The New Brunswick Chamber Orchestra (NBCO) eased into life in 1960, when a handful of amateur musicians decided to get together and play classical works for their own entertainment. My husband and I were in on the first expansion of the as-yet unnamed ragtag group. We alternated at the piano, filling gaps in musical sonorities, and providing a bass-line foundation for the assorted instrumentalists. We met in private living rooms. The wind section consisted of a couple of recorder players. One of the early cellists did not read music but played by reading prescribed finger numbers. The group struggled with compositions by Bela Bartok and argued about whether it should be heard by outsiders. The founding conductor was Elaine Winnett, a Highland Park resident who taught music in the Metuchen public schools.
Gradually the NBCO found its present name and tiptoed into performing in local churches and in chapels at Rutgers University. Under a series of conductors, it has evolved into a professional ensemble that fluctuates between 12 and 26 musicians capable of handling a wide spectrum of music. Its recent concerts include vocal and instrumental soloists, choirs, and dance ensembles. The orchestra brought Handel’s “Messiah” to New Brunswick’s 1,800-seat State Theater on three different occasions.
The orchestra’s new music director and conductor, Mark Hyczko, (pronounced Hitch-ko) was appointed in July, 2011, with the mandate of defining its identity by taking the orchestra in a new direction that distinguishes it from other ensembles. The future of the group, he believes, lies with distinctive programming, with engaging visual artists to provide a visual component to each program, and with commissioning new works. In an interview in Highland Park, he tags the new path for the orchestra as a type of “branding.”
Hyczko had taken the measure of the orchestra in guest-conducting gigs prior to his appointment. Since he has devoted himself to fulfilling previously made commitments, the 2012-’13 season is the first that he can call his own and has labeled it “Reframing Classical Music.”
The orchestra makes its last appearance for the season in “Visions,” on Sunday, May 5, at 4 p.m. in New Brunswick’s historic Christ Church. The performance is a joint concert with the Parish Choir of Christ Church, under the direction of John Sheridan, Christ Church’s director of music and organist. The choir sings a group of a cappella compositions.
The program includes a world premiere of the newly commissioned work, “Ark of My Dreams,” by Joel Phillips of Westminster Choir College. Orchestra and choir join forces in the composition. Its text comes from 19th-century American poet Sidney Lanier’s 1878 “A Song of the Future.”
Visions, as a theme, are also embodied in other works on the program. They include prominent American composers John Adams’ “Shaker Loops” and Bensalem, PA, native Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Musica Celestis” as well as Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia” and Franz Liszt’s “Angelus.”
Having been present at its creation, conductor Hyczko accounts for the existence of Phillips’ new piece for the orchestra. “I had already decided on the theme for the concert,” he says, “and we knew that we would be performing with the Christ Church choir. So I told Joel that we wanted to commission a work for choir and orchestra, something to fit into the theme of visions. He came back with the poem by Lanier. I read the text and thought it would work well. It bubbles and has a strong meter. The opening words, ‘Sail fast,’ give it energy from the very beginning. And I liked the juxtaposition of images in the poem because they appeal to various senses.”
Lanier’s poem sketches the thoughts of Noah after the biblical flood, as he sends out a dove to determine whether the waters have receded. He is exhilarated yet nervous because he knows that the bird’s finding dry land will be a monumental turning point.
Composer Phillips has been on the Westminster Choir College faculty since 1985. As an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, he specialized in theory, jazz arranging, and composition. He holds a master’s degree in composition from Rochester’s Eastman School of Music and a doctorate in composition from the University of Alabama. A prolific composer, he writes for choral ensembles, chamber music groups, large musical ensembles, solo voice, piano, and synthesizer. His compositions consistently win awards, including from Broadcast Music Incorporated and the American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers.
“It’s exciting for musicians to collaborate with a composer and bounce ideas back and forth,” Hyczko says. “And it’s exciting for an audience to come to a world premiere and hear something for the first time.
“Commissioning pieces is an opportunity to keep music relevant and alive today. At one point Beethoven and all the great composers were being commissioned to write music. We are keeping that heritage alive.”
