A kid from Buffalo, Malcolm J. Merriweather ‘10E (MM) never believed he could make it big as a singer and conductor in New York City. But Rita Shane, his vocal professor at Eastman, did.
“She emphasized over and over, ‘Malcolm, you have to come to New York, you’re made for New York. You are going to go so far in New York.’ I can hear those words. As a 22-year-old, I didn’t believe her, but to me, coming from Buffalo, coming from Syracuse, coming from Rochester, it was just this big unattainable thing.”
Merriweather didn’t even want to go take auditions, thinking he wouldn’t get the jobs anyway. “But she empowered me to believe that all of that was possible,” he remembers.
Now Merriweather is the newly appointed director of the New York Philharmonic Chorus, the professional choir of the Philharmonic that has been around for over 50 years. Since 2016, he has also led New York City’s Dessoff Choirs, a high-level and active amateur organization of singers that has spearheaded many new works, recordings, and performances with other major ensembles in its over 90-year history.
On Saturday, March 18, Merriweather returns to his college stomping grounds at Eastman to perform on the Morning Chamber Music series. The free concert is at 11 a.m. in Hatch Recital Hall.
On the concert, he’ll perform Dover Beach, Samuel Barber’s work for baritone and string quartet that sets Matthew Arnold’s melancholy poem about the ebb and flows of love. The second half of the program focuses on women composers: Margaret Bonds, Florence Price, Alma Mahler, and Clara Schumann. Merriweather has long specialized in Bonds’ music, researching and performing her music since 2016 and releasing two albums of her choral cantatas (Margaret Bonds: Credo & Simon Bore the Cross and Margaret Bonds: The Ballad of the Brown King, both with the Dessoff Choirs), marking the first time the works had been recorded.
“I’m really excited to share the vocal music of this Black composer at Eastman because I just think her music needs to be heard, she’s so gifted,” he says. “If you think about the chronology of Margaret Bonds, she is a direct contemporary of Samuel Barber, but because of her sex and her race, she wasn’t afforded the same opportunities with publishers and educational institutions.”
Interconnections bring together the rest of the works. Alma Mahler, the wife of New York Philharmonic’s former director (1909-1911) and composer Gustav Mahler, was living in New York City at the same time as Bonds, a connection Merriweather wanted to draw out on this concert. And Clara Schumann, wife of composer Robert Schumann, was performing and composing at the same time as Bonds’ major teacher, Florence Price. Rather than separating out important Black composers, Merriweather wanted to “think of them alongside other composers who are living at the same time” and who shared similar struggles as women composers.
Merriweather will also give a conducting masterclass through the American Choral Directors Association’s student chapter, an arm of the national organization he was heavily involved with as a student at Eastman.
As for his big New York career, a recent highlight was helping the New York Philharmonic’s choir debut in the newly renovated David Geffen Hall (formally named Avery Fisher Hall) in October. The program included Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its famous fourth movement chorus. He calls the Philharmonic’s new hall “magnificent,” and that the reverberation now “makes the music more immediate, the diction is much clearer.” Not to mention the especially musician-friendly and contemporary backstage area, which audiences don’t get to see.
Merriweather remembers Eastman as the place that offered a safe space to succeed—but also to fail and learn. The learning continues with the New York Philharmonic, where he collaborates with the orchestra’s world-renowned music director, Jaap van Zweden, and other high profile guest conductors. He’s also looking forward to working with Gustavo Dudamel, the superstar conductor who is slated to be New York Philharmonic’s next music director. “It’s been a unique experience to meet one-on-one with these great conductors and bring my knowledge to the table, have them appreciate what I’m thinking about and what I’m hearing, but then also learn from their experience and add that to my knowledge,” says Merriweather.
Hear the fourth-movement choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, performed by the New York Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic Chorus on October 28, 2022. Members of WXXI can watch the full performance here.
Watch an interview with Merriweather on Fox Rochester’s “Good Morning Rochester.”
-Written by Anna Reguero, Senior Writer and Editorial Manager