Press

Thu, January 2, 2014

Harmonic Complexity That Moved Its Maker
The New York Times

Even the most gifted composers have been insecure about the merit of their works, with Rachmaninoff among the self-doubting contingent. But he felt confident about his glorious Vespers; after the first performance in 1915, he was so moved he told the singers that he could never imagine having written such a piece, even in his dreams.

The first audiences agreed with his assessment, and the Vespers received four further performances that season in Moscow. Contemporary listeners in New York enjoyed the chance to usher in this New Year with the Vespers: Steven Fox conducted the Clarion Choir in an inspired interpretation at Trinity Wall Street on New Year’s Day, part of the Twelfth Night Festival [Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts], with the tenor Oliver Mercer and the mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken as the sterling soloists.

Read Full Text

Music Review
Harmonic Complexity That Moved Its Maker

By VIVIEN SCHWEITZER
Published: January 2, 2014

Even the most gifted composers have been insecure about the merit of their works, with Rachmaninoff among the self-doubting contingent. But he felt confident about his glorious Vespers; after the first performance in 1915, he was so moved he told the singers that he could never imagine having written such a piece, even in his dreams.

The first audiences agreed with his assessment, and the Vespers received four further performances that season in Moscow. Contemporary listeners in New York enjoyed the chance to usher in this New Year with the Vespers: Steven Fox conducted the Clarion Choir in an inspired interpretation at Trinity Wall Street on New Year’s Day, part of the Twelfth Night Festival, with the tenor Oliver Mercer and the mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken as the sterling soloists.

Rachmaninoff composed the Vespers, also known as the All-Night Vigil, after giving concerts across Russia to aid the war effort against Germany. While the a cappella work is austere compared to the lush Romanticism of his virtuoso piano works, the setting of traditional texts from the canonical hours of the Russian Orthodox Church is still plenty decadent. The harmonically elaborate work incorporates original Znamenny, Byzantine and Kievan chants; in other of the 15 movements, Rachmaninoff used what he called “conscious counterfeits” of chant style.

Under Mr. Fox’s deft guidance, the choir’s voices blended beautifully, with alluring details of phrasing and dynamics admirable from the opening “Come, Let Us Worship.” The basses descended to dark rumbling lows at the conclusion of “Lord, Now Lettest Thou,” a movement Rachmaninoff wanted to be sung at his funeral. (His wish was not fulfilled.) The choir sounded radiant in the poignant “Rejoice, O Virgin,” singing with a hushed, intense intimacy that bloomed into a full-blooded, gorgeous sheen.

Mr. Fox revealed the drama in the score with vivid dynamic shadings. In “Blessed Is the Man,” the “Alleluias” unfolded with characterful contrast; first solemn, then impassioned, before concluding with an introverted whisper. Intonation and pacing were exemplary throughout the performance.

As a fitting encore, the choir offered the Lord’s Prayer from Rachmaninoff’s “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.”

Mon, December 30, 2013

Trinity Wall Street re-defines downtown
ArtsJournal

Music Before 1800 and Miller Theater are around Columbia University’s magnetic north while the increasingly important Trinity Wall Street is south of City Hall, its current Twelfth Night Festival filling the gap between Christmas and New Year’s (Dec. 26-Jan. 6) at a level as high as anything I’ve encountered in the early music festivals of Antwerp and Utrecht.

At least on Saturday …

I caught The Play of Daniel and the Noël et la Vierge Marie concerts, respectively at 3 and 6 p.m. It was the latter program – Julian Wachner conducting the Trinity Wall Street Choir in Josquin, Ockeghem, Dufay, etc. – that drew me to the festival…

...More characteristic of Trinity Wall Street was the concert later in the day – Wachner’s Noël et la Vierge Marie program, with Josquin’s Missa de Beata Virgine movements interspersed with Marian motets by Ockgehem, Dufay, Bushois, Obrecht and Gombert. And sometimes it was more of an earful than, say, an Elliott Carter retrospective: When Wachner stepped up the tempo in Busnois’s Gaude coelestis domina,  he risked creating melismatic gridlock in the inner voices. Most impressive was the way Wachner differentiated each composer – as opposed to the Tallis Scholars, who make everything sound like Palestrina.

Read Full Text

Trinity Wall Street re-defines downtown

December 30, 2013

by David Patrick Stearns

What is it about the New York early music scene that it gravitates toward the north and south poles of Manhattan?

Music Before 1800 and Miller Theater are around Columbia University’s magnetic north while the increasingly important Trinity Wall Street is south of City Hall, its current Twelfth Night Festival filling the gap between Christmas and New Year’s (Dec. 26-Jan. 6) at a level as high as anything I’ve encountered in the early music festivals of Antwerp and Utrecht.

At least on Saturday …

I caught The Play of Daniel and the Noël et la Vierge Marie concerts, respectively at 3 and 6 p.m. It was the latter program – Julian Wachner conducting the Trinity Wall Street Choir in Josquin, Ockeghem, Dufay, etc. – that drew me to the festival. After all, aren’t medieval mystery plays just Bible stories presented in a deliberate, ceremonial style, with chant-like melodies sung rather impassively by singers surrounded with embarrassing buck-fifty production values? My previous encounters suggested as much. Other music from such distant centuries can have an inward, entre-nous quality: To say that the authors were preaching to the choir was an understatement. Their audience was perhaps as captive as any this side of prison.

This production of The Play of Daniel (which is called a “Latin liturgical drama) was already seen in 2008 and 2013 at The Cloisters  (speaking of the north pole of Manhattan). It isn’t lavish, but what was there counted for much. It’s significant that the stage director was countertenor Drew Minter. Rather than staging the piece with the text as a starting point – and assuming that the surviving mostly-monophonic vocal lines were just along for the ride – Minter began with a canny assessment of what the music can do (a great deal, poetically and emotionally) and what it perhaps cannot do – at least to a 21st-century mind used to more psychological detail. The real problem with past productions I’ve seen is that they end up being an extended apology for some quaint little mystery play that somehow survived by default into modern times.

How this one survived is hard to imagine. The Play of Daniel is a school play compiled and written by “the youth of Beauvais” (as in the Cathedral of St. Peter in Beauvais in the north of France), But there’s nothing timid, tentative or dutiful about the vocal lines that have come down to us from the 1100s, in what was the dawn of notated music in the West.

Yet one never had the sense of eavesdropping on an obscure society from a distant century – and not because the cast somehow determined how to sing these vocal lines with the specificity of German lieder. That would be wrong. Under Mary Anne Ballard’s musical direction, singers projected an inner sense of personal truth, creating an immediacy I never realized was possible.

The melodies have expansive, chant-like contours, yet there’s always a note, a turn of phrase, a quasi-cadential release of tension that steps out of what was perhaps typical. My ear, for one, immediately paid attention to what might be called the ‘rogue gesture’ in the music, and instinctively applied it to the iconic character who was singing it.

Dramatically, we’re dealing with archetypes of the most basic sort that could come off as mundane. The poetic elusiveness of the music combined with the Bible-pageant reality of the stage presentation created a poetic friction that, in its own way, held me as strongly as any Handel opera. Iconic poses in the staging were held with a naturalness that gave the story’s imagery a psychological impact that modern audiences, consciously or not, expect.

The lack of surtitles or lighting levels that allowed easy reading of the program’s synopsis meant that newcomers to this piece didn’t always know the plot details as they unfolded. Yet never did one feel left behind, any more than when you lose your way in more outwardly sophisticated Baroque operas.

As we head into 2014 without the New York City Opera, such convincing alternative music theater is more important than ever. Also, it’s nice to have it downtown. Remember, at one point, the City Opera was going to relocate to a complex that was proposed for Ground Zero.

More characteristic of Trinity Wall Street was the concert later in the day – Wachner’s Noël et la Vierge Marie program, with Josquin’s Missa de Beata Virgine movements interspersed with Marian motets by Ockgehem, Dufay, Bushois, Obrecht and Gombert. And sometimes it was more of an earful than, say, an Elliott Carter retrospective: When Wachner stepped up the tempo in Busnois’s Gaude coelestis domina,  he risked creating melismatic gridlock in the inner voices. Most impressive was the way Wachner differentiated each composer – as opposed to the Tallis Scholars, who make everything sound like Palestrina.

With Dufay, you were left with a startling overview of the music’s logic. The oddly independent bass-voice lines in Ockeghem gave a sense of the composer successfully herding cats, creating entrancing inner tension in the relationships between one voice and the next. With his 12-part vocal writing, Gombert felt less rigorous, more pretty, more frankly lush, like Richard Strauss in a predominantly Beethoven program.