A new commissioned piece at each concert is part of Hyczko’s plan for the NBCO’s future. “I was brought on with the expectation that I could take the orchestra in a new direction,” he says. “The NBCO had existed for a generation. Now there are two other orchestras that perform in New Brunswick. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has a mandate to perform large symphonic pieces in the state. The Rutgers orchestra, which is relatively large, has a mandate to educate. We want to complement them and perform pieces that they are not likely to perform. We are not in competition with them.
“We want to re-identify ourselves as a nimble orchestra that plays new, commissioned works and establishes itself as a brand. We are a small ensemble that looks for works by living composers and for recently-written compositions. I like to pair works that are not normally heard together but are correlated because of an underlying theme. The theme guides the structure of the programs and supplies a backbone.”
In its attempt to reframe classic music the NBCO has turned to Princeton artist Debra Weier for visual representations of the themes of concerts in the 2012-’13 season. Weier’s painting “Exit” parallels the theme of “Visions” and will be shown at the concert. Artist Weier will be on hand to speak with concertgoers, as she was for NBCO’s February concert, “Transformations,” where her illustration for that performance was on display. Weier’s work has been exhibited in museums on three continents. She has taught at Princeton, Brown University, and Hampshire College.
The New Brunswick Chamber Orchestra has a history of collaboration with the Christ Church Choir. The two ensembles presented the State Theater “Messiahs” together. Asked about the pluses and pitfalls of performing with a choir, Hyczko says, “Since the orchestra consists only of instrumentalists, collaborating with a choir makes it possible for us to do works that would otherwise be impossible for us, works with a text. For ‘Visions’ a big plus is that we are appearing with a resident choir at home in the space where we will perform.
“Balance is always an issue when an orchestra and choir work together,” Hyczko says. “The audience has to be able to hear the text. Good diction helps. Keeping the tempo moving can be touchy.
“A choir has to listen differently in order to hear feedback from string instruments, rather than from a piano. They have to use their ears in a different way. The percussive attack of the piano is more immediate than the attack of string instruments. For a choir, performing with strings is something like performing with organ. With piano the sound decays; with organ or strings it remains linear and doesn’t fall off. The Christ Church Choir is used to performing with the fine organ at the church.”
In addition, Hyczko points out, when a choir is involved the conductor needs to be aware of the singers’ need for breath. Conductors must adapt their tempos and phrasing to vocalists’ requirements for air.
Hyczko was born in Denville, New Jersey, and grew up in Hunterdon County. His grandfather was a violinist. His father worked in construction, and his stay-at-home mother was his first piano teacher. “I grew up listening to classical music,” he says. Hyczko earned two bachelor’s degrees from Rutgers. The first, in 1998, was a bachelor of arts, with honors, in chemistry. The second was a bachelor of music degree in 2000, with high honors in piano performance. Asked why he collected the two credentials, he says, “I was trying to be practical.”
The transition from chemistry to music was uneventful. Music invaded his chemistry studies, and he remembers long conversations about music after class with Irwin Tobias, a chemistry professor keenly interested in music.
In 2005 Hyczko earned a master’s in piano performance from New York’s Mannes School of Music. He has appeared in recital with a number of singers, among them his wife, Nadine Robinson. He has conducted opera in the U.S. and Canada.
Since 2000 he has been the director of music and organist at St. Peter’s Church in Freehold, where he founded and has served as artistic director of Freehold’s Downtown Concert series since 2009. He describes the Downtown series as bringing in classical artists to an area with little classical music. “We are close enough to Manhattan to make us easily accessible for many artists,” Hyczko says. “Now the series has become a fixture.”
Since the first concert of the Downtown series in Freehold, WWFM, Mercer County Community College’s classical music station, has recorded and aired its performances. “The concert series is a different project from the New Brunswick Chamber Orchestra,” Hyczko says. “With the concerts, the venue stays the same, and the artists vary. With the orchestra it’s the same artists in different venues.” In addition to broadcasting the Freehold concerts, WWFM plans to broadcast NBCO’s “Transformations” concert in the future.
Hyczko is also choir director and organist at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown. He also teaches at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts.
Jutting into the tightly organized life of Hyczko and his wife, singer Robinson, these days is their daughter, Anna Sophia, who was born on April 9.
Visions, New Brunswick Chamber Orchestra, Christ Church, 5 Patterson Street, New Brunswick. Sunday, May 5, 4 p.m. $10 to $20. newbrunswickchamberorchestra.org or 732-249-6999.