David Hayes, the busy Music Director of the New York Choral Society (NYCS) and the Philadelphia Singers, as well as Director of Orchestral and Conducting Studies at New York’s Mannes College, the New School for Music, Staff Conductor of the famed Curtis Institute of Philadelphia, and a member of the conducting staff of the Philadelphia Orchestra, clearly is a man with a mission. On the afternoon of Sunday, January 25, his mission will take him to Carnegie Hall to conduct NYCS and Orchestra in Felix Mendelssohn’s masterwork “St. Paul.” If there was ever a time in the world for a Damascene conversion and to give peace a chance, it’s now. David Hayes took a few moments to tell us something about himself and this amazing work.
Q on Stage: Originally, how did you become interested in this work?
David Hayes: I first got to know some of “St. Paul” though an audition for a choral position when I was first starting out as a professional conductor. I was asked to prepare one of the choruses from “St. Paul” for that audition. While I had known—and loved—“Elijah” for some time, I really was unaware of “St. Paul.” As part of my preparation for that audition, I explored the full score of “St. Paul” and became fascinated by its beauties. While wondering why it seemingly fell “off the map,” I decided that at some point I’d have to perform it. The stars aligned this past year and the opportunity to do the work with NYCS came up, so I jumped at it!
QoS: Do you feel that Mendelssohn felt a kinship with St. Paul considering their mutual conversion from Judaism to Christianity?
DH: It's certainly possible that Mendelssohn felt a certain spiritual familiarity. But, in a recent panel discussion I participated in on “St. Paul,” this topic came up. The scholars there discussed this issue and came to the conclusion that it’s really hard to make any kind of clear conclusion. Mendelssohn doesn’t seem to have had much exposure to Judaism during his younger years, prior to the conversion at age 7. While he came to understand his Jewish roots in later life, and while he certainly struggled to some extent with being labeled as a Jew even by his teachers, he seems to have been largely insulated from the worst of any anti-Semitism in the world around him.
So, I think this is an open question-perhaps it’s for the listener to decide if they can sense Mendelssohn’s kinship with Paul based on their reception of this work?
QoS: What has been the most challenging aspect of this piece for you, the orchestra, and the singers?
DH: I think the most challenging thing about the piece, aside from mastering the sheer volume and variety of vocal writing—massive, athletic fugues, tender chorales, dramatic “crowd” choruses—is finding the dramatic pacing of the work. The first part is an intensely dramatic narrative; the stoning of St. Stephen; the vision on the road to Damascus by Saul of Tarsus; his conversion and becoming “Paul.” The second half has, despite its gorgeous vocal writing, sometimes been felt by commentators as not as successful due to the change in tone—from extremely dramatic action sequences to the sequences where Paul is spreading the gospel. Finding the drama in the second half and keeping the pacing and story arc compelling is the key to overall success in performance. We’ve been working hard at that!
QoS: What has been the most surprising or rewarding experience you’ve had with this piece?
DH: Both I and the ensemble have been constantly surprised by the depth of the work. Every time you feel you mastered some fugue or made a beautiful phrasing, another, deeper detail reveals itself. That’s been the most surprising thing, the constant revelation of ever more detail and beauty as we work on it.
QoS: Are there plans to release a recording?
DH: Unfortunately, we will not be producing a recording of the piece—so if one wants to hear it, you’ll have to join us on January 25th. There are commercial recordings, of course, but it’s definitely not the same kind of impact as hearing it live with 200 choral and orchestral performers at Carnegie Hall!
QoS: What’s next in your amazingly busy calendar?
DH: I have concerts coming up in with the Mannes Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall, and the Temple University Orchestra and the Philadelphia Singers, both down in Philadelphia. In addition, NYCS starts work on its next Carnegie Hall performance of John Adams’s “On the Transmigration of Souls” and Paul Hindemith’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which is based on Walt Whitman’s great Lincoln/Civil War elegy.
There are still a few tickets remaining for this Sunday’s brilliant performance of Mendelssohn’s “St. Paul”–be sure you’re among the audience for this amazing master work. Visit www.carnegiehall.org to get your seats now!