One of the most memorable highlights of my concert-going life was hearing Florent Schmitt’s stunning choral masterpiece Psaume XLVII, Op. 38 presented at Lincoln Center in New York City. Although I was well-familiar with the piece, having discovered it several decades earlier, this was the first opportunity I’d had to see it performed live in concert.
Like Maurice Ravel’s characterization of the premiere performance of this music in Paris back in 1906, I found the New York performance “profound and powerful.” The performers that day included the American Symphony Orchestra and the Canticum Novum Singers conducted by ASO music director Leon Botstein. And the important soprano solo part was sung by soprano Korliss Uecker, who at the time appeared regularly in roles at the MET Opera.
Like many a MET Opera soloist, Miss Uecker’s career has encompassed many productions featuring varied languages and composers ranging from Mozart, Verdi and Smetana to Humperdinck and Richard Strauss. In more recent times she has been a recital artist concertizing in the United States and Europe, as well as starring as soloist in some of the great symphonic and choral works in the repertoire. She is a champion of women composers and contemporary American music, and her musical activities also extend to cabaret, jazz and American musical theatre.
When I saw the Lincoln Center performance of Psalm 47, I was deeply moved by Miss Uecker’s breathtaking solo passages soaring high above the orchestra — and also wowed by her highly attractive stage presence. In short, it was a stellar presentation that has remained a fresh memory ever since.
Fast-forward to June 2018 … and I had the good fortune to meet Miss Uecker and visit with her about her experience in singing Florent Schmitt’s Psaume.
Even though we reside in different states on the East Coast, this past June we found ourselves just a few miles apart in the state of Minnesota, where I was visiting family and Miss Uecker was participating as a faculty member in the Collaborative Piano Institute’s annual program being held at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault.
Because of scheduling necessities, Miss Uecker and I ended up meeting at 7:00 am for our interview (she remarked that this was the earliest interview she’d ever granted to anyone!). Despite the extreme early hour and the lack of morning coffee, we spent an engaging 90 minutes together, reminiscing about the 1997 concert and her interesting career activities since then. Highlights of the conversation are presented below.
PLN: It’s been quite a while since you performed Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII at Lincoln Center in New York City. Do you recall how the opportunity to sing this music came about?
KU: Leon Botstein, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra who had decided to program the Psalm, was looking for a soprano solo for the piece. I had not heard of Florent Schmitt until I received a call from Leon’s office to come in for an interview and an audition.
I did some quick research on the composer, but was unable to become very familiar with the Psalm 47 solo part because Leon had wanted to see me in four days. So I sang passages from the Brahms Requiem which have a similar arching high line, and I think I also sang the Poulenc song Ce …, which also has that very high arching line (plus it’s also French).
And then I was hired, and the work of preparation began.
PLN: To many people, Schmitt’s Psalm 47 is a surprising discovery. They are amazed that such an impressive choral piece is so little known and so rarely performed. What was your initial reaction to the music when you became acquainted with it?
KU: When I got hold of the score, I was totally blown away by it. To tell you the truth, I was kind of overwhelmed by the enormity of it all — it’s such a big piece with the chorus and organ and all. But I was very excited as well.
PLN: How would you go about preparing a piece like Psalm 47 for performance? Is there a particular routine that you follow — especially when preparing unfamiliar music for the first time?
KU: Typically, I get together with pianists who are good at working with orchestral scores so that they can provide a kind of “big picture” view of the music. In the case of the Schmitt, I also checked my French with Mme. Marguerite Meyerowitz from Juilliard who had remained my French coach since my days as a student there, just to make sure there wasn’t anything unusual or peculiar with the Biblical text.
After that, I sat at the piano and started learning my part note by note and phrase by phrase.
I don’t recall that I had a recording of the Psalm when I prepared for the concert. Today, thanks to YouTube, it’s more common for people to listen to other performances. While there’s a risk that you might not retain your own personal interpretation of the music, it is a great aid.
But I encourage people to try to get their own sense of the poetry and music in a room by themselves, seeing what their own reaction to the piece is before listening to others. The danger is losing your own individuality in the process of hearing other singers.
