Harmonia: A Beloved Seattle Orchestra and Chorus and its Ambitious DNA

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“The venue is our biggest issue as an organization,” conductor William White muses as he waits for his cup of tea to cool, “because where can we go? Our stage footprint is so large.”

The subject is last Saturday’s performance of Nathaniel Dett’s 1937 oratorio The Ordering of Moses. Harmonia, the community orchestra and chorus he leads, combined forces with Sound of the Northwest, another local chorus specializing in spirituals, to give the work a rare outing.

This is White’s sixth season as executive music director of Harmonia, formerly Orchestra Seattle/Seattle Chamber Singers, led by George Shangrow. Under White’s leadership, concert programming has continued to expand and diversify. “I’m head chef, cook, and dishwasher in a lot of ways, which is not atypical for a music director in a small performing arts organization like this.”

He takes a sip of tea. “The expectations are high. These are some of the most high performing, ambitious, intellectual, artistically-engaged musicians around. They don’t want to do just the Beethoven or Brahms symphonies and a Messiah every year. They want variety. They want to explore different corners of the repertoire, pieces they haven’t done before. It’s an ambitious agenda. It always has been.”

Founded in 1969 by George Shangrow, the Seattle Chamber Singers quickly became a known as local specialists in baroque era music. Programming reflected Shagrow’s particular tastes, and an accretion of instrumentalist friends gradually formed around the group, constituting Orchestra Seattle. With the oratorios of Händel and cantatas of Bach as calling cards, the Chamber Singers’ annual Messiah became an aristocrat among the myriad local performances of the work offered during the holidays.

Over time, Shangrow gathered greater forces to tackle romantic repertoire like Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Mendelssohn’s Elijah or Brahms’ German Requiem. Thirty years in, the organization had grown enough to require a formal institutional framework. Contractual clarity gave both the musicians and their conductor an additional measure of confidence about the future of the ensemble. However, Shangrow’s tragic death in a 2010 car accident seemed to put that future in doubt.

Orchestra Seattle/Seattle Chamber Singers chose to honor Shangrow by carrying on, relying on guest conductors until selecting Clinton Smith in 2013. William White took over at the end of the 2018 season.

White doesn’t feel he is living in Shangrow’s shadow. “George founded the group when he was a teenager, and he learned as a jobbing musician and built it from the ground up. I have a very different background. I’m academically trained and did a full apprenticeship with a professional orchestra.” After receiving degrees from the University of Chicago and the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, White became the conducting associate at the Pierre Monteux School for Conductors. He later spent four seasons as assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, working with the respected music director Louis Langrée.

“I didn’t quite fit [in Cincinnati.] I was a little bit of a round peg trying to fit into a square hole. My orchestral instrument is viola, but I always sang in choir, so I’ve always had a foot in both worlds. This is a chorus in an orchestra. That’s why we renamed it Harmonia, because ‘Orchestra Seattle/Seattle Chamber Singers’ was two names with five words,” he laughs, “with ‘Seattle’ twice in a row. It sounded provisional. We needed ‘one name to rule them all.’”

The prospectus of a “chorus in an orchestra” presents particular challenges. “We now have seven mainstage programs per season, five of them have the chorus and the orchestra combined, and then the orchestra has one and the chorus has one.” A glance through the performance archive shows a dizzying array of genres, from familiar baroque fare to modern masterpieces and new music, from intimate ensembles to choral behemoths.

“George was a maximalist. He put everything up there with a sort of can-do spirit infused into the whole thing, so this has been perfect for me. I mean, talk about ambition,” White reflects. “Ambition is built into this organization’s DNA.”

Last Saturday’s concert stayed true to form, presenting two unknown works along with an old chestnut. White programmed a short selection from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Petite Suite de Concert from 1911, followed by the famous Largo from Dvorak’s Symphony no. 9 “From the New World.” These works provided context for the finale, Nathanial Dett’s The Ordering of Moses.

Detts (1882 – 1943), an African-American composer, greatly admired the work of Dvorak, who envisaged the future of American music distinctly through African-American and Indigenous musical form. He was further influenced by Coleridge-Taylor, the African-English prodigy who rose to fame with his grand cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. Dett’s own oratorio, The Ordering of Moses, proved the culmination of his career as a composer, and it is considered his masterpiece.

