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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the April 14, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
How to Make Haydn Seem Easy
With Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio, "The Seasons" ("Die Jahreszeiten")
you get more than what you see. So says Richard Tang Yuk, who conducts
a performance of the late Haydn composition Saturday, April 17, in
Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium. This is the Princeton Concert
Choir’s second concert in the season to be devoted to a full-length
major work by a single composer. The orchestra consists of freelance
professionals from New Jersey, New York City, and Philadelphia.
The oratorio will be sung in German. "I tend to avoid works in
translation as that creates a whole set of compromised issues," Tang
Yuk says in a telephone interview from his Pennington home. "One has
to explain the text when it’s not in English, but most of the
Princeton students have had German, and so they get more of it at
first glance than one might assume."
Tang Yuk distinguishes between a first impression of the Haydn work
and an understanding of it after close examination. "’The Seasons’ is
simple and tuneful," he says. "Its melodies have an instant appeal for
the lay person. Then, when you look closer, you find the ingenious
orchestration. Haydn never repeats a phrase literally. There’s always
a rhythmic variation, or a change of instrumentation or timbre. The
layman thinks Haydn and Mozart are pretty and the connoisseur finds
them inventive and never dull. One of the great things about Mozart
and Haydn is that even people without musical training find them
interesting. It’s different with 20th century music, where you need to
know how the piece is put together to appreciate the craftsmanship."
Tang Yuk also distinguishes between the reactions to the piece by the
professional musicians involved and by the hard-working 55-person
Princeton Concert Choir, which began work on the piece in early March
and includes only one music major. "I’m anticipating that the
orchestra and soloists will enjoy the piece," he says. "But I’m not
sure about the students. They’re not sold on it yet. They’re receptive
to death, and to angst. When they sing a Requiem there’s something to
dig into instantly. This is more abstract. It takes more getting used
"Perhaps," says Tang Yuk, "it has to do with the age of the singers.
It’s not that they dislike the piece; they just don’t find it as
exciting as death and angst." In addition, he says, American society
influences the outlook of Princeton’s singers. "They’ve grown up in a
period where they’re flooded with information. They’re used to a shock
culture that’s big and bold. Haydn has to compete with television and
MTV. If it’s a subtle thing, they’re not as attuned."
Considerations beyond the musical shape the preparation of an oratorio
performance, Tang Yuk explains. "In any oratorio," he says, "there are
four elements: chorus, soloists, orchestra, and continuo group." (The
continuo group consists of instrumentalists who provide the harmonic
backdrop to a musical performance. Most commonly, harpsichord and
cello play the role.)
"You have to plan how often to rehearse each component so that when
they all come together they work seamlessly," Tang Yuk says. "It’s
hard to predict what’s going to be difficult, and there are time and
money constraints. The professionals always come in only for the last
few days." Strategic thinking and cost-benefit questions come into
Tang Yuk describes a six-step process for bringing an oratorio to the
stage. "Among the four groups the gestation period for the chorus is
longest," he says. "They started working on ‘The Seasons’ in early
March. After the chorus is prepared, I have a separate meeting with
each of the soloists. We use a piano version of the orchestral score."
Despite his competence as a pianist, Tang Yuk chooses another pianist
to rehearse the soloists. "I’m too busy with issues of
interpretation," he says.
Next, soloists and continuo rehearse the ‘secco’ recitatives [the
speech-like portions delivered by the soloists.] "There’s lots of room
for interpretation since the rhythms are not dictated by the composer.
Everybody has ideas. Each recitative is 45 seconds to one minute long.
But it could take 30 to 45 minutes to sort it out."
In step four the professional orchestra joins in for the first time,
and rehearses the solo arias with the soloists. Step five consists of
a rehearsal with orchestra and choir. "That’s complex," Tang Yuk says,
"because it’s the greatest number of people."
Finally, all the participants meet for a dress rehearsal. "Up until
this time, the performers haven’t gone through the piece from
beginning to end." Minutes are precious. "’The Seasons’ takes two
hours and 20 minutes," Tang Yuk says. "We’ll have a three and a half
hour rehearsal that includes a 15-minute break. There’s not much time.
If I’ve done my job well, there will be only little things to work on,
perhaps a transition or a detail of interpretation."