Vocally, the chorus held up beautifully. The only struggle I sensed was cognitive. The program gave performers and listeners so much to ingest, your brain could be forgiven for hitting overload halfway through the concert’s second part.

And what a luxury problem that is.

Mon, December 30, 2013

Biblical Tale Nestles Right In
The New York Times

[Drew Minter’s 2008 staging of ‘The Play of Daniel’] returned to the Cloisters early this year, but over the weekend, it was relocated to Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan for three performances as part of the church’s ever more ambitious Twelfth Night Festival [Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts], now in its third season…

And, no question, Trinity misses some of the intimacy and the air of antiquity of the Cloisters’ chapels. But here, Mr. Minter made a virtue of the grander space, using not only the small set in the sanctuary — table, chairs, drop curtains — but also the entire center aisle as a performance space, creating a different kind of intimacy between performers and audience, at close range.

Read Full Text

Music Review

Biblical Tale Nestles Right In

By JAMES R. OESTREICH

December 30, 2013

You wouldn’t go so far as to call Noah Greenberg’s landmark 1958 production of “The Play of Daniel” site-specific. But the imported and reconstructed monastic setting of the Cloisters, the Washington Heights branch of the Metropolitan Museum, was certainly appropriate to the modern premiere of this medieval mystery play, and to judge from later presentations of it there, the atmospheric trappings must have figured prominently in the production’s enchantment.

Indeed, the Concerts at the Cloisters series all but acknowledged a sort of synergy between setting and drama in 2008, when it commissioned a new staging of “Daniel,” directed by Drew Minter, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Greenberg’s masterstroke. And Mr. Minter nestled the production even further into the woof and warp of the surroundings by, for example, having the players study the ancient statuary while working out body carriage and physical gesture.

That staging returned to the Cloisters early this year, but over the weekend, it was relocated to Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan for three performances as part of the church’s ever more ambitious Twelfth Night Festival, now in its third season. Though I thought I remembered having seen a performance in 2008, when I saw the production on Friday evening, I realized that I had only attended rehearsals and reported on them, so it was mostly new to me.

And, no question, Trinity misses some of the intimacy and the air of antiquity of the Cloisters’ chapels. But here, Mr. Minter made a virtue of the grander space, using not only the small set in the sanctuary — table, chairs, drop curtains — but also the entire center aisle as a performance space, creating a different kind of intimacy between performers and audience, at close range.

In a prologue, two scenes and a few processionals, the play elaborates on the biblical tale of Daniel: his interpretation of the mysterious writing on the wall heralding punishment of the grasping King Belshazzar; his being thrown to the lions by Belshazzar’s successor, Darius, only to be saved by the intervention of an angel; and his prophesying the birth of Jesus. (Whoops, that one’s not in the Bible.)

In some ways, this production is more austere than the delightfully circusy one that evolved through the previous New York stagings by Greenberg and Frederick Renz. In other ways, it is more lavish and inventive.

Mr. Minter has devised extensive choreography that goes beyond mere gestures. And with Mary Anne Ballard, a string player, as music director, the players (who also sing) draw eerie or comical sound effects from their instruments.

No one pretends that this is how the work was performed at the Beauvais Cathedral in 12th-century France, but since all that survives are the words and single melodic lines, modern performers have to invent — a lot. And if, in doing so, they want to emulate the exuberant and imaginative “youth of Beauvais” identified in the prologue as the work’s creators, who can blame them?

Sasha Richter’s costume designs are evocative of biblical times, except for the lions, which are outlandishly shaggy and colorful. The singers were adequate to excellent on Friday, the most notable being James Ruff as Daniel, Peter Walker as Belshazzar and Habakkuk, and Sarah Pillow as Belshazzar’s queen and Habakkuk’s angel.

Sun, December 29, 2013

A Wide Sampling of Early Music for the Masses
The New York Times

At the center of the city’s early-music activities is Trinity Wall Street and its intelligent, inspiring director of music and the arts, Julian Wachner, who on Saturday evening led “Noël et la Vierge Marie: a Franco-Flemish Christmas Celebration,” part of the church’s Twelfth Night Festival, which began on Thursday and continues through Jan. 6.

The festival, in its third year, offers an enviable variety of repertory, from proto-opera (Gotham Early Music Scene’s noted version of the medieval “Play of Daniel”) to Baroque opera (Gotham Chamber Opera’s new production of Charpentier’s “La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers,” opening on Wednesday), from Italian instrumental works to late-Romantic Russian choral music…

...One of the most valuable aspects of Trinity’s centennial observance has been its ability to contextualize Britten within the tradition of religious music from which he emerged, as in Saturday’s exploration of 15th- and 16th-century musical devotion to the Virgin Mary. Four of the five sections of Josquin des Prez’s great “Missa de Beata Virgine” were performed alongside works by some predecessors (Gilles Binchois, Guillaume Dufay and Johannes Ockeghem), contemporaries (Jacob Obrecht and Antoine Busnois) and followers (Nicolas Gombert).

All these works benefited from the shining, consonant-snapping Choir of Trinity Wall Street and from Mr. Wachner’s avoidance of a too-stolid beat, which kept the music seething and propulsive even as its architecture was clearly revealed…

Read Full Text

Music Review

A Wide Sampling of Early Music for the Masses

By ZACHARY WOOLFE

December 29, 2013

The early-music scene in New York is decades old, yet is still growing. The network of performers and ensembles has become broader and tighter in recent years, fed by a steady influx of young artists trained in historical-performance programs at the Juilliard School, Yale University, Queens College, New York University and elsewhere.

At the center of the city’s early-music activities is Trinity Wall Street and its intelligent, inspiring director of music and the arts, Julian Wachner, who on Saturday evening led “Noël et la Vierge Marie: a Franco-Flemish Christmas Celebration,” part of the church’s Twelfth Night Festival, which began on Thursday and continues through Jan. 6.

The festival, in its third year, offers an enviable variety of repertory, from proto-opera (Gotham Early Music Scene’s noted version of the medieval “Play of Daniel”) to Baroque opera (Gotham Chamber Opera’s new production of Charpentier’s “La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers,” opening on Wednesday), from Italian instrumental works to late-Romantic Russian choral music.

Twelfth Night may be most notable this year for including the final programs in Trinity’s extraordinary celebration of Benjamin Britten’s centennial. In concerts that began in September and culminate in a gala performance on Sunday, Mr. Wachner and his forces have done more than any other institution in the city to illuminate the scope and depth of Britten’s achievement.

One of the most valuable aspects of Trinity’s centennial observance has been its ability to contextualize Britten within the tradition of religious music from which he emerged, as in Saturday’s exploration of 15th- and 16th-century musical devotion to the Virgin Mary. Four of the five sections of Josquin des Prez’s great “Missa de Beata Virgine” were performed alongside works by some predecessors (Gilles Binchois, Guillaume Dufay and Johannes Ockeghem), contemporaries (Jacob Obrecht and Antoine Busnois) and followers (Nicolas Gombert).

All these works benefited from the shining, consonant-snapping Choir of Trinity Wall Street and from Mr. Wachner’s avoidance of a too-stolid beat, which kept the music seething and propulsive even as its architecture was clearly revealed. Only in Busnois’s “Gaude Coelestis Domina,” with its treacherously shifting meter, did the ensemble seem at all uncertain.

The ambition and creativity of the program — the choir moved to different locations in the church for different works, giving the concert the feel of a sound art installation — was impressive throughout, as was the instrumental accompaniment: the buzzy richness of the dulcian and the mellow, burnished bronze of the sackbut.

The selections from Josquin’s mass — especially a creamy “Kyrie,” blossoming “Credo” and grandly lilting “Sanctus” — were the featured attraction, but the highlights for me were two works by Gombert: a dense setting of “Salve Regina,” which unfolded with the deliberate yet surprising logic of a mathematical proof, and an astonishing 12-voice “Regina Coeli.”

Mon, December 23, 2013

The Washington Chorus Presents ‘A Candlelight Christmas’
In the Capital

Music Director Julian Wachner is a charismatic guy, and turned to the audience after the first song. He made everyone in the concert hall do some stretches, quick mouth exercises, and shake hands with neighboring seaters…

Listening to the many Christmas songs sung by the brilliant Washington Chorus was a great way to get into the spirit and kick off this holiday week.

