Press

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

...

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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.

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