Press

Thu, July 31, 2014

Multitasking Maestro
Esprit

The New York Times wrote of your Bach series at Trinity that, “no one would mistake the crowd at the free Bach at One concerts for one percenters. Many are tourists, stopped in their tracks by what they hear.” Who do you see as your audience?

“I don’t think I’m elitist in my choice of music or the way that I make music, and I think people feel that. One of my models was Leonard Bernstein (Hon.’83), who felt that music should be for everybody, and that it is a way to bring people together. At our Trinity performances, we have people who don’t know where they are going to sleep that night and people who live on the Upper East Side all in one place together, creating a community.”

Read Full Text

MULTITASKING MAESTRO

What do J. S. Bach, Leonard Bernstein, the Marsh Chapel Choir, and the Rolling Stones have in common?

By Lara Ehrlich

Composer and Grammy Award-nominated conductor Julian Wachner (’91, ’96) answers his phone at the Jacksonville Airport baggage claim. This is his only opportunity for an interview, as he is about to embark on a trip with “five priests and a theologian.” This might sound like the opening of a bad joke, but it’s actually a retreat for the senior staff of New York’s Trinity Wall Street church, where Wachner is the music and arts director. Throughout the next four days, they will discuss the programming for the coming year, which will include more than 600 events. In his spare time, Wachner is also the music director of the Kennedy Center’s Washington Chorus and serves as a guest conductor at organizations throughout the country. As he gathers his bags and traverses the airport to meet his colleagues, he keeps up his half of the interview with the dexterity of a seasoned conductor.

You’ve said you chose to attend BU to earn a well-rounded education. How did academics impact your career?

-My career is grounded in study. I didn’t jump from one huge musical success to the next; I had a long existence as a professor at BU and MIT, and then at McGill University. Now that I’m in my early 40s, I’m beginning to have the kind of success and recognition that some people have in their 20s. I’m very happy about the way it’s happened because I’m very calm and confident in my musical abilities. I feel like I have something to say on a human level, not just a musical level.

What do you want to say?

-As a composer I tackle subjects like love and loss in Come, My Dark-Eyed One, which I wrote for Scott Allen Jarrett’s (’99, ’08) Back Bay Chorale, and thorny theological issues like in my first symphony, Incantations and Lamentations, and issues of the day like in Du Yun’s opera Angel’s Bone, which is about human trafficking. I’m trying to make a difference in people’s lives, whether to give them a glimmer of hope at Christmas, to make them think seriously about an intense subject, or to touch their souls.

The New York Times wrote of your Bach series at Trinity that, “no one would mistake the crowd at the free Bach at One concerts for one percenters. Many are tourists, stopped in their tracks by what they hear.” Who do you see as your audience?

-I don’t think I’m elitist in my choice of music or the way that I make music, and I think people feel that. One of my models was Leonard Bernstein (Hon.’83), who felt that music should be for everybody, and that it is a way to bring people together. At our Trinity performances, we have people who don’t know where they are going to sleep that night and people who live on the Upper East Side all in one place together, creating a community.

The Trinity Wall Street Choir performed “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” with the Rolling Stones in December 2012. What inspired this collaboration?

-I got a Facebook message from a critic whose husband is tied into the music business and was looking for a New York-based choir. She said, “It’s a famous rock group, and I can’t tell you any more than that.”

The show at Barclays Center in Brooklyn was the first US performance of the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary tour, and they wanted the choir to be a surprise for the audience. When I got out onstage for the sound check, Mick Jagger walked over and was like, “Hey, I’m Mick Jagger,” and I was like, “Yeah, I know who you are!”

It was the first time they had ever performed “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” with a live choir. You need a professional-level choir to sing that high C for as long as it demands; we were lucky we had three ladies who could do it. When the Stones decided to come back in June 2013, they asked me to recommend a choir, so I suggested BU’s Marsh Chapel Choir.

You were the University organist and choirmaster for Boston University’s Marsh Chapel for 11 years, and you recently invited the Choir and the Collegium Orchestra to perform at Trinity’s weekly Bach at One concert. Why did you invite the BU musicians to perform at Trinity?

-I invited them to keep the relationship going between me and Scott Allen Jarrett, who was my associate at Marsh Chapel for about five years and is now the director. Between the two of us, we have maintained an incredible musical tradition since 1990, and it was logical to return to my alma mater to activate that professional scholarship.

How do you balance all of your professional roles and maintain your sanity?

-The variety keeps my work fresh and alive, and the fact that I’ve prioritized my wife’s happiness over everything else keeps me balanced. I’ve done this enough now that I’m able to do the work without getting exhausted. In fact, the work feeds my creativity and my energy. My staff at Trinity knows that I’m studying scores at 6 in the morning and 11 at night, and conducting. Even some of the twentysomethings ask, “How do you have all this energy?”

Sat, June 7, 2014

Made in America Concert Radio Interview
WETA.org

Wednesday evening, June 11th at 7:30 pm in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, The Washington Chorus and The Choral Arts Society of Washington co-present “Made In America,” a concert celebrating the wide range of America’s choral tradition.  Classical WETA’s Deb Lamberton spoke with Choral Arts’ artistic director Scott Tucker, and The Washington Chorus’ music director Julian Wachner about this exciting and eclectic program, which also serves as the opening night concert of the annual Chorus America conference.

Fri, June 6, 2014

Choir of Trinity Wall Street Thrills
San Francisco Classical Voice

One of the joys of the performance was engaging stage presence of Julian Wachner. Many good conductors give cues and shape musical phrases. Wachner’s gestures manipulate the sound as a solid, tangible object in space. He draws sound out of the ensemble as if spinning thread at times; at others he dances with the rhythmic variations, his bold gestures amplifying the movement of the sound. Wachner also communicates a wonderful understanding of the music at hand to the audience. His clear and concise interpretation of the architectural structure of the isorhythmic motet drew a delightful comparison to classic arcade video games, in which each subsequent iteration of the rhythm becomes faster and faster until the whole thing unravels. Fortunately for us last night, the whole thing didn’t unravel, and the Nuper rosarum flores motet rose to be a highlight of the program.

Read Full Text

Choir of Trinity Wall Street Thrills

By MARGARET JONES

Something special can happen when you listen to early music — works that have survived centuries of conflict, damage, and memory loss to be heard in a modern setting. The magisterial and devout tone renaissance sets also bring certain musical clichés to mind: strict compositional rules, reverberant cathedrals, and a heavy reverence that permeates and subdues the audience into a still and reflective awe. When the heaviness prevails, it can sound stuffy; when done with passion, it can be rapturous.

Such was the task for the Trinity Wall Street choir as they opened their concert on Friday at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, singing a variety of works from the Franco-Flemish renaissance masters. The choir gave an enthralling performance to a packed house as part of the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, a much-anticipated biennial event showcasing some of the world’s top talent in early music.

The first piece on the program was a Gregorian chant of the Salve Regina, intoned by four sopranos singing from the front of the church. The chant gave way to a Magnificat by Gilles Binchois, with the choir passing sections antiphonally back and forth from the aisles, sonically constructing the space of the church from one side to the other. For the remainder of the evening, the choir formed a simple semicircle around the small portative organ (played by recent addition to the Trinity Wall Street family Avi Stein). The choir was joined by instrumentalists — Rebecca Burrington, Bruce Chrisp, and Audrey Christensen (sackbuts), and Kate van Orden (dulcienne) — who enriched the timbre of the grander works on the program.

The group broke up the major work of the evening, Josquin’s Missa de Beata Virgine, across both halves of the program, interspersing the movements among a variety of motets from the late 15th to the turn of the 16th century. This decision showcased the diversity of textures and rhythms Josquin exploited in the mass, and the flexibility of the choir itself. The jubilant Sanctus found its home toward the end of the second half, and as a result the evening felt as if it had grown organically from its conception in the mass.

Two pieces, Nicolas Gombert’s Salve Regina “Diversi diversa orant” and Antoine Busnois’ Gaude coelestis domina showcased the power and control of the lower voices in the choir. These two pieces feature the changing styles in renaissance motets. Gombert’s later piece plunges the lowest possible notes and has a spine-tingling finish, and Busnois’ earlier work expands to the perfectly punchy and deliberate close needed for the open sonorities of high-rennaisance music. In both cases, the lower voices were eloquently rich.

One of the joys of the performance was engaging stage presence of Julian Wachner. Many good conductors give cues and shape musical phrases. Wachner’s gestures manipulate the sound as a solid, tangible object in space. He draws sound out of the ensemble as if spinning thread at times; at others he dances with the rhythmic variations, his bold gestures amplifying the movement of the sound. Wachner also communicates a wonderful understanding of the music at hand to the audience. His clear and concise interpretation of the architectural structure of the isorhythmic motet drew a delightful comparison to classic arcade video games, in which each subsequent iteration of the rhythm becomes faster and faster until the whole thing unravels. Fortunately for us last night, the whole thing didn’t unravel, and the Nuper rosarum flores motet rose to be a highlight of the program.

It is always gratifying when renowned ensembles live up to their reputation. The concert was a triumph and a delight to behold, and while there were certainly many wonderful concerts during the Berkeley Festival, this one surely stands out.

Margaret Jones is currently working on her Ph.D. in Music History and Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

Thu, June 5, 2014

NY Phil Biennial laudable, yet in need of curatorial vision
Los Angeles Times

The N.Y. Phil watered down nothing when in its Avery Fisher home at Lincoln Center, and had a triumph, a real Biennial-style tribute with the New York premiere on Saturday of Julia Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields.” An hour-long postmodern oratorio about the plight of coal workers a century ago, it featured the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Choir of Trinity Wall Street, conducted by Julian Wachner… This is a major, profound work.

Read Full Text

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

NY Phil Biennial laudable, yet in need of curatorial vision

By Mark Swed

NEW YORK — A biennial, as practiced by the art world, is a devotion, a talking stock every other year. It is also pure catnip for a culture maven hooked on being up-to-date.

The New York Philharmonic is now the first major orchestra to emulate the Whitney Museum with a big institutional bi-yearly survey of the now. It began last week with two disappointingly insignificant operas but then exploded over the weekend with a bevy of intriguingly diverse concerts. By the time it concludes Saturday, the NY Phil Biennial will have gotten around to a Whitney-sized offering of nearly 80 works by 74 composers in venues around Manhattan.

At least part of the inspiration for the NY Phil Biennial has surely been the Los Angeles Philharmonic's high-profile new music festivals that have been changing the orchestral landscape throughout the country. But achieving a Biennial buzz in the Big Apple is a unique challenge, as was evident from the eight Biennial concerts I attended last weekend.

The Biennial is clearly a good idea for a great orchestra required to contend with the weekly parade through town of the world's other great orchestras. New music is also omnipresent in all five boroughs. It is a rare evening when there isn't something current to be heard in Brooklyn alone.

The NY Phil Biennial approach, however, seems less about making sense of a contentiously noisy environment than merely adding to it. There is no curatorial vision. No catalog with grandly conceived, fascinatingly provocative essays, but rather a collection of concerts, several handed over to other ensembles. There weren't even T-shirts.

Curiously the NY Phil turned the festival opening over to Gotham Chamber Opera, which offered Toshio Hosokawa's recent 45-minute monodrama, "The Raven," for mezzo-soprano and 12 players. What is fascinating about this score is the Japanese composer's unidiomatic setting of Poe's text, creating mystery through ethereally haunted sounds and strange accent of the poetic lines. The soloist Fredrika Brillembourg, however, went in for a more conventional operatic style. In Luca Veggetti's production she was mirrored by dancer Alessandra Ferri, doubling up on emotional overstatement. Neal Goren's conducting was not subtle.

The other opera, H.K. Gruber's "Gloria — A Pig Tale," was a collaboration by the N.Y. Phil and the Juilliard School and presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Alan Gilbert conducted and his frequent collaborator, Doug Fitch, was responsible for the production. It's a little hard to figure out what Gruber, an Austrian left-wing fabulist, was up to, but there was little question that the tale of a pretty pig who falls for her butcher had underlying political nastiness.

We got instead a family-friendly show with cutesy costumes and Broadway-style acting. The kids in the audience on a Sunday afternoon with glorious weather outdoors acted the restless prisoners they were. A biennial is no place for watering-down political art. Kids, at least, were far better treated in concerts featuring very young composers and an ensemble of high school students from programs that the New York Philharmonic admirably supports.

The N.Y. Phil watered down nothing when in its Avery Fisher home at Lincoln Center, and had a triumph, a real Biennial-style tribute with the New York premiere on Saturday of Julia Wolfe's "Anthracite Fields." An hour-long postmodern oratorio about the plight of coal workers a century ago, it featured the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Choir of Trinity Wall Street, conducted by Julian Wachner, and an eloquent video backdrop by Jeff Sugg.

