Kevin Leong Conducts Pro Arte and Concord Chorus – A Preview

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Saturday, May 17, 2014, 8 PM at St. Brigid Church in Lexington, Pro Arte will join forces with Concord Chorus for that group’s season finale featuring sacred classical and baroque works. Kevin Leong, Concord Chorus Music Director, speaks about about the event, the nuances of choral conducting, and his unique relationship to both groups.

Kevin, what inspired you to begin conducting?

I had childhood dreams of becoming a conductor, but I always thought I would be a scientist and teacher. In graduate school I was spending more time in rehearsal and less time in lab, and I realized that I was more productive and fulfilled as a choral conductor. I’m still love science, and I’m still a teacher, but a conductor is what I’ve always wanted to be.

Directing a choir and conducting an orchestra are quite different as I understand it. Could you explain some of those differences and what goes into conducting the two groups together?

Actually, I don’t look at conducting choruses and orchestras as too different from one another. You use the same physical technique for both because all musicians need (and want) clear, expressive conducting. Singers and wind/brass players are both helped by conducting that supports the breath, and even string players talk about “taking breaths” between phrases. I see an orchestra as a collection of different choirs—a string choir, a wind choir, a brass choir—so adding a choir of singers to that is a natural extension.

This second concert of Concord Chorus’s season turns to classical and baroque music by Vivaldi, Mozart and Martini. Could you talk a bit about the inspiration for this program?

Our concert will be of music that was written for Vespers, the church service that is celebrated at twilight. The core of the program is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s amazing Vesperae solennes de confessore. It is attractive music that is actually extremely complex and asks a lot from the chorus. It’s some of the best choral music that Mozart wrote. I often try to pair a large work with a smaller one that is not as well known, like Antonio Vivaldi’s Magnificat. These days, it’s not as performed as frequently as the Gloria, but it was Vivaldi’s most circulated work in eighteenth-century Europe. It’s an expressive and exciting work that is packed with stylistic diversity. The concert will also include Giovanni Battista Martini’s Domine ad adjuvandum me festina. It is even more rarely heard, but it is a gem of a piece. (Martini was a renowned teacher as well as a composer, and one of his counterpoint pupils was the fourteen-year-old Mozart.) This work would have opened a Vespers service at the Basilica of St. Francis in Bologna, where Martini worked, and it will open our concert of Vespers music as well.

At Pro Arte we’re lucky enough to have you both as a guest conductor and a trustee. Could you speak a little about what made you want to join Pro Arte?

I spent over twenty years at Harvard University as part of its choral program, first as a singer and then as a conductor. The Harvard choral ensembles are technically student groups, which means that they are run by the students themselves. And this means that all aspects of those groups, from music making to administration, are imbued with the passion and energy of its members. Pro Arte, as a cooperative orchestra, is a similar kind of organization. It’s unusual player-driven structure is one that I understand and value.

How did you arrange this choral collaboration, and what is most exciting about the coming performance for you?

Pro Arte actually approached me about a choral collaboration when I was conductor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus. Our first joint concert was Mozart’s Requiem (as completed by Robert Levin) in the spring of 2009. It was an exciting and productive collaboration, and my choruses have collaborated with Pro Arte each season since then. The Concord Chorus and I have been working very hard on learning and perfecting the music for months, and it will be a thrill for us finally to be able to combine our efforts with those of an extremely talented quartet of Boston-based soloists (Deborah Selig, Julia Cavallaro, Stefan Reed, and Thomas Jones) and the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston. As a trustee, I know Pro Arte to be an organization of unusually warm and caring individuals. As a guest conductor, I know Pro Arte to be a truly excellent orchestra. Conducting Pro Arte and the Concord Chorus—another organization I love—together will be an indescribable and emotional experience. We are all ready and very much looking forward to performing a top-notch concert of this beautiful music. If you are reading this, we hope to see you there!

Pro Arte and Concord Chorus will join forces at 8 PM Saturday, May 17, 2014 at St. Brigid Church, 1981 Massachusetts Ave., Lexington, MA 02421. Tickets are available here and at the door.