What’s a Conversation Concert?

Conversation Concerts by ChorSymphonica

Conversation Concert is a unique event, where soloists, chorus and orchestra are employed to illustrate points of a pre-performance lecture.  In twenty minutes, we explore the musical and historical context of the programmed work, in order to make the composer’s efforts more accessible to our modern ears, and more relevant to our contemporary way of life. ​For our Wheaton programs, we translate the lectures into Spanish, so that the message of the music reaches more people. Following the introduction, we perform the entire work, uninterrupted.

“I first learned how to do this by watching Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts on TV, ” says founder and conductor Richard Allen Roe. “In college, I had a wonderful teacher, Professor Henry Gibbons, who studied in Germany with Helmuth Rilling, himself a pupil of Bernstein. It’s Rilling who really perfected the art and science of Gesprächs-Konzerte. Particularly at the Oregon Bach Festival in the US. But he has been doing them (and still is) for more than 50 years in Germany, and all over the world. Later, when I studied with Rilling myself, singing in the Gächinger Kantorei, we were performing more concerts than we had rehearsals, and many of them were Conversation Concerts. I really learned how to do it from all three: Rilling, Gibbons, Bernstein. But it was my years of study with Rilling that gave me the experiences and insight to forge my own way.”

“The name is a bit misleading. In order to prepare the pre-concert lecture, in my study and preparation I imagine myself having a conversation with the composer. It is there that I ask questions like, why this chord, why this note, why this instrument or voice? Of course, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schütz, Stravinsky, Verdi, Poulenc, Fauré, Monteverdi, they are not around to participate in an actual conversation. I must try, based on my experience, knowledge of the composer’s life and work, and of the music at hand, to speak for the composer, from their point of view. To try to get into the head of a composer, to place myself in their shoes, as a conductor, is to create a fuller understanding of the message they were trying to convey. That’s what we, in turn, try to communicate with our audiences always, but especially and in a uniquely verbal way at our Conversation Concerts.

​Here are video excerpts from our “Conversation Concerts,” featuring the cantata Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182, by Johann Sebastian Bach.