Here Wolfe, one of the founders of Bang on a Can, captures not only the sadness of hard lives lost (it begins with a long recitation of names of men named John who had mining accidents between 1896 and 1916 in Pennsylvania's anthracite fields) but also of the sweetness and passion of a way of daily life now also lost. The music compels without overstatement. This is a major, profound work.

A late-night concert Saturday in the Museum of Modern Art lobby was part of its "Contact!" series of new music concerts that Gilbert began on the L.A. Phil Green Umbrella model. Here the players were positioned before the windows facing a sculpture garden but looking out at darkness for a long program, which went past midnight and was conducted by Matthias Pintscher, who originally conceived it for the Salzburg Festival.

Nine composers were commissioned to write pieces inspired by sculpture around the Austrian town. Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth's take on Mario Merz's "Number in the Forest" stood out for its edgy obsessiveness. Jay Schwarz's "M," based on a Mozart homage by Markus Lupertz, was a reminder of the weird, unclassifiable work of the American expat from San Diego rarely heard in this country.

Two Biennial programs turned over to the Orchestra of St. Luke's, conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado, considered the music and influence of Pierre Boulez and British composer George Benjamin. The performances were first-rate. The music was excellent but not groundbreaking. The one surprise was Heinz Holliger's "Ostinato "Funèbre," an eerie ostinato that used a water gong and the sound of tearing paper.

Both turn out to be John Cage inventions, a composer and the founder of the New York School, which the New York Philharmonic has gone out of its way to either ignore or subvert throughout its history. This may be an avenue for future biennials, especially if the orchestra hopes to keep up with museums.

MoMA, in fact, has just acquired Cage's original score for his silent piece, "4'33"," and the museum has built an exhibition around the revolutionary score, which opened the L.A. Phil season in September.

In a radio interview, Gilbert called the Biennial "an adventure without really knowing what is going to happen." The concerts I heard steered clear of unknowns. But the Biennial remains a good idea. The New York Philharmonic has invested impressive resources into it. And next time around, it may well know better wherein lies the buzz.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Sun, June 1, 2014

For Ensembles and Singers, a Night of Backbreaking Labor
The New York Times

For “Anthracite Fields,” the meticulous Julian Wachner conducted the brilliant Bang on a Can All-Stars and his own Choir of Trinity Wall Street. Evocative, but sometimes didactic, video projections by Jeff Sugg (mostly black-and-white portraits of miners, diagrams and maps of Pennsylvania mining country) added visual interest. Occasionally, they displayed parts of the libretto, assembled from oral histories, local children’s rhymes and an index of Pennsylvania mining accidents, which provided the chillingly long litany of victims with the first name John that opened the work. Repetition is also the foundation of Ms. Wolfe’s music, which was enlivened by her subtle writing for voices and the inventive ways she used the Bang on a Can players. The cellist Ashley Bathgate’s chanting of children’s ditties had an impish ferocity to it; the electric guitarist Mark Stewart turned a speech by the miners’ leader John L. Lewis into a rock anthem.

Read Full Text

Music Review

For Ensembles and Singers, a Night of Backbreaking Labor

By CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM

June 1, 2014

The NY Phil Biennial presented a diptych of New York premieres dedicated to manual labor on Friday evening at Avery Fisher Hall. Julia Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields” (2014) commemorates the Pennsylvania coal miners whose work fueled the industrial revolution. Steven Mackey’s “Dreamhouse” (2003) examines the process of building a house. Both works feature singers and an ensemble mixing acoustic and amplified instruments; both express unease with the American culture of comfort and consumption.

“Anthracite Fields” contains a raw indictment of the exploitation of workers, particularly the children employed in the mines as breaker boys, sifting through coal and debris with bleeding fingers. Mr. Mackey’s work was written in the wake of Sept. 11 and hints at the hidden costs of domestic security: “I’ll build you a dream house, where you can live, where you’ll be safe,” runs one obsessively reiterated verse. “And we’ll put up the fence for nothing.”

But the many parallels only served to heighten the differences. In Ms. Wolfe’s polished and stylistically assured cantata, the overall coherence of the musical material helped her expressions of outrage to burn cleanly and brightly. But the supermarket of musical styles of “Dreamhouse” failed to deliver any emotion clearly, and Mr. Mackey’s own attitude toward his subject — the house as home as homeland — was too self-consciously muddled to make for a compelling piece.

For “Anthracite Fields,” the meticulous Julian Wachner conducted the brilliant Bang on a Can All-Stars and his own Choir of Trinity Wall Street. Evocative, but sometimes didactic, video projections by Jeff Sugg (mostly black-and-white portraits of miners, diagrams and maps of Pennsylvania mining country) added visual interest. Occasionally, they displayed parts of the libretto, assembled from oral histories, local children’s rhymes and an index of Pennsylvania mining accidents, which provided the chillingly long litany of victims with the first name John that opened the work. Repetition is also the foundation of Ms. Wolfe’s music, which was enlivened by her subtle writing for voices and the inventive ways she used the Bang on a Can players. The cellist Ashley Bathgate’s chanting of children’s ditties had an impish ferocity to it; the electric guitarist Mark Stewart turned a speech by the miners’ leader John L. Lewis into a rock anthem.

For “Dreamhouse,” the New York Philharmonic shared the stage with a fine quartet of singers from Synergy Vocals and the oddly low-key Catch Electric Guitar Quartet from the Netherlands. Jayce Ogren ably conducted the hyperactive score, which toggled between musical styles with the manic speed of a slot machine. The blend of acoustic and amplified sounds was never ideal (an issue elegantly resolved in “Anthracite Fields.”)

The much-needed focal point of the performance was the charismatic actor and vocalist Rinde Eckert, who had written the libretto with Mr. Mackey. Their text is an uninspiring collage of architectural jargon and brief instances of direct speech such as, “Hmmm the pool, so still so serene.” There were plenty of skillful touches in the orchestration: comic sound effects, vivid brass writing, a lusciously brooding orchestral interlude after the line “So draw your blinds and sleep.” But you had to rummage around to find them in this messy, crowded house.

NY Phil Biennial runs through June 7 at various locations; nyphil.org/biennial, 212-875-5656.

Sat, May 24, 2014

Big Deal
The New Yorker

If any program defines a new American tradition, it’s the one featuring New York premières by Julia Wolfe and Steven Mackey (May 30-31), two composers who have been as deeply influenced by rock and folk music as they have by Beethoven or Josquin. The Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Trinity Choir will gather to give the New York première of Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields,” a flinty, big-boned, and appealing work, complete with video, that honors the generations of miners who toiled in the Pennsylvania coalfields; then the Philharmonic, Synergy Vocals, the actor and vocalist Rinde Eckert, and the Catch Electric Guitar Quartet will perform Mackey’s “Dreamhouse,” a post-9/11 meditation that’s almost Whitmanesque in its brashly heterogeneous congress of sounds.

Read Full Text

Classical Music
Big Deal
A first-time festival from the Philharmonic offers new music from around the world.
by Russell Platt May 26, 2014

Julia Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields,” featuring the Trinity Choir and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, is a highlight of the upcoming “NY Phil Biennial.”

The New York Philharmonic will soon launch its inaugural “NY Phil Biennial” (May 28-June 7), a glorious, eleven-day festival of new music from around the world. Alan Gilbert’s keen interest in contemporary sounds has been a historic aspect of his term as music director: you have to go back to the days of Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein to find a similar level of enthusiasm.

For whatever reason, Gilbert’s administration has always placed an intense emphasis on music by foreign composers. The programs in the orchestra’s new-music chamber series, “Contact!,” have shown a decided devotion to the current gods of high European modernism, such as Boulez and Magnus Lindberg, who was the orchestra’s composer-in-residence from 2009 to 2012. And in next season’s “Contact!” series, the vast majority of works are by non-U.S. composers. American music has hardly been ignored, but sometimes it seems as if the conductor initially marketed as “A Maestro for New York” were more interested in what’s happening in Paris or Helsinki than on the Lower East Side.

The Biennial, fortunately, is pleasantly balanced, with works from both sides of the Atlantic. European musicians, who still have a fondness for their ancient composer-apprentice tradition, will be the focus of several concerts. “Beyond Recall,” a program at MOMA conducted by Matthias Pintscher (May 29 and May 31), is a collection of pieces by such composers as Olga Neuwirth and Bruno Mantovani, each inspired by a work of contemporary public art located in the city of Salzburg. In “Circles of Influence,” two concerts at the Rose Theatre, the Phil hands the baton to the brilliant young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, who leads the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in programs devoted not only to music by Boulez (May 31) and the English master George Benjamin (June 1) but also to those composers who surrounded them or inherited their innovations.

The predominantly American events have a more rambunctious quality. Gilbert and the full Philharmonic will give the world première of the Symphony No. 4 by its current composer-in-residence, Christopher Rouse, at Avery Fisher Hall (June 5 and June 7). But music by young composers, in that program and in another concert conducted by Pintscher (June 6), won’t be revealed until June 3, when the Philharmonic, in collaboration with the American Composers Orchestra’s “EarShot” initiative, will give a private reading of six fresh pieces. You can’t get more cutting edge than that.

If any program defines a new American tradition, it’s the one featuring New York premières by Julia Wolfe and Steven Mackey (May 30-31), two composers who have been as deeply influenced by rock and folk music as they have by Beethoven or Josquin. The Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Trinity Choir will gather to give the New York première of Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields,” a flinty, big-boned, and appealing work, complete with video, that honors the generations of miners who toiled in the Pennsylvania coalfields; then the Philharmonic, Synergy Vocals, the actor and vocalist Rinde Eckert, and the Catch Electric Guitar Quartet will perform Mackey’s “Dreamhouse,” a post-9/11 meditation that’s almost Whitmanesque in its brashly heterogeneous congress of sounds. ♦

Sat, May 24, 2014

Sérendipité musicale
Le Devoir

Le concert débute avec un Motet à 40 voix de Striggio. Impeccable. Puis la moitié du choeur s’en va. Julian Wachner dirige l’effectif restant, dans des oeuvres totalement inconnues, dont une de lui, qui ressemble à du Whitacre ou du Lauridsen. Et là, miracle. Un fondu total, des forte nobles et égaux, une sensualité et onctuosité des lignes et des timbres, une émotion palpable. Qui sont ces gens ? Montréal a-t-il un choeur de chambre de niveau mondial, qui rappelle ceux de Bernius, Dijkstra ou Sourisse ? Vite, qu’on s’abonne…

Read Full Text

LE DEVOIR

Christophe Huss 
23 mai 2014  Culture / Musique
Sérendipité musicale

40 voix pour 40 ans
Striggio: Motet Ecce beatam lucem et Gloria de la Missa sopra Ecco si beato giorno, à 40 voix en 10 choeurs. Gabriel Jackson: Sanctum est verum lumen, à 40 voix en huit choeurs. Tallis: Spem in allium, à 40 voix en huit choeurs. Oeuvres de Charles Wood, William Henry Harris, Julian Wachner, John Taverner. Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, Trinity Wall Street, Christopher Jackson et Julian Wachner. Église Saint-Patrick, jeudi 22 mai.

On arrive pour le 40e anniversaire du Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal (SMAM). Mario Paquet, de Radio Canada, nous présente Christopher Jackson et Julian Wachner. On ne comprend pas trop ce que Wachner, bien connu à Montréal, fait là. On va vite le savoir…

Le concert débute avec un Motet à 40 voix de Striggio. Impeccable. Puis la moitié du choeur s’en va. Julian Wachner dirige l’effectif restant, dans des oeuvres totalement inconnues, dont une de lui, qui ressemble à du Whitacre ou du Lauridsen. Et là, miracle. Un fondu total, des forte nobles et égaux, une sensualité et onctuosité des lignes et des timbres, une émotion palpable. Qui sont ces gens ? Montréal a-t-il un choeur de chambre de niveau mondial, qui rappelle ceux de Bernius, Dijkstra ou Sourisse ? Vite, qu’on s’abonne…

Alors on ouvre le programme. Snif ! Cette apparition, du nom de Trinity Wall Street, nous est venue de New York. Cas singulier de sérendipité (trouver quelque chose alors qu’on ne cherche rien…) appliquée à la musique : on est venu pour les 40 ans du SMAM et on découvre le choeur new-yorkais de Julian Wachner. Christopher Jackson n’a sans doute pas pensé au problème.

