Sun, May 1, 2011

Reaching Audiences from the Podium
The Voice - Chorus America

With so many music directors juggling multiple podiums, choosing repertoire that meets the specific needs of each chorus and the audience in that community takes on special significance. We spoke with Julian Wachner—music director of The Washington Chorus, principal conductor of Montreal’s Opera McGill, and director of music at Trinity Wall Street in New York—about the challenges of programming and attracting diverse audiences.

Sat, April 30, 2011

A Mahler tribute of epic proportion shakes the Kennedy Center
The Washington Examiner

To celebrate the close of its 50th anniversary season, the Washington Chorus has chosen another milestone—the 150th birthday of composer Gustav Mahler—to present an over-the-top concert of his most beloved works.

A herculean cast of performers takes to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage with their illustrious leader, music director Julian Wachner, in “Mostly Mahler,” the magnitude of which is not often seen in choral programming.

Tue, April 26, 2011

The Wachner Project: McCoy documents 29 hrs in the life of noted conductor
DC Performing Arts Examiner

The life of a conductor is sometimes perceived to be uneventful, conservative and perhaps by some even boring.  For Julian Wachner, life is anything but boring.  Between conducting The Washington Chorus, teaching at McGill University in Montreal and directing the Trinity Church Wall Street Choir and Baroque Orchestra, Wachner has his hands quite full.

Recently, Wachner found himself at the crossroads of three major projects:  conducting the music of Elena Ruehr in DC, conducting the monumental Bach at One series at Trinity in New York City and then having to be back in a flash to begin rehearsing Mahler for The Washington Chorus’ 50th Anniversary Gala Concert.  How would he accomplish all of these musical projects, meeting each deadline with equal excellence?

Sun, January 30, 2011

Bohème done with vitality
Montreal Gazette

The conductor was Julian Wachner, whose multiple talents no one supposed to include an aptitude for Italian opera. His beat galloped at the opening, but soon enough it settled down to a fresh allegro.  Strings had fibre in the heart-tugging interludes and woodwinds sounded sweet.

Fri, January 28, 2011

Opéra - La Bohème des comparses
Le Devoir

L’orchestre est placé derrière un dispositif astucieux et les chanteurs suivent le chef (excellent) sur des écrans de télévision.

Thu, January 27, 2011

L’Opéra à McGill : très émouvante Bohème
La Presse

Au milieu de la scène est planté l’unique et très joli décor transformable derrière lequel on aperçoit une partie de l’orchestre de 50 musiciens, le chef Julian Wachner et les chanteurs communicant par des moniteurs…le spectacle possède beaucoup d’unité aux plans musical, dramatique et scénique, les frasques des quatre artistes de la mansarde n’ont pas vieilli et, sommet de la soirée, les derniers instants de Mimi arrachent les larmes en faisant se confondre la scène presque immobile et l’orchestre presque silencieux.

Mon, December 13, 2010

A Conversation with Conductor Julian Wachner
Fanfare Magazine

It’s difficult to be a Renaissance man in American society. People who do more than one thing well are often suspected of vague alchemy. The tendency is to admire those of us who become our own logo, someone immediately identifiable and categorical. Sometimes this transformation is almost instantaneous. After all, you can be a so-called New Jersey housewife one day and a reality TV star the next, or brand yourself Lady GaGa merely by being, well, gaga. But Julian Wachner is no Johnny-come-lately and he refuses to become a brand. The only thing predictable about him is his versatility and prodigiousness as a conductor and composer. This CD, the first in a series of three CDs representing his complete choral works, demonstrates how difficult it might be to pigeonhole a man who is as comfortable writing a benediction as he is a sensual chorale.

Read Full Text

A Conversation with Conductor Julian Wachner
Contributed by David Wolman
Friday, 27 August 2010

Wachner: Complete Choral Music, Vol. 1 - Sometimes I Feel Alive; Rilke Songs; Missa Brevis


I had the opportunity to speak with Julian Wachner, the first installment of whose complete choral music has just been released by Naxos in its "American Classics" series. The composer/conductor is busy these days conducting new operas and old oratorios while simultaneously completing commissions for numerous choral works and a 50-minute organ concerto. His ambition and obvious ability make him a sought-after commodity for both the composing and the conducting worlds, though sometimes bridging the gap between the two is not so simple.

Q: Tell me about what you were doing with City Opera in New York City this week.