White conducted the brief Coleridge-Taylor segment, titled “La caprice de Nannette,” with gusto, drawing all kinds of interesting colors from the orchestra. The Largo featured pleasing sonorities in the brass and woodwind chorales and highlighted some of the remarkable string writing for which Dvorak should be more widely recognized. White then handed over the baton to Dr. Marques L.A. Garrett, a colleague of White’s and a Dett scholar, and reappeared in the tenor section. Garrett kept his eye trained on the dramatic content of each segment of The Ordering of Moses, and his concentration paid off.

Having sat through my share of dreary late-romantic English oratorios, I tried to piece together what sets this particular work apart from its ponderous, waddling kin. Was it the use of African-American spirituals, for which the oratorio is known? I don’t think so. “Go Down, Moses” appears several times, thematically and then in a kind of apotheosis. “When Moses Smote the Water” and “He is King Of Kings” also make appearances. But one might miss them for all the memorable original music I heard. Dett’s achievement is his understanding of choral writing when the chorus is telling a story. Clearly, he took lessons from Mendelssohn in this regard. Never did the music devolve into a dreaded, deadly and diffuse choral miasma.

The story depicts biblical scenes of the enslavement of Israel, the ordering of Moses by God to lead his people out of Egypt, the highly cinematic destruction of the pursuing army, and the obligatory heiliger dankgesang finale. As stodgy as the oratorio form might seem, a good one can make a great impression.

The Ordering of Moses has all the ingredients for a permanent place in the repertoire, such as it is: a concise, poetic libretto, memorable melodies, clear compositional construction, varied orchestration, effective choral writing, and most of all, the intention to entertain. The quartet of excellent soloists, augmented chorus and orchestra all made an excellent case for the work.

“The piece was premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony in 1937,” White explains, “and it had only a handful of performances over the ensuing decades. It was revived for a huge outing while I was the assistant conductor there in 2016, so that’s my connection with the work.” White’s study of the score convinced him of its merit. “They took it on a tour to Carnegie Hall with James Conlon conducting, and even made a commercial recording of the concert.”

Harmonia has provided White with opportunities to showcase his own compositions over several seasons, most recently his opera/oratorio Cassandra. “If there’s one thing that I learned early on as a composer,” he notes with a smile, “it’s that if you want to make yourself write a piece, put out an advertisement that it’s coming up.” With a libretto based on episodes from the Aeneid and translated into Latin by White’s cousin, the project sounded comically archaic to me. Yet it was a great hit with the audience. “It was a big success,” he confirms. “Probably the biggest I’ve ever had. Of course, people came to hear [Gershwin’s] Rhapsody in Blue,” which preceded Cassandra on the program. “I don’t kid myself about that. But we got them and we kept them and we wowed them.”

If anything has kept Harmonia subscribers coming back year after year, it is the annual Handel’s Messiah, now given twice in December at the First Free Methodist Church in Seattle and the Bastyr University Chapel in Kenmore. “Even Messiah is a huge lift, although in a way, it’s the easiest one to put on because everybody knows it already. So at least the rehearsals go very smoothly. Messiah is most people’s introduction to the group – it’s part of our identity.” Still, setup logistics cause more headaches than White would wish. “Moving two harpsichords from one place to another, it’s a whole dog and pony show involving big trucks.”

A recent addition to the Harmonia season has been a chamber music series. “That’s a way to give the musicians more control and freedom with music they are interested in,” White notes. “They self-organize and submit proposals, and I try to build the pieces into a program. Sometimes they have a thematic through-line, other times it’s just a grab bag. At the last one we had a piece for horn quartet inspired by the gender discrimination encountered by the composer. We happen to have four female horn players, and they love the piece, so we programmed it.”

In addition to his composing and Harmonia duties, White has become familiar to Seattle Symphony subscribers through his pre-concert lectures. “While I was studying in Chicago, I befriended a couple string players in the CSO, and through that connection wound up filling in as a pre-concert speaker on short notice. It went well and I got onto their roster.”

Later, in Cincinnati, the pre-concert talk became one of his duties as assistant conductor. “While I was there, I also made a few educational YouTube videos called ‘Ask a Maestro,’ and in more recent years I’ve co-hosted a podcast with two of my conductor friends, called ‘The Classical Gabfest.’ That’s much more my style.” White slurps down what remains of his tea. “I’m driven to communicate about classical music. There’s no doubt about it.”

James C. Whitson
James C. Whitson
James Whitson is a retired architect who writes about opera for "Opera News" and "Encore."

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