Car inévitablement, après la pause, on attend le SMAM dans le même exercice. Et là, dans Taverner, on retrouve le SMAM qui appelle de notre part les sempiternels mêmes commentaires, tant qu’on n’aura pas trouvé dans le répertoire des oeuvres pour mezzos, ténors I et basse II seuls. La passion de Christopher Jackson n’est pas en doute, mais à l’issue d’un concert choral il devrait nous être impossible de dire comment chaque choriste chante. Et que nous sommes loin d’avoir les mêmes goûts que le chef du SMAM en matière de couleurs vocales : le ténor qui trompette et perce, la couleur froide des sopranos et leur déséquilibre avec des mezzos douces et presque timides…

Christopher Jackson a savouré le 40e anniversaire du SMAM, en dirigeant son oeuvre fétiche, Spem in allium de Tallis. C’était très bien. Laissons le savourer. Il a juste trouvé des renforts qui, sans penser à mal, lui ont volé le show…

Fri, April 25, 2014

Tuvan Throat Singers, Together in Spirit With Arvo Pärt
The New York Times

Mr. Pärt’s “Passio” (1982), which Mr. Lang in that same letter called “the holiest work by the holiest of the holy Minimalists,” is the very picture of refinement and detachment: odd in that it shuns the rich vein of drama that others, mainly Bach, have exploited to the hilt in their settings of John’s text. With a sort of purposeful abstraction, Mr. Pärt divides the crucial role of the Evangelist among four vocalists, singing solo or in combinations, and they often seem, in quick upward and downward strokes, to be trying to erase their very tracks…

...The performance was excellent. The rising baritone Dashon Burton sang Jesus with proper restraint, and the tenor Nicholas Phan was as winning as a Pilate could be.

Julian Wachner conducted members of his Choir of Trinity Wall Street and a handful of fine instrumentalists, including the wonderful organist Renée Anne Louprette. A quartet from the vocal group Tenet, led by its artistic director, the soprano Jolle Greenleaf, sang the Evangelists beautifully.

Read Full Text

Music Review

Tuvan Throat Singers, Together in Spirit With Arvo Pärt

By JAMES R. OESTREICH

April 25, 2014

In a promotional letter, the composer David Lang called “collected stories,” the weeklong series of programs he is overseeing at Zankel Hall, “a little festival of odd music.” The house was full again on Wednesday, as it had been for the first concert, on Tuesday, and probably few of those present would have disputed Mr. Lang’s characterization.

The two segments of this fascinating and lovably perverse program — a set of folkish songs rendered by Huun-Huur-Tu, a quartet of Tuvan throat singers and instrumentalists, and a rare performance of “Passio,” Arvo Pärt’s spare setting of the story of Jesus’ Passion from the Gospel of John — were not only odd individually, but also befuddling in combination.

Mr. Lang’s basic idea is to show the many ways music has been used to enhance storytelling, and these were certainly disparate examples. But his further attempt to unify each concert with a thematic word or two in this case shed more mystery than light.

Spirit? True, the term applies to Mr. Pärt’s sacred work in every sense, but to the songs of Tuva (a Russian republic, along its border with Mongolia), it worked only in the general sense that all music is a function of spirit, lowercase. From what little I could glean of the commentary delivered by one of the Tuvan musicians (spoken too closely into a microphone to be heard clearly) and from the music itself, the songs were secular, related mainly to nature: birds, horses, the landscapes of the steppes and mountains.

The oddity of this music lies in the vocal production. Growls, rasps and croaks emanate from deep in the throat and typically form drone chords, with overtones somehow manipulated to produce added whistling sounds, even melodies, high above.

It takes a lot of breath to project these sounds, and the resulting style can initially strike the Western ear as brash, if not crude: at times a sort of sustained belch. But ear and sensibility can also adjust, and these musicians quickly proved themselves masters of their unusual craft, their sheer musicality carrying all before it.

Mr. Pärt’s “Passio” (1982), which Mr. Lang in that same letter called “the holiest work by the holiest of the holy Minimalists,” is the very picture of refinement and detachment: odd in that it shuns the rich vein of drama that others, mainly Bach, have exploited to the hilt in their settings of John’s text. With a sort of purposeful abstraction, Mr. Pärt divides the crucial role of the Evangelist among four vocalists, singing solo or in combinations, and they often seem, in quick upward and downward strokes, to be trying to erase their very tracks.

Only the text and its meanings count, not drummed-up drama, not personalities. Even Jesus, an almost constant presence, is limned modestly. But, oddly again, Pilate, though little more than a foil, comes closest to real melodic effusions.

The performance was excellent. The rising baritone Dashon Burton sang Jesus with proper restraint, and the tenor Nicholas Phan was as winning as a Pilate could be.

Julian Wachner conducted members of his Choir of Trinity Wall Street and a handful of fine instrumentalists, including the wonderful organist Renée Anne Louprette. A quartet from the vocal group Tenet, led by its artistic director, the soprano Jolle Greenleaf, sang the Evangelists beautifully.

Mon, April 7, 2014

When DeMain Is Away, How Does the Madison Symphony Play?
Madison Magazine

Wachner’s resume indicates he is a rising star very much risen already, particularly in the choral world, with his positions as Director of Music and the Arts at Trinity Church (the famed colonial building on Wall Street) and music director of the Washington Chorus. His performance Friday night gave more than ample evidence that his reputation should remain on the rise for some time…

...Wachner favored a big and bold canvas for [the Mozart ‘Requiem’], befitting the large chorus and modern instruments (although the clarinet players appeared to be playing basset horns—a nice touch). The famous “Dies irae” was furious, but later in the “Lacrymosa” the violins provided a haunting, suitably weeping, motif.

Read Full Text

When DeMain Is Away, How Does the Madison Symphony Play?

By Greg Hettmansberger

I hope no one is surprised to learn that, while Madison Symphony Orchestra music director John DeMain is in the midst of his twentieth season with the orchestra, he is still very much in demand in other places. So while DeMain is hopping flights to and from Virginia Opera (getting his usual strong notices for Carmen) and laying the groundwork for Madison Opera’s upcoming Dead Man Walking, Julian Wachner took his place for this past weekend’s concerts at Overture Hall (which had been the plan all along).

Wachner’s resume indicates he is a rising star very much risen already, particularly in the choral world, with his positions as Director of Music and the Arts at Trinity Church (the famed colonial building on Wall Street) and music director of the Washington Chorus. His performance Friday night gave more than ample evidence that his reputation should remain on the rise for some time.

The MSO players didn’t seem to mind that Wachner conducts without a baton, having no problem realizing a blistering “Slavonic Dance No. 1” by Dvorak. But the big number of the first half gave all concerned varied opportunities for color, nuance and expression—with no lack of the big moments.

The work was the Symphonie Concertante for Organ and Orchestra of Joseph Jongen, a piece that was given the honor of the first work performed on the Overture Hall organ in 2004. The 1926 opus is a fascinating composition, in the opening movement treating the organ mostly as a special musical spice, and not giving any clues as to stylistic influences on the composer.

But soon enough organist Nathan Laube had plenty of knuckle-busting (and ankle-wriggling) passages, beginning with the ensuing “Divertimento.” Here and later, one can hear wisps of Debussy, Respighi and other post-Romantic voices. But Jongen created a fabulous showpiece all his own, and every section of the orchestra had a chance to revel in a glorious palette of textures. The audience response was to immediately come to their feet, and in the course of three curtain calls, the applause intensified when the orchestra was asked to stand. And it must be said the performance made a strong argument for some of us (I’m first in line) to make a point of getting to next month’s last—or any of next season’s—organ performances at Overture Hall.

The second half was an opportunity to showcase the Madison Symphony Chorus and four vocalists, some of whom are already known for fine work here in town. The Requiem of Mozart is, of course, that famously unfinished work, shrouded in mystery and misinformation. But even when sorted out neatly in J. Michael Allsen’s always cogent and delightful program notes, it cannot deliver as complete a dramatic impact as some later works of the genre.

But the problems on this occasion were more pedestrian, and seemed to result from a miscalculation of the seating arrangement: With the four vocal soloists well behind Wachner, they did not always produce lines that were hand-in-glove in sync with Wachner and the other forces. This was particularly noticed in the “Recordare,” but later everyone was on the same page (even if Wachner wasn’t using a score!).

Wachner favored a big and bold canvas for the work, befitting the large chorus and modern instruments (although the clarinet players appeared to be playing basset horns—a nice touch). The famous “Dies irae” was furious, but later in the “Lacrymosa” the violins provided a haunting, suitably weeping, motif.

Soprano Emily Birsan and contralto Daniela Mack are no strangers to Madison, and it was a pleasure to hear their continued artistic growth and fine shadings of vocalism. They were joined by tenor Wesley Rogers and bass Liam Moran, and the foursome was nicely matched in timbre and balance. The MSO Chorus, expertly trained as always by Beverly Taylor, provided all the impact Wachner asked for without sacrificing clarity and beauty.

Sat, April 5, 2014

With guest conductor Wachner, MSO and Chorus bring power and precision to Mozart’s Requiem
The Daily Page

Wachner is an experienced choral conductor, and he has the advantage of very lucid textures in this score. He is thus able to draw clearly defined part lines and even good diction out of the chorus. This is, clearly, the best I have ever heard the group sing.

Read Full Text

With guest conductor Julian Wachner, Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus bring power and precision to Mozart's Requiem
John W. Barker on Saturday 04/05/2014 10:54 am

The first performance was on Friday night, and the program will be repeated on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Wachner begins strangely with a throwaway opener: Dvorák's Slavonic Dance in C, Op. 46, No. 1. Discarding any sense of its origins in dance, he seems to want it only as a four-minute noise-maker.

More serious business is the Symphonie Concertante for organ and orchestra, Op. 81, by Belgian composer and organist Joseph Jongen (1873-1953). This is one of the few widely known works of its kind, pitting the organ as a solo instrument against an orchestra. Saint-Saëns' Third Symphony is the leading example, and Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings is also in the running.

Jongen's piece is a four-movement work of symphonic proportions, full of brave sounds and music that is pleasant to listen to, though it leaves few lingering memories. The other guest of the program, young organist Nathan Laube, gives the mighty Klais organ (its console front and center) a knowing workout. The score requires the soloist to play virtually without interruption, and Laube shows himself to be tireless as well as virtuosic. But special praise is due for the house organist, Samuel Hutchison, for graciously standing by and turning pages for Laube. (Hutchison goes to the relocated organ to play continuo in the second half.)

After the intermission comes what is very much the main event: Mozart's Requiem Mass, K. 626, his final composition.

It is presented as unabashedly "big band" Mozart, aiming for a full-blooded and gutsy sound. The score was left unfinished by the composer, so the performance uses the traditional completion of it by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr. It is now well established that Süssmayr did a less-than-ideal job in finishing the score, and there are a number of recent editions that aim to complete the work in a way that’s consistent with Mozart’s more likely intentions. But it is not a scholarly production we hear this time, and Mozart-Süssmayr remains the working standard.

There are four soloists for the quartet passages. UW alum Emily Birsan leads as soprano, with contralto Daniela Mack (another Madison veteran), tenor Wesley Rogers and bass Liam Moran. The orchestra is slightly reduced and plays clearly.

But the star is the Madison Symphony Chorus. Its work is so often compromised by the stifling acoustics that haunt the far rear of the stage. But, aided by their numbers (some 147 singers, in well-balanced section numbers), and well drilled by chorus director Beverly Taylor, the chorus is able to break out of the shadows this time.

Wachner is an experienced choral conductor, and he has the advantage of very lucid textures in this score. He is thus able to draw clearly defined part lines and even good diction out of the chorus. This is, clearly, the best I have ever heard the group sing. They made themselves the powerful engine of this performance.

Tue, March 11, 2014

Offering Choral Solace for Composers’ Laments
The New York Times

“Those of you who came to what you thought was an early-music concert, I apologize,” Julian Wachner, the music and arts director at Trinity Church, said jokingly during his welcoming remarks on Sunday. Referring to last year’s ambitious Stravinsky series at the church, he explained that Stravinsky had cited Krenek’s “Lamentatio” as an influence on his own late 12-tone compositions…

...“I wonder if I am not much more fussy about certain details in the Lamentations because I know that no living person will sing or hear them,” Krenek wrote in his journal. If only he could have heard the magnificent Trinity Choir, one that would prompt any listener to want to hear the work complete.