A: My opera, Evangeline Revisited, was being workshopped at the Vox Festival, having been chosen along with nine others from over 100 submissions. I was also conducting several of the other operas. This typifies the kind of existence I lead. I became familiar to the other composers as their conductor and they became familiar with me as one of their fellow composers.

Q: Given that your current CD includes pieces based on poetry, let me ask you how you see the relationship between the two, and how you begin to work on such a project, merging two different but often fused art forms?

A: Well, it started pretty simply when I was commissioned to write choral works based on the poetry of E.E. Cummings and Rainer Maria Rilke. The process of choosing the texts is incredibly laborious. I didn't want to just choose random poems, especially with the Rilke piece; I wanted to choose poems that related to one another so there would be a line unifying the piece. With the Cummings set, I decided to focus on the themes of love, sex, and lust in certain of his poems. The first poem inspired music indicative of youthful, frisky sexuality. The second poem seemed to portray a kind of refractory period, and the cycle culminates in music resolving into a more sophisticated, true, deep love. In that sense, I was trying to use his poetry to show the trajectory of a relationship. Once I picked the poems, the compositional process ran smoothly. After reading many Rilke poems, I settled on the poems related to animals and animals as metaphors of human behavior. Because the poems are in German, it took me a long time to taste every word and to negotiate my way through the differences in German syntax and grammar. In "The Flamingos," I tried to create a kind of feathery, flighty feeling, and for "The Black Cat," something mysterious. "The Unicorn" was more fairy-tale like, and "The Panther" evoked the heartbreak of captivity. With "The Swan," I tried to use majestic chords. Having conducted much German music including the big Bach passions, my aim with the Rilke set was to avoid clichés.

Q: Given the kind of a cappella music you write, it would seem to demand very accomplished singers.

A: The Rilke definitely requires top-notch professional singers. Those pieces therefore are for university choruses at conservatories who have three months to rehearse. The Cummings pieces can be learned rather quickly, though in the end they sound more difficult than the Rilke pieces.

Q: In the Rilke, the harmonies seem very complex and close.

A: That's the issue. If the singers are comfortable with the jazz milieu, the chords are more familiar, even though the music is not jazz. But there are 11th and 13th chords, for example.

Q: In your liner notes, you talk about the Apollonian versus the Dionysian elements that run through art. Are you referring to the fact that your CD includes the Cummings songs which, as you described, represent sexual love, and alongside this decidedly earthy text-based piece a Mass - specifically religious music?

A: Yes, on one level the CD contrasts secular music with sacred music. But keep in mind that this CD is only one of three in a series of my complete choral works. I think when the three CDs are completed the meaning of the Apollonian/Dionysian themes will be more apparent.

Q: For your age, you seem to have written a phenomenal amount of music. Are you extremely diligent, or does it come extremely easily for you?

A: It used to come fairly easily for me, and now I am very diligent. I haven't written a piece without being commissioned since I was 25. I've been very lucky to have the attention, to be performed, to be published.

Q: I would think you are very fortunate to be writing almost exclusively on commission. Many composers of new music aren't that fortunate. I can understand why someone wouldn't want to sit down and write an organ concerto just for the fun of it.

A: Yes, my organ concerto is a big piece, over 40 minutes, and it's had five performances and it will be recorded. That's unusual. The new model for younger composers is to create an ensemble dedicated to playing their music. It's almost like a rock group. It's the Steve Reich method. On the other hand, for me, the disadvantage of being commissioned all of the time is that I am forced into a particular instrumentation. This summer, I would like to work on some music that isn't commissioned, so that I can explore ensembles that I may not ordinarily be commissioned to write for.

Q: You've written that Leonard Bernstein is one of your idols. Is it his mixture of conducting and composing you identify with?

A: Absolutely. I also admired his desire to present as much music as possible to as many people as possible. But, if you look at his opus, it's difficult to find music of quality after a certain point in his career. It kind of stops at his Mass in 1970. I think he became so busy conducting that it was hard to find the downtime to compose. This is something I am very cognizant of. I need to make sure I guard my time so that I can keep up not only with the quantity, but with the quality of the music I am writing.

Q: Bernstein wrote a wide variety of music, such as Broadway, symphonic, and also some experimental music that was panned by critics. Do you feel that as a composer living today, there is more freedom to explore?

A: I do feel that, and my music is eclectic. This kind of eclecticism is still looked down upon by the academic world, but not by the public. I work at McGill University, where in the music department there are two divisions, the performance division and the research division. Composing comes under the purview of the research division, along the lines of the Princeton and Harvard model. There still is a split between the way music is viewed by academia versus the public and the industry.

