Judith Clurman and her choral group, Essential Voices USA will take to the stage at Carnegie Hall this Friday evening, November 14th as part of the The New York Pops Series. Audiences can expect to hear selections from Orff’s Carmina Burana, Bernstein’s Candide, Copland’s The Tender Land and others. When the baton is raised, it will be approximately the tenth time Clurman’s singers have performed with the Pops at the ultimate venue, but she has stopped counting. “I just go from one job to the next and make music,” she says with an excited gleam in her eyes. “I could perform in a community theater or in a school. It simply doesn’t matter as long as I’m making music.” Still, she acknowledges the honor of performing here. “There is nothing like it in the world. The sense of history you feel there is unique, and I think many of the chorus members feel that too.” The group regularly performs with the symphony thanks to a relationship she developed with former New York Pops conductor, Skitch Henderson. The symphony is currently under the direction of Steven Reineke, who will also conduct his piece, “Festival Te Deum” during Friday night’s program.
Clurman’s 60 voice volunteer ensemble has been in existence since 2011, though she had conducted other choirs prior to this. Essential Voices USA came from an outgrowth of different chorus work she had done in New York. “I had an entire professional chorus and had also conducted the Juilliard Choral Union. I decided that I wanted to do something different that would fit my needs and the needs of the concert halls, so Essential Voices USA was born.”
As a conductor, Clurman is passionate about her musical work, but also admits to challenges . “There are many group dynamics that have to be confronted,” she observes. “You put people together that you hope will not only sing well, but will sync with each other personally. Rehearsal is one of the few places in the world where people turn off cell phones and work together to make music.” She continues to lament on short attention spans that have waned since she started to learn music. As a trained pianist with degrees in vocal music, Clurman began to hone her craft as a child . “I was accompanying choruses in fourth grade and it continued through my senior year of high school. It was there where I learned how to listen. People in this day and age struggle with that. They don’t know how to be calm for five minutes and I’m faced with that challenge against a frenetic society.”
The rewards far surpass her dilemmas however, and Clurman is ecstatic when she discusses her work. “When a chorus knows a piece of music, it’s thrilling. They come together and they’re one. I love seeing the smiles on their faces when they are having a good time.” She also notes the importance of teaching. “That is what being a good conductor is all about- so the chorus will be able to perform all by themselves, whether they are under my direction or another conductor. You just know your stuff,” she states with pragmatic brevity. Clurman also wants her chorus to take something of value from the creative process. “I hope the group learns through it and finds a sense of community and satisfaction.” As for the audience, Clurman wants them to have a good time, too. “I hope that they have fun and will want to come back for another concert. I also hope that they’ll download a recording.”
Fortunately, Clurman has been able to preserve the sound of her group with an album entitled Celebrating the American Spirit. The recording uses a smaller number of Essential Voices USA members, as well as paid professionals. The idea for the album was planted in 2001, two weeks after 9/11, when Clurman’s Juilliard Choral Union sang “America, the Beautiful” at a firehouse on Amsterdam Avenue. “I knew that that I wanted to record that song,” Clurman recalls. “ But as we were singing that night, a fireman put his head on my shoulder. I stopped conducting in the front of this massive group of people and we all cried and sang together. After that, I asked a variety of composers to write music based on the actual words of United States Presidents.” She also enlisted the help of her friends, Broadway stars Kelli O’Hara and Ron Raines. The result of the song cycle is featured on the album. In 2011, National Public Radio invited Clurman to be an artist-in-residence where she, along with the composers of each selection, discussed their individual works at length. “We didn’t want famous words,” Clurman clarifies, “but rather important words.” While there was a bit of controversy and mixed opinion about the Presidents she chose to highlight, Clurman says, “It doesn’t matter. I just wanted to honor the presidency. These pieces are now recorded and published in a series for G. Schirmer music and I’m very excited about that.”
With Thanksgiving approaching, Clurman is also quick to discuss one of her favorite tracks on the patriotic album: “Reason To Be Thankful” by Larry Hochman. Hochman is a Tony award winning Broadway orchestrator who had written the song as part of a collection of American melodies. “When I first heard it”, Clurman says, “I called Larry and told him how beautiful I thought it was. I then asked him if he had ever given thought to adding lyrics to it.” Hochman was open to the idea, and Clurman called her friend Sheldon Harnick, the esteemed Broadway lyricist. “Sheldon is one of the finest, most poetic lyric writers ever. He understands vocal music better than most and he just gets it. I knew he would write something heartfelt and real. We are frustruated with our country sometimes, but we’re thankful we live here. Harnick captures that in this song.” In addition to the Hochman piece, performed by Raines, Clurman cites O’Hara’s powerful rendition of “God Bless America” as another favorite on the track. “Both of these songs are very real. I choose that word, “real”, specifically because there is a healthy rawness in the singing. Raines and O’Hara don’t over-interpret. They just sing the pieces and are truly fine American singers.”
As for her larger ensemble, all 60 members are clearing their throats and fine tuning selections for Friday night’s performance. Following that, they’ll be back in the rehearsal room for three more concerts with the New York Pops on December 19th, 20th and 21st.
For tickets and information about upcoming performances, visit http://www.carnegiehall.org/ For more information about Dr. Judith Clurman and Essential Voices USA click: http://www.essentialvoicesusa.com/