As for the Psalm, I didn’t have trouble learning it, but I do recall that the cueing was very complicated during rehearsal and in the performance, because Leon had so much to do with cueing the orchestral and choral entrances. It isn’t easy music — certainly not as easy as a Mozart or Fauré Requiem or something more straightforward like that. And Schmitt’s musical writing is very thick; the texture is very rich.
Also, we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time available — one full rehearsal and then a final run-through in Fisher Hall [now David Geffen Hall]. I do remember that I took the concertmaster aside — Eric Wyrick — and asked him, “Leon’s so busy — how would you feel about giving me a cue here or there?” I didn’t really want to bother Leon because he was already cueing left and right.
Eric was kind enough to give me a couple of special cues which were very helpful during the performance — just to double-check where I was coming in and to make sure it was spot-on. There was so much going on and it was very challenging being in the middle of that sound. I was in the front of the orchestra but the sound was all around me. It isn’t like an opera stage where the orchestra and conductor are in the pit, facing the performers.
Some of the entrances for the soprano and for the chorus aren’t always that “obvious” in this piece. I was a little surprised at that because of the period when the music was written. But then again, you never know — after all, with someone like Debussy anything goes, and Debussy and Schmitt were working in the same time in France.
One other thing I discovered when preparing this piece was that there were tremendous Schmitt fans around. My husband, Jerry Grossman, is principal of the cello section in the MET Opera Orchestra. There was a fellow cellist in the MET Orchestra at the time — Sam Magill — who was just “on” this. He was so excited that I was singing the Psalm.
Not only was Sam there for the performance, during the entire run-up to the concert he was constantly asking me how things were going with the preparation. He and others seemed so genuinely excited that this piece was being programmed — and that I was the one doing it.
PLN: The contemporary American composer Kenneth Fuchs has written this about Schmitt’s composition: “The Psalm’s language is not Germanic, but the dimensions somehow are.” Does this characterization seem “on point” to you?
KU: It’s interesting that you bring up Ken Fuchs, because I’ve known Ken going back to my days at Juilliard. In some ways I would agree with his perspective on this piece, but actually I can think of some Germanic comparisons.
I wouldn’t say something Wagnerian, but perhaps it’s somewhat like Korngold. Die Tote Stadt-ish: a big colorful orchestra with soaring lines for everyone.
Maybe Richard Strauss, too. But it’s not a tonality comparison; it’s more the busy activity within the orchestra and all the inner voices.
PLN: What do you think of the “big profile” of this piece? Are there stylistic elements that appeal to you most especially?
KU: I love the profile of the Psalm. Indeed, the scope of it is gigantic. It was very exciting to be at the epicenter of such a massive and expressive piece of music.
It felt to me like it was operatic — like when I did Ariadne auf Naxos in concert with Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra — as compared to when I sing something like Mozart’s Exsultate jubilate which is crisp and clean, where I’m the soloist here and the orchestra is there.
Recently I sang in the Mahler Resurrection Symphony, and that had somewhat of a similar feeling to me.
PLN: For some listeners, the middle section of the Psalm with the soprano solo is the emotional high-point of the piece rather than the two outer sections — even with all of their power. What is it like to sing those solo passages?
KU: Those passages are quite exhilarating because of their sweep and expressiveness. They were actually quite easy for me because they set very well within the range of my voice.
I loved the experience of singing the piece; I would love to sing it again.
PLN: Singing in the French language can present challenges for American choruses. Did you notice any particular problems of this kind when rehearsing the Psalm?
KU: The chorus was very well prepared and top-quality, including the French diction. It’s likely the chorus was comprised of many Juilliard and MSM [Manhattan School of Music] graduates, so the talent level was high as it invariably is in New York City.
I’m not sure how the French would have sounded had the piece been performed outside of New York!
PLN: ASO music director Leon Botstein, who conducted your performance, is known as a champion of lesser-known repertoire. In fact, your concert shared billing with music by two other rarely performed French composers: Vincent d’Indy and Albéric Magnard. Have the two of you collaborated on other projects since then?
KU: I loved working with Leon and I would like to work with him again. Unfortunately we haven’t done any projects together since the Schmitt, although recently I did suggest to him a piece by Lowell Liebermann titled Six Songs of Nelly Sachs. It’s a piece I premiered in 1986 with the pianist David Korevaar, and later presented the version with orchestra. It’s one of several Liebermann work’s I’ve premiered, including an opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, done in Monaco.