Read Full Text

Offering Choral Solace for Composers’ Laments
Trinity Choir Performs Works Based on the Book of Lamentations

By STEVE SMITH

MARCH 11, 2014

That Ernst Krenek, an Austrian composer of Czech descent, should be moved to write a work based on the biblical Lamentations seems entirely natural, given the personal woes and professional tribulations he faced at the time. A gifted, prolific artist who had mingled with Mahler, Berg and the French upstarts of Les Six, Krenek in 1941 was teaching at Vassar College, exiled by the rise of the Nazis, who had declared his music “degenerate,” and embattled by jealous rivals who sought his dismissal.

Small wonder that Krenek, whose journal from the period reveals contemplations of suicide, would turn to liturgy concerned with defeat, ruin, abandonment and despair. On Sunday afternoon, a performance of his “Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae” by the Trinity Choir was a highlight of the first event in Lamentatio, a new six-concert weekly series at Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan.

The piece also served as a cornerstone for the remainder of the program: a portion of a Requiem Mass by the 15th-century Flemish master Ockeghem, whose music Krenek studied at Vassar; and Lamentations settings by Lassus, the 16th-century Dutch composer, and Alberto Ginastera, a younger contemporary of Krenek’s.

“Those of you who came to what you thought was an early-music concert, I apologize,” Julian Wachner, the music and arts director at Trinity Church, said jokingly during his welcoming remarks on Sunday. Referring to last year’s ambitious Stravinsky series at the church, he explained that Stravinsky had cited Krenek’s “Lamentatio” as an influence on his own late 12-tone compositions.

True enough, the concert had started with a pitch-perfect account of Ginastera’s succinct, potent “Lamentaciones de Jeremias Propheta,” written in 1946 during his exile in the United States after Juan Perón assumed power in Argentina. A mix of stark harmonies, Baroque references and vibrant folk-derived rhythms, the piece emphasizes the text’s qualities of wrath and dejection. Yet each of its three movements ends with a luminous chord offering conciliatory hope.

After the Introitus and Kyrie from Ockeghem’s fragmentary Missa pro defunctis, Mr. Wachner proceeded to Krenek, interweaving three sections of the work with corresponding potions of Lassus’s “Hieremiae Prophetae Lamentationes,” from 1584.

Transitions among Krenek’s stern 12-tone plaints and Lassus’s easeful melodic effusions were jarring, yet not overly so. Krenek fashioned his rows into six-note groups meant to evoke Gregorian modes, providing a kind of structural clarity and cohesion not always readily discerned in dodecaphonic music.

“I wonder if I am not much more fussy about certain details in the Lamentations because I know that no living person will sing or hear them,” Krenek wrote in his journal. If only he could have heard the magnificent Trinity Choir, one that would prompt any listener to want to hear the work complete.

Tue, March 4, 2014

All Music is Church
The Brooklyn Rail

...A few days later, I’m downtown at St. Paul’s Chapel at Trinity Wall Street for the Sunday night service known as Compline, sung by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street under their director, Julian Wachner. With the nave lit only by candles, the choir sings a haunting mix of plainchant and improvised music, putting a modern spin on the ancient monastic service.

Compline is just one of several musical events presented by Trinity Wall Street each week: there are lunchtime concerts devoted to Bach’s cantatas on Mondays, plus organ music every Wednesday and chamber and contemporary music on Thursdays, along with regular performances of operas and other large-scale works featuring Trinity’s in-house orchestra, NOVUS NY. Almost all are free…

...Beyond the technical similarities between Renaissance and contemporary music, I wondered if the daily practice of singing sacred choral music also affected these young musicians in a metaphysical way. Almost everyone I spoke with could recall at least one instance where they were caught off guard by the emotional resonance of singing in church, be it hearing the reverberation of their voice or the spiritual content of the text. Tempting as it is to define such experiences as “Road to Damascus” moments, Wachner says that’s missing the point.

“All music is church,” he says. “All music is spirituality, whether it’s specific or whether it’s a reference.”

Read Full Text

ALL MUSIC IS CHURCH
Choral Music In New York

by Pete Matthews

Pushing past the chestnut carts, day-trippers, and Salvation Army bell-ringers that clog Fifth Avenue the week before Christmas, I climb the steps of St. Thomas Church, the imposing gothic pile on the corner of 53rd Street that abuts the Museum of Modern Art. Inside, the St. Thomas Boys Choir is standing on the altar in seasonal red vestments, singing Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” as part of their annual holiday concert. Led by their director John Scott—formerly the organist and director of music at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London—and accompanied by harpist Anna Reinersman, the boys’ treble voices soar in the high stone nave, clear and resonant all the way to my seat in the organ loft. For an hour or so, I am transported far from the clamor outside.

A few days later, I’m downtown at St. Paul’s Chapel at Trinity Wall Street for the Sunday night service known as Compline, sung by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street under their director, Julian Wachner. With the nave lit only by candles, the choir sings a haunting mix of plainchant and improvised music, putting a modern spin on the ancient monastic service.

Compline is just one of several musical events presented by Trinity Wall Street each week: there are lunchtime concerts devoted to Bach’s cantatas on Mondays, plus organ music every Wednesday and chamber and contemporary music on Thursdays, along with regular performances of operas and other large-scale works featuring Trinity’s in-house orchestra, NOVUS NY. Almost all are free.

It is irrefutable that sacred music lies at the center of the Western classical music tradition. From Gregorian chant to Bach, Britten, and beyond, more music has been written for the church than for any other institution. But in a city with a surfeit of world-class performing arts institutions, music lovers tend to overlook the day-to-day musical offerings at places like St. Thomas or Trinity, perhaps put off by their religious underpinnings.

Sacred music has had an outsized influence on one surprising corner of the New York musical world: the post-classical scene found at places like Le Poisson Rouge or heard on the label New Amsterdam Records. Much of this is because churches offer a flexible schedule and a steady source of income for fledgling freelance musicians, as they have for centuries. But after speaking with several prominent composers, all in their early 30s, it’s clear that while singing in church may be a day job, it’s also an inspiration for their own music.

Composer and violinist Caleb Burhans spent nearly 20 years in church choirs, including seven years as a countertenor at Trinity. “Choral music is central to who I am,” Caleb says, “It informs everything I do. There’s something about the visceral experience of singing close harmonies with others that I really like.”

Caleb, who considers himself agnostic, admits to being ambivalent when it comes to the religious nature of this music. A case in point is his debut album, Evensong (Cantaloupe Music), with its ambient and post-rock settings of traditional Anglican verses.

"I guess you could say I’m on a personal quest to reconcile with Christianity through my music. Subconsciously, I’ll tweak a harmony to be subversive, or will tip my hat to the past by quoting a motif or cadence from some 16th-century hymn or motet."

Another composer strongly influenced by sacred music is Nico Muhly, whose earliest performing experience was as a boy soprano at Grace Episcopal Church in Providence, Rhode Island. In his 2005 Guardian essay “Choral Sex,” Nico said that after his voice changed, he carried his affinities for the Anglican choral tradition­—its localized repetitions, small gestures, and overall restraint—over to his own music.

“It’s become a cantus firmus through everything I do,” he said in an interview with the Metropolitan Opera last year, “not just musically, but also as a sort of philosophy of how to make music and think of yourself as a composer.”

In addition to writing large scale works like his opera Two Boys, staged earlier this season by the Met, Nico has composed a great deal of choral music, much of it for John Scott and the St. Thomas Choir. “With sacred music,” he says, “your obligation is to the bigger narrative of the fundamental story of the church. But because everybody knows the story, the composer’s job is one of shading and re-telling.”

Even for non-composers, the daily rigor of singing in a church choir can be beneficial. Soprano Mellissa Hughes, one of new music’s most sought-after and dynamic singers, says that her day job as a member of the Trinity Choir has been invaluable in honing sight-reading chops and other technical skills.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t sung in choirs,” she says. “There are these little tricks you learn that come from knowing your instrument and working in a group setting.”

Bora Yoon is an experimental composer and performer who creates surreal soundscapes by blending electronics and found objects with her own voice. Bora says that while her membership in the Voices of Ascencion choir has turned some heads among her avant-garde peers, it’s had a profound influence on how she thinks about performance, and music in general:

As a singer and composer, I get influenced just by having to sing through all of this varied repertoire week after week that I wouldn’t normally be exposed to. I have access to this great wealth of knowledge about how timbre works, how spatialization of sound works, what makes one period sound different from another.

According to Trinity's Wachner, this kind of cross-influence works both ways.  "My administrators think I’m insane, but I don’t have any regulation on attendance. First of all, it allows the singers to pay their rent, but more importantly it keeps them artistically satisfied, so that when they come back to Trinity from singing in these other groups, they come back with these experiences that increase what we do."

One of these groups is the Grammy award-winning a cappella octet Roomful of Teeth, half of whom come from the Trinity Choir (a fifth member sings with St. Thomas). The group incorporates folk-based vocal practices from all over the world, including yodeling, Korean P’ansori, and Tuvan throat singing.

“It seemed like a given to me,” says their director Brad Wells, “that composers would enjoy writing for the voice in dramatically different gears from bel canto, to throat singing, to all of these different kinds of techniques.”

One of Roomful of Teeth’s members, Caroline Shaw, used many of these techniques in her “Partita for 8 Voices,” which won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for music. Caroline, who sang in the choir of Christ Church New Haven before moving to New York in 2008, says she didn’t initially set out to write something so substantial: “I’m not sure what the impetus for it was, other than wanting a certain kind of clarity.”

As a result, “Partita” has a bold, unadorned sound that is both vividly fresh and strangely familiar—it catches you off-guard. “When we first performed “Passacaglia” (the first movement) in 2009,” Wells recalls, “there was a real power to it. People were leaning forward in their chairs; they couldn’t help but cheer right in the middle of it.”

On a snowy Saturday in December, I trekked to Brooklyn College’s Walt Whitman Hall for a holiday concert by the Grammy Award-winning Brooklyn Youth Chorus (B.Y.C.), made up of kids aged 11 to 18. After sing-alongs of “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” the B.Y.C. performed Shaw’s “Its Motion Keeps,” a mesmerizing homage to “A Ceremony of Carols,” with overlapping, antiphonal sounds marked by dissonance and decay. “Its Motion Keeps” was commissioned by the B.Y.C. last year as part of their New Voices Commissioning Project, which has yielded more than two dozen works to date.

“The existing body of music for treble-voice youth chorus is somewhat limited,” says B.Y.C. Founder and Director Dianne Berkun-Menaker.  "Commissioning music has made it possible to find and express our own unique voice. The range of composers that B.Y.C. has worked with, from John Adams to Shaw, has provided the chorus with musical challenges on every level—from vocal technique to complex harmonies and polyrhythms."

The following week, I went to hear the Sunday night meditation at the Church of the Ascension, a quiet, reflective service with a cappella music sung by Bora from the organ loft. The music all sounded like it came from the same period, though I couldn’t tell which. When I saw her afterwards, Bora said the first selection was by the medieval abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179), but the others were by David Lang and Meredith Monk, both living New York composers.

“We’re revisiting the same side of the record, just several grooves in,” she told me.  "Hildegard’s music is nearly 1,000 years old, and it still carries the resonance it does because it has a universal nature that will never outdate itself. Classic and romantic periods are very declarative and presentational, whereas medieval and postmodern music both have an inward quality that has a glow to it, that’s very clear and transportive. It’s all cyclical."

Wachner hears a similar thread. “The choral tradition is based primarily on a modal system,” he says.  "It’s 16th century white note minstrel notation that’s based on a fixed set of constrained pitches. Which is also where contemporary music comes from. And so, I think today’s minimalism and mystic minimalism has been a return to medievalism. There’s a real affinity between those two worlds."

Beyond the technical similarities between Renaissance and contemporary music, I wondered if the daily practice of singing sacred choral music also affected these young musicians in a metaphysical way. Almost everyone I spoke with could recall at least one instance where they were caught off guard by the emotional resonance of singing in church, be it hearing the reverberation of their voice or the spiritual content of the text. Tempting as it is to define such experiences as “Road to Damascus” moments, Wachner says that’s missing the point.

“All music is church,” he says. “All music is spirituality, whether it’s specific or whether it’s a reference.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I made my way back to St. Thomas for Evensong, the daily choral service that has been sung in some form since the Middle Ages. Although elements of the service change depending on the day, the “Magnificat”—Mary’s song of praise when she realizes she is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies—has been sung at every Evensong for more than 1,500 years. Countless composers have set this text—on this day the music was by Francis Jackson, the former organist and director of music at York Minster Cathedral, still active at the age of 96. As the voices of the men and boys soared over the rumbling bass line of the organ, one verse resonated beyond the others:

He hath filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he hath sent away empty.

