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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the December 13,
2000 edition of
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Marathon of Choral Music: Andrew Megill
Choral conductor Andrew Megill shifts musical gears
as if he was negotiating the hairpin curves of an Alpine road in a
stick shift car. He moves from a chorus of over 100 to one of less
than a dozen, from works with orchestral accompaniment to a cappella
pieces, from amateur groups to professionals, and from the 14th
to the 20th, with stops in between. In all, Megill directs six
singing groups, of which five are in the New York metropolitan area.
During the week beginning Sunday, December 17, he has only one day
without a concert. In central New Jersey he leads the 125-member
Chorus and Orchestra in Handel’s "Messiah" at New Brunswick’s
State Theater on Sunday, December 17. On Monday and Tuesday, December
18 and 19, he leads the 10-member Fuma Sacra’s Christmas program
five centuries of British music; concerts take place in Bristol Chapel
of Westminster Choir College. He also directs "Messiah" at
Carnegie Hall Wednesday, December 20, Morristown Community Theater
on Friday, December 22, and at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall on
Leading up to the marathon week Megill appears to have spent a
month with various other engagements. Rehearsals of the assorted
ensembles he conducts, as well as teaching duties at Westminster
his attention. Having passed the Thanksgiving holidays in Dublin,
Ireland, teaching a course on Bach cantatas, he got a jump on the
Christmas season by conducting the Westminster Singers in a program
of traditional and 20th century seasonal music on December 2. Megill
has been conductor of the Westminster Singers, a 32-member auditioned
student ensemble, since early this year.
Masterwork Chorus and Fuma Sacra, the ensembles whose concerts are
scheduled this week, present the extremes of the territory where
works, both in size and in professionalism. Masterwork consists of
125 voices, all volunteers. Fuma Sacra consists of 10 professionals.
Interviewed by telephone from his Princeton home, Megill comfortably
accounts for the pleasures of conducting amateurs, as well as
"There are advantages to both," he says. "Professionals
bring a wealth of experience. They sing every day for four or five
hours. The expectation for a conductor is of not taking much time
teaching notes or talking about technical issues of vocalism. You
tell them what’s wrong and they know how to fix it."
"Amateurs are there because they love what they do. The
choice to take a job is not necessarily motivated by love each time.
A large proportion of professional singers’ incomes, especially early
in their careers, comes because they’re called in to save things.
Often new conductors are not so skilled, or a choral group has
A lot of jobs are not particularly gratifying musically. There’s no
control over who you’re collaborating with."
"Professionals may not love the particular moment," he says.
"Their enthusiasm may be at a lesser level because they know the
works. With volunteers there’s a freshness. Many amateurs may not
have encountered the work before and they have a wonderful
Just as Megill’s eclectic taste extends to working with
both professionals and amateurs, he has room in his musical tent for
works from the 12th century to the present. "Early music is more
nuanced and finely shaped," he says. "It’s like painting with
a fine brush. Later, the pieces with orchestra are like painting with
a large brush. But that doesn’t take less skill or care. I’m
by the stylistic variations from period to period and country to
The hallmark of Megill’s concerts is a glowing freshness. He
accounts for the immediacy of his conducting. "If you choose great
music the freshness is there. The potential is in the piece itself,
or you shouldn’t be doing it. You should do pieces that you connect
Megill, 35, was born in Denver. "I grew up in a lot of
he says (see U.S. 1, December 8, 1993). His father, a physician whose
specialty was tropical medicine, was a medical missionary in Sierra
Leone when Andrew was a child. The family then moved to Bangkok,
where father Megill went as a member of the Peace Corps. When Andrew
was 12, they returned to the United States and settled in northwest
New Mexico, where Dr. Megill worked on a Native American reservation.
He set up a dozen clinics in the large, sparsely populated Four
area and made daily rounds by plane, acting as his own pilot. He died
about 10 years ago in a plane accident.
Andrew’s mother was the musician. She was a church organist and the
accompanist of church choirs when he was a child, and she brought
music into the family’s daily life. Andrew remembers that she had
her three sons join her to sing quartets around the piano. Everybody,
he says, played piano. She continues her church musical activities
now in Sierra Vista, Arizona, 30 miles south of Tucson.
Andrew’s older brother Kevin is now a professor of computer science
at the University of Illinois in Sterling. His younger brother David
is pastor of a non-denominational church in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"I’ve known most of my life that music was where I wanted to
Andrew says. Without digressing, he stayed within the musical fold.
