the last thing you expected to ring out in Times Square. And then a truly weird, magical moment happened when they launched into Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus from Judas Maccabeus (his other, way more famous "Hallelujah" would soon follow): the big CNN billboard behind the tenors and basses began showing a promo for the Saturday night boxing matches. The combination of the thrilling cries of "Hallelujah" with these huge warrior figures on the screen was accidentally transfixing.

The choir makes a billboard appearance in Times Square.

(The choir makes an appearance on a Times Square billboard. Photo by John Schaefer) 

I had gone to make a few opening remarks, and to meet with the Russian composer/pianist Anton Batagov. At this point Anton tapped my arm and nodded to the CNN screen. "Are you seeing this?" he marveled. "It's the greatest multimedia thing I've ever seen."

All of this music was happening while hordes of people walked by, many of them probably unaware of what was happening 20 or 30 feet away. After about 20 minutes, Kent returned the chorus to the new Glass piece. And inevitably, that second performance had to be restarted because someone actually did get tripped up by the repeats. I refuse to reveal his name, or to acknowledge rumors that he was holding a baton and standing at a podium.

Conductor Kent Tritle and the choir.

(Conductor Kent Tritle and the choir. Photo by John Schaefer)

As we left, Anton, who is Buddhist, said, "this was the best meditative experience." I looked at him kinda funny and he explained, "it's very easy to meditate in a quiet cave, but here, with all this..." and here he swept his arm at the bright signs and grinding traffic, "to create a place to meditate here is really special."

And that’s when I realized just how avant-garde this event had been.

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Comments [2]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

KUDOS TO PHILIP GLASS, an original thinker and a composer so American as to be compared to Aaron Copland and Earl Robinson and Irving Berlin. AMERICANA music includes all the formats that have ttransfigured our image from a concept of a melting pot to a vigorous happy extollment of our individual backgrounds of national origin, race, religion, and creed. Our country should revel in our diversity and expression of our individual cultures with their mores and idealisms.
This past Saturday, June 9th, I sang a program at the YOGA, RAW FOOD EXPO at the New Yorker Hotel.
BRING HIM HOME, including that named selection from the Broadway musical LES MISERABLES, was the title of the program. The selections relate to our times and our concerns, our love of country, wspecially to sustaing hope for a better world for all, free of the conflicts of war. On Saturday September 8th, I will repeat the program, with 38 selections in a three hour concert, same title, at the Lake Hiawatha Library (NJ), starting at 1 PM. Included on the presentation will be The Impossible Dream [the Quest], Climb Ev'ry Mountain, The House I Live In, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Do You Hear the People Sing?, When Johnnie Comes Marchoing Home, This Land is Your Land, You'll Never Walk Alone, Granada, Kimbaya, New York, New York, Billy Bigelow's Soliloquy from Carousel, There's No Business Like Show Business and Earth Anthem, which I premiered in 1998 as an environmental tribute to our MOTHER EARTH and 24 more numbers. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor and the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where professional actors are trained for the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers are coached in the Wagner roles and voice production and dramaturgy techniques. Websites: WagnerOpera.com, ShakespeareOpera.com, and RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com where one may download, free, 37 complete "Live from Carnegie Hall" selections that I have sung in four concerts, three of them three hours-long solo concerts and one concert, a Joint Recital with the dramatic soprano Norma Jean Erdmann, in the main hall of Carnegie Hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, by opening up, downloading, from the "Recorded Selections" venue

Jul. 01 2012 12:31 PM
Richard Pace

What great fun! Good to see you there, John. Events like this really excite the HUGE choral music community in New York City and help to raise awareness of New York's vibrant choral music scene. As Kent Tritle said, with over 23 million choral singers nation wide, choral music has the highest level of active participation of any musical art form.

Jun. 23 2012 09:27 AM

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