As I walked out onto Fifth Avenue, I thought about how classical music left so much of the past behind and wandered the desert of serialism for the better part of the 20th century, leaving many hungry for the familiar joys of tonality. In the early years of this century, contemporary musicians are reminding us that no matter what church we belong to, music can bring us all closer to the divine.

Tue, February 18, 2014

Gawlick’s Missa Gentis Humanae Debuts
The Boston Music Intelligencer

One knows (well before the downbeat) that, as a listener, there will be few better opportunities to appreciate a score than with this ensemble and director, and so hearing them in a world premiere is very exciting, and automatically feels like a ‘moment in history.

Read Full Text

in: Reviews
February 18, 2014
Gawlick’s Missa Gentis Humanae Debuts
by John Robinson and Emma Kerry

Julian Wachner and his stunning Choir of Trinity Wall Street delivered a sensational world premiere of Ralf Yusuf Gawlick’s Missa Gentis Humanae on Monday evening in St. Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill.

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street is deservedly one of the most renowned choirs in the world. Julian Wachner has created an ensemble that has received rave reviews recently in London, sung with the Rolling Stones, and been nominated for a Grammy award for Israel in Egypt. They are super-stars of choral music, and having them in residence at Boston College is a major coup for that institution. One knows (well before the downbeat) that, as a listener, there will be few better opportunities to appreciate a score than with this ensemble and director, and so hearing them in a world premiere is very exciting, and automatically feels like a ‘moment in history.’

Whilst Gawlick’s new work is very much its own thing, with it he joins the handful of composers who have added additional texts to the Latin Mass, creating an interplay between the immutability of the Mass expressed in an ancient form, and the world of human affairs in time. By far the most serious essay in the genre would be Britten’s great War Requiem, but lesser works by (if we must) Karl Jenkins and John Rutter also spring to mind. From the 15th century, paraphrase Masses and parody Masses deliberately quoted from other musical sources (often secular) in a way which brought about an interaction (of sorts) between the sacred and secular musical worlds (for example, it is the Renaissance tradition of Masses on the theme of L’Homme Armé that inspired Jenkins’ pacifist chestnut!).

We know, from other works that intersperse liturgical with secular texts, that juxtaposition is not the same thing as inter-textuality. Gawlick’s work is unusual in this genre as he seems to seek to present a coherent re-presentation—maybe even “re-philosophization”—of the Work of the Mass; this aim is perhaps yet more ambitious than that of the ‘War’ Requiem’ (where Owen’s poetry stands as a reproach to undermine complacent reception of the text of the Mass; the visceral interpretation of the Owen perhaps even making the Latin sound emotionless or disinterested, or as if it were the only cool balm to sooth the fiery lament), Macmillan’s ‘Búsqueda’ (in which the text of the Latin Mass acts as a foil to the poetry of the Argentinean Mothers of the Disappeared, presenting their loss as a sin that cries out to heaven, in the context of the Mass as an expression of God’s overwhelming parental love) or, less substantially, Rutter’s Mass for the Children (where he places the poetry of Blake and Bishop Thomas Ken, putatively children’s literature, in the context of a Missa Brevis, perhaps to make a single helpful point about the necessity of Spiritual Childhood). Gawlick seemingly aims to create something more than a dialectic between secular and liturgical texts – rather, a synthesis, or humanist reinterpretation (“In my music, I wish to address issues of the human condition”); this emphasis on the incarnational theology is evident in Gawlick’s selection of canonical texts that could be seen to apply mostly only to the Second Person of the Trinity. The worth of such of an approach lies in the suggestion that the Mass is an oblation of human experience, as a ‘work of human hands’, elevated in unification with the Holy Sacrifice and dignified by the Incarnation.

Like the War Requiem, Gawlick’s work is united by a coherent musical style. However, his writing creates a sound-scape in which the different texts are presented as mutually building (an effect emphasized by the rotational scheme, and the evolutionary unfolding of the texts from closed to open mouthed delivery). The only direct precedent for Gawlick’s multi-lingual approach is Jenkins’ Armed Man, in which Jenkins tropes texts from Kipling, Tennyson, Sankichi Toge and the Mahabharata, with the Latin text. Jenkins’ work is willfully populist (an aim in which he was most successful) and very specifically pacifist. Gawlick’s work is much more complex and subtle. He chooses texts that are pithy, direct and of literary merit. One might say that, especially compared with previous works in this vein, the Missa Gentis Humanae is permeated with Love and Reconciliation (amongst humanity, and with the Divine), a theme evident in the epigraphic use of John 15:12, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’. The recurrent themes of the selections are the fallibility and fragility of humanity (‘the acts of men are worthy of neither fire nor heaven’, ‘Man is a wolf to man’, ‘keep looking at your clown’s face’), the beauty and joy of Creation, particularly of carnate life (‘see how all things rejoice’, ‘love every thing’, ‘Happy are the happy’), of humanity caught up in the Life of God as being characterized by reconciliation and unity (‘Happy is he who forgives others, and who forgives himself’, ‘Murderers and victims go hand in hand’) and the great paradox of salvation (‘you will attain the good you will not attain’, ‘I was called – weren’t there better ones than I? Be faithful Go.’). As such, Gawlick’s work is not so much interested in the Mass per se, as the way in which it might be used as an emblem for Universality.

Sometimes the sequence of texts seemed to narrativize the action of the Mass, sometimes points of harmonic consonance created an interpretative dynamic between disparate texts; these effects were supported by the razor-precision of the ensemble, and the attentive interplay between the singers. Clearly, Gawlick knows this kind of choir; it is almost as if this piece had been written with this ensemble in mind. Wachner has chosen these singers for the ravishing beauty and variety of their sounds (their virtuosic mastery of pitch and expression go without saying). Gawlick writes in a way that luxuriates in the individual voice, and yet incorporates it into a seamless whole, by way of beautifully voiced chords; a wider mouth brings out certain harmonics over a lips-closed hum, much as a great pianist will balance voices for certain pianistic effects. The performance was emotionally epic: every kaleidoscopic transition of texture and timbre was controlled perfectly, with great intelligence.

The musical style is certainly contemporary; it is at times richly dissonant, and incorporates certain rhythmic freedoms, all of which go to create a captivating collage of vertical and horizontal sonic effects. Whilst evocative of various musics of the past (notably some ‘early music’ textures and movement), with notable references to style ancien in setting of the Ordinary; there was some lively Bicinnium and Trio writing, for example in the Laudamus Te, and Qui Tolis Peccata Mundi, which were beautifully sung with attention to interplay and balance.

However, it’s clear Gawlick has his own post-20th-century sound-world, which serves a coherent sonic and interpretational project.  The score seems to gravitate towards a kind of F major, where it is at its most settled and sublime. The quote from the Gregorian Requiem Mass, which starts the Agnus Dei creates a sense of emotional ‘full cycle.’; this movement, in my view the most emotionally comforting of the whole work, echoes (in position) the In Paradisum of the War Requiem. Almost in inverse of the Britten, (which famously concludes in restful F major) what follows is much sterner, as the voices ask ‘weren’t there better ones than I’ and the answer comes (‘be faithful Go.’) ending in a much more challenging unison G sharp. If there is resolution, it is a post-modern consolation.

Whilst not overly experimental in vocal technique (some slightly varied humming effects were employed at times), the piece would be extremely challenging for singers of lesser skill. Pitch accuracy is absolutely essential, as is supreme control of tone. Wachner’s singers made light of it (making the considerable effort of rendering the music ethereally, as if it were effortless), and clearly enjoy the challenge, which is merely a mark of their own elevated abilities. This difficulty of this work, and the substitution of canonical texts, makes it hard to envisage future contexts of performance. The excellence of last night’s rendering suggests that this work will rarely be performed so expertly again, and that the forthcoming Musica Omnia recording will be the primary means of its future reception.

This is music which has taken itself beyond the ‘Holy Minimalist’ genre, and embraces counterpoint and tension in a way which sustains it in the wider scale. One was left with the impression of great richness of reference, bound together very lovingly.

 John Robinson is director of music at St. Paul’s Parish in Cambridge and his wife Emma Kerry read literature at Oxford.

Wed, February 12, 2014

Theodora at the Barbican, EC2
The Times

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street? Why, said my quizzical eyebrow, should a choir from Lower Manhattan be summoned for the English Concert’s presentation of Handel’s oratorio Theodora? Aren’t good choirs in this fair isle tooled up for the job? Answer came in the opening chorus, blazing with vigour, a delightfully warm and blended tone, and lip-smackingly smart articulation. This is a choir from heaven.

Read Full Text

Theodora at the Barbican, EC2

by Geoff Brown
Published at 12:01AM, February 12 2014

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street? Why, said my quizzical eyebrow, should a choir from Lower Manhattan be summoned for the English Concert’s presentation of Handel’s oratorio Theodora? Aren’t good choirs in this fair isle tooled up for the job? Answer came in the opening chorus, blazing with vigour, a delightfully warm and blended tone, and lip-smackingly smart articulation. This is a choir from heaven.

The performance had previously won its spurs in the overture. Conductor Harry Bicket – veteran of Peter Sellars’s bizarre Glyndebourne staging, with its hospital beds and giant broken bottles – whipped his musicians into wonderful finesse and a springing attack that never weakened during the long night. Sensitive speed control, too, with the brake most movingly applied to the concluding bars of the searing arias that multiply as this drama of Christian persecution unfolds.

But it’s in the solo voices that the ultimate power of Theodora rests. Whenever Sarah Connolly stood up as Theodora’s companion Irene, Thomas Morell’s libretto, fusty and clunky, turned into a wonder of eloquence, even when she hit the phrase “viewless tents” in the stunner aria Defend her, Heav’n. Colours, dynamics, emotional shadings: Connolly’s kaleidoscope never ended. Rosemary Joshua’s silvery trills as the noble Roman princess never worked magic to quite the same degree. She wasn’t helped by her trench-coat outfit — perfect if Theodora had been a gangster’s moll.

The men had other pitfalls and kinks. Counter-tenor Tim Mead glided securely, though seemed overly lulled by the calm rapture of Didymus’s arias. Kurt Streit and Neal Davies (as willowy Septimius and the implacable Valens) squashed numerous notes in the rush for dramatic expression. Still, they all meant well, and the oratorio’s heart still beats. And I’m definitely booking the Trinity Choir for my funeral.

Fri, February 7, 2014

American Choir Joins English Concert in Impressive Theodora
Seen and Heard International

...a hugely well-deserved mention for the chorus,  the American-based Choir of Trinity Wall Street…

...One noticed something quite remarkable about their early choruses: a phenomenal attentiveness, which made their rhythmic sense as alive as anything in the performance; and a harmonising of timbre (across girls and men but in fact embracing both), which so far from restricting, only underwrote their unanimity of delivery. Then later, brilliant characterisation in the almost clodhopping descending patterns of the lusty Roman Venus- (and Flora-) worshippers – while swapping demeanour effortlessly for the serene Christian choir conclusion – and a capacity for small bits of coloratura, or virtual coloratura, than sometimes capped even the principals.

This is a very good choir indeed, and must be impressive to work with. No wonder Bicket shipped them across for the gigs in Birmingham and tonight (Saturday 8th) at London’s Barbican Hall , plus a final performance in Paris on Monday 10 February at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées before these doughty choristers venture back to the US.

Read Full Text

American Choir Joins English Concert in Impressive Theodora              

February 7, 2014

Cast:
Theodora: Rosemary Joshua
Irene: Sarah Connolly
Valens:  Jonathan Best
Didymus: Tim Mead

You could be forgiven for thinking Theodora was one of Handel’s operas, following Peter Sellars’s famously grisly, lethal injection staging at Glyndebourne a decade ago. But in fact it’s a late oratorio, one of his last half dozen from the final decade of his life, and classes as – apart from the hybrid Messiah – the only religious English oratorio he composed on a specifically Christian (as opposed to Old Testament or mythical) subject.

Theodora was not one of his successes, spurned by the Georgian public with only three performances and a brief revival. Occasionally it’s possible to sense why, but mostly it has its own dramatic thrust, as it outlines a conflict between the Emperor Diocletian’s ruthless 303-4 clampdown, represented by the Antioch (actural history places events in Alexandria) governor Valens (Jonathan Best, a very acceptable if not courageous stand-in for indisposed bass-baritone Neal Davies) and a Christian enclave led by a princess, Theodora (not to be confused with Justinian’s later Empress) and her friend and highly articulate acolyte Irene (Sarah Connolly). The title role was taken by Rosemary Joshua.