Read Full Text

The Washington Chorus Presents 'A Candlelight Christmas'

By SOPHIE PYLE

Published:  December 23rd 2013, 11:20am

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the Washington Chorus's "A Candlelight Christmas" concert. The annual concert is in its 53rd season, and four of their five concerts sold out this year, including last night's performance at the Kennedy Center, and the one tonight at the Strathmore.

It's fun getting dressed up anyway to go to the Kennedy Center, nevermind three days before Christmas. Outside the concert hall doors, a woman handed out small candy canes out of a big basket as ticket holders filed to their seats. The concert began with the first song, Once in Royal David's City. The lights went down, and members of the chorus sang with electric candles, walking down the aisles as the song went on until they took their seats on rafters up on the stage.

Music Director Julian Wachner is a charismatic guy, and turned to the audience after the first song. He made everyone in the concert hall do some stretches, quick mouth exercises, and shake hands with neighboring seaters. This gave me the opportunity to meet Dannia, a student from Robinson High School in Fairfax who came to see her fellow classmates sing.

All of this preparation was to get us ready for song two – O Come All Ye Faithful – which beckoned the audience to sing along. Except for the tweenage girls sitting in front of us, pretty much everyone did just that. The concert goes on with more songs sung exclusively by the chorus, sometimes singing songs we all know like Carol of the Bells, and introducing new ones like the traditional Venezuelan song Niño Lindo (Beautiful Child). Each song is accompanied by an organist, a harpist, and the National Capital Brass and Percussion Band.

The year 2013 marked the 100th birthday of composer Benjamin Britten, so the program included three songs by him. Wachner spun a little bit of history for the audience on Britten, namely that some of his songs were used in the film Moonrise Kingdom (one of his was the opening song, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra). The classic/updated music added a punch of modernity to the concert, and three songs were just enough to give a taste of Britten's style without surrendering the whole concert to music the audience was not familiar with.

The Robinson High School singers were introduced about halfway through, and they did a wonderful job. I liked that they wore black dresses and suits like the Washington Chorus, because past years had singers in costumey colonial Christmas garb which didn't mesh as well with the Kennedy Center's elegant aesthetic.

Finally, one of the tenors took Wachner's stand to conduct the final song, Hallelujah. He won the opportunity to conduct in a Washington Chorus gala auction, and obviously relished in the moment. It looked like he had a blast conducting the chorus and the audience, and no doubt a few audience members (including yours truly) added that opportunity to next year's Christmas wish list.

Listening to the many Christmas songs sung by the brilliant Washington Chorus was a great way to get into the spirit and kick off this holiday week.

Fri, December 20, 2013

A Day of Music, and Movement Therapy, for a Conductor
The New York Times

Was it really just two years ago that Trinity Wall Street church scaled back its music program in what an article in this newspaper later called a “seeming brush with death”? The church’s music and arts director, Julian Wachner, 44, is now rushing to erase such memories. Austerity is out. In its place: a four-month festival of Benjamin Britten’s music, Bach cantatas every Monday and a series celebrating the 12 nights of Christmas, which runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 6. That’s between Mr. Wachner’s side gigs conducting at the Brooklyn Academy of Music or the Juilliard Opera Theater and as music director of the Washington Chorus, all while he recovers from a summer shoulder injury that temporarily stilled his baton. Mr. Wachner lives in TriBeCa with his wife, the Rev. Emily Wachner, the church’s priest for welcome, liturgy, hospitality and pilgrimage, and the couple’s American bulldog, Sophie, and cat, Rowan.

Read Full Text

Sunday Routine | Julian Wachner

A Day of Music, and Movement Therapy, for a Conductor

By JOHN LELAND
Published: December 20, 2013

Was it really just two years ago that Trinity Wall Street church scaled back its music program in what an article in this newspaper later called a “seeming brush with death”? The church’s music and arts director, Julian Wachner, 44, is now rushing to erase such memories. Austerity is out. In its place: a four-month festival of Benjamin Britten’s music, Bach cantatas every Monday and a series celebrating the 12 nights of Christmas, which runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 6. That’s between Mr. Wachner’s side gigs conducting at the Brooklyn Academy of Music or the Juilliard Opera Theater and as music director of the Washington Chorus, all while he recovers from a summer shoulder injury that temporarily stilled his baton. Mr. Wachner lives in TriBeCa with his wife, the Rev. Emily Wachner, the church’s priest for welcome, liturgy, hospitality and pilgrimage, and the couple’s American bulldog, Sophie, and cat, Rowan.

BREAKFAST COUNTS We wake up some time between 6 and 7. We always make breakfast. That’s very important to us, to make coffee and have some time together. It’s usually berries and French press coffee and some kind of egg concoction.

UPWARD, DOG Sunday is the day Emily and I both take the dog out. I have this big Hawaiian mug that I put my coffee in when I walk the dog, and Emily thinks that’s very strange and weird. Embarrassing, actually, is what she’d say.

TO WORK At Trinity there’s an 8 o’clock, a 9 o’clock, a 10 o’clock and an 11:15 service. And I usually am the person that’s doing the music at the 11:15 service, but I have to be a presence at the 9 and 10, because the 9 o’clock has the youth group. It’s a new program and we’re excited about it. And on the Sundays when Trinity Choir is singing, I’ll do a rehearsal at 10 a.m., and then the service will start at 11:15. I will either conduct that or play and conduct or just play.

HOME AGAIN That service usually finishes at 1. Then the typical thing, Emily and I will go home and cook. We like to cook stuff that will last a few days, so we organize things that way. The last six Sundays, one week I was doing orchestra rehearsals for BAM’s Next Wave Festival, one day I was conducting an opera at Juilliard at 2 o’clock, another day I was doing the “War Requiem” at the Kennedy Center, so my Sunday afternoons have been quite sporadic. But the thing that we like to do is go home and cook, and then I’ll study scores as well.

RECOVERY The other part of my ritual, which might be in the morning or in the afternoon, I’m a student of the Feldenkrais Method. I spent 27 weeks over four years training to become a Feldenkrais practitioner, in the South of France. It’s neuromuscular re-education. With my shoulder injury, I had to learn different ways of moving my arm so I could still do my job. After I was weaned off physical therapy, it was this neuromuscular re-education through the Feldenkrais Method that got me able to conduct. So on Sunday I’ll do one of those sessions. It would look somewhere between a private Pilates session and a massage.

CANDLELIGHT Then I go back to St. Paul’s Chapel around 7 p.m., where we have a rehearsal for our evening compline event, which is improvised. There’s a couple of real pieces of music written down, but we pretty much just have words on a page, and the Trinity Choir and I improvise this beautiful service, which is done at 8 o’clock, all by candlelight.

PARTY ON Then at 8:30 we usually end up with a bunch of people over at our house. Friends will show up to compline and we’ll all show up to the house. Occasionally the orchestra will be over or the choir will be over. We’ll often order ribs from Mudville 9. Or we’ll cook. More often than not, we’ll cook.

MORE MUSIC Some of our parties can get fairly raucous. We have a vase filled with old recorders, so at one point, at 1 or 2 in the morning, everyone was improvising on the recorders. Lots of music happens there. I’ll often get on the piano and play.

AFTER PARTY My tactical meeting for my staff is at 8 in the morning, so we try to get everybody out by 11. We might watch some TV. We’ll definitely take the dog for a walk.

LIGHTS OUT We go to bed probably about midnight. The last thing we do before bed is snuggling.

Sat, December 14, 2013

Portland Baroque Orchestra’s ‘Messiah’ lights up the holidays
The Oregonian

This year’s guest conductor is Julian Wachner, director of music for both New York’s Trinity Wall Street and the Kennedy Center’s Washington Chorus, in his Portland debut. Within the generally lean and lively parameters of period performance, he heightened contrasts of dynamics, tempo, texture and articulation both between and within movements. His sustained, sometimes driving energy made the three hours of the full-length version pass quickly, but not without lingering on lyrical moments on the way.

Read Full Text

Portland Baroque Orchestra's 'Messiah' lights up the holidays with fresh conductor, experienced ensemble: Review

“Christmas music” — the phrase alone may be enough to make you cringe, regardless of how much you may love both Christmas and music otherwise. But there’s one piece that Portland audiences welcome warmly this time every year, thanks mostly to Portland Baroque Orchestra, which gave the first of four “Messiah” performances Friday night at First Baptist Church.

Never mind that Handel wrote “Messiah” not for Christmas but for Lent, dashing it off in less than a month in 1741 to offer operatic entertainment in the form of a sacred oratorio, thereby skirting the Lenten prohibition of opera itself. And never mind that some classical music sophisticates disparage it for its mass appeal. Bah, humbug to that. Handel’s expressive, energetic writing for both instruments and voices — including, above all, some of the most exciting choral music ever conceived — is the stuff of wonder.