Nelly Sachs’ poetry in these songs is World War II-era themes of yearning, grief and the Holocaust, and I think it would be right up Leon’s alley. It’s from a period that’s frequently a focus of his programs; it has a niche. Like the Schmitt, the Liebermann songs are heavily textured, beautifully orchestrated — and quite difficult.
I sent the music to Leon to see what he would think of doing those. So now he’s aware of the score, and if it fits into one of his future thematic programs, hopefully he’ll consider presenting it.
PLN: Are there other pieces of French music besides Schmitt’s Psalm that you keep in your repertoire?
KU: I sing a good deal French repertoire, and I try to include some French music in every program I present. I sing Ravel and Poulenc a lot, but I also like to explore lesser-known repertoire. For instance, right now I’ve been focusing on the composer Pauline Viardot-Garcia.
More broadly, when it comes to female composers I’ve been exploring Johanna Kinkel as well as presenting the works of other women composers who aren’t well-known at all.
PLN: Tell us a little about your current music activities, and future projects on the horizon.
KU: On the women composers theme, I’ve been focusing on this music with the soprano Tammy Hensrud. Together we’ve presented works by composers like Cécile Chaminade and Juliana Hall in addition to the other ones I just mentioned. My collaboration with Tammy is unique because as an ensemble, which is named Feminine Musique, we’re concentrating on “soprano duo” repertoire, including exploration of women composers as well as new commissions. It’s a broad scope of repertoire which practically no one else is doing to such an extent.
It turns out that there’s a lot more music than just the famous duet from Lakmé. I wonder if Schmitt wrote any music for soprano duo — because if so, we’d certainly be interested in exploring it.
Just last month we presented several concerts in Germany, and the reviews were very positive. What I find is that in Germany the audiences are looking for something different — but at the same time they hold singers to a very high standard. So the reception we received was particularly gratifying. Those concerts also included works by more familiar composers like Rossini, Offenbach and Humperdinck.
My European activities have been particularly interesting and rewarding, such as a recital Tammy and I did last year at the estate of George Sand in France. The property is in a remote location, but the event was well-attended because the George Sand Association is a particularly active society.
The event was highly historical in that the concert focused on the musicians and artists George Sand interacted with during her life. The repertoire we presented was fascinating — just as fascinating as our pianist and the audience members turned out to be, I might add.
I’m also involved in working with young composers in commissioning new works. As for more established contemporary composers, I have never performed any of Ken Fuchs’ scores, but I’m in touch with him and I really need to perform some of his music.
I’m looking forward to some exciting upcoming projects as well, including several new premieres and concerts with old and new colleagues. I’m hopeful that one of them will be with mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. Feminine Musique will also be returning to Germany next spring for an operatic concert in Bad Ems.
Another upcoming performance is an event with the Fargo Moorhead Opera in October. As a native North Dakotan, it has been a special opera company to me throughout my career, and I’m particularly excited to be joining them to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary in a special concert conducted by Michael Ching.
Of particular interest to your readers is a concert of all-French music I’m preparing for February that will feature songs by Florent Schmitt and Ravel as well as ones by Pauline Viardot, Lili Boulanger, Augusta Holmès and Mel Bonis. Right now I’m working through the repertoire, looking for particularly interesting material that may not be familiar to most music-lovers, and that’s a very interesting process.
Of course, it’s always particularly enjoyable when I have the opportunity to join my husband Jerry in performance. In late July, we will be presenting the Massenet Elegy and several other works with cello and piano in two Kniesel Hall Chamber Music Festival concerts in Maine. And in 2020, he and I will be presenting an entire recital of music together — details to come!
The Collaborative Piano Institute program here at Shattuck is quite unique in the field. Now in its second year, its mission is to teach pianists how to work in collaboration with singers. The pianists I’ve spoken with say that they don’t know of any other program of this kind.
PLN: Are there any additional observations you would like to make about Psaume XLVII and the opportunity you were given to perform it?
KU: Just that it was the chance of a lifetime to sing a rare and wonderful piece of music — a presentation that was so special, I wore a Dior gown for the performance. It seemed the right thing to do for such a significant occasion!
We share Miss Uecker’s opinion that Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII is indeed something very special, and we hope that another opportunity to sing the glorious soprano solo part in this piece will come her way in the future.