A nice irony was that Diocletian’s own wife inclined to Christianity. Though Harry Bicket seems to direct his English Concert with an almost louche hand, suggestive and indeed productive of a legato that seems almost to predate the period instrument revolution – Gardner or Norrington or Christie would surely spurn conducting this almost approximate broad-sweep way – plenty of fine playing resulted perhaps never more so than when the caccia horns joined in and the music acquired a resultant spring. Oboes and recorders excelled, but the most affecting instrumental detail of all is where Handel introduces a transverse flute, for Joshua’s famous prison aria ‘With darkness deep as is my woe’, a moment of almost Gluckian pathos, before the optimistic, finely delivered ‘Oh, that I on wings could rise.’

But before any of these bracing leads, a hugely well-deserved mention for the chorus,  the American-based Choir of Trinity Wall Street (this Theodora has already toured the States from West Coast to East, winding up in New York at the Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall. See Stan Metzger’s review ).

One noticed something quite remarkable about their early choruses: a phenomenal attentiveness, which made their rhythmic sense as alive as anything in the performance; and a harmonising of timbre (across girls and men but in fact embracing both), which so far from restricting, only underwrote their unanimity of delivery. Then later, brilliant characterisation in the almost clodhopping descending patterns of the lusty Roman Venus- (and Flora-) worshippers – while swapping demeanour effortlessly for the serene Christian choir conclusion – and a capacity for small bits of coloratura, or virtual coloratura, than sometimes capped even the principals.

This is a very good choir indeed, and must be impressive to work with. No wonder Bicket shipped them across for the gigs in Birmingham and tonight (Saturday 8th) at London’s Barbican Hall , plus a final performance in Paris on Monday 10 February at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées  before these doughty choristers venture back to the US.

No surprise that Sarah Connolly was absolutely wonderful in the soubrette role of Irene – but for a reason. Her first aria, and indeed much of her input, was sung so peaceably and serenely.  ‘As with my steps the morn’ grew from pianissimo to piano, and her reprise was more like quadruple and triple piano. The effect was utterly mesmerising. Connolly, uniquely, has the artistry to effect portamento (‘bane of virtue’), a device she never overuses but which brings maximum affect when she does. Every time she sang was a masterclass; ‘Thou art the light, the life, the way’ was quite sensational; her start to Act III is as moving as Britten’s Lucretia.

In truth, I found Connolly tangibly more affecting here than Joshua in the lead (even in the latter’s lovely, and famous, ‘Angels ever bright and fair’); they latter sounded passionate and indeed desolate but at times less profound or tear-jerking. But when they paired in duet (Act 3: ‘No, no, Irene, no: to life and joy I go’) the outcome was gorgeous.

I went eager to hear Best – an old favourite, especially in operatic roles, if here at short notice a little uncertain on some of the coloratura, and surprisingly (for he can do it) slightly stretched lower down without that basso profundo which Neal Davies has made a speciality; but a splendid characteriser (comic or tragic) who brought authority to the Roman governor, and well settled by his unrelenting Act 3 arias ‘Cease, ye slaves, your fruitless prayer!’ and ‘Ye ministers of justice’; or indeed the wonderful tenor Kurt Streit, who seemed just a little straitjacketed in the role of the sympathetic Roman officer who also converts (his warning ‘Dread the fruits of Christian folly’ had vibrant coloratura; his intriguing Arne-like aria in honour of Venus arguably worked best of all).

But the nicest surprise of all lay in another singer. This was the countertenor Tim Mead, as Theodora’s lover and fellow-Christian Didymus, who in Act 3 pays, like her, with his life. I heard Mead some years back and was underwhelmed: a diffident voice and thin stage presence. Now  he dominates, the sound is forceful, confident, often thrilling – the presence attractive and engaging. The tone and timbre are immensely alluring. There is a precision that goes with the assurance. His coloratura was second to none. ‘To thee, thou glorious son of worth’, where he is matched in duet by Theodora as they both brace for the worst, is lovely enough: ‘Streams of pleasure’, the Act 3 equivalent, even more so. But ‘Kind heaven, if virtue be thy care’ at the end of Act I, with attractively skedaddling violins, was an aria of breathtaking beauty, the clarity and precision at this moment when he determined, if necessary, to die matched by some delightful light decoration at the da capo: pure enchantment; Didymus’s big Act 2 aria, ‘Deeds of kindness to display’, was simply out of this world.

Roderic Dunnett 

Mon, February 3, 2014

An Inspired Performance of Handel’s Neglected Favorite
The New York Times

The excellent Trinity singers [prepared by Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts] sang beautifully throughout, including the Christians’ “Come mighty Father” and the elaborately contrapuntal “He saw the lovely youth.” They imbued “O love divine,” the introverted concluding chorus, with a poignancy that ended the performance on a tender note.

Read Full Text

An Inspired Performance of Handel’s Neglected Favorite
‘Theodora’ at Carnegie Hall

By VIVIEN SCHWEITZER - FEB. 3, 2014

While much of America prepared to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, an equally enthusiastic crowd of Handel lovers gathered in Carnegie Hall to listen to “Theodora,” a three-and-a-half-hour oratorio about Christian martyrs.

Thomas Morell, the librettist, based the text on the 1667 novel “The Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus” by Robert Boyle, an Irish scientist and philosopher. In contrast to Handel’s “Messiah,” a work so popular that ladies were asked to refrain from wearing hoop skirts to a performance to avoid overcrowding, “Theodora” proved unsuccessful.

It received only four sparsely attended performances in Handel’s lifetime, since Protestant Londoners were disinterested in a heroine who was a Catholic saint and missed the uplifting choruses and jubilant interludes featured in earlier oratorios like “Messiah.” But while audiences at the time rejected the more introverted and subtle “Theodora,” it was Handel’s favorite.

Recent contemporary champions of the gorgeous score include Peter Sellars, who staged it at Glyndebourne in 1996. You certainly couldn’t have asked for a more inspired performance than the one given on Sunday, with Harry Bicket conducting the spirited English Concert and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street.

In the oratorio, Valens, the Roman governor of Antioch, decrees that citizens must participate in the worship of Roman gods in honor of the emperor’s birthday. Theodora, a Christian, refuses and as punishment is sentenced to serve as a prostitute. Didymus, a Roman soldier who has quietly converted to Christianity and loves Theodora, helps her escape. Both are sentenced to death, which they welcome as an escape from persecution.

According to the musicologist Stanley Sadie, “counterpoint, in Handel, is almost invariably virtuous”; thus the Christian choruses feature strikingly contrapuntal music and the Roman heathens are given simpler fare.

The soprano Dorothea Röschmann offered a deeply committed and affecting performance in the title role, her lustrous voice intimate and passionate by turns as she conveyed the humiliated woman’s pain in “With darkness deep as is my woe.” As Didymus, the countertenor David Daniels sounded wan and underpowered in the first act, but he improved significantly as the afternoon progressed. Earlier in the performance he and Ms. Röschmann at times sounded vocally mismatched, but their collaboration in the final duet provided a moving conclusion.

As Irene, the spiritual leader of the Christians and Theodora’s confidante, the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly sang with power and dignity, supported by the fiery, expressive playing of the English Concert. The tenor Kurt Streit made a strong impression as the Roman officer Septimius, Didymus’s friend. The bass-baritone Neal Davies sang with chilling conviction as the evil Valens, a snarl in his voice as he declared that the lovers should suffer.

The excellent Trinity singers sang beautifully throughout, including the Christians’ “Come mighty Father” and the elaborately contrapuntal “He saw the lovely youth.” They imbued “O love divine,” the introverted concluding chorus, with a poignancy that ended the performance on a tender note.

Fri, January 31, 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – THEODORA
Voix des Arts

The singing of the Trinity Choir of New York’s Trinity Wall Street Church was, in a word, exquisite.  An ensemble of twenty-four voices, the Trinity Choir offered both the delicate sounds of a chamber choir where appropriate and the robust tones that Händel’s music occasionally demands.  In their opening ‘And draw a blessing down,’ they were a credibly raucous bunch of heathens, and the vigor of their singing in ‘Venus laughing from the skies’ left none of the bawdy implications of the text unexplored.  In Christian garb, ‘Come, mighty Father, mighty Lord’ was radiant, but the Choir’s singing of ‘Go, gen’rous, pious youth’ was truly astonishing: the manner in which the hushed repetitions of ‘in glory, peace and rest’ hung on the air at the chorus’s close was unforgettable.  ‘He saw the lovely youth, death’s early prey’ drew from the Choir singing of sympathetic grace, and their performance of ‘Blest be the hand, and blest the pow’r’ was stirring.  The final chorus, ‘O love divine, thou source of fame,’ brought the performance to a close with an evocation of the redeeming power of love as moving as that of the depiction of the Resurrection in Messiah; and perhaps even more musically fulfilling.  The Choir’s singing was remarkable for its tonal security and precision of ensemble, with even the most challenging fugal passages enjoying complete mastery.  Moreover, the blend of voices was exemplary, every part audible but none over-prominent.  The altos and basses, often the weak links in American choirs, sang with heartening richness, and the sopranos and tenors sustained tones in their upper registers unfalteringly.  Steven Caldicott Wilson, a tenor in the Choir, lent his firm, ingratiating voice to the Messenger’s recitatives, further exhibiting the quality of the Choir’s voices.  Hearing such glorious sounds from a choir of the size Händel intended for Theodora, it is difficult to imagine why subsequent generations of performers determined that larger ensembles were required.  Hearing a performance like that given by the Trinity Choir, one that mined each emotion in Händel’s music, enveloped it in tones that seemed stolen from heaven, and gave it to the audience in golden song, it is impossible to imagine the famously meticulous composer himself having been anything but transfixed.

Read Full Text

31 January 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – THEODORA (D. Röschmann, S. Connolly, D. Daniels, K. Streit, N. Davies; Carolina Performing Arts; Chapel Hill, NC; 30.01.2014)

It is flabbergasting to consider in this age in which audiences eager for legitimate theatrical experiences are subjected to so much worthless music that, at its London première in March 1750, Händel’s masterful oratorio Theodora was a resounding failure; and this despite a first-night cast that featured three of the most acclaimed singers in Britain, soprano Giulia Frasi in the title rôle, mezzo-soprano Caterina Galli as Irene, and castrato Gaetano Guadagni as Didymus!  Revived only once before Händel’s death in 1759, it was left to subsequent generations to acclaim Theodora as one of the greatest works from a composer whose genius produced a dizzying succession of fine scores.  Thomas Morell, the librettist who intelligently distilled ideas drawn from source materials by Robert Boyle and Pierre Corneille into the dramatically cogent text set by Händel, famously recorded an anecdote, likely apocryphal, that has the composer attributing the poor showing of the inaugural performances of Theodora to the work’s denominational affiliations and depiction of goodness, saying that London’s music-loving Jewish population were put off by a Christian subject and that ladies could not bear the story’s virtue.  In the same way that, owing to the novel’s turbulent genesis, Dickens named David Copperfield as the favorite among all his children, Händel cherished Theodora as the best of his oratorios.  The penchant in the 20th and 21st Centuries for staging Theodora in an operatic manner has proved Händel right: the landmark 1996 Glyndebourne production by Peter Sellars explored the extravagant dramatic possibilities of the score and prompted a full-scale reevaluation not only of Theodora but of Händel’s oratorios in general.  Fortunately, modern audiences have discovered what Händel’s contemporaries failed to grasp—that Theodora is one of the most dramatically powerful and musically distinguished works in Western music.

Anyone who heard the performance by Harry Bicket and the English Concert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall cannot have failed to appreciate either the unique expressivity of Theodora or the breadth of Händel’s genius.  Perhaps the most arresting aspect of Theodora is that, like the composer’s opera Tamerlano, so much of the music is in a contemplative vein: there are extroverted bravura passages aplenty, of course, but the prevailing mood is one of imminent tragedy.  This was palpably but never oppressively conveyed by the playing of the English Concert, led with eloquent virtuosity by concertmistress Nadja Zwiener.  The execution of historically-informed performance practices has advanced almost unrecognizably beyond the rough beginnings of a half-century ago.  The playing of the valveless natural horns, formerly often a source of cringe-inducing din, was excellent, and all the wind parts—including the lovely recorder obbligato in the ‘Symphony’ that precedes Theodora’s ‘O thou bright sun!’ in Act Two—were beautifully delivered.  String timbres were equally pleasing to the ears, with none of the gratingly acerbic sounds of violins’ highest tones that mar many performances.  The continuo was superbly realized by Maestro Bicket at the harpsichord, principal cellist Joseph Crouch, and Florida-born William Carter on theorbo.  Mr. Carter’s wonderful playing of his fearsomely difficult instrument contributed considerably to the musical elegance and even more meaningfully to the emotional impact of the performance.  Beginning with a spirited account of the Overture, Maestro Bicket consistently adopted tempi that were inherently right for the music and for the singers.  More than many of his colleagues who specialize in Baroque repertory, he displayed a natural affinity for collaboration with vocalists, and his shaping of scenes disclosed a deep understanding of Händel’s dramatic structures, which are crafted with as sure a hand as in any of the composer’s operas.  Fine as the solo numbers were, it was in the choruses that Maestro Bicket achieved his finest results.  ‘Go, gen’rous, pious youth’ was paced with ideal gravity, as was the closing ‘O love divine, thou source of fame,’ and every chorus resounded with perfect balance.