True, trotting out the same music the same way each year can get tiresome. The virtue of PBO’s “Messiah” lies in combining consistency — many of the singers and players have done it for many years — with the fresh approach that comes with a different conductor every time.

This year’s guest conductor is Julian Wachner, director of music for both New York’s Trinity Wall Street and the Kennedy Center’s Washington Chorus, in his Portland debut. Within the generally lean and lively parameters of period performance, he heightened contrasts of dynamics, tempo, texture and articulation both between and within movements. His sustained, sometimes driving energy made the three hours of the full-length version pass quickly, but not without lingering on lyrical moments on the way.

Soloists included soprano Shannon Mercer, mezzo Laura Pudwell and tenor Zachary Wilder, all PBO veterans, as well as a newcomer, baritone Christopher Burchett. Mercer and Pudwell each took a little while to warm completely in the first section, with moments of wayward intonation in fast passagework, but each later had radiant moments of calm. Pudwell’s “He was despised” beautifully set the tone for the somber second section with quiet intensity and a rich low register, and Mercer’s bright, soft high notes and gentle phrasing shone in several movements, most notably in “If God be for us,” a beguiling duet with concertmaster Rob Diggins.

Wilder sang with warmth, clarity and direct expression from the opening vocal, “Comfort ye,” and he owned a good stretch of the second part. Burchett ranged from stentorian to soft, modulating his expression carefully though nearly bowling over the first few rows of listeners with his shouted return of “The trumpet shall sound.”

At the beginning of that same aria, trumpeter Kris Kwapis had to wrestle with her notoriously unruly valveless horn but otherwise pealed winningly alongside section-mate Matt Dalton. The orchestra responded acutely to Wachner’s direction throughout the piece, digging into dark spots, crisply articulating phrases and ending the occasional movement with a quick, gentle wisp of decrescendo.

At the end of the evening, the loudest cheers went for the Portland choir Cappella Romana, which has done choral duties for PBO’s “Messiah” for the past several years. Well-blended, confident and informed by long experience of the piece, they cruised through the occasional breakneck tempo (as in “And he shall purify”), lent vehemence to the dramatic “He trusted in God” and generally gave listeners a reason to rejoice over Handel yet again.

--James McQuillen, Special to The Oregonian

Fri, December 13, 2013

Early Handel Operas Are Current Again
The New York Times

In November, Juilliard Opera combined forces with Juilliard415, the orchestra of the historical performance program, in a spare but effective staging of “Radamisto” in the school’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater, directed by James Darragh and conducted by Julian Wachner, the moving force behind that surge in Trinity Wall Street’s music program.

Read Full Text

Early Handel Operas Are Current Again

By JAMES R. OESTREICH
Published: December 13, 2013

New York a hotbed of early music? No one would have said so 20 years ago (when some of us were saying the opposite) or even 10 years ago. But a remarkable shift has occurred over the last decade or so, thanks to a web of interlocking factors, including the formation of a curriculum in historical performance at the Juilliard School, the exponential growth of the music program at Trinity Wall Street, the enterprise of groups like Tenet and the Sebastians and the work of the service organization Gotham Early Music Scene.

Even in the barren years past, there were always imported productions, so something like the superb concert performance of Handel’s opera ‘Radamisto’ at Carnegie Hall in February — with the English Concert and star singers like David Daniels and Luca Pisaroni, conducted by Harry Bicket — came as no surprise. But a second “Radamisto” in the same year, and this one homegrown and fully staged? That was a surprise.

In November, Juilliard Opera combined forces with Juilliard415, the orchestra of the historical performance program, in a spare but effective staging of “Radamisto” in the school’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater, directed by James Darragh and conducted by Julian Wachner, the moving force behind that surge in Trinity Wall Street’s music program. Two singers — Mary Feminear, soprano, and Virginie Verrez, mezzo-soprano — stood out in a generally fine cast of young performers.

It has been a big year for Handel not only in New York, where things are still wrapping up with the usual crop of “Messiah” performances, but also in Boston, which has long been used as a club to beat New York with when it comes to nurturing a thriving early-music scene. The centerpiece of the biennial Boston Early Music Festival in June was Handel’s first opera ‘Almira’ in a lavish and wonderful production by Gilbert Blin at the Cutler Majestic Theater.

Notable Handel performances in New York included another exalted import, the dramatic cantata ‘Aci, Galatea e Polifemo,’ presented in October at Alice Tully Hall as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. Emmanuelle Haïm conducted her splendid period-instrument ensemble, Le Concert d’Astrée, and excellent singers: Lydia Teuscher, soprano; Delphine Galou, mezzo-soprano; and best of all, Laurent Naouri, baritone, as the monstrous one-eyed giant Polyphemus.

Oh, and it was also a big year for Monteverdi in New York, but I’m out of space. There will be more next year, when Tenet and its offshoot Green Mountain Project (named for Monteverdi) initiate a new Early Music Festival in New York in June.

Wed, December 11, 2013

Performing Arts: All Saints Sunday
Washington Life

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, The Washington Chorus performed his mammoth choral work, ‘War Requiem,’ and to top it off the concert was held on All Saint’s Sunday, a day to honor the memories of the dead…

...Music director Julian Wachner led the chorus, soloists, orchestra and the Children’s Chorus of Washington in a performance so moving that the audience seemed frozen with emotion. It is easy to attend a large-scale concert like this and get caught up in the mere element of music making. However, it would be a great disservice to miss the sense of social responsibility that was emoted through the fervor and intensity of the performance.

The opening choral pleas of ‘Requiem’ in unison by the choir, punctuated by orchestral bells, channeled the sacredness of the cathedral and transported the listener to a place of reflection. From the onset, Wachner used his full complement of musicians to his advantage. Every gesture, whether indicating dynamics or articulation, joined the voices and instruments in a musical vignette that was emotionally poignant, highlighted especially by the seamless vocal entrances of the children’s choir in the ‘Te decet hymnus.’ The clear, pristine singing of the children evoked a sense of innocence, and perhaps helplessness experienced during World War II. In the ‘Dies Irae,’ the brass and strings accompaniment gave a rhythmic accent to the chorus of resonant male voices on display.  Likewise, the women’s voices swelled with the basses and tenors, further heightened by the percussion and muted brass…

...Left spellbound by the emotional weight of the massive choral work, there was a deafening silence in the hall followed by euphoric applause.

Read Full Text

Performing Arts: All Saints Sunday

Posted on 11 December 2013

The Washington Chorus’ large-scale ‘War Requiem’ concert left audience frozen with emotion.

By Patrick D. McCoy

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, The Washington Chorus performed his mammoth choral work, ‘War Requiem,’ and to top it off the concert was held on All Saint’s Sunday, a day to honor the memories of the dead. Ironically, Britten’s setting of the mass is non-liturgical with Latin text juxtaposed with poems by Wilfred Owen. Many in the area may remember that the chorus won a Grammy award for their recording of this very work under the direction of former conductor Robert Shafer.

Music director Julian Wachner led the chorus, soloists, orchestra and the Children’s Chorus of Washington in a performance so moving that the audience seemed frozen with emotion. It is easy to attend a large-scale concert like this and get caught up in the mere element of music making. However, it would be a great disservice to miss the sense of social responsibility that was emoted through the fervor and intensity of the performance.

The opening choral pleas of  ‘Requiem’ in unison by the choir, punctuated by orchestral bells, channeled the sacredness of the cathedral and transported the listener to a place of reflection. From the onset, Wachner used his full complement of musicians to his advantage. Every gesture, whether indicating dynamics or articulation, joined the voices and instruments in a musical vignette that was emotionally poignant, highlighted especially by the seamless vocal entrances of the children’s choir in the ‘Te decet hymnus.’ The clear, pristine singing of the children evoked a sense of innocence, and perhaps helplessness experienced during World War II. In the ‘Dies Irae,’ the brass and strings accompaniment  gave a rhythmic accent to the chorus of resonant male voices on display.  Likewise, the women’s voices swelled with the basses and tenors, further heightened by the percussion and muted brass.

Jessica Muirhead sang consistently throughout with shimmering soprano in the upper register of the voice. An absolutely transcendent moment was the mini-scene created by tenor Vale Rideout and baritone Christopher Burchett immediately following the choral rendering of the ‘Libera Me.’  A moving “song conversation” between the soloists was like listening to two soldiers lament over the perils of war, love and ultimately death. The warmth of Rideout’s tenor in musical dialogue with Burchett’s fervent baritone created a scene that could have paused before the listener as if were on a screen. As if the angels had come to transport the fallen soldiers heavenward, the  children’s choir, soprano soloist and main chorus brought the work to it’s close with the ethereal ‘In Paradisium.’