Q: Another example would be Aaron Copland, who wrote, of course, very popular classical music, but also wrote 12-tone music. There was a lot of resistance to the latter. There was pressure put on him to continue writing the same popular music.

A: I would consider myself more of a Lukas Foss than a Leonard Bernstein. With Leonard Bernstein, you always know it is his music, even if he is trying to be experimental. Lukas Foss, on the other hand, was continually reinventing himself. That was one of the reasons people were confused by him. I think I am somewhere between those two.

Q: Do you receive guidelines from the people who commission you?

A: Yes. For a piece I wrote last year, they wanted something to go with the Brahms Requiem. So, I knew this was going to be a piece that had to be rehearsed along with the Brahms Requiem and performed by a good but amateur choir, and the orchestra would have only two rehearsals. There were certain things that were obvious to me about the practicality of it. And then in other situations, I've been commissioned to write orchestral pieces, where the conductor says "I'd like of this and a little of that."  It's a little bit like ordering food in a restaurant. But you trust the chef to know that you don't like chiles.

Q: Do you go ahead and write the entire piece, or do you send them a sketch first?

A: There is often a sense of a collaboration in the process. Of course, there is always the other way of doing things, the Stravinsky way: just write a piece and then find a commission for it.

Q: When you write sacred music as opposed to Cummings or Rilke, how does that affect your process and the expectations of the people commissioning you?

A: Any religious organization that would hire me to write music would know that my background would justify it. I've written a lot of Episcopalian/High Anglican music, and my reputation speaks for itself, which isn't to say that I haven't also written simple religious music, as well. I grew up with religious music, but at the same time, my stepfather was conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic and he was Michael Tilson Thomas' associate conductor for a number of years, so I had all of that concert music, and my mom was a concert pianist as well. So, it's no surprise that I have this eclectic combination of styles. Hopefully, my music will be judged not by its genre, but by its ability to supercede genre and be exceptional music that transcends other concerns.

Sometimes I Feel Alive. Rilke Songs. Introit for the Season of Epiphany. Arise, My Love. Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Ave, dulcissima. Missa Brevis. Aaronic Benediction. Behold the Tabernacle of God

Noel Edison, cond; Michael Bloss (org); Elora Fes Singers
NAXOS 8.559607 (60:07)

It's difficult to be a Renaissance man in American society. People who do more than one thing well are often suspected of vague alchemy. The tendency is to admire those of us who become our own logo, someone immediately identifiable and categorical. Sometimes this transformation is almost instantaneous. After all, you can be a so-called New Jersey housewife one day and a reality TV star the next, or brand yourself Lady GaGa merely by being, well, gaga. But Julian Wachner is no Johnny-come-lately and he refuses to become a brand. The only thing predictable about him is his versatility and prodigiousness as a conductor and composer. This CD, the first in a series of three CDs representing his complete choral works, demonstrates how difficult it might be to pigeonhole a man who is as comfortable writing a benediction as he is a sensual chorale.

By the latter I do not refer to something like Oh Calcutta!, but rather Wachner's settings of three E.E. Cummings poems, There Is a Moon Sole, As Is the Sea Marvelous, and Somewhere I Have Never Traveled, a compilation Wachner calls Sometimes I Feel Alive. The work is an a cappella song cycle with male-female counterexchanges with a jazzy, syncopated, somewhat tongue-in-cheek twist. This is a musical encapsulation of young love leading (after all the fireworks of sexual abandon) to resolution, commitment, and serenity. The technique is hidden behind the ingenuity and liveliness, and there is more skill here than meets the eye, since Wachner has deliberately gone about composing a piece that can be sung by an amateur group. This is no easy feat when the result is as compelling as this.

The Rilke Songs, which Wachner derived by combining several of Rilke's animal poems, is a more serious and complex piece of music reflecting the depth of Rilke while navigating the German text handily. Certainly, from a textual point of view, Cummings and Rilke are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and Wachner's music reflects this. The syntax of the Rilke music is as multileveled as the text is musical. Wachner does a phenomenal job of conveying in his close harmonies the richness of Rilke's poetry and the poignancy and humor as well.

