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The fifth movement of Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony clocks in at just a little over four minutes - less than 5 percent of the gargantuan score’s 1 hour and 45 minutes - but during performances of the symphony by the Brooklyn Philharmonic at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend, that movement is what all eyes and ears will be fixed on.

For it is the fifth movement of this "monster" composition - the composer’s own words - where Mahler places his two choruses: a children’s chorus and a women’s chorus. (The somewhat longer fourth movement is the sole showcase for the mezzo soloist Michelle DeYoung.) And two groups with longstanding ties to the Brooklyn Philharmonic will be performing these parts on May 18 and 19 in the BAM Opera House: the New York Virtuoso Singers and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

The New York Virtuoso Singers were formed in 1988, when the Philharmonic needed a chorus for its contemporary composer series at Cooper Union in Manhattan.

"Maurice Edwards [then with the Philharmonic] asked me to form a professional choir called The Brooklyn Philharmonic Singers to perform on their ’Meet the Moderns’ series," recalls Harold Rosenbaum, founder and current musical director of the Virtuoso Singers, in an exclusive interview with The Brooklyn Papers. "We did a very difficult Hans Werner Henze choir work, ’Orpheus Behind the Fire,’ which went very well, then after that concert we changed the name of the group to the New York Virtuoso Singers."

Rosenbaum - who also heads the Canticum Novum Singers, a choral group specializing in baroque and classical-era music - has kept his musical connection to the Philharmonic intact.

"Since that first concert, I’ve probably worked with the Philharmonic eight or nine times with the Virtuoso Singers," he notes, adding, "and with the Canticum Novum Singers, even more - almost yearly."

For Mahler’s Third Symphony, Rosenbaum will handle his biggest assignment yet.

"The largest group I’ve worked with is 40 singers, which is what we have for this performance," he says. "We can tailor the group for each concert, as we’re doing here - there are 40 women singers for Mahler."

For someone who has conducted and studied a vast amount of the choral repertoire, Rosenbaum does admit to one glaring omission: Mahler.

"I’ve never worked on any of the Mahler symphonies," he says. (Along with the Third, the Second and the Eighth symphonies - both are also titanic, lengthy works - include parts for chorus.) "But I’m looking forward to the challenge."

. . .


For Diane Berkun, who founded the Brooklyn Youth Chorus in 1992, working with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, under the baton of Robert Spano, has given her young charges a substantial amount of experience.

"We’ve worked with them many times," Berkun says from her Brooklyn office. "We did ’The Damnation of Faust’ a few seasons ago, which was a relatively small part: we sang from the boxes, not from the stage. And we just did the Philip Glass Symphony [the New York premiere of Glass’ Fifth Symphony opened last fall’s BAM Next Wave Festival]. That was a very substantial part, probably the largest section for a children’s chorus in any orchestral work. That was a lot of fun to work on."

For their part in the Mahler Third, Berkun doesn’t anticipate any difficulties.

"It’s a relatively short piece (the Chorus’ section)," she says. "We’ll probably have about 50 voices for it. Our concert chorus has 53 students, and I start with that size for rehearsals. Occasionally, students can’t put in the time, so we may end up with fewer than 50 for the concerts."

Preparation, of course, is key. "I make sure that they each get to know their parts absolutely cold, that they know each entrance and cue," Berkun explains. "Sometimes, in the past, even though they knew what they were singing, they were so out of context surrounded by an orchestra and an audience that they lost focus. Now, it’s a given that they’re taught independence and how to be musically secure."

After nearly a decade, Berkun remains optimistic about the Chorus’ future. "This is a very exciting time for us, with next year being our 10th anniversary," she says. "We’re starting to build a repertoire of this type of music, which is wonderful."

But her greatest optimism is reserved for the children’s own dedication: "A lot of the kids have been here over five years, and it’s a nice testimony to the chorus that, despite the many changes in their lives, they keep us as their thread."

 

The Brooklyn Philharmonic, featuring the mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and New York Virtuoso Singers, will perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 on May 18 and 19 at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Ave.) at 8 pm. A pre-concert discussion will be held at 7 pm on both dates in the Hillman Attic Studio. Tickets are $45, $35, $20 and $8. For tickets, call (718) 636-4100. For Brooklyn Philharmonic information, call (718) 622-5555 or visit their Web site at www.brooklynphilharmonic.org.

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus will also perform on June 9 at 3 pm and 7:30 pm at St. Augustine Church (Sixth Avenue between Park Place and Sterling Place). For tickets, which range from $7 to $25, and information about the program, call (718) 243-9447.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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