Left spellbound by the emotional weight of the massive choral work, there was a deafening silence in the hall followed by euphoric applause.

Sun, December 8, 2013

Holiday Tradition, Performed With Mandela in Mind
The New York Times

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street gave the first of its three “Messiah” performances on Saturday evening together with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra under its conductor, Julian Wachner. But before the first note of Handel was heard, the noble interior of Trinity Church filled with the soaring harmonies of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa”), the hymn embedded in today’s South African national anthem, which the singers performed in honor of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, who died on Thursday at 95.

It was a graceful gesture and one that, perhaps only incidentally, reinforced the special nature of Mr. Wachner’s Trinity “Messiah,” which is fast becoming one of the more meaningful musical traditions of the holiday season. It wasn’t just that the first words, “Comfort Ye,” sung by the tenor Stephen Sands, took on a special poignancy. Among national anthems, the South African one is unusual in reflecting the great choral tradition of its people, where communal singing is part of the social fabric. At Trinity, Handel’s “Messiah,” too, becomes an act of communal affirmation.

Read Full Text

Music Review
Holiday Tradition, Performed With Mandela in Mind
Trinity Wall Street’s ‘Messiah’

By CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM
Published: December 8, 2013

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street gave the first of its three “Messiah” performances on Saturday evening together with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra under its conductor, Julian Wachner. But before the first note of Handel was heard, the noble interior of Trinity Church filled with the soaring harmonies of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa”), the hymn embedded in today’s South African national anthem, which the singers performed in honor of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, who died on Thursday at 95.

It was a graceful gesture and one that, perhaps only incidentally, reinforced the special nature of Mr. Wachner’s Trinity “Messiah,” which is fast becoming one of the more meaningful musical traditions of the holiday season. It wasn’t just that the first words, “Comfort Ye,” sung by the tenor Stephen Sands, took on a special poignancy. Among national anthems, the South African one is unusual in reflecting the great choral tradition of its people, where communal singing is part of the social fabric. At Trinity, Handel’s “Messiah,” too, becomes an act of communal affirmation. The recitatives and arias are sung by members of the choir, who take turns slipping out of the ranks to walk to the front of the orchestra for their solos. The effect is that of a church gathering where congregants struck by the spirit jump to their feet to give witness.

To be sure, the individual voices of the 12 soloists varied in quality and polish. But there was expressive sincerity in every solo as well as keen attention to the dramatic charges of the biblical texts. In the aria “He was despised,” the alto Melissa Attebury virtually spat out the bitter words of the central section, egged on by the crisp playing of the excellent period-instrument ensemble.

The charismatic bass-baritone Jonathan Woody was riveting in a number of solos, his voice nimble and focused in the runs. His fellow bass-baritone Dashon Burton, joined by the flawless trumpeter John Thiessen, poured his huge, ringing sound into a memorable rendition of “The Trumpet Shall Sound.”

Singers like Mr. Burton and the exquisite soprano Sarah Brailey, who ascended the pulpit to deliver the sweetly dazzling “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them,” are in growing demand as soloists. To have them united in a 29-member choir creates an arresting plasticity of sound that can swell from vaporlike pianissimos to towering fortes as it did in “Since by man came death” — a chorus I had previously counted among the least interesting in the oratorio and which here took on an air of revelatory mystery.

Trinity Wall Street performs Handel’s “Messiah” on Dec. 18 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center; trinitywallstreet.org.

Tue, December 3, 2013

Coronation: The centenary of Benjamin Britten
The New Yorker

But the prize of the Britten season has been a sprawling survey at Trinity Wall Street, which began in September and ends in January.  Nearly a hundred Britten works have been woven into the church’s free lunchtime concerts and Sunday services.  Julian Wachner, Trinity’s music director, has elicited near-impeccable performances on limited rehearsal time…

...the Trinity Choir, one of the city’s finest, is delving deep into Britten’s choral repertory.  Particularly striking was their rendition of “A.M.D.G.,” a 1939 setting of sacred poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  For the poem “God’s Grandeur,” Britten treats voices like instruments, giving them intricate, interlocking patterns…Trinity’s account of this fiendishly difficult music dazzled the ears and mind. 

The most haunting event in the Trinity series so far was a performance, on Veteran’s Day, of “Cantata Misericordium,” composed in 1963 for the centenary of the Red Cross.  It took place in St. Paul’s Chapel, which served as a recovery center after September 11and houses mementos connected with the event…The cantata tells, in Latin, of the parable of the Good Samaritan, with affecting solos for baritone and tenor (Christopher Herbert and Steven Wilson) and imploring chorus.  At the end, the singers chant, “Go and do likewise,” with lines that trail off into silence.

Mon, November 25, 2013

A Wink Toward Tradition in a Modern Evening
The New York Times

Successful entrepreneurs know that there’s an art to naming a new venture. You need to get your point across quickly, clearly and with nuance. Beth Morrison and Paola Prestini, the impresarios behind 21c Liederabend, nailed this straightaway when they started the biennial performance series in 2009: “21c” proclaims modernity. “Liederabend,” a 19th-century German term meaning “song night,” labels the package neatly, while hinting at Romantic notions of intimacy and literary depth…

...Ms. Morrison and Ms. Prestini preserved the sensation of a family affair with their third installment, called “Op. 3.” Presented as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, the two-night event opened on Friday at the Harvey Theater…

...Ted Hearne, conducting the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the instrumental ensemble Novus NY [Julian Wachner, music director], provided alert accompaniment for most of the larger works, and was a charismatic tenor soloist in portions from a new piece of his own, “The Source.”

...

Read Full Text

Music Review
A Wink Toward Tradition in a Modern Evening
21c Liederabend at BAM Harvey Theater

By STEVE SMITH
Published: November 25, 2013

Successful entrepreneurs know that there’s an art to naming a new venture. You need to get your point across quickly, clearly and with nuance. Beth Morrison and Paola Prestini, the impresarios behind 21c Liederabend, nailed this straightaway when they started the biennial performance series in 2009: “21c” proclaims modernity. “Liederabend,” a 19th-century German term meaning “song night,” labels the package neatly, while hinting at Romantic notions of intimacy and literary depth.

Despite a growth trajectory that has seen each successive 21c Liederabend housed in a larger space with more elaborate production elements, Ms. Morrison and Ms. Prestini preserved the sensation of a family affair with their third installment, called “Op. 3.” Presented as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, the two-night event opened on Friday at the Harvey Theater.

If you had attended either of the previous incarnations — or almost any notable indie-classical event during the last decade or so — you saw familiar faces onstage and still more in the audience, composers and admirers alike. Like its predecessors, this event offered a conspicuous assemblage of talent, representing a broad span of contemporary styles, dramaturgical persuasions and staging concepts.

That variety kept what might have been a very long evening upbeat and enthralling. Scheduled to last two hours without intermission, the first night ran 30 minutes over, yet the surplus did not feel onerous. (A few audience members who trickled toward the exits at the 90-minute mark might have disagreed.)

Friday’s concert started with a wink toward tradition. A recording of Schubert’s ominous “Erlkönig” set the stage for well-wrought songs by Ms. Prestini and Tom Cipullo, handsomely sung by Chris Burchett and David Adam Moore, with the pianist Stephen Gosling, in a manner that Schubert would have recognized.

Amplification gave Daisy Press’s voice an eerie resonance in David Handler’s “Liadan’s Lament,” with Orlando Alonso on harpsichord. Min Xiao-Fen accompanied herself on pipa (a Chinese lute) in Huang Ruo’s “Drama Theater: No. 3” (“Written on the Wind”). Stretched generously, song-recital convention accommodated both.

But from there, audacious hybrids proliferated. In selections from “Bhutto,” an opera by Mohammed Fairouz and Olivia Giovetti, you could imagine Kurt Weill anticipating “Evita,” reimagined in Pakistan. “I Must Survive,” by Du Yun and Matthew Maguire, tasked Solange Merdinian with projecting Cleopatra’s alien allure and indomitable will — Sally Bowles with a Mongolian croak.

