The Dessoff Choirs at 100 Years—Almost

Music Director Malcolm J. Merriweather shares about the mission of Dessoff, its members, and plans for its centennial season.

 

New York City is home to many professional choral and vocal ensembles, and they’re a primary point of entry for emerging singers, both new to the city and new to the scene. New York City is also home to many amateur choral and vocal ensembles, offering opportunities for music making for singers of all stripes of training, experience, and desire. The United States has a rich history of amateur music making, and The Dessoff Choirs in New York City (aka Dessoff) is one such organization, whose mission “is to enrich the lives of its audiences and members through the performance of new or rarely heard choral music. Dessoff concerts, professional collaborations, community outreach, and education initiatives are dedicated to stimulating public interest in and appreciation of choral music as an art form that enhances the culture and life of these times.” 

A quick scan of Dessoff’s website outlines the opportunities it provides “to offer rarely performed choral music and, at the same time, provide talented singers the opportunity to sing some of the world’s finest choral masterpieces.” To learn more about Dessoff, its singers, and the audiences they delight, I interviewed its ninth and current music director (since 2016), Dr. Malcolm Merriweather. His experience as a child chorister in the Anglican church tradition led directly into my first question about his foundation in choral singing: “I live and breathe choral music and vocal music. And I was just thrust into this tradition of Anglican choral music, which is as much about the process as it is about the actual music. That’s where I just got my foundation in professional performance of choral music and singing. That training is very rigorous… It really developed my ear for not only the technical aspects of music, but also for the aesthetic of choral music. Of course, that’s evolved as I’ve grown into who I am as a musician, and it was a big part of my early career.” 

Merriweather went on to work at the storied St. John the Divine for years, directing the cathedral choristers there, taking them twice to the United Kingdom and to perform at Carnegie Hall. An active soloist and a faculty appointment as associate professor and director of choral studies at Brooklyn College further prepared him for the vocal, programmatic, and leadership responsibilities of his current position at The Dessoff Choirs and its upcoming centenary.  

“I was appointed the ninth music director of The Dessoff Choirs. When they appointed me, I had just finished my doctorate, had just been appointed to the faculty at Brooklyn College. And I immediately thought, ‘Wow, God willing, I will be with this group through their centennial.’ We’re already planning for that—even though it’s a couple of years away—to really celebrate the legacy of Dessoff.”

Merriweather’s excitement for the upcoming celebratory season was palpable as he shared about plans to celebrate and continue to further the organization’s mission as it reaches this milestone: “Well, I’m going to say, ‘Watch out!’ We aren’t announcing it yet, but we have a centennial committee, consisting of current members and alums of the group, and it’s going to be big! It’s going to be completely in line with the mission of Dessoff, which is performing new and underperformed works of choral music and contributing to the choral art. And that is going to be through looking to our past and looking at some of the pieces that our founder, Margarete Dessoff, brought to New York City from Germany and did New York premiers of—[including] some Renaissance music, and music for women’s voices. 

Through Paul Boepple—our second and longest serving music director—we’re also going to follow in his tradition of recording this music, which I have resurrected with the group with our recording of “The Ballad of the Brown King” by Margaret Bonds.” The Dessoff Choirs’ world premiere recording of Margaret Bonds: The Ballad of the Brown King & Selected Songs (AVIE Records, 2019) presents 20th century African American composer Margaret Bonds composition, set to a libretto by Langston Hughes and dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Our conversation turned to historical and contemporary figures and to Merriweather’s recent 2021 performance, leading The Dessoff Choirs in Considering Matthew Shepard, a concert-length work by Craig Hella Johnson—the composer’s response to the 20th anniversary of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a young, gay student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Merriweather expands on his first exposure to the piece at a conference performance.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this piece is so moving and incredible. I have to do this piece. I have to bring it to New York.’ Part of my mission with Dessoff is to give this volunteer group of singers opportunities that they might not normally have—bringing music to them that is normally done by professional choirs and performing with Baroque instruments and period instruments, which is mostly reserved for professional vocal ensembles.