The dress rehearsal, largely because it comes too late for major
changes, is the final test of whether Tang Yuk’s initial view of the
oratorio holds together, "My motto is consistency," he says. "At the
dress rehearsal I must carry through what I did in previous
In order to bring unity to the oratorio, much of Tang Yuk’s
preparation lies in thinking about the individual words of the text.
"Instrumentalists don’t have any text," he says. "They might have no
idea what the music is about." Yet, they must aurally support the
Born in the Caribbean, Tang Yuk is one of five siblings, the only
musical one. Of Chinese descent, both of his parents were born in
Trinidad. "Trinidad," he notes, "is very developed by Caribbean
standards. Its economy is based on oil and gas, rather than tourism.
It’s the New York City of the Caribbean." Both his parents are
business people. "They were dead set against music," he says.
Tang Yuk began piano studies at age eight and came to the United
States for formal training in music. Majoring in conducting, he earned
bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New York’s Mannes College of
Music, before earning a doctorate at Indiana University. Piano studies
in London’s Royal School of Music followed. Tang Yuk has given solo
piano recitals. "Then conducting beckoned me," he says.
A precocious musician, Tang Yuk was the conductor of the Trinidad
Youth Orchestra and the director of the Trinidad Opera Company before
leaving the island for New York. He founded a choir in Trinidad when
he was 16 or 17. "We started with a group of friends," he says, "and
the choir grew. I had a lot of practical experience conducting before
I began my formal education. Much of what they taught at Mannes, I
knew beforehand. At Mannes they told us that as conductors we should
repeat something three times to make it stick. I had already learned
Princeton’s director of choral music and associate director of the
Program in Musical Performance, Tang Yuk came to the university in
1994. He teaches classes in conducting and vocal performance.
Tang Yuk teaches conducting in silence, a standard procedure for
learning how to handle an orchestra. "One of the main skills of
conductors is to hear things in their heads," Tang Yuk says. "You have
to look at the score and hear sounds in your mind. Sometimes you can
see in a gesture whether a student is thinking about the issues in the
From 1995 until its dissolution in the autumn of 2003 Tang Yuk was
chorus master and assistant to the artistic director at Opera Festival
of New Jersey, as well as holding several conducting positions.
"Choruses for opera and oratorio are so different," he says. "With
opera, and the many professionals involved, time is money. The bottom
line is always prominent. There’s pressure to get everything up and
running in the minimum amount of rehearsal time. The chorus director
for opera has to consider movement onstage. He has to talk to the
director and the designers to work out how to fit into their
conception. He needs to know whether the chorus is essential to the
action or just a physical decoration of the set. In opera, chorus
members are moving, wearing costumes, keeping an eye on the maestro,
and singing from memory. When it works well, it doesn’t seem that it’s
"With oratorio the chorus has a longer working period than in opera,"
Tang Yuk says. "They’re not moving as they do in opera. It’s a more
straightforward coordination with the orchestra."
For "The Seasons" both chorus and conductor have capacities in
reserve. "The students at Princeton are extraordinarily intelligent,"
Tang Yuk says. "They’re all overachievers. They rehearse three times a
week, for five and a half hours. Yes, we could rehearse for less time
and do fewer concerts, but they would get bored. They learn so fast in
all disciplines, it’s astounding."
In its original incarnation the concert choir was known as the
Princeton Glee Club. Founded in 1874, it is the oldest singing group
in existence at Princeton. Tang Yuk says that the name change came
about because "concert choir" has a connotation more serious than the
term "glee club."
Tang Yuk directs "The Seasons" for the first time on April 17. But his
background gives him the reserves to handle it easily. "I’ve conducted
both Passions of Bach," he says. "They’re more complicated than ‘The
Seasons.’" He also has conducted Mozart’s "Magic Flute" and Bizet’s
"Carmen" for Opera Festival of New Jersey.
With Haydn’s "The Seasons" you get more than what appears on the
surface. With the Concert Choir and conductor Tang Yuk what they
deliver is bolstered by more than what is immediately apparent.
Princeton University Concert Choir, Richardson Auditorium,
609-258-5000. "Die Jahreszeiten" (The Seasons), Haydn’s
masterfeaturing soloists Christina Pier, soprano, and Michael Colvin,
tenor. Richard Tang-Yuk, conductor. $20. 8 p.m.
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