The singing of the Trinity Choir of New York’s Trinity Wall Street Church was, in a word, exquisite.  An ensemble of twenty-four voices, the Trinity Choir offered both the delicate sounds of a chamber choir where appropriate and the robust tones that Händel’s music occasionally demands.  In their opening ‘And draw a blessing down,’ they were a credibly raucous bunch of heathens, and the vigor of their singing in ‘Venus laughing from the skies’ left none of the bawdy implications of the text unexplored.  In Christian garb, ‘Come, mighty Father, mighty Lord’ was radiant, but the Choir’s singing of ‘Go, gen’rous, pious youth’ was truly astonishing: the manner in which the hushed repetitions of ‘in glory, peace and rest’ hung on the air at the chorus’s close was unforgettable.  ‘He saw the lovely youth, death’s early prey’ drew from the Choir singing of sympathetic grace, and their performance of ‘Blest be the hand, and blest the pow’r’ was stirring.  The final chorus, ‘O love divine, thou source of fame,’ brought the performance to a close with an evocation of the redeeming power of love as moving as that of the depiction of the Resurrection in Messiah; and perhaps even more musically fulfilling.  The Choir’s singing was remarkable for its tonal security and precision of ensemble, with even the most challenging fugal passages enjoying complete mastery.  Moreover, the blend of voices was exemplary, every part audible but none over-prominent.  The altos and basses, often the weak links in American choirs, sang with heartening richness, and the sopranos and tenors sustained tones in their upper registers unfalteringly.  Steven Caldicott Wilson, a tenor in the Choir, lent his firm, ingratiating voice to the Messenger’s recitatives, further exhibiting the quality of the Choir’s voices.  Hearing such glorious sounds from a choir of the size Händel intended for Theodora, it is difficult to imagine why subsequent generations of performers determined that larger ensembles were required.  Hearing a performance like that given by the Trinity Choir, one that mined each emotion in Händel’s music, enveloped it in tones that seemed stolen from heaven, and gave it to the audience in golden song, it is impossible to imagine the famously meticulous composer himself having been anything but transfixed.

As Valens, the unyielding President of Antioch, Welsh bass-baritone Neal Davies sang strongly but sometimes employed an over-emphatic delivery that, though clearly rooted in a thoughtful pursuit of drama, distracted attention from the fine quality of his voice.  From his first aria, ‘Go, my faithful soldier, go,’ Valens is a character of unchanging cruelty and single-mindedness, traits aptly conveyed by Händel in music of bravura grandstanding.  Mr. Davies’s singing of ‘Racks, gibbets, sword and fire’ was fiery, and his account of ‘Wide spread his name’ was winsome.  Mr. Davies’s finest singing was done in ‘Ye ministers of justice, lead them hence,’ Valens’s final aria in which both Theodora and Didymus are sent to their deaths.  Mr. Davies is the rare bass-baritone whose voice has no difficulties with either extremity of the range, and the evenness of the timbre throughout the tessitura demanded by Händel’s music was an impressive hallmark of Mr. Davies’s performance.  He faced no coloratura challenges with which he could not cope smashingly, and he was a commanding presence in the drama.

Septimius is introduced by ‘Descend, kind pity, heav’nly guest,’ one of Händel’s most absorbing arias for the tenor voice.  The poise, delicate phrasing, and dulcet tone that Kurt Streit brought to the aria were spellbinding, and this was but the beginning of an uncommonly assured, beautifully-conceived performance.  The descending phrases in his opening aria brought ever-increasing vigor and expanding tonal sheen from Mr. Streit, his upper register bright but capable of profound expression.  Both ‘Dread the fruits of Christian folly’ and ‘Tho’ the honours that Flora and Venus receive’ were charmingly sung.  The divisions in ‘From virtue springs each gen’rous deed’ were dispatched with ease, and Mr. Streit’s technique made a tremendous impression throughout the performance.  What proved most memorable was the sheer beauty of his voice, however, and his singing of ‘Descend, kind pity, heav’nly guest’ was an example of the highest standard of Händel singing.

Händel composed for Irene one of the greatest concentrations of his art, ‘As with rosy steps the morn.’  In this aria, and, indeed, in every note that she sang, the versatile mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly gave a masterclass in the art of unobtrusively considerate phrasing.  As with Mr. Streit, however, the principal pleasure to be had from Ms. Connolly’s singing was in the unmistakable quality of the voice.  ‘Bane of virtue, nurse of passions’ was splendidly sung, the statements of ‘such is, Prosperity, the name’ voiced with beguiling intensity.  The outpouring of expressive tone in ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ was awe-inspiring, the depths of emotion all the more touching for the subtlety and calm reserve of Ms. Connolly’s singing.  ‘Defend her, Heav’n,’ Irene’s prayer for the preservation of Theodora’s maidenhood, seemed even finer in Ms. Connolly’s performance than it appears on the page, and the extended melodies of ‘Lord, to thee, each night and day’ were unfurled with poetic elegance.  Ms. Connolly’s lines in the brief duet with Theodora, ‘Whither, Princess, do you fly,’ trembled with concern for her friend, and she cloaked ‘New scenes of joy come crowding on’ with an unsettling sense of uncertainty and trepidation.  Having Irene sing the final recitative, ‘Ere this, their doom is past and they are gone,’ from the side of the stage heightened the sense of loss, with Irene now distanced from Theodora and Didymus by death.  This, too, Ms. Connolly sang with sorrow made more piercing by the handsomeness of her tone.  In phrasing, in tasteful ornamentation, and in finding in text the impetus for the nuances of her performance, Ms. Connolly confirmed her reputation as one of the most important Händel singers of her generation.

South Carolina-born countertenor David Daniels, whose career has done more than that of any other artist to popularize the work of countertenors in the United States, was on something near best form, his singing of Didymus reaching towering heights of musical excellence.  His singing of ‘The raptur’d soul defies the sword’ was energetic, and ‘Kind Heav’n, if virtue be thy care’ provided opportunities for deployment of his celebrated bravura technique.  Mr. Daniels’s exuberant singing of ‘Deeds of kindness to display,’ crowned with stunning high notes, soared, and his performance of ‘Sweet rose and lily, flow’ry form’ was as entrancing a serenade as any damsel in distress might desire.  The first of his duets with Theodora, ‘To thee, thou glorious son of worth,’ was captivatingly done.  The pinnacle of Mr. Daniels’s performance—and, indeed, of the performance as a whole—was ‘Streams of pleasure ever flowing,’ which was phrased with an abundance of sensitivity that emphasized Händel’s inspired setting of the text.  In the subsequent duet with Theodora, ‘Thither let our hearts aspire,’ Mr. Daniels’s tone took on an ethereal quality that aptly conveyed the transfiguration of Didymus’s martyrdom.  It is hardly surprising that Händel lavished majestic music on a rôle composed for Guadagni, but hearing it so lushly sung, even by a singer with an acclaimed history in Händel’s music, was a spectacular surprise.  The art of countertenor singing may never be universally admired, but the listener who did not surrender to the virtuosity, sumptuousness, and emotional directness of Mr. Daniels’s singing is little affected by the potency of music.

The performance of the title rôle by soprano Dorothea Röschmann was a monumental achievement.  ‘Fond, flatt’ring world, adieu’ had the quiet gravitas of a great tragedienne but also a lightness that suggested that, to Theodora, the weight of earthly cares is easily borne when one’s faith promises heavenly reward, but the terror and indignation in the accompagnato ‘Oh, worse than death, indeed’—sung with passion worthy of Rodelinda—and the sincerity of the plea for deliverance in ‘Angels, ever bright and fair’ were indicative of a tangible humanity.  Ms. Röschmann’s dignified voicing of ‘With darkness deep, as is my woe’ also confirmed that, for this Theodora, life is as precious as death in the exercise of her faith.  ‘Oh, that I on wings could rise’ was similarly evocative, the freedom with which Ms. Röschmann ascended into her rich upper register credibly capturing the note of determination in the music.  ‘The pilgrim’s home, the sick man’s health,’ the least troubled of Theodora’s arias, was brightly but meaningfully sung, setting the tone for the gorgeous duet, ‘To thee, thou glorious son of worth,’ in which Ms. Röschmann and Mr. Daniels blended their voices with the finesse of silk threads intertwining.  In Act Three, Ms. Röschmann brought to ‘When sunk in anguish and despair’ an air of muted ecstasy, and the dramatic intent of her accompagnato ‘O my Irene, Heav’n is kind’ was startling.  ‘Lost in anguish quite despairing’ was not so much a resignation to her impending martyrdom as an embrace of her quest to repay Didymus’s love through sacrifice.  When, in the penultimate scene, Ms. Röschmann joined Mr. Daniels in ‘Thither let our hearts aspire,’ the cataclysm of their shared martyrdom was transformed into an act of insurmountable human connection as overwhelming—and as musically satisfying—as Isolde’s Liebestod or Brünnhilde’s Immolation.  Matching her colleagues with impeccable phrasing and natural English diction, Ms. Röschmann placed her top notes unerringly, floating tones in both duets with Mr. Daniels to achingly beautiful effect.  Theodora is a woman who, in the course of Händel’s score, never enjoys a truly carefree moment, but Ms. Röschmann’s performance enabled the listener to see Theodora as a woman, not an archetype; and a woman for whom love and faith render the greatest tortures mere tests of her soul.

It is almost certain that the music of Händel had never been so graciously performed in North Carolina as in this performance of Theodora, but even now, when Händel’s operas and oratorios are cast with far greater strength than scores by Verdi or Wagner, this performance was something special.  That such a group of artists was assembled in Chapel Hill is remarkable, but that they collaborated to create such a magical performance is virtually unbelievable, no matter the venue.  The three-and-a-quarter hours of Händel’s score rushed by in a flash, and the endeavors of this outstanding ensemble—Dorothea Röschmann a Theodora of uncompromising virtue and even surer musicality; David Daniels a meltingly lyrical Didymus metamorphosed by love; Sarah Connolly an Irene of columnar dignity and tones like finest marble; Kurt Streit a Septimius of unbending devotion and amber voice; Neal Davies a vigorously menacing Valens; the simply superlative Trinity Choir and English Concert; and the dedicated, fastidiously-prepared Harry Bicket—engendered a performance that, as a presentation of Händel’s Theodora and a musical experience, can never be duplicated.

Wed, January 29, 2014

Bach’s B-Minor Mass, Handel’s ‘Theodora’ and magnificent coincidence
Los Angeles Times

The long performance was riveting in every way…The Choir of Trinity, Wall Street [Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts], sang the choruses with comforting exactitude.

Read Full Text

Bach's B-Minor Mass, Handel's 'Theodora' and magnificent coincidence
Critic's Notebook: The Bach and Handel works get independent, excellent performances by Los Angeles Master Chorale and English Concert, respectively.

By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic

5:30 AM PST, January 29, 2014

Bach and Handel did not lead intersecting lives. Bach never left central Germany, while Handel became a cosmopolitan Londoner. Bach was a man of the church and had 20 children. Handel caught the theater bug and was not a family man (recent musicology presumes him to have been gay).

But what are the odds that these two pillars of the Baroque would be born less than a month apart in the winter of 1685 and 90 miles away? And in another magnificent coincidence, each produced his most compelling spiritual summing-up, a resplendent working through of crises of faith, in 1749. That was the year Bach put the final touches on his B-Minor Mass and Handel wrote one of his late oratorios, "Theodora."

So it was still another remarkable coincidence that these 1749 masterpieces happened to independently reach Southern California in magnificent back-to-back performances. A centerpiece of the Los Angeles Master Chorale's 50th anniversary season, the B-Minor Mass was given Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening at Walt Disney Concert Hall. 

"Theodora" is, in these parts, a rarity, but the English Concert happens to be celebrating its 40th anniversary with a touring "Theodora" (all four hours of it) featuring stellar singers, and the Philharmonic Society brought that to the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa Monday night.

