SF Choral Society opens season with Dvořák, African American music

The San Francisco Choral Society, the largest auditioned choral group in the Bay Area, champions both traditional and new music. (Courtesy Kristen Loken)

The San Francisco Choral Society’s 35th season opening concerts this weekend feature a triple bill stemming from Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s grounding in folk music and interest in African American spirituals.  

The largest auditioned Bay Area chorus’ concerts Saturday and Sunda at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco includes Dvořák’s Mass in D major, Op. 86; “Goin’ Home,” a spiritual set to a section of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 and African American composer Margaret Bonds’ “Credo,” set to W.E.B. DuBois’ civil rights poem. 

The program is centered on Dvořák’’s proposition after he became director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York in 1892 that the future of American classical music would be rooted in the rich history of the African American experience. 

“Dvořák was known to have found his voice through Czech folk music, and he was recognized by Brahms and others as a very fine composer, but one whose voice originated in his own country. I think that’s true, but also why when he came to the U.S., he said, ‘OK, where is that element in this country?’ And he found it in Native American music and African American music or spirituals,” says San Francisco Choral Society Artistic Director and conductor Robert Geary, who has been with the group since 1996.  

“Goin’ Home,” which opens the program, is set to the Largo movement of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, aka “New World Symphony.” Arranged by Andrew Steffen and lyrically adapted by William Arms Fisher, the piece clearly has a spiritual style.  

“Dvořák created a great folk melody that was as tuneful as ‘Shenandoah,’ Geary says. “It’s haunting, nostalgic and sad, but it doesn’t overindulge in emotions, and it’s got soul.” 

The SFCS program’s centerpiece is Dvořák’s 1887 grand Mass in D major for organ, soloists and choir. (In 1892, Dvorak expanded the work, also known as “Luzany Mass,” after the chapel for which it was written, to an orchestral version.)  

Geary, who believes the Mass is a masterpiece, particularly admires Dvořák’s craft as a composer for voice.  

“There’s a thing about voice reading as a vocalist or choral conductor, and it has to do with the intuitive ability to know when you’re writing music how it works in the voice,” Geary says. “If you’re going to sing a high A, how do you get there? And with a good composer they’ll lead you to it so that it’s not a Herculean challenge; they’ll approach it in way that your body will be able to sing it well. That’s a skill not all composers have, and Dvořák has that skill.”   

Organist Benjamin Bachmann, bass-baritone Wilford Kelly (both in their SFCS debuts), tenor Lee Steward, soprano Shawnette Sulker and mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich will join the ensemble for Dvořák’s composition. 

“Credo,” a 1965 cantata by Bonds (1913-1972) — who wrote music for stage, piano, chorus and solo voice including “Troubled Water,” “Go tell it on the mountain” and “He’s got the whole world in his hands”) — rounds out the program. The Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered “Credo” in 1972, a few months before Bonds’ death. 

“The work by Bonds is very much a classical piece and built on spiritual, gospel and to some extent jazz idioms that are clearly there, but in a more distilled form,” Geary says. “It’s got some elements — harmonically, melodically and rhythmically, the use of syncopation — that come right out of Black music.” 

Sulker and Kelly as well as pianist Bryan Baker will join SFCS for “Credo.” A reprise of “Goin’ Home” in which audience participation is encouraged will follow “Credo.” 

Geary included the Bonds work to consider why Dvorak’s forecast hasn’t come to fruition, why music by African American composers has not had a prominent place in American classical music repertory. 

Geary credits the Black Lives Matter movement for encouraging artistic directors like himself to research music by African American composers that would be appropriate for ensembles such as SFCS. Finding the Bonds composition, which pairs well with Dvořák, is one of the fruits of such research.  

“Our purpose with this program is to invigorate for our audience and ourselves an attempt to understand that influence,” Geary says. “Our goal is to give some visibility to a piece of music from the Black tradition and point out Dvořák’s observations, and basically thank him.” 

The San Francisco Choral Society performs at 7 p.m. April 20 and 4 p.m. April 21 at Calvary Presbyterian Church, 2515 Fillmore St., San Francisco. Find tickets ($37-$53, $37 for April 21 livestream) at cityboxoffice.com. 

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