1,000 Singers Trying to Find B Flat
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MOUNTING a new choral piece for 1,000 singers is not for the faint of heart — or the disorganized.
That is one thing Lincoln Center has learned as it prepares to present the premiere of David Lang’s “the public
domain” around its fountain late Saturday afternoon at a free concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Mostly Mozart Festival.
First, organizers had to recruit 1,000 singers, many of them amateurs (ability to read music not required). Some responded to social-media invitations to “make your #LincolnCenter debut.” Others came from New York’s richly varied vocal scene: well-known large ensembles as well as church choirs, synagogue choruses, the New York City Bar Chorus and a kaleidoscope of other groups. By the time rehearsals began this summer, more than 2,000 people had registered, leaving a healthy margin for attrition.
Then there was the question of how to marshal such a massive force, which is even bigger than choruses typically used in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, often known as the “Symphony of a Thousand.” A musical chain of command was established, with singers assigned to five different “strands” that all worked individually (think spy networks, or fast-food franchises). A website was built to disseminate rehearsal times, notes and instructional videos. Overseeing it all musically has been Simon Halsey, one of the world’s leading choral directors, and a team of 25 conductors working beneath him who are allowed to shout, and sometimes sing, their instructions through cone-shaped megaphones whenever more traditional maestro hand gestures seem insufficient.
The sheer scale of the undertaking can be hard to fathom.
“You simply join in with the 600 people who have sung the beginning,” Mr. Halsey patiently told a bloc of 200 singers at a rehearsal on Monday evening in the Baruch College gym. On the gym floor, a painted logo of the college’s home team, the Bearcats, represented the Lincoln Center fountain.
A rehearsal at Baruch College led by Simon Halsey, center in blue shorts.CreditRobert Altman for The New York Times
At one point Mr. Halsey, who directed the chorus that sang with the Berlin Philharmonic in its searing performances of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” at the Park Avenue Armory in 2014, addressed the assembled altos about a cue they needed to watch for. “The altos alone will see that it’s time to start, and all over the plaza, I think there are 420 altos — you are in very strong numbers — you will all be trying to find D or a B flat,” he told them.
Throughout the rehearsal, Mr. Halsey, the choral director of the London Symphony Orchestra, peppered his remarks with friendly cajolery and encouragement, repeatedly telling the occasionally bemused-looking singers that “it does work — I promise.”
He should know. He has done this before, conducting the first choral piece Mr. Lang wrote for 1,000 singers, “Crowd Out,” which had its premiere in Britain in 2014. Mr. Lang, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, said he had been inspired by an Arsenal soccer match he saw in London.“I was just completely amazed by how wild the crowd was, and in particular how great the sound was — everybody was together making this incredible kind of a noise,” he recalled. “And you would hear a scrap of music from the other side of the football stadium and it would circulate, and like a wildfire take over everyone and then disappear. People were yelling the most absolutely insulting and completely biologically scandalous kinds of things at each other, and having a great time. It was really fun, and also really terrifying.”
Volunteer singers rehearsing at Baruch College. CreditRobert Altman for The New York Times
Mr. Lang described “Crowd Out,” written for “a thousand people yelling,” as exploring the loss of individuality people experience when they succumb to the power of crowds. But the new work, “the public domain,” explores the flip side — what people gain by coming together. “That was the fundamental thing about this piece,” Mr. Lang said. “We do need each other, we are around each other, we do get something from each other and we are alike.”
He crowdsourced the text by typing unfinished sentences into internet search engines and seeing what the auto-complete function added. After some trial and error (mostly aimed at weeding out pornography and weight-loss quackery), he settled on a sentence that began, “One thing we all share is,” which produced a variety of intriguing endings, including things as varied as “love of music” and “favorite sandwich.”
Jane Moss, the artistic director of Lincoln Center, said the work had taken on added resonance since she decided to bring it to New York. “Being in such a fractious time, with so much polarization around the world,” she said, “this project is astounding in its power to demonstrate how we can work together.”
Organizers discovered just how many singers and choirs there are hiding in plain sight around New York in providing the project with talent. The New York Choral Consortium, a membership group of more than 60 city choruses with 2,500 to 3,000 singers, helped get the word out. So did David Dabbon, who identified 400 different choruses in the metropolitan area when he worked as the music supervisor of “The Events,” a play staged last year at New York Theater Workshop that enlisted a different local singing group at each performance.
Simon Halsey, choral director, during rehearsal of David Lang’s “the public domain.” CreditBenjamin Norman for The New York Times
Recent rehearsals had a distinctly New York flavor. Singers warmed up with arpeggios to the words “kosher sushi.” Leaders of each group of 200 singers described the wedge shapes in which they would stand around the fountain as slices of pizza (“You’re at the crust!”). There were octogenarians and children, and everyone, even those who walked with canes or used motorized wheelchairs, was able to do the simple choreography devised by Annie-B Parson.
Sebastian Cunto, an 8-year-old who is singing with his mother, Natalia Araujo, said he was enjoying the rehearsals and offered his own assessment of Mr. Lang’s music. “It’s not like Baroque, it’s not Mozart,” he said. “It’s very new, very modern.”
Mr. Lang, who wants to blur the distinction between the singers and the members of the audience, who will stand in the plaza as the performance unfolds around them. He is already contemplating whether the piece, which was commissioned by Lincoln Center, the London Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic, can be scaled up and eventually sung by tens of thousands.
But first Mr. Halsey will have to pull off Saturday’s concert.
“My job is relatively easy from a conducting point of view: I’m a super traffic policeman,” Mr. Halsey said. “Each of the 25 conductors working underneath me is being a real conductor. But then everybody has got to be referring back to me.”
Asked if he ever wished that he were allowed to shout instructions through a megaphone at the other choruses he conducts, Mr. Halsey laughed. “Oh God, yes, absolutely,” he said. “In the middle of every concert, I should think.”
The world premiere of David Lang’s “the public domain” will be presented on Saturday at 5 p.m. at Josie Robertson Plaza at Lincoln Center. Admission is free. Rain date: Sunday at 5 p.m.
A version of this article appears in print on August 12, 2016, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: 1,000 Singers Trying to Find B Flat. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe