Adam Grossman’s 20th Season
By Jane Whitehead
At 9:00 p.m. on a wet Wednesday evening, twenty or so of the Master Singers of Lexington are sight-reading a song by 19th-century French composer Claude Debussy that requires them to sound like tambourines.
During the tenure of Music Director Adam Grossman, the accomplished chamber chorus has met many such demands. Known for his championship of contemporary composers, and his encyclopedic knowledge of music from Bach to Broadway, Grossman has challenged his singers to imitate everything from blaring taxi horns to farmyard animals, as well as leading them in acclaimed performances of masterworks of the classical canon.
To mark his twentieth season with the Master Singers, Grossman has worked with board members to devise programs around the theme: “New Works, Old Favorites, Returning Friends.” “Every concert has a new piece by a composer we’ve premiered in the past, and all the guest artists have also played with us before,” he explains.
The opening concert of the season, at 8:00 p.m. Saturday November 1, at First Parish Church, Lexington, features songs by Mendelssohn, Debussy and Barber, with the first performance of Ruth, a setting for chorus, soloists, piano and clarinet of a part of the Biblical Book of Ruth, commissioned by the group from Vermont-based composer Sara Doncaster. Guest clarinetist Katherine Matasy will also perform Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie for clarinet and piano, with the Master Singers’ longtime accompanist Eric Mazonson. “Eric is a very important part of my experience with the group,” says Grossman, “ and a very important part of what we do.”
Programs Playful and Profound
“One of Adam’s amazing strengths is his inspired, creative programming,” says tenor David Getty. He and his wife, the late Sarah Getty, joined the group in 1976 when it was still a chamber chorus of The Masterworks Chorale, under the direction of the late Allen Lannom. “Adam puts together programs for the four concerts each season, each based on a theme, combining works within a program that contrast and complement one another, and showing great diversity across the season,” says Getty.
The group’s annual Pops concerts show Grossman’s ”playful and creative mind,” says Getty. With titles like “Sue Me!” “By the Numbers” and “Come Rain or Shine,” each concert brings together songs from many eras, linked by a shared theme. For the 2014 Pops concert, “Shall We Dance?” the program included favorites from Broadway and Hollywood, mixed with Gilbert and Sullivan, Argentine tango and a sixteenth-century German galliard. One of tenor Haris Papamichael’s all-time favorite Pops events was “Food, Glorious Food,” for which the program was presented in the form of a menu.
“Adam is first and foremost a serious musician,” says soprano Hope Tompkins, a veteran of choral groups large and small, from Manhattan to Boston. “He makes it possible for the Master Singers to delve deeply into and bring forth the sounds of many centuries, from Claudio Monteverdi to Eric Whitacre,” says Tompkins, who joined the group in 2011. She also appreciates Grossman’s sense of fun, recalling the time when at a Pops concert, he handed out giant day-glow colored sunglasses to all the singers for their rendition of “Stayin’ Alive” from Saturday Night Fever.
A Life in Music
Grossman’s step-brother Joshua Cohen has sung bass with the Master Singers since 1995. He realized at an early age that Grossman had serious musical talent. When they attended a summer music camp in New Jersey together as young teenagers, Cohen remembers that all the campers were given clarinets to try. “I was tweeting around and Adam was playing melodies,” he says. “You got a real sense that he was already on his way.” Grossman pursued undergraduate studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and at Boston University, before focusing on composition as a graduate student at Brandeis University.
Grossman’s career in conducting, composing and music education has made him a familiar figure on many podiums in the Greater Boston area and beyond. He is currently conductor of the Junior Repertory Orchestra on the New England Conservatory of Music Preparatory School, and teaches in the Newton public schools. He is the former Music Director of the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, former conductor of the Boston Cecilia Chamber Singers, and has taught at the All Newton Music School, and in the Brookline and Somerville public schools, and made guest appearances with groups including Symphony by the Sea, the Longy Summer Orchestra and Chorus Pro Musica.
Grossman’s style as a conductor, says Cohen, is self-effacing rather than self-promoting. “He’s not a ‘personality’ conductor,” says Cohen. “He’s not someone who spends a lot of time talking about his philosophy of music, or describing things in poetic terms. He believes in putting the music first, not the conductor.”
Master Singers’ founding member, soprano Harriet Chmela, 78, says: “I have seen a lot of growth in Adam’s conducting since he began directing the Master Singers, and the group has grown along with him. This has been a very productive twenty years.” Grossman’s demanding but respectful approach to his singers is an important part of that success, says Chmela. “Singers are treated with sensitivity and trust and this is very important for harmony in the best sense of the word,” she says.
Soprano Catherine Sukow agrees. “Adam’s style is a great combination of respect for the music, respect for the musicians, adventurousness, creativity in programming, and passion for the performance,” she says. As an educator with a good sense of humor, he makes the whole rehearsal process a pleasure, she says, from “slogging through the difficult parts” to “building cohesion, adding nuances and bringing it all together for the concert.”
Taking Music to Schools
In 1997, two years after taking over as Music Director of the Master Singers, Grossman started a Children’s Concert series in collaboration with Lexington public schools. “I’m very happy to be able to bring this kind of music to children,” he says. “A lot of kids think choral singing is something you do while you’re in school, or in college, and not only do we give them a chance to sing with us, we show them that this is something some people do for their whole lives.” This season’s free concert will take place at Clarke Middle School, on Saturday March 14, 2015.
A previous Children’s Concert at Clarke encouraged Catherine Sukow to audition for the Master Singers, three years ago. “As a mom, I appreciated the fact that they came to sing a concert for and along with the students,” says Sukow. She wondered about the source of “the crazy, fun rounds that they got the whole audience to sing,” and found out later that they were Grossman’s creations.
Sukow looks forward to tackling a full-scale Grossman composition in the final concert of the season, on May 16, 2015. This will mark the official 20th Anniversary celebration, says Grossman, who will make also an unusual appearance on that occasion as a violinist, in the ensemble accompanying guest artist Frank Powdermaker in J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor. As for his own composition for that concert, Grossman says: “it is not yet completed or named.” He adds with a laugh, “But we’re talking about May here, so we’re on schedule.”
Grossman’s ability to inspire loyalty among his singers is attested by the long-term commitment of so many members of the ensemble. “I look forward to each season, and hope to be part of the adventure for many more,” says Chmela. For his part, Grossman highly values his enduring partnership with the Master Singers. “No conductor is guaranteed a position,” he says. “Anybody who has the good fortune to be a music director, let alone to work with a group for 20 years, is a very lucky person.”