CELEBRATING OUR MUSICIANS
Our GBFOM Board is pleased to add our "MUSICIANS' GALLERY" series to our website. We honor celebrated musicians who began their careers in WNY and have continued to make their mark elsewhere and the many outstanding musicians who currently call the Niagara Frontier their home.
Read Malcom Merriweather's Interview with Patricia Hills. Learn about how he has gone on to achieve amazing achievements during his musical careers.
An Interview with Malcom J. Merriweather
by Patricia Hills
August 1, 2023
I enjoyed reading your recent interview in the Buffalo Spree; MALCOLM J. MERRIWEATHER | People | buffalospree.com and your website biography at www.malcolmjmerriweather.com. I’m happy to be acquainted with you via our mutual history at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo. Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions from the perspective of a choral singer / conductor and music educator.
In your illustrious career path, it sounds like you are juggling many conducting and performing opportunities in NYC and abroad. What is a typical week like for you?
I’m blessed to be affiliated with so many intergenerational organizations. My path started as a child singing with the Men and Boys Choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo alongside adults of all ages, career paths and with a high level of professional musicianship. I pride myself on fostering the same thing in my career. I work with a community choir in NYC called the Dessoff Choir, which is turning 100 years old and has a rich history of commissioning, premiering and performing great choral works. I’m also on the faculty of Brooklyn College, and as a professor my schedule is quite flexible. This makes it possible for me to explore other aspects of my own performance career as a conductor and a soloist. Sometimes it’s a puzzle to put it all together but it’s a joy to be able to step in front of a symphony orchestra and sing as a soloist and then be engaged as a conductor or a clinician. I really try to keep my work week balanced because, as much as I love my work, I have to make time for family, friends, health, working out and cooking, which I love to do, so I have developed a great balance over the years. Not everything I do is a full-time job so the various pieces fit together from week to week and it all works out.
When you’re choosing repertoire for your choirs, what are your top priorities for those choices? Do you look for particular genres, composers, themes, etc.?
It’s going to differ for each group unless it's the New York Philharmonic Chorus, where they tell me what they're doing and I just have to go with it. But for my college choirs or the Dessoff Choirs, Manhattan School of Music where I’m on the faculty now, and when I’m a guest clinician, I really think about the singers that make up the group and how they’re going to be successful with the repertoire or concert cycle. So what I do with Brooklyn College is not the same as what I would do with Dessoff as far as level of difficulty but also as far as content. My expertise and scholarship is really in symphonic repertoire and in trying to expand this repertoire, I’m interested in bringing new pieces to light. Over the past five or six years I’ve researched the symphonic repertoire of black female composers because I never really learned about them in my studies. It occurred to me after conducting dozens of Handel’s Messiahs, and many similar works, to ask the question - what are people going to be performing 100 years from now? I also like to consider contemporary figures within the oratorio genre, such as the oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard, where I combined my Brooklyn College Choirs with the Dessoff choirs for its New York premier in 2021. This made the college-aged students aware of Matthew Shepherd. In this age of expanding people’s identities, it’s important for them to know this story. My repertoire choices are innovative but also take into account what singers will like and enjoy.
Which of your many accomplishments are you most proud of?
Oh, that’s easy. In 2016 I was approached by the singer Andrea Bocelli and he wanted to create a choir in Port-au-Prince to expand the outreach that he had already been doing in Haiti since 2010. They had been building schools, repairing the hospitals and orphanages, and they wanted a musical component, so they brought me on to the team to start a choir, which is now called Voices of Haiti. I was able to start this choir from the ground up, which is a very unique experience; to build a choir along the ideals and principals that are closest to my heart and my philosophy of music education. A lot of it is built upon what I learned and experienced at St. Paul’s, but I was also able to draw upon more traditional children's choirs like the Syracuse Children’s Choir. It is unique because in Haiti everyone is deeply religious so I am able to do a lot of sacred repertoire, which you can’t always do in public settings and public schools. It was at first a big step outside of my comfort zone to go to a third world country to interact with a co-ed choir of sixty children, but as soon as I entered the rehearsal space, it was like stepping into a room of sixty sponges who were eager to soak up everything that I had to offer. Sometimes the choirs I work with in the US will take things for granted and I always remind them that there are people around this world who are literally just craving these opportunities. So starting that choir is the most meaningful thing I've done in my career thus far.
Do you have a favorite memory of a person or event that motivated you to pursue singing, pipe organ and choral conducting?
So many of my formative experiences derive from St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo. The first time I sang with an orchestra was at SPC with Dale Adelmann conducting Handel’s Messiah. I was maybe nine years old, singing soprano in the boys’ section. I had started in the choir in September and for this December concert we were singing with the New York State Baroque Orchestra. The Cathedral was packed and I remember we stood for the entire performance, so my feet were hurting, but one thing that stuck out to me was looking out at these faces of people I didn’t know and thinking, “Oh, these people came and paid and are sitting here for three hours to listen to us perform this beautiful music.” And as a young child, I also noticed one person in the orchestra who returned every year for that gig. Her name is Pat and she plays the violone and she was the only African American person in that orchestra. So, fast-forward to twenty years later, I moved to NYC and I’m singing at Bach Vespers with Holy Trinity and their period orchestra; I’m looking at the violone player and I’m thinking, “I know this woman.” I went up to her and started talking to her and said “Did you play at St. Paul’s Cathedral from 1994 - 2004?” And it was her! I conducted a Saint John Passion with my choirs and she also played for that performance. The reason we do what we do is for the music, but also it’s beyond the music. It’s for that human connection and community.
Most choral conductors or soloists would be completely satisfied to reach even a small fraction of your success by the end of their career, and you’re still so young! What hopes and dreams might yet be on the horizon for you?
Oh my goodness, I feel so blessed! This last year alone, I never could have imagined the experiences and the musicians that I would meet, collaborate with, talk to and make music with. I know there’s a lot more to come. My goals as a musician are definitely to enter further into the realm of conducting choirs and orchestras. I do a lot of choral preparation for the New York Philharmonic, but I feel as though through my experience and through my research, I have more to offer to the singers and to the orchestra.
In my teaching, I want to work more with emerging singers in the genre of oratorio and concert repertoire for singers. I teach a practicum on this subject at Manhattan School of Music and at Brooklyn College. It’s my favorite class to teach. It’s a lot of preparation but there’s nothing like seeing my students’ eyes light up when we talk about the socio-political circumstances surrounding something like Britten’s War Requiem; thinking about the pieces that are being written today and how elections are influencing musical composition and the reimagining / new renderings of old repertoire.
Mark your calendars!
On May 31st - June 2nd, 2024 Malcolm will be the guest clinician and conductor here in Buffalo with the Vocalis Chamber Choir. This will include a ‘Community Sing’ opportunity for all local-area singers to participate with Malcolm at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Buffalo on the Friday evening of May 31st. Visit www.VocalisChamberChoir.org for more details.