Marie Incontrera deftly wove jazz and gospel elements into her beguiling “Albert, Bound or Unbound,” with sly text from Royce Vavrek and bluesy contributions by the clarinetist Eileen Mack and the trumpeter Hugo Moreno. Further selections from operas and dramatic works by Aleksandra Vrebalov, Missy Mazzoli, Tod Machover and David T. Little telegraphed a flourishing present and auspicious future for the lyric stage. Ted Hearne, conducting the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the instrumental ensemble Novus NY, provided alert accompaniment for most of the larger works, and was a charismatic tenor soloist in portions from a new piece of his own, “The Source.”

Vocalists, instrumentalists, video technicians and sound engineers maintained a high level of quality throughout the event, a minor miracle in a presentation so extensive and varied. And at evening’s end, a brief set by the buoyant Zimbabwean Afro-pop band Netsayi and Black Pressure suggested a succinct definition of just what song is: a personal utterance with global reach and universal impact.

Thu, October 31, 2013

Classical Conversations: Julian Wachner
Classical WETA

During Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday anniversary month, The Washington Chorus performs a Britten masterpiece—the War Requiem—at the Kennedy Center on November 3, 2013. Classical WETA weekday morning host David Ginder chats with Music Director Julian Wachner about the unique work, its origins, and its universal appeal.

Mon, October 14, 2013

NSO offers sublime act from ‘Parisfal’ conducted by Eschenbach
The Baltimore Sun

“…The first rate Washington Chorus…prepared by Julian Wachner, summoned terrific sonic waves…”

Read Full Text

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

The Wagner bicentennial, marked by opera houses and orchestras all over the place for 10 months now, is still going strong. The latest example in our region was the National Symphony Orchestra's presentation of Act 3 from "Parsifal" in concert form with a stellar ensemble of soloists and the first-rate Washington Chorus.

I caught Friday night's performance at the Kennedy Center and would have gladly gone back the next night for a second dose of musical redemption, if it hadn't been for a new production at Washington National Opera.

You do not have to buy into the religiosity of "Parsifal" to be moved by the story of the "fool" who discovers himself and his calling to save the Holy Grail. There is tremendous dramatic weight in his journey and how he affects the lives of everyone he meets -- the seductive Kundry, the ever-bleeding Amfortas, the knight-turned-hermit Gurnemanz.

And, of course, there is the glory of the music, which can carry the listener upward, with the characters in the opera, toward some higher plane. 

NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach is, above everything else, a spiritual artist. He can get deep inside a score and find not just its heart, but its soul. That he did on Friday, conducting with a refined sense of pacing and dynamics. 

The act unfolded in a single arc, held together by an underlying tension that, in the final measures, yielded to an extraordinary, radiant calm. Even at his very spacious pacing, the performance never felt draggy. I was especially impressed with how the conductor shaped the crescendo passages during the roughly 80-minutes so that each one had more visceral impact than the last.

All the while, Eschenbach had the NSO playing at a high level. There were exquisite phrases from the woodwinds, silken sounds from the strings, admirable warmth from the brass.

That rich orchestral fabric supported three singers who got fully into their characters.

In the title role, Nikolai Schukoff (pictured in thumbnail) offered superb musicality, relishing every syllable of text and sculpting phrases with great eloquence. Any dryness in the tone or effort in the highest notes meant little in light of the tenor's valiant vocalism.

As Gurnemanz, Yuri Vorobiev used his beautifully balanced bass to communicate with a mesmerizing mix of tenderness and intensity. The baritone Thomas Hampson likewise sang nobly and affectingly as the afflicted, conflicted Amfortas.

The chorus, prepared by Julian Wachner, summoned terrific sonic waves. Chorister Natalia Kojanova provided Kundry's moans and few words at the beginning of the act.

Sat, October 12, 2013

National Symphony Orchestra’s ethereal ‘Parsifal’
The Washington Times

Although Wagner’s chorus does not take part in this act until its final moments, the fine work of the Washington Chorus added a welcome power and richness to the conclusion. Entries were excellent as was this ensemble’s diction, something that choral groups occasionally neglect.

Read Full Text

Saturday, October 12, 2013 - Curtain Up! by Terry Ponick

If it’s 2103 it must be Verdi or Wagner. The Washington National Opera launched its season last month with Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” and they’re following it this weekend with their first-ever performances of Verdi’s “Force of Destiny.”

Meanwhile, over at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, the Virginia Opera is in town this evening for two performances of Verdi’s comic masterpiece “Falstaff,” an appearance foreshadowed by Wolf Trap Opera’s chamber version of the same back in August at The Barns at Wolf Trap.

Not to be outdone, the National Symphony Orchestra is getting on the Wagner bandwagon this weekend at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, dedicating its second regular season concert to a concert performance of the third act of the composer’s valedictory opera, “Parsifal.” Thursday evening’s impressive initial performance of this moving finale was a genuine revelation to the disappointingly sparse audience that came to hear it.

“Parsifal” is an esoteric opera, even for Wagner, focused as it is on the redemptive miracle of the Holy Grail and the need for a naïve but brave and persistent hero to unlock its holy powers. In the opera, country bumpkin Parsifal turns out to be just the guy to do it. After making a fool of himself in the early going, he embarks on an uncertain quest, returning in the finale a battered, wiser, nobler, and more humble knight who’s no longer errant.

Duly vetted by the hermit Gurnemanz, who stands watch for the Grail’s repository and for the holy knights who guard it, Parsifal is able to cure the incurable wound of Amfortas, restoring, to all who serve, sublime peace, harmony, and spiritual union with the divine, as all join once more in sharing the Beatific Vision.

This is deeply religious and philosophical territory for grand opera, as it focuses on the almost Zen-like inner spirit of ancient Christianity. But it’s also Wagner at his most intellectually and musically thoughtful. The music here focuses more on the uplifting sensuousness and inner sense of human longing rather than the pageantry of it all—which in a staged performance can indeed be most impressive.

Taking this approach, the composer succeeded in carrying his rather abstract finale into the realm of the sublime—precisely what the NSO, soloists, and chorus were also able to accomplish—magnificently, we might add—under the baton of music director Christoph Eschenbach, who knew exactly where to take the proceedings, serving almost in the manner of a high priest or bishop presiding over a sacred ritual.

The NSO played nearly flawlessly throughout the entirety of this roughly 80-minute act. Played without pause, it was the only item on the program—an excellent choice as any added musical tidbit surely would have broken the mood. At times, the orchestra’s performance reminded us of the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of George Szell in a past age, sounding as if it were a single, unified instrument rather than an ensemble of individual musicians.

The strings were notable for their deep, woody richness of tone. The brass sections, largely but not entirely subdued in this act, accentuated the moments of high drama brilliantly. And, at key moments, haunting addition of the rarely heard, gong-like bass chimes added an almost spooky, incense-filled, medieval aura of the afterlife to the processionals.

Although Wagner’s chorus does not take part in this act until its final moments, the fine work of the Washington Chorus added a welcome power and richness to the conclusion. Entries were excellent as was this ensemble’s diction, something that choral groups occasionally neglect.

The NSO’s choice of singers was also most fortunate. The lion’s share of the evening’s work went to Russian bass Yuri Vorobiev, who sang the lengthy role of Gurnemanz, whose job it is in the finale to set the scene, to serve as the astonished greeter of an unexpected hero, and then to prepare that hero, Parsifal, for his redemptive mission to the Grail Community. Mr. Vorobiev’s deep, authoritative voice, calling up near visual images of the sights and sounds of the Russian Orthodox liturgy, was a near-perfect match that suited the solemn conclusion of an ancient and sacred tradition.

As Parsifal, Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff gets less to do in this act than Gurnemanz, but was notably successful in doing so. The English poet William Blake imagined the human journey to begin with innocence, to be shattered by the sorrows of experience, and then to be rebuilt into an informed joy and fresh innocence borne out of that experience.

We meet Parsifal in this act at precisely the moment when his spiritual transfiguration occurs. Mr. Schukoff grasped the essence of this moment, and, as the act proceeded to its conclusion, his vocal approach evolved to suit. Beginning tentatively and almost fearfully, his voice proceeded through understanding, eventually gaining conviction and authority, as he understood his final mission to be the redemptive cure of Amfortas and the community even as he ascended to become their new king.

Mr. Schukoff’s is a clarion clear tenor that, at the outset, still radiated a relative sense of innocence. But as matters proceeded, the darkness of his lower range became dominant, adding a different, almost unexpected, masculine sense of real authority to his persona—a phenomenal dramatic effect, particularly in an act presented without costuming, props, or scenery.