We did a semi-staged production of this piece at the Society for Ethical Culture, and it was staged by Rod Caspers and Elliott Forrest. This piece is important for Dessoff because it’s an oratorial about a contemporary figure that we all knew [about] and lamented and connected with. And what was so revelatory about this experience is that we have members of our group that connected with Matthew Shepard on a parental level, and of course I connect with him on a personal level. It was a real passion project for Dessoff, and it was a very, very special experience to emerge back into singing.”

Our conversation returned to future programming and the mission of Dessoff and Merriweather’s scholarly work on the choral and orchestral work of black women. I asked about cultural figures whose lives and stories Merriweather would like to see (and conduct) as choral works. “It would be really cool to have an oratorio about Langston Hughes or James Baldwin, because we have so many of their texts—we have so many of their letters. It could be crafted into a really interesting [piece]. Dessoff is based in New York, and I’m really interested in also celebrating those figures that have a link and a tie to New York.

“There’s not enough concert repertoire that represents black people in a positive way—in a modern way. How cool would it be to have a show-in-a-show about Cicely Tyson or someone like that, an actress, and it’s a show about her and her life? She has such a fascinating story. There’s going to be struggle in every story—if you’re a black person and you grew up in the 20th century and in the United States, there’s going to be struggle there.

“Over the past five years, my research and my scholarship has really pivoted toward the choral orchestral works of black women, which is a result of the Margaret Bonds recording. Not everyone knows about Margaret Bonds and her output of classical concert music for choir and orchestra, for choir and organ. 

“There are choral works by Undine Smith Moore, and there are works by Valerie Capers, who’s still alive—she’s also blind. I’ve been doing some research on some major works that she’s done—in this, you’re talking about gender, you’re talking about race, you’re talking about disability with this composer. 

“Dessoff recently performed some music by Mary Lou Williams, who was a contemporary of Margaret Bonds, of course, who lived in New York City. And her work is very mystic and connected to the Catholic church, but also is rooted in the social justice movement of the Fifties and the Sixties.

“An important book that I think everyone should know about is From Spirituals to Symphonies [Helen Walker-Hill, University of Illinois Press, 2007]. It’s an important resource for conductors and educators to turn to if they’re looking for pieces by black female composers. The glorious thing about Dessoff is they’ve embraced my vision of promoting these works by black women, and it’s directly a part of their mission. I love Dessoff. I love them because they have stood by me every step of the way.” 

When I asked Merriweather to share his composer wish for The Dessoff Choirs, he was quick to offer Tania Léon, Caroline Shaw, Valerie Coleman, Paul Moravec, and Joel Thompson as composers he’d love to see write with The Dessoff in mind. About the group’s volunteer status—specifically the term amateur, which appears in press items, such as “one of the great amateur choruses of our time” (New York Today) —Merriweather speaks with great affection and pride for The Dessoff Choirs.

“It’s a label. We have labels in every sector of what we do in life. And what I bring to each choir that I work with is I want them to be the best that they can be. And that’s different from a children’s choir to a professional choir to a college choir. And it all comes with experience. A special thing about Dessoff is that we have members that have sung in the group for 40 years, 35 years, 30 years. And that brings an intimacy and an electricity to the music-making process from week to week. The label of amateur is something that I’m proud of because we have lawyers, we have professors, we have students, we have doctors. 

“There is such a beautiful community that’s created in this setting, from rehearsing week to week. You experience the joy and the turmoil of someone you’re sitting next to. We’re a family. We’ve experienced birth. We have several choir members who have joined the group, gotten married, and have had children since I’ve been music director.”

 

For information on concerts, and to be involved with or audition for membership, visit www.dessoff.org. To learn more about Dr. Merriweather and his active career as a soloist and conductor, visit www.malcolmjmerriweather.com.

Peter Thoresen

Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Dear Evan Hansen, Beetlejuice, Hamilton, Caroline, Or Change & more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is an adjunct professor of voice at Pace University, and maintains a thriving private studio in New York City. Thoresen has served on the voice faculties of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp and Musical Theater College Auditions (MTCA), and holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He teaches a popular online vocal pedagogy course for new voice teachers, and performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit peterthoresen.com @peter.thoresen (Insta) @DrPetesTweets (Twitter)