In May 2016, Dessoff welcomed its ninth music director, Malcolm J. Merriweather. He has brought a fresh perspective to Dessoff by programming contemporary and newly commissioned works, including the music of African-American composers and other people of color. In doing so, he has reimagined Dessoff’s mission, focusing not only on performing rarely–heard choral music but contemporary works which help contribute to a better understanding of New York’s many cultures.
Highlights from Merriweather’s first year include Mozart's Requiem along with David Hurd's In Honor of Martin with a new orchestration commissioned by Dessoff, and Steven Stucky's Take Him, Earth and Whispers performed at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center. David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, and the Freedom Concert, expanding on Coretta Scott King’s original concept with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem, were featured in the 2017-18 season.
Under the innovative leadership of Christopher Shepard (music director from 2010 to 2016) Dessoff organized a series of themed music festivals led by choral concerts featuring the Dessoff Choirs and surrounded by events such as lectures, meet-the-artist opportunities, instrumental concerts, and community participation sing-ins.
James Bagwell, music director from 2005 to 2010, presented several programs of music by living composers, including the New York premiere of Transcendental Sonnets by Kyle Gann and the world premiere of Talk, written for The Dessoff Choirs by Harold Farberman. In November 2009, Dessoff released a second CD, Glories on Glories, a live recording of American song ranging from Billings to Ives.
With Kent Tritle, music director from 1996 to 2004, Dessoff’s 1999 recording of four American contemporary works, Reflections, exemplified the group’s mission. Paul Moravec’s Songs of Love and War was premiered by Dessoff that season and recorded alongside Robert Convery’s chamber work To the One of Fictive Music, Ned Rorem’s From an Unknown Past, and a re-orchestrated Fern Hill by John Corigliano. This CD earned the group the 1999 ASCAP/Chorus America Award for Adventurous Programming. He followed Amy Kaiser, who in her twelve years with the chorus (1983-1995) guided Dessoff's repertoire with the commissioning and premiering of new choral works and the discovery of music, especially from non-Western traditions, that had not yet become part of the canon of choral singing.
Margarete Dessoff, founder and music director of The Dessoff Choirs from 1924 to 1936, arrived in New York City for a visit shortly after the First World War, from Frankfurt Germany where she had lived with her father, Otto Dessoff, a composer and conductor of the Frankfurt Opera. Fortunately for American lovers of fine music, Madame Dessoff remained in New York instead of returning to Europe. Her American reputation was established 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, she formed the A Cappella Singers of New York, a mixed chorus, which 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 60; the larger Dessoff Symphonic Choir for orchestra engagements; and the Dessoff Chamber Choir for more intimate works and venues.
While 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, 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.
Paul Boepple, conductor of The Dessoff Choirs from 1932 to 1968, continued the work Madame Dessoff began by editing and publishing a collection of Renaissance pieces, still little known, of Palestrina, Dufay, and Josquin des Pres, to name a few of the composers Dessoff helped introduce to Americans. The publication of 48 editions in the Dessoff Choir Series and the release of 13 records grew Dessoff’s reputation throughout the country. Under Maestro Boepple, Dessoff also premiered works by Arthur Honegger, Frank Martin, and George Perle. Following Boepple's retirement, Thomas Sokol led the Choirs for five years. He was succeeded by Michael Hammond, 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.
MUSIC DIRECTORS OF THE DESSOFF CHOIRS
2016 – present: Malcolm J. Merriweather
2010 – 2016: Christopher Shepard
2005 – 2010: James Bagwell
1996 – 2004: Kent Tritle
1983 – 1995: Amy Kaiser
1973 – 1983: Michael Hammond
1968 – 1972: Thomas Sokol
1936 – 1968: Paul Boepple
1924 – 1936: Margarete Dessoff