Last but certainly not least among the three key soloists in this act was American baritone Thomas Hampson as the despairing Amfortas. His role dominates the final third of this act before Parsifal returns to redeem him bringing blessed relief at last to his suffering. Tall and imposing, Mr. Hampson brought a powerful, dark, engulfing gloom to this role, and his time on stage proved genuinely electrifying, yet moving at the same time.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Hampson will be moving on soon to sing the role of Amfortas in a complete and fully staged “Parsifal” at the Chicago Lyric Opera. After his performances here, we can confidently assure Lyric Opera patrons that their Amfortas will not disappoint.
 

Thu, October 10, 2013

Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ is a fine fit for NSO’s classical concert staging
The Washington Post

In this concert performance, Parsifal and Amfortas simply strode off the stage and left the field to the chorus, which sounded good enough to make this, perhaps, a preferable solution.

Read Full Text

By Anne Midgette, Published: October 10

To mark one of classical music’s notable bicentennials, Washington’s fall season has gotten underway with a double dose of Wagner.

First, there was “Tristan und Isolde” at the Washington National Opera in September, in which the conducting took precedence over the nice, unobjectionable staging. Thursday, the National Symphony Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach offered the last act of “Parsifal” in a concert version that dispensed with the staging altogether.

“Parsifal” is peculiarly suited to the ritualistic experience of a classical concert. It is about a group of people bound by an old tradition, clinging to life and staying alive as long as they can fix their eyes on the object they venerate (in the opera, the Holy Grail). That would seem to mean that their ideal is to live forever, growing ever more aged and anachronistic, fetishizing an object that has ever less relevance to the world around it. It doesn’t take a stage director to draw out the parallels to the classical music world; the sober tuxedos that represent standard concert wear seemed, on the men of the Washington Chorus and the three male soloists, quite costume enough.

That wasn’t intentional, of course. Nor was it intended that, though WNO’s “Tristan” ended up showcasing some wonderful conducting, the NSO’s “Parsifal” excerpt ended up presenting a more even balance between the opera’s different components. The result was what you might call a Wagner boost, a small, intense jolt of music — the act lasts for about 75 minutes — that is usually spread across a larger canvas.

A friend recently accused me of making too much of Eschenbach’s gestures in my reviews. But to my mind, you can’t talk about his conducting without them: They are not a byproduct of his interaction with the music, they are its expressive essence. Eschenbach’s great virtue is a dramatic sense of the moment, and the gestures are his physical striving to express the immensity of what the music is feeling and saying. Sometimes this means that the orchestra players sound as if they weren’t quite sure when to come in; sometimes this means that the orchestra drowns out a solo singer, be it Yuri Vorobiev, the sturdy Gurnemanz, or Nicolai Schukoff, who brought a light upper voice with a baritonal lower timbre to the role of Parsifal. And sometimes it leads to a moment of pure profundity, as when the music surged up during Parsifal’s first encounter with Gurnemanz and the particular quality of unassuagable yearning that is so much Wagner’s trademark found its full expression.

You can cast a single act of Wagner differently from how you can cast a full opera — or can you? Certainly, issues of stamina do not apply to the same degree — except for Gurnemanz, the loyal Grail retainer, who does most of the heavy lifting for the entire act. Vorobiev’s voice has a pleasant warmth, and he went about the assignment willingly, if not entirely idiomatically. He made some lovely sounds, faded a bit in places, but generally acquitted himself well.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Kundry, the sole female lead in this opera, has only two words and a couple of groans to deliver throughout the whole thing, so it represented something of a luxury to bring in a singer, Natalia Kojanova, to do it (rather than, say, a member of the Washington Chorus) — though it gave an extra and arguably essential dramatic fillip to the proceedings.

Schukoff benefited from not having had a whole opera to get through before he made his weary way onstage (his character having spent untold years roaming the world, conquering an evil sorcerer and any number of other things since Gurnemanz last saw him). The baritonal heft of the lower part of his voice was a pleasant surprise; his slender upper notes, paler in tone, were anchored by its larger firmness. His is a light voice for this role, even in this relatively short (but often powerful) act, but he imbued his characterization with dramatic conviction and brought it to life.

But it was Thomas Hampson’s Amfortas who showed everyone how it is done. Hampson was not a large-voiced singer in his prime, though his voice has been broadening and darkening over the years. But in this company, he sounded big, powerful and focused — an opera singer in truth, and even a Wagnerian one. He effectively carried the end of the evening.

The very end of the opera is hard to understand in a concert version, since it involves the magical healing of a long-open wound, a mystical vision and the apotheosis of “the Redeemer redeemed,” which some have interpreted as the anti-Semitic Wagner’s symbolic redemption of Christ for his one great failing, his Judaism. In this concert performance, Parsifal and Amfortas simply strode off the stage and left the field to the chorus, which sounded good enough to make this, perhaps, a preferable solution.

Mon, September 23, 2013

Marian Made
TheaterJones

Julian Wachner’s “O clarissima Mater” from Generosa was far more interesting. Featuring text from medieval writer, composer, and nun (among other pursuits) Hildegard von Bingen, Wachner’s composition was contemporary music with medieval text written for Baroque instruments. And it managed to be interesting, not just gimmicky…

Read Full Text

Review: Baroque Splendor | Texas Camerata | St. Patrick Cathedral

Marian Made
Texas Camerata opens its season with Baroque favorites and surprises, plus countertenor Ryland Angel.

by J. Robin Coffelt

Fort Worth — Authentic Baroque performance practitioners have their quirks. Their instruments are temperamental, they eschew modern conveniences such as valves on horns and chin and shoulder rests on violins and violas, and they even tune to a different pitch—their A is 415 cycles per second, rather than the 440 that most modern orchestras use. They tend to be serious about their craft and their goals, though, and the Texas Camerata gave precisely that impression on Sunday night in the appropriately ornate and acoustically friendly St. Patrick Cathedral in downtown Fort Worth.

While the instrumentalists were all competent, the definite standout of the evening was guest countertenor Ryland Angel. A countertenor is a high tenor, in range similar to that of a female alto. Angel’s voice is angelic indeed, and his grasp of Baroque performance practice is solid.

Although the concert was billed as a celebration of Marian music, or music about the Virgin Mary, the selections were actually quite diverse in style given that singular theme. In fact, while most of the concert consisted of music composed during the Baroque period, as one would expect, two of the selections weren’t really Baroque at all. They were contemporary compositions, both premiered in 2012. Among the expected selections from Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and Arise My Muse and selections from Continental Baroque composers Krieger, Marini, and Leopold I, the contemporary compositions were interesting standouts.

While James Kennerley’s “Laude Novella” was neo-Baroque in form, very much a throwback to its ancestors of over 300 years ago, Julian Wachner’s “O clarissima Mater” from Generosa was far more interesting. Featuring text from medieval writer, composer, and nun (among other pursuits) Hildegard von Bingen, Wachner’s composition was contemporary music with medieval text written for Baroque instruments. And it managed to be interesting, not just gimmicky; plus Ryland Angel’s singing was again divine.

To be sure, there were some rough spots and some musically questionable choices, such as the odd little glissandi in the chromatic passages in Leopold I’s “Regina Coeli.” Those did not seem at all appropriate to Baroque style. But overall, this group is bringing some real solidity in Baroque performance practice to Fort Worth.


 

Fri, September 20, 2013

Trinity’s 4-month marathon celebrating Britten, renowned composer & gay pioneer
Downtown Express

From now through Jan. 2 Trinity Wall Street celebrates the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth by performing almost everything the renowned English composer ever wrote.

“I don’t think that anything like this has been done before,” said Julian Wachner, Trinity’s director of music and the arts. “We’ll be doing all the chamber music, all the vocal and chamber works, all the choral works, all the works for children.”

This amounts to around 100 pieces, rolled out at the rate of three or four a week during Trinity’s Thursday Concerts at One, its 11:15 a.m. Sunday worship service, its Bach at One and its 8 p.m. Sunday Compline by Candlelight. Most of the concerts are free.

Read Full Text

Trinity’s 4-month marathon celebrating Britten, renowned composer & gay pioneer

September 20, 2013

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER |

From now through Jan. 2 Trinity Wall Street celebrates the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth by performing almost everything the renowned English composer ever wrote.

“I don’t think that anything like this has been done before,” said Julian Wachner, Trinity’s director of music and the arts. “We’ll be doing all the chamber music, all the vocal and chamber works, all the choral works, all the works for children.”

This amounts to around 100 pieces, rolled out at the rate of three or four a week during Trinity’s Thursday Concerts at One, its 11:15 a.m. Sunday worship service, its Bach at One and its 8 p.m. Sunday Compline by Candlelight. Most of the concerts are free.

