Before the First World War, Margarete Dessoff lived with her father, Otto Dessoff, conductor of the Frankfurt Opera, in their home across the street from the aunt and uncle of the American banker Felix Warburg. As a boy, Mr. Warburg came to know Madame Dessoff from visits to his uncle’s house, and it was this friendship that moved him to bring her to America after the War for a recuperative visit.
Fortunately for American lovers of fine music, Madame Dessoff remained in New York instead of returning to Europe. Her American reputation was well on the way to full establishment through her Madrigal Chorus of the Institute of Musical Art when she and Angela Diller (of the Diller-Quaile School of Music) formed the Adesdi chorus of women’s voices in 1924, named from parts of each founder’s name.
In October 1929, the A Cappella Singers of New York, a mixed chorus, began rehearsing in the evenings (the Adesdi women rehearsed during the day). The Dessoff Chorus, therefore, referred to two separate groups, constituting what is now known as The Dessoff Choirs, Inc. Today, the plural name connotes the several groups that perform regularly: a core ensemble of around 75; the larger Dessoff Symphonic Choir for orchestra engagements; and the Dessoff Chamber Choir for more intimate works and venues.
There are two principles that The Dessoff Choirs has always upheld: the commitment to present music that would not otherwise be heard in the ordinary course of musical events, and a pledge to provide an opportunity for talented amateurs to sing some of the world’s finest choral masterpieces. It may be inconceivable to music lovers of today that there could be anything avant garde about the music of Machaut, Lassus, Josquin des Prez, Victoria, Schütz, and Monteverdi. Yet for all practical purposes, the music of these giants was virtually unknown in the 1930s, not only to the amateur musician but to the professional. Nevertheless, Madame Dessoff was conducting concerts of music by these early composers during that time. When she retired from the leadership of the Dessoff Choirs in 1936, such music was still relatively unknown outside of New York City and Dessoff’s concerts.
MUSIC DIRECTORS OF THE DESSOFF CHOIRS
1924 – 1936: Margarete Dessoff
1936 – 1968: Paul Boepple
1968 – 1972: Thomas Sokol
1973 – 1983: Michael Hammond
1983 – 1995: Amy Kaiser
1996 – 2004: Kent Tritle
2005 – 2010: James Bagwell
2010 – 2016: Christopher Shepard
2016 – present: Malcolm J. Merriweather
Under Mme. Dessoff’s successor, Paul Boepple, conductor of the Choirs for 32 years, Dessoff continued to pioneer performances and recordings of these pre-Bach masters. In addition, Boepple edited The Dessoff Choirs Series for the Theodore Presser Company, a distinguished collection of 48 editions of early works previously unavailable in this country. Generations of choral singers throughout the United States include the series among their first exposures to this music. Thirteen LPs were issued.
As interest in early music became more widespread, Dessoff’s emphasis on this period diminished and its repertory widened. Boepple was at one time a close associate of Arthur Honegger’s, and with Dessoff he gave the American premieres of both Judith and Nicolas de Flue, as well as Frank Martin’s Golgotha and other contemporary works.
Following Boepple’s retirement, Thomas Sokol led the Choirs for five years. He was succeeded by Michael Hammond (1973–1983), who led Dessoff in memorable performances of works by 20th-century composers including Schoenberg and Stravinsky, plus the world premiere of George Perle’s Songs of Praise and Lamentation. At the same time he maintained Dessoff’s tradition of giving stirring performances of earlier music.
In her twelve years with the chorus (1983–1995), Amy Kaiser guided Dessoff’s repertoire with the commissioning and premiering of new choral works of significant quality and the discovery of music, especially from non-Western traditions, that had not yet become part of the canon of choral singing. During this period Dessoff returned to the precedent of multiple choirs set by Madame Dessoff: The Dessoff Choirs (70 singers), The Dessoff Chamber Choir (22 singers), The Dessoff Symphonic Choir (up to 195 members), and an informal singing group known as The Dessoff Irregulars, which was constituted primarily for community-service programs in hospitals, schools, and nursing homes.
Kent Tritle (1996–2004) determined the group’s musical direction and mission into the 21st century. In his eight seasons with the chorus, Tritle not only upheld Dessoff’s traditional goal of programming diverse works—from the C.P.E. Bach Magnificat to Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom to a world premiere of Whitman Cantata by Marshall Coid—but also instituted a series of vocal workshops, musicianship training, and language coachings that served to put Dessoff’s performances on a par with many professional choruses across the country. Dessoff’s first CD, Reflections, featured another Dessoff world premiere, Paul Moravec’s Songs of Love and War, plus music by Robert Convery, John Corigliano, and Ned Rorem.
James Bagwell (2005–2010) continued Dessoff’s diverse programming, with world premieres by Kyle Gann and Harold Farberman; Kurt Weill’s Berliner Requiem; and William Bolcom’s The Mask. A second CD, again of American works, was issued: Glories on Glories, with music ranging from Billings to Ives. The Singing Scholars program was introduced, giving talented high school students the chance to rehearse and perform on an adult level for one concert cycle each season.
Christopher Shepard (2010–2016) introduced a Midwinter Festival, giving singers and audience members a chance to gain multiple perspectives on a single them in a concentrated period. Festival topics included "Refracted Bach," "Word Play," "Dessoff@90," and "LUX." The first Festival included a full-scale performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor, which led to an invitation to Mexico City to sing the same work with the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico. During his tenure, Dessoff also traveled to London, to participate in a concert with two English choirs marking the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and made regular appearances in Stamford, Conn.
In 2016, Dessoff welcomed Malcolm J. Merriweather as the group’s ninth music director.
The Dessoff Choirs has always attracted a very special type of choral amateur: individuals who are not only dedicated lovers of music, but who also have sufficiently deep musical training and involvement to explore and discover for themselves the beauties of mostly unknown musical masterpieces, and to apply themselves to the point of performing and communicating these works for the benefit of the public in concert halls and through recordings. Aside from the common spirit of musical involvement, enthusiasm, and dedication to the choral art form, individual members of the chorus have a wide variety of backgrounds and encompass a wide diversity of national origins, age groups, and educational and professional training. Thus, the kinds of music that Dessoff has performed, published, and recorded, and the kinds of amateurs that have been drawn into the membership, have provided the organization’s unique quality.
It is The Dessoff Choirs’ philosophy that the perspective, maturity, and health of any society is dependent to a great extent not only on the involvement of its members in the pleasures of the mind and their participation in those activities which enrich and ennoble their lives, but in the providing of ways to do so. Thus, we believe that The Dessoff Choirs’ performance of hitherto unknown music, and its decades of service to the musical needs of New Yorkers as singers and New Yorkers as listeners, has made a significant contribution to the cultural enlightenment of New York and indeed, the whole country.