The Onion River Chorus begins rehearsals this evening on two programs that my old teacher Spencer Huffman would have loved. The first program, in April, is music by Mozart and Brahms. The second program, in May, features the premiere of a new piece by Don Jamison that I will conduct, and choral music by Telemann and Zelenka that Larry Gordon will conduct.
Brahms was the composer that Huffman felt closest to temperamentally (though he considered Mozart greater and more influential), and the two Brahms pieces I’ve chosen for the April program represent everything about music that was, for Huffman, “good and noble.”
“Good” was a meaningful endorsement for Huffman, who could get positively apoplectic at how the word “great” had been abused in advertising. “Noble” was an appellation restricted pretty much to music. Good and noble together were a particularly formidable combination but, it must be said, there was a flip side to Huffman’s “good and noble” that was not attractive at all. Along with his loves, Spencer Huffman had a long list of hates. Indeed, according to my mentor and fellow Hufmann student Theo Morrison, Spencer Huffman thought it was important to know what music to hate. The short list included music with “whining chromaticism” and just about everything to do Arnold Schoenberg.
Huffman wasn’t racist, and wasn’t a bigot. His hates, I think he would have claimed, were pure and noble. He was, in his view, an all-embracing hater of ugliness. But the man was dark.
And he unintentionally freighted Mozart and Brahms, his great loves, with so much good and noble baggage that I have probably performed less of their music in my career than I otherwise would have. But the April program – Brahms’ Nänie and Geistliches Lied, and Mozart’s Posthorn Serenade – is pure Huffman, and I think he would also have been interested in Don Jamison’s new piece Raine Songs, for chorus, soprano solo, and solo strings, which I will also begin rehearsing tonight.
Raine Songs will be performed in May, with Mary Bonhag singing the soprano solo part. I am eager to hear how this sounds in the throats of the Onion River Chorus singers, as my initial impressions of the piece have been very strongly positive. (For sure, Don passes one of the Huffman tests of good composition by eschewing “whining chromaticism.”)
Time to prepare that first rehearsal!