BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro Concert Choir music director Susan Dedell recently had a friendly argument with a colleague who disliked the word “entertainment” being used to characterize something as serious as the playing and listening of classical music.
“I think ‘entertainment’ is a great word!” she exclaimed.
Long interested in the meanings and origins of words, Dedell discovered that “entertain” had connotations that included such meanings as “to reach,” “to engage,” and “to show hospitality.”
“That’s precisely what we are doing in the Choir, showing hospitality to our audiences,” she adds. “I always tell the chorus that they are not here to perform but to engage an audience. There we go. If we are reaching and engaging, then I guess what we do can fairly be called entertainment.”
For the very last time, Dedell will again entertain audiences with the Brattleboro Concert Choir when — on Saturday, May 19, at 7:30 p.m., and again on Sunday, May 20, at 4 p.m. — they will present Poulenc’s Gloria and Mozart’s Vespers.
Joining Dedell and the Concert Choir for this program will be longtime friends and colleagues in the orchestra, led by concertmaster Kathy Andrew. The concerts, featuring soloists soprano Junko Watanabe, alto Justina Golden, tenor Peter Shea, and bass Charles Mays Jr., will be held at Persons Auditorium at Marlboro College.
Dedell feels that, although separated by almost two centuries in time, Poulenc’s Gloria and Mozart’s Vespers are two of the most truly joyful works in the choral repertoire.
“By joyful I do not mean that they are happy or uplifting works,” she explains. “Both works embrace all aspects of joy, from the physical to the sensual and spiritual. They are pieces of music that make a line connecting the dots of joy.”
As she elaborates in the news release for the concert: “Call it nirvana, bliss, joy, or ecstasy — we all know it when it happens, and while many great compositions have elements of this wondrous state of being, there are very few that achieve it.”
Dedell believes that the joy manifest in Poulenc’s Gloria and Mozart’s Vespers is very rarely found in music.
“I think it is much easier for music to call upon darker emotions, which may be why requiems are so popular in choral music,” she says. Because such works are so much more dramatic, Dedell contends that they are apt to grab listeners at an immediate, visceral level.
“Many actors would agree that it is harder to play a nuanced hero than a villain, at least as far as the superficial presentation is concerned,” Dedell writes, “and the same is true for music. It takes a composer of musical genius and personal depth to fully portray that most sought-after, yet elusive sensation — joy.”
Dedell continues, “It has become increasingly important to me to expand my own understanding of how music can expand and illuminate as many dimensions of the human experience as possible. And this is why I wanted to do these two magnificent pieces of music in the final concert of my tenure. It has been an incredible 28 years full of wonderful music and equally wonderful human relationships. I wanted to let the music help manifest the joy that has been at the core of all of these years."
The reason Dedell chose these two works for her final concerts, much as with all the concerts with the choir, was intuitive. “The thinking for my programming often comes from so deep inside that I can not easily explain why I chose what I did,” she confesses.
However, the choice for this concert was fairly obvious.
“I chose Poulenc’s Gloria because for the last concert I wanted to gather as many people who had worked with the Choir in the past, and Poulenc’s piece is for a big orchestra,” Dedell confesses. “So it will be a lot of fun to gather old friends for one last time.
“It’s a great orchestra. Some have been with me from the beginning, others were younger players who have performed with us for five or six years and have become a vital part of the orchestra. Let’s just say that there will be lots of musicians on stage at the final concerts. I have come to know them well and all are fantastic players. I was blessed to have them be part of the Brattleboro Concert Choir heritage.”
Dedell writes, “A long time ago, when I first began working with an orchestra, Blanche Moyse advised me that I didn’t have to know the answers to everything, but I did need to know people who did! I can’t begin to list the number of people who belong in that category, and many of them will be on that stage. Their artistry and collaboration have been extraordinary gifts to the chorus, to me, and to our partners in the audience."
“Of course, I have also chosen the Poulenc because, quite simply, I adore the piece,” Dedell admitted to The Commons.
Dedell writes that Poulenc’s Gloria captures, in vivid, short capsules, some of the most important dimensions of joy.
“One of the most wonderfully obvious is the experience of pure whimsy. Like a gleeful child, Poulenc delights in making a game out of the most unlikely materials and circumstances.
“Another aspect of joy manifested in the Gloria is the state of unrestrained physical energy. Another powerful attribute of joy is an uninhibited connection to a sense of physical wholeness — a sensual suffusion that reaches from the warmth of our toes to the tingling of the brain.”
Similarly, Dedell feels that Mozart is also exploring the concept of joy in his Vespers.
“Mozart’s music is often lavishly suffused with these aspects of joy, but the Vespers in this concert add another dimension of joy, one found in the true unity of all persons,” Dedell writes. “For Mozart, all personal joys are culminated in the perfect unity to be found in our common brotherhood. He believed that music should inculcate feelings of humanity, compassion, friendship, and freedom of all kinds.”
Dedell contends that Mozart’s Vespers shows his deep commitment to humanistic values, the thinking of the enlightenment, and the ideology of the Masons, of which Mozart was a committed member.
“Such secular thinking may seem strange in contrast to the subject of the piece; Mozart’s music is set to the religious text of the Psalms,” she adds. “But in the spirit of humanistic ilk, this work is not stereotypically aligned with dogma, but rather celebrates ideals around equality.”
Mozart is a composer Dedell both “adores and respects.”
“Every note he wrote sings beautifully,” Dedell explains. “Believe me, not many composers can write like Mozart does wherein every part of the piece is significant.”
Dedell elaborates on this idea in the news release. “Mozart’s genius allows him to be at once the most innocent and gleeful of all composers, as well as the most beautifully loving. It allows him to portray suffering and tragedy in the same compassionate space that he portrays our human foibles. And in the Vespers, these emotions are given full scope, bound together in the giant, resounding AMENS! that end each section.”
Exploring such ideas about the significance of the works she has programmed has been a consistent part of Dedell’s tenure with the Brattleboro Concert Choir.
“While I always found it fun working with the Choir, I also found it important to engage the singers in what we were learning by encouraging each to think about the work beyond just the technical side,” she explains. “Of course, that is important too: You can’t do this if you don’t sound good.
“But with all the pieces I have programed throughout my years with them, I wanted the Choir also to look at how these pieces of music raise issues concerning such diverse concerns as science, spirituality, culture identity and much more. Working with the Brattleboro Concert Choir has been a big chunk of my life, I hope it has been a learning experience for us all.”