Judith Clurman is well known to many in the New York Metro area for her work as conductor of Essential Voices USA, as the former Director of Choral Activities at the Juilliard School, as the Emmy-nominated Associate Music Director for season 39 of Sesame Street, and as the chorus master for the New York Pops subscription series at Carnegie Hall. She paints in vivid colors using a combination of styles, classical, contemporary, theatre, movies and more to keep music and people connecting. What inspires her? Read on.
Q on Stage: How long have you been interested in choral music?
Judith Clurman: I was trained as a pianist, have degrees in vocal music from the Juilliard School, and conducted choruses since childhood. Ever since fourth grade, I was the accompanist for choruses in which I sang. The public school music program [in Hicksville, New York)], where I grew up was fantastic. Whether it was in public or Hebrew school, I was always the one leading the singing in a classroom or on the school bus. I studied conducting in classes at Juilliard and then privately, when I began to concentrate on working with professional ensembles and orchestras. And BTW, I listened to all sorts of music since childhood—opera, musical theater, symphonies, chamber music, piano soloists, lieder, kid’s songs, etc. I immersed myself in the world of serious, classical choral music while in junior high school.
QoS: What was the genesis of the Composer Speaks “Beyond Broadway: Composers Go Choral” program you did in the Spring?
JC: I have been fortunate to know many composers. I kept meeting them through all my work and commissioned over sixty of them to write pieces for the choruses I have conducted. I have met them in many ways. (1) I occasionally picked up the phone, or wrote an email, introduced myself, and invited a composer to go out to lunch! (2) I received numerous scores from some composers, asking me to consider performing their music. (3) I have worked with some as an editor of a choral series for G. Schirmer music, and (4) Many young composers studied conducting with me at Juilliard, and I have always enjoyed looking at their music and including some of it in my projects.
But let’s get back to this specific program and question. I had prominent Broadway figures at my Essential Voices USA Composer Speaks evening. Believe me, these relationships did not happen overnight! I have a story about how I met and worked with each person on the stage, but let me just say a few key points.
It all began long ago! I spent my childhood studying and practicing my classical music, playing Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, and playing through both opera and musical theater scores. The records were always playing in our home. My family travelled into NYC to see the Broadway hits and saw numerous shows at Westbury Music Fair on Long Island. I was the one in the family who paid close attention to the way the orchestrations sounded and my sister Ann memorized every lyric. We were a good musical theater team—and we still are. I did not realize that my studies would be beneficial later on, but they have been. I have enjoyed talking with Jonathan Tunick about his career, his own compositions, and his studies with his mentor, orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett. I loved including Jonathan’s piece “Mysterious Cat” on my concert and look forward to having it published on my choral series this year.
Moving on … During my high school years, I wrote a serious research paper on the history of the musical theater. I decided to do it by interviewing performers—including Mary Martin—and composer Jerry Herman and lyricist Sheldon Harnick. I worked with Sheldon again, along with David Shire, while at Juilliard. Sheldon remembered my letter. Isn’t that amazing?
Then, as Director of Choral Activities at Juilliard, I invented the Lincoln Center Tree Holiday Tree Lightings. I was fortunate to work with the programming department at Lincoln Center and performers ranging from the “Sesame Street” Muppets, to Beverly Sills, to Metropolitan Opera Stars to Lionel Hampton to clowns from the Big Apple Circus and instrumentalists from the New York Philharmonic, etc, etc. Early on, I wrote a letter inviting one of my favorite theater composers—Marvin Hamlisch—to participate. That was the beginning of our great friendship. Marvin also wrote a piece for my Juilliard Choral Union. That was the piece you heard at Composers Speak performance this April.
QoS: How do you begin programming for something like the Composer
Speaks series or this Music Celebrations project?
JC: Programming is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces have to fit together neatly and make sense. The music has to flow and the program has to tell a story! It has to have a beginning, middle, and end.
I obsess about programming. I have to get it right. I have to think about what music I love, while at the same time, the music has to be appropriate, and love the performers that are hired! Then I have to ask myself if the audience/ticket buyers will like it and how the selections can fit into the mix, “the program.” The music has to speak to the public, and at the end of each piece, you want them to clap loudly and want to hear more.
QoS: What is your favorite music?
JC: When I’m not near the music I love, I love the music I’m near!
QoS: When we look at your next project, the Music Celebrations concert for the 50th anniversary year of “The Sound of Music,” it begs the question of what is your first memory, the movie or the musical?
JC: I think I remember the movie more than I remember the show. I remember seeing the opening scene in the movie, with Julie Andrews. Another memory of “The Sound of Music” dates back to 1984, when I first got married: my husband on the Sound of Music American Express Tour in Salzburg. I cannot believe that I am returning to Salzburg to conduct this music and celebration. By the way, I have seen the show in summer stock, as well as a couple of Broadway revivals.
QoS: What about Rodgers and Hammerstein pieces that comprise the concert?
JC: The center of the concert is a new “Sound of Music” Suite, arranged by Broadway giant David Chase and orchestrated by Tony® winner Larry Hochman. I worked closely with David and edited the vocal parts. We will Skype in Larry Hochman, on a big screen, during the orchestral rehearsals at the Mozarteum. We will also premiere a new arrangement of “Getting to Know You” for woman’s chorus and soloist. The Rodgers and Hammerstein staff gave me a choral arrangement by Trude Rittman that had never been performed. Trude R. arranged the chorus and dance numbers for over thirty shows and her work with R and H was so special. David and I adapted this and Josh Clayton completed the orchestration.
For the remainder of the program, I assembled pieces that I love, with the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, from “Oklahoma,” “State Fair,” “South Pacific,” and “The King and I.” I will also be playing piano for the soloists Maureen McKay and Joseph Beutel for “What’s the Use of Wond’rin” and “Soliloquy.”
QoS: what was one of the most moving parts of this project?
JC: When Musical Celebrations first hired me to assemble a program, I visited the Rodgers and Hammerstein offices. We discussed the orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett. I had to report my findings to the producer
And a wonderful thing happened during the meeting. The R and H folk were kind enough to allow me to see the original piano, vocal score for “The King and I.” I touched history and I learned a lot from reading both the musical notes and personal notes of Trude Rittmann and Robert Russell Bennett.
QoS: Any closing thoughts?
JC: Imagine, doing this program in the Mozarteum! It has been thrilling to assemble this program for Music Celebrations. I have a smile on my face because I suddenly remember leading my sixth grade chorus, from the keyboard, in the singing “My Favorite Things.” I have spent my life doing my favorite thing, and that is, making music. This time I will be leading the song in Salzburg, Austria, at the Mozarteum. I feel so honored to be doing this in the land of Mozart, my musical hero, and in the land of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. I could not be happier.
Learn more about Judith Clurman, as well as The Sound of Music 50th Anniversary Celebration, at http://www.judithclurman.com.