The scores are not, superficially, alike, and neither were the performance approaches. The English Concert is one of London's best-known period-instrument groups and is led by an early music specialist, Harry Bicket. The Master Chorale, under its music director Grant Gershon, is the model modern chorus, comfortable in music of many centuries, attitudes and world cultures.

In a new Bach biography, "Music in the Castle of Heaven," the conductor John Eliot Gardiner charts the B-Minor Mass as the composer's personal journey. Gardiner describes the role of the performer as that of guide, discoverer of revelation. The mass becomes for an audience a collective spiritual experience, with the goal not so much of religiosity as the attainment of communal peace. 

That was Gershon's approach. He sculpted choral surfaces and substances. The magisterial opening of the Kyrie became an exclamation of a monumental occurrence, the massed sound of a crowd as an earthquake suddenly begins cracking the ground. Journey's end, "Dona nobis pacem" (Grant us peace) is one of the most inspired passages in all of Bach, makes peace seem, against all reason, possible. Gershon's Master Chorale made Bach live.

Just the opposite of a big Mass, Handel's oratorio is personal drama and tragedy. An early Christian martyr, Theodora resists governmental pressure to worship Roman gods, and she is doomed as is her lover, a converted Roman soldier, Didymus. They die together, unwavering in faith, as many do today in religious divides.

Peter Sellars directed a famed 1996 staging of "Theodora" at the Glyndebourne Festival in England, in which the countertenor David Daniels was Didymus, the performance that made him a star, and he was Didymus again Monday. Bicket was the young harpsichordist in the Glyndebourne production. Both now are among our most authoritative Handelians. 

Handel thought "Theodora" contained his finest music. Though a study in constancy, his score ranges through human emotion. Handel's peace is personal and inner, and the battles waged and won by Theodora and Didymus are great and unobvious ones.

But it is in the effect the lovers have on others — Romans and Christians and most of all Theodora's confidant, Irene — that the oratorio rises to its extraordinary inspirational heights. In fact, Irene and the chorus get the most moving music.

The long performance was riveting in every way. Conducting from the harpsichord, Bicket was all business, shaping every phrase for its dramatic intent. Soprano Dorothea Röschmann was a zealously operatic Theodora and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly an ardently passionate Irene. Daniels approaches Didymus from the inside out, and the countertenor's eloquent fervor is reaching new depths.

Tenor Kurt Streit (the Roman officer Septimius) and bass Neal Davies (the murderous president of Antioch, Valens) represented the power. The Choir of Trinity, Wall Street, sang the choruses with comforting exactitude. I wonder whether the English Concert has ever sounded better than it does now under Bicket.

The B-Minor Mass is beloved; "Theodora" still needs its advocates. Disney was full at the Saturday performance I heard. The slightly smaller Segerstrom was not as well attended Monday. But the world obviously needs more than ever the collective peace and inner strength, the yin and yang of Bach and Handel, to regain its balance. What are the odds?

Tue, January 28, 2014

Theodora Ravishes the Senses
San Francisco Classical Voice

If Streit’s vocalism did not, in the end, command attention, Wachner’s maximally expressive, beautifully voiced chorus and Bicket’s expert band certainly did…both orchestra and chorus seemed to bend to the musical line and emotional import of the text at will. The tenor [from the Trinity Choir] who sang the uncredited role of the Messenger deserves special commendation for beauty and strength of tone equal to that of the name soloists. All told, it was a performance to cherish.

Read Full Text

Theodora Ravishes the Senses

Review by Jason Victor Serinus

[Harry Bicket] Theodora (1749), the Handel oratorio indelibly associated with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s transcendent performances in the Bay Area, Glyndebourne, and beyond, returned to Northern California on Saturday night. To say that the performance was ravishing, especially in the splendid acoustics of Weill Hall, is to tell but part of the tale.

The concert performance, which moves East to Carnegie Hall and then the U.K. and Paris, was conducted by early music master Harry Bicket. Bicket had previously conducted Lieberson both in Glyndebourne in 1995 and, eight years later, in their spiritually elevated recording of Handel arias with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment that includes Irene’s major arias from the oratorio. Hence the extra interest in Theodora’s return.

This time, Bicket’s outstanding singers included two long associated with their roles, cherished countertenor David Daniels (Didymus), who also sang in the Glyndebourne cast that Bicket stepped in to conduct, and riveting bass-baritone Neal Davies (Valens). Other veteran artists included the sublime soprano Dorothea Röschmann (Theodora), making her much belated Bay Area debut; the marvelous mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly (Irene); and, replacing tenor Andrew Kennedy, Kurt Streit (Septimius). Equally noteworthy were the first rank instrumentalists, The English Concert, and the outstanding chorus, Julian Wachner’s The Choir of Trinity Wall Street.

If Theodora, Handel’s penultimate oratorio, was a resounding flop at its debut, it was not for want of some of his finest and most dramatically expressive writing. That the music is as emotionally direct and sensually beautiful as anything he ever penned became clear as soon as Davies, singing the take-no-prisoners Roman President of Antioch, bit into his opening recitatives and arias with astounding drive, emphatic word painting, and an emotional identification that would cause many a voice to cave under pressure. How many artists, veteran and otherwise, can sing with such seemingly unstoppable, bloodthirsty forward momentum, yet maintain constant beauty of tone?

Daniels was his equal in the virtuosic department. His upper range has thickened and grown weightier with age, with less of the ringing overtones that made it so fresh and unique – the same happened with Marilyn Horne as she matured — but the astounding command of long-breathed coloratura runs and perfect trills remains intact. It was a masterful performance.

Röschmann, whom many music lovers will know from her remarkable assumption of Pamina in the Colin Davis video of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, was worth the much too-long wait. Singing with rare gravitas, surprising body of tone lower in the range, and accent-perfect English, the German soprano reigned in the natural brightness of her tone until her final aria, where her self-sacrifice in the name of love for Didymus and Christ called for the light that she can shine at will.

Well before that — this is a long, three act oratorio that calls for a certain level of sacrifice from the non-committed — she toned down her supremely free, technically perfect high flights in arias where Theodora’s predominant emotion was sorrow. Her aria, “Angels, ever bright and fair, take, oh take me to your care” was so deeply felt and exquisitely shaded as to elicit tears.

To these ears, Connolly’s indisputably gorgeous voice initially sounded a bit too rich and royal for Irene. As the evening progressed, however, her instrument settled, the legato became smoother, and an extremely special hushed stillness began to emerge. Her final short recitative radiated the beautiful simplicity and unshakable inner faith that only partially emerged in Irene’s great aria, “As with rosy steps the morn.”

How much time Streit had to practice his music before taking Kennedy’s place is unknown. He sang well, with notable beauty of tone in his middle range, but without noteworthy characterization. His highest notes were disappointingly voiced lightly, without the requisite weight and emphasis that the writing called for.

If Streit’s vocalism did not, in the end, command attention, Wachner’s maximally expressive, beautifully voiced chorus and Bicket’s expert band certainly did. Even if the buoyancy that distinguishes Nicholas McGegan and Bruce Lamott’s work with Philharmonia Baroque rarely surfaced, both orchestra and chorus seemed to bend to the musical line and emotional import of the text at will. The tenor who sang the uncredited role of the Messenger deserves special commendation for beauty and strength of tone equal to that of the name soloists. All told, it was a performance to cherish.

The only major disappointment of the evening was the lack of a full house for such a major musical event. Weill Hall is a gleaming, golden wonder, and the drive, while long, is remarkably easy and unimpeded on a Saturday night. Here’s hoping word will spread about the extraordinary offerings, classical and otherwise, at the Green Music Center.

Mon, January 6, 2014

Trinity Church’s Twelfth Night Festival Gala Concert With Music by Britten and Wachner
Feast of Music

In addition to his abilities as a conductor, Wachner is also an accomplished composer and organist, both talents of which were on rich display in his Regina Coeli (1999): a Bernstein-flavored cantata filled with bubbling textures and infectious melodies. Along with the Trinity Choir and NOVUS NY, the performance featured the Canadian soprano Jessica Muirhead, who lent a pure, clean tone to the often-tricky vocals.

Following intermission, Wachner presented a rare performance of Britten’s St. Nicholas (1948): a riot of a cantata (or was it an oratorio?) written for a mix of professional and amateur musicians including adult and youth choir, tenor soloist, three boy soloists, piano, organ, strings and percussion. Recounting the story of the 4th century Greek bishop whose gift-giving exploits became the inspiration for the modern-day Santa Claus, the performance was largely carried by the impressive tenor William Hite, who sang the recitative with penetrating emotion. But, for all the musicianship present on the altar - and occasionally in the rear of the church - I wasn’t at all prepared for the hair-raising experience of hearing the entire congregation belt out the “Old Hundredth” hymn while the NOVUS strings swelled underneath and the Trinity Choir sang descant over. Forget all the heavy praise accorded Britten as a “great composer”: this was simply an astonishing expression of community, as authentic a musical experience as any I’ve ever had. If you weren’t there yesterday, pray that you get to experience it yourself someday.

Read Full Text

Trinity Church's Twelfth Night Festival Gala Concert With Music by Britten and Wachner

by PETER MATTHEWS

As most New Yorkers know, the two weeks after Christmas are typically a dead time for NYC performing arts organizations. But, throughout music history, a great deal of music has been written to celebrate Yuletide: the 12 day celebration between Christmas and the Epiphany (January 6). Sadly, most of that music goes unheard these days, as most of it was written for liturgical use.

Enter Julian Wachner, Trinity Wall Street's Director of Music and the Arts, who has stepped in to fill the gap with the Twelfth Night Festival, featuring daily performances of early music at both Trinity Church and St. Paul's Chapel. Now in its third year, the Twelfth Night Festival has benefited from being more-or-less the only game in town - certainly in downtown Manhattan, which is a ghost town during the holidays.

Dominated by the music of Bach, who wrote numerous cantatas and oratorios to be performed during Yuletide, this year's festival also included seasonal music that ranged from the French Renaissance and Italian Baroque, to stage works such as the medieval Play of Daniel and Charpentier's La Descente d'Orpheé. Room was also made for 20th century composers such as Benjamin Britten and Sergei Rachmaninoff, both of whom made profound contributions to the liturgical canon.

Unfortunately, I was out of town for most of the festival, but made sure I was back in time for yesterday's Gala Concert at Trinity Church: a free event featuring the Trinity Choir and Youth Chorus, the NOVUS NY orchestra and various soloists. The concert was not only the climax of the Twelfth Night Festival, but also the final event in Trinity's monumental Britten 100 celebration, in which nearly 100 of the composer's works have been presented over the past four months in honor of his centenary.  

The concert began with the Trinity Choir singing Britten's A Boy Is Born: an astonishing cycle of carols filled with complicated, often dissonant motives that evoked a sense of mystery and awe. For me, it brought to mind Messiaen's mindblowing organ cycle La Nativite du Seigneur, which is, at turns, "horrible, beautiful, terrifying and ecstatic." Messiaen was 27 when he wrote his masterpiece; Britten was only 19 when he composed A Boy Is Born.

In addition to his abilities as a conductor, Wachner is also an accomplished composer and organist, both talents of which were on rich display in his Regina Coeli (1999): a Bernstein-flavored cantata filled with bubbling textures and infectious melodies. Along with the Trinity Choir and NOVUS NY, the performance featured the Canadian soprano Jessica Muirhead, who lent a pure, clean tone to the often-tricky vocals.

Following intermission, Wachner presented a rare performance of Britten's St. Nicholas (1948): a riot of a cantata (or was it an oratorio?) written for a mix of professional and amateur musicians including adult and youth choir, tenor soloist, three boy soloists, piano, organ, strings and percussion. Recounting the story of the 4th century Greek bishop whose gift-giving exploits became the inspiration for the modern-day Santa Claus, the performance was largely carried by the impressive tenor William Hite, who sang the recitative with penetrating emotion. But, for all the musicianship present on the altar - and occasionally in the rear of the church - I wasn't at all prepared for the hair-raising experience of hearing the entire congregation belt out the "Old Hundredth" hymn while the NOVUS strings swelled underneath and the Trinity Choir sang descant over. Forget all the heavy praise accorded Britten as a "great composer": this was simply an astonishing expression of community, as authentic a musical experience as any I've ever had. If you weren't there yesterday, pray that you get to experience it yourself someday.

Trinity's Twelfth Night Festival concludes with tonight's (6pm) Epiphany Service at Trinity Church, with the Trinity Choir and Trinity Baroque Orchestra performing Bach's early cantata, Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, written for the Epiphany in 1724. The service is free and open to the public, or you can watch it streamed live on Trinity's website. 

Page 9 of 23 pages ‹ First  < 7 8 9 10 11 >  Last ›