He graduated with distinction from the University of New Mexico in
Albuquerque with a bachelor’s degree in theory and composition. During
most of that time he was assistant conductor of the New Mexico
Orchestra Chorus. In 1989 he collected a master of music degree in
choral conducting, with highest honors, from Westminster Choir
He and three other Westminster graduate students founded Fuma Sacra
that year. The ensemble devotes itself primarily to early music. The
present Fuma Sacra (the name means "holy smoke" in Latin)
consists of 8 to 10 singers, depending on the demands of the program.
Its CD, "The Best Nowells That E’er Befell" was issued in
Megill’s masters project was the historical pronunciation of Latin.
"I needed to know about the different Latins because of the music
Fuma Sacra works with," he says. "They have different effects
musically and expressively." He points out that differing Latin
pronunciations developed over time after the Roman empire fell, giving
rise to vernacular languages, and that the authentic impact of a piece
depends on using pronunciations appropriate for the period.
Megill is supremely concerned with using the sound of
words to deliver a message. He comes up with an enlightening acoustic,
linguistic, psycho-musical explanation. "The art that we’re
in," he says, "is the art of expressive sound, of carrying
meaning to an audience. In addition to pitch and loudness, singers
work with the attack and release of words. Words beginning with T,
D, or N, all start with sounds made with the tongue, but they have
different degrees of hardness. The sounds of words are expressive.
This is the major difference between poetry and prose. We extend that
difference to singing."
"Sounds deepen meaning emotionally," he says. "They change
extroversion and introversion. An explosive consonant makes for huge
extroversion, like a violin bow attacking the strings. Vowels are
what we sustain on. They affect the color of a sound by affecting
its timbre. The sound `oo’ is dark; the sound `ee’ is bright. It has
to do with which overtones in the acoustic series are emphasized by
different vowels. Great composers are consciously or unconsciously
aware of these matters."
In vocal performances as a tenor, in performances as a conductor,
and in various capacities at Westminster since obtaining his master’s
degree, Megill has had many opportunities to put his insights in
Since 1993 he has been active as a diction coach; his specialties
are, in addition to Latin, German, French, Italian, and Czech. Asked
about the array of languages on which he has focused, he says,
were selected by sheer need."
Having experienced choral singing from both ends of the baton, Megill
emerges with a democratic view of choral performance. "I can bring
my own personal experience to the Masterwork Chorus," he says.
"For instance, I’m able to do some voice teaching for them. I
know how my own voice works; I’ve spent much time working on the
of singing. As a conductor you don’t have to make the sound yourself.
Many choral conductors have not sung professionally. I believe that
the relationship between conductor and choir is circular, a matter
of give and take. The conductor has to give a unity of vision,
other people’s musicianship and artistry. An atmosphere of
not an authoritarian approach, brings successful music."
With Fuma Sacra, Megill both conducts and sings. "It’s virtually
impossible to do both at the same time," he says. "In a piece
where I sing, I think of it as chamber music. The lead is taken by
different sections of the ensemble. I start and stop things, but then
the interactions take over. It’s possible with Fuma Sacra because
it’s small enough. We have a lot of trust. We know each other well
Megill’s doctorate in music is of recent origin, earned in choral
conducting from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts in 1999. One
of his major student projects, a lecture demonstration on Domenico
Scarlatti’s "Stabat Mater," will reach the public in the form
of a forthcoming self-produced CD, "Mater Dolorosa."
Producing the CD is yet another curve in the road Megill is following.
Skillful as he is at handling all the turns of his professional life,
Megill, nevertheless, is not averse to an easy, gentle period. He
talks about the hiatus after this year’s last "Messiah " as
"a much needed chance to relax over Christmas."
— Elaine Strauss
Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. Handel’s Christmas
oratorio performed by the choir with soloists Tamara Matthews, Laura
Brooks Rice, Charles Reid, and David Kravitz. Music director Andrew
Megill leads the chorus. $17.50 to $37.50. Sunday, December 17,
Bristol Chapel, 609-921-2663. Fuma Sacra’s 10-voice ensemble presents
a Christmas program spanning five centuries of British music, led
by Andrew Megill. $18. Monday and Tuesday, December 18 and 19,
at 8 p.m.
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