The unrelenting sun beats down from the cerulean sky. A sweaty mass of men and women huddles into an amorphous semicircle. What’s that smell? Hot dogs? Halal food? Body odor? Sounds like a baseball game, but it was one of Make Music New York’s more than 1,000 free concerts marking June 21, the summer solstice. This year’s concerts included a gospel sing-along parade in Park Slope, jazz improv groups roving the High Line, and a vibraphone performance of Erik Satie’s 18-hour long Vexations on Wall Street. And at the upper tip of Times Square, my Juilliard classmate Robert May and I were among the 200 or so amateur and professional singers braving the 89-degree heat to celebrate the longest day of the year with the world premiere of Philip Glass’s The New Rule.
Glass (Diploma ’60, M.S. ’62, composition) turned 75 in January and in honor of his birthday, NPR Music commissioned this short choral piece to be premiered by a pickup chorus in Times Square. Anyone who wanted to participate was asked to download the 11-page score and arrive warmed up and ready to sing, though passers-by were welcome to take stapled copies of the score and join in.
As Robert, a fellow tenor, and I waited for our 6 p.m. call, we arranged ourselves, mindful of our lines of sight to the maestro, faculty member Kent Tritle (B.M. ’85, M.M ’88, organ; M.M. ’88, choral conducting). On this occasion, he broke with choral tradition and used a baton so that he would be easier to follow. Also on the 45-minute program were Bruckner’s sacred motet Locus iste, Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, three selections from Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and for good measure, the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Rachel Rosales (M.M. ’86, voice) sang the solos in both the Glass and the Mozart, her steely voice soaring through the choir and over the dissonant din of car horns in the rush-hour traffic. And just in case, there was a large electric keyboard to provide support for the group during the a capella pieces, of which The New Rule was one, although the piano’s dynamic was too faint and the music moving too fast to gain any real point of reference from the well-intentioned accompanist’s little hints.
Glass had adapted The New Rule from his 1997 chamber opera Monsters of Grace, arranging it for eight-part chorus and soprano solo. He replaced the instrumental accompaniment of the original with a driving, mixed-meter (6+4/8) ostinato on the neutral syllable “lu.” The soprano’s melody, a syllabic English-language setting of a portion of text by the medieval Sufi poet Rumi, floated above the choral parts. When I asked one singer before we started if he’d heard of Glass, he said, “From what I understand, he’s a genius.”
At the conclusion of the Handel, an observer loudly inquired, “Is this a flash mob?” The noise of the crowds and traffic seemed to fade away as people huddled around the chorus to listen—whether out of awe, amusement, sheer curiosity, or all three. The classical repertoire provided a welcome counterpoint to the repetitive Glass, and surprisingly, the ambience of all the repertoire lent a glowing placidity to our little corner of Times Square. What better a place to bring the serenity of song—and what place needs it more than the heart of the world’s busiest city?