Saturday, May 20, 2006

159 Years of Liederkranz

Liederkranz of the City of New York presented its 159th annual concert and gala evening on Saturday, May 20th. This is a venerable cultural club of the kind that began to emerge in the United States during the middle and late 19th century. Liederkranz was founded in 1847 as a male choral society. Now it has spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, and emerges in the 21st century as a full society of men and women with male and female choruses that also combine as a mixed choir. The purpose continues to celebrate German culture, but also promotes musical talent through competitions, scholarships, recitals, and concerts involving musicians from around the world.

The concert featured the combined chorus and the men's and women's groups, along with the New York Concert Opera Chamber Orchestra, led by their talented and resourceful music director, Dr. Ulrich Hartung. Not only did he direct the chorus, but he was also responsible for a number of the orchestral settings and choral arrangements.

The chorus has approximately fifty members, and Dr. Hartung was masterful in leading them through an ambitious and delightful program. Although the chorus is no longer the dominant choral organization in the city, the performances were sensitive and musical. One highlight of the evening was the winner of the Liederkranz vocal competition, Mari Moriya, who is joining the MET in several roles including Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte. Her performance of Der Hölle Rache was simply stunning for its clarity, range, and power. The chamber orchestra led by Hartung provided a spirited performance of Die Zauberflöte's overture.

This was a mix of works such as Beethoven's Die Ehre Gottes in der Natur, Mendelssohn's Auf Flügeln des Gesanges to a medley of Broadway hits, and a finale of works from Strauss's Zigeunerbaron that brought the guest artists together with the chorus and orchestra for a memorable and rousing close. The baritone Laszlo Fogel and soprano Mari Moriya added to the rich Strauss texture and the gypsy spirit as they performed excerpts with the chorus in an inspired abbreviated version of the work as selected by Maestro Hartung.

Liederkranz has played an important role in the musical life of New York and the nation through its close association with the Metropolitan Opera. The chorus once was so select that it performed with the New York Philharmonic, and performed with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The organization has hosted guest artists such as Jenny Lind, Frederuccio Busoni, Victor Herbert, Lilli Lehmann, and Helen Traubel, to name a few.

Liederkranz has had an impressive and illustrious history, and one hopes this cultural society has the imagination and energy to endure another 150 years. The Liederkranz building is a treasure, but it looks as though it is in need of an overhaul and a creative touch to align its facilities with its expanded cultural role. Formerly the organization was located in a much larger building on 58th street that included a full stage. The society moved to its current quarters on 87th street in 1948. Up until about that time, the organization continued to be a male chorus, but around 1949 women joined Liederkranz as was the practice of many cultural clubs throughout the country.

The challenge for the organization is whether its greatest days are in the past or whether it can rise to the demands of modern musical practice and establish a new dynasty in a multicultural world. There is clearly a need for cultural societies such as Liederkranz to maintain ties with a rich past and an important cultural tradition while forging new standards through imaginative concerts, recitals, and staged performances. Currently, it is but an echo of its past, but Liederkranz could be poised for a new era of excellence. Certainly the musical guidance of Ulrich Hartung inspires a new level of achievement, but serious recruitment from the younger generation of music lovers is greatly needed. Whether the organization has the will and dedication to renew itself remains an open question.

One notable feature of the concert was the elaborate printed program which served as a souvenir for the occasion. The person to be credited for this expanded version is Trudy Sczesny, and the quality of this brochure-like program added to ambiance of this gala event.

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