Everything except Britten’s operas and his large-scale works are part of the festival.

Britten achieved both popular and critical success during his lifetime. Though the son of a dentist in class-conscious Britain, Queen Elizabeth II made him a peer. When he died in 1976 at the age of 63, he was Baron Britten, and could have been buried in Westminster Abbey along with the other luminaries of British artistic, scientific and political history.

He chose instead to be buried in the churchyard of Aldeburgh, a small, seaside town in Suffolk, where he and his romantic partner and muse, tenor Peter Pears, had established a music festival in 1948. When Pears died in 1986, he was buried next to Britten as they both had wished.

Many of Britten’s works are on Christian themes and are suffused with an Anglican sensibility.

“Of Britten’s choral music, maybe 80 percent of it is sacred,” said Wachner. “His operas are not, but they all reference this British world with vicars — there’s always a vicar. There’s a vicar in ‘Albert Herring’ [a chamber opera in three acts] and there’s a parson and a vicar and a Methodist minister in ‘Peter Grimes.’ So he’s living in a world of Anglicanism.”

Wachner said that Britten was probably more of a secular humanist than a dogmatic Anglican.

“He was a pacifist,” Wachner said. “He was an open homosexual at a time when that was actually illegal in England. When he died, Queen Elizabeth wrote a letter of consolation to Peter Pears, which was kind of extraordinary.”

Wachner, who turns 44 this month, has been performing Britten’s music since he was seven years old and sang Britten’s “Te Deum in C” in a choir in Buffalo, N.Y.

“When I was young, I studied and performed all of his choral music,” he said. “In my early 20’s, I started working with the operatic repertoire. Now is the first time that I’m getting to know the chamber music.”

Like Britten, Wachner is a composer and pianist as well as a conductor. On Sept. 5 in the opening concert of the Britten festival, for instance, he paused in his conducting to sit down at a harpsichord and accompany mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken as she sang “Phaedra,” Britten’s last completed work, which he wrote in 1975 for Dame Janet Baker.

For that same concert, Wachner programmed “Sinfonietta,” Opus 1, written in 1932 when Britten was a student at the Royal College of Music.

“For me, what’s interesting are the similarities between these pieces that were written more than 40 years apart,” said Wachner. “Britten sprang from childhood fully formed in some ways.”

Most of the pieces in Trinity’s Britten festival are not part of the frequently performed repertory. The musicians come from the Trinity Wall Street choir, the Trinity Youth Chorus and NOVUS NY, Trinity’s new music ensemble. The scope and volume of the works they must learn for the festival are a measure of their professionalism.

On Nov. 11, when the group performs Britten’s “Cantata Misericordium,” it will be after only one rehearsal, for instance, though most pieces will be presented following two rehearsals and a dress rehearsal. “These players are fantastic,” said Wachner. “They’re pretty quick with it.”

Many of the soloists come from the ranks of the Trinity Choir. However, some have concert careers outside of the Trinity fold.

Tenor Nicholas Phan, who sang “Nocturne” in the opening concert of the Britten festival on Sept. 5 (a role that Britten wrote for Peter Pears), returns on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. for one of the two ticketed concerts of the series. (The other concert requiring a ticket is the gala closing concert on Jan. 2, 2014.) Phan will sing works from his second solo album, “Still Falls the Rain.” Tickets are $30, or $15 for students.

In addition to his work for Trinity Wall Street, Wachner is music director and conductor of The Washington Chorus in Washington, D.C. On Nov. 3 at the Kennedy Center, Wachner will be conducting Britten’s “War Requiem.” Written for soloists, chorus, chamber ensemble and orchestra, it commemorates the dead of both World Wars.

Many people consider the “War Requiem” to be one of Britten’s masterpieces, but as Trinity Wall Street’s Britten festival will demonstrate, Britten’s artistry and his ability to marry music and texts can be found in his works both large and small.

Fri, September 13, 2013

A Seductive Dance of Horn and Voice
The New York Times

“It’s heavy stuff for a 1 o’clock concert,” said Julian Wachner, Trinity Church’s director of music and the arts, introducing Thursday’s lunchtime performance of [Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings], in a double bill with Britten’s mesmerizing Illuminations. Referring to a thunderstorm brewing over the Financial District, he added, “but it got dark outside, so we’re on our way.”

It’s possible that the storm drove some into Trinity Church, but the size of the audience was proof of a genuine appetite for Britten’s music, even during the lunch hour…

...Under Mr. Wachner’s direction, the ensemble Novus NY played with a rich tone and great rhythmic expression. In “Elegy,” set to a Blake poem about a worm-eaten rose, Ms. Kuhlmann’s melancholic line floated above dragging, viscous strings; her final note wilted downward, evoking the process of decomposition.

Read Full Text

New York Times Music Review
A Seductive Dance of Horn and Voice
A Britten Festival Program at Trinity Church

By CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM
Published: September 13, 2013

Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings is one of the wonders of 20th-century vocal music. Set to a collection of English poems on the subject of evening and night as a kind of inner dialogue between singer and solo horn, it marries an Impressionist visual allure with a northern pensive melancholy and morbid fascination with death.

“It’s heavy stuff for a 1 o’clock concert,” said Julian Wachner, Trinity Church’s director of music and the arts, introducing Thursday’s lunchtime performance of the work, in a double bill with Britten’s mesmerizing Illuminations. Referring to a thunderstorm brewing over the Financial District, he added, “but it got dark outside, so we’re on our way.”

It’s possible that the storm drove some into Trinity Church, but the size of the audience was proof of a genuine appetite for Britten’s music, even during the lunch hour.

In the Serenade the principals were the luminous tenor Vale Rideout and the horn player Danielle Kuhlmann, who played the French horn with a smooth, firm tone. She fearlessly leaned into the natural overtones called for in the part, allowing the raw, uncorrected notes to take shape in ways that were by turns rough and seductive.

The sound of Ms. Kuhlmann’s horn blended beautifully with Mr. Rideout’s voice, which has remarkable purity in the high range and is able to maintain a sleek polish across the dynamic range. With his excellent diction and natural, smooth-flowing delivery light on vibrato, he was an ideal match for Britten.

Under Mr. Wachner’s direction, the ensemble Novus NY played with a rich tone and great rhythmic expression. In “Elegy,” set to a Blake poem about a worm-eaten rose, Ms. Kuhlmann’s melancholic line floated above dragging, viscous strings; her final note wilted downward, evoking the process of decomposition.

There was more graphic music in Les Illuminations, a song cycle on texts by Arthur Rimbaud, here sung by the soprano Sarah Brailey with a radiant, liquid tone. The strings created gossamer harmonics in “Antique,” where the poet imagines hanging strings from steeple to steeple and gold chains across the stars; on the cue “et je danse,” the lower strings swayed in their seats strumming Spanish rhythms on their instruments.

I found myself wishing for more variety in Ms. Brailey’s singing, even though it was exquisitely phrased. Her sound was warm and vibrant, but in these texts, with their phantasmagorical sensuality that can suddenly turn morbid, I would have liked her to take more risks. In the final, “Départ,” it was up to the strings to recreate the poet’s sense of exhaustion; in Ms. Brailey’s voice there was a little too much life to fit the world-weary text.

The Britten Festival continues through Dec. 19 at Trinity Church, Broadway at Wall Street, Lower Manhattan; trinitywallstreet.org.

Thu, September 12, 2013

Britten at One
The Rest is Noise: The Alex Ross Blog

It was lovely to see Trinity Wall Street — not a small church — essentially packed for the second installment of Trinity’s epic, ninety-five-work Britten series. Today’s concert had the Serenade and Les Illluminations. You can watch a replay on the Trinity website. The soloists are Vale Rideout and Sarah Brailey; Julian Wachner is the conductor. Last week’s concert, with Nicholas Phan, is here. The NOVUS NY ensemble gathers many fine young New York freelancers; their account of the Sinfonietta made as persuasive a case for the piece as I’ve heard.

Read Full Text

Britten at One

It was lovely to see Trinity Wall Street — not a small church — essentially packed for the second installment of Trinity's epic, ninety-five-work Britten series. Today's concert had the Serenade and Les Illluminations. You can watch a replay on the Trinity website. The soloists are Vale Rideout and Sarah Brailey; Julian Wachner is the conductor. Last week's concert, with Nicholas Phan, is here. The NOVUS NY ensemble gathers many fine young New York freelancers; their account of the Sinfonietta made as persuasive a case for the piece as I've heard.

Page 10 of 23 pages ‹ First  < 8 9 10 11 12 >  Last ›