As for the remaining selections, which constitute the bulk of the CD, I must admit, as I may have indicated in my recent review of Sir Philip Ledger, that I sometimes have difficulty evaluating religious music because of its adherence to liturgical imperatives, or to the traditions, express rules, and expectations of the church for which the music is composed. Though I particularly liked Wachner's Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and though his sacred offerings here are well written, melodic and interesting, tonal and accessible, I'm not sure the compositions can exist in the secular world without the accoutrements of steeples, organs, oak pews, and the odor of incense. Accordingly, I should recuse myself by saying that I don't attend church and I don't tend to listen to much sacre music unless it is a few hundred years old (or maybe Britten and Fauré), and, even then, I am not particularly moved by the words of someone else's scripture, nor am I ever impressed with how the music serves the text. Church choirs, however, I know for a fact, are constantly searching for new music to sing and Wachner's music is popular among the aficionados because it is both singable and good. Perhaps the problem here, if there is one, is that the CD is weighted
too heavily toward the sacred with just a tease of Wachner's secular fare. However, judging by the Cummings and Rilke offerings, Wachner has nothing to fear from my predilection for the profane and experimental, nor do his sacred works have anything to fear from my agnosticism. And I am well aware of the fact that, though he did write secular music as well, the great Bach himself needed his church commissions, his choir conducting gigs, and his religious schoolteaching posts to foot the bill for his non-religious experiments.

Fri, June 25, 2010

On CD: Julian Wachner
The Washington Post

In his own choral music, Washington Chorus Music Director Julian Wachner draws on so many influences that his successes are a compendium of surprises, and even his less-successful works have engaging moments. Yet on the basis of this first volume of a planned Naxos series of all Wachner’s choral music, the simplest-sounding pieces can touch a listener most strongly.

The shorter religious works that use organ are particularly good (Wachner is himself an organist). Behold the Tabernacle of God (2004), to text from “Revelation,” is an especially effective combination of organ with solo and massed voices in a variety of styles and rhythms. Wachner considers his own style eclectic, but on this CD it seems more combinatorial: A little of this, a little of that, adding up at its best to something new and very personal.

Tue, June 1, 2010

Review: Julian Wachner: Complete Choral Music, Volume 1
Abeille Musique

(translated from the original French)

What arguments might I invent to incite you to acquire the first volume of the complete choral works of Julian Wachner?  Who is this – this guy?  It is true that on this side of the Atlantic his name is only known to a few aficianados or professionals, but on the other side, it’s a completely different story: Wachner is a star.  Born in 1969,  Wachner can already boast a catalogue of 80 works, published by Schirmer (free publicity), recorded prolifically, and played day after day by all of the great orchestras and choirs of North America. It is that Wachner falls under the great tradition choral society of the continent, with at the same time easy initially, but demanding works all of writing and execution.

Its style, its kind? Let us take again the terms of the North-American press: “bold and full with atmosphere” (NewYork Times), “jazzy, energetic, clever” (Boston Earth), “strongly pleasant, touching, intelligent and inspiring” (Deseret News of Salt Lake City), “removed, jazzy, brilliant, poignant” (Providence Newspaper). The pleasant reader will have included/understood it: Wachner evolves/moves in a rather North-American world, made harmonies inspired all at the same time jazz, gospel, art traditional European choral, in an alert rate/rhythm, harmonies of satiety and brilliance; but - if I then allow me a personal opinion - it carefully avoids a little vulgar harmonic facilities to which too often lends itself, for example, the British John Rutter, so that the most demanding music lovers will find their pleasure and their musical rise. No doubt Wachner is located in the Stravinski-Bernstein line, at least that developed in the music choral society of these two Masters.

Tue, June 1, 2010

Review: Julian Wachner: Complete Choral Music, Volume 1
The Whole Note

Not quite a household name, American composer/conductor Julian Wachner is now in his early 40s and has built himself a stylistic reputation for eclecticism. This recording by the Elora Festival Singers is an example of just how broad Wachner’s stylistic embrace can be. It is also another example of the artistically tenacious style that has become the hallmark of the EFS.

Because we most often associate a composer with an identifiable vocabulary or language, it’s a bit odd to find someone so stylistically diverse yet so secure in his writing. Wachner’s command of choral techniques and effects is solid and polished. The EFS’s ability to meet the exacting demands of this music makes this recording altogether remarkable. 
Wachner describes his choral writing as “text-driven”. How important and effective this is becomes evident as one plays through the 19 tracks of sacred and secular works. Poetic texts by E.E. Cummings and Rilke deliver fanciful, sensitive and experimental moments always linked to a detectably romantic undercurrent.

Mon, May 24, 2010

Washington Chorus goes for Baroque
The Washington Post

The explosion of sound on the first sung phrase of Handel’s anthem “Zadok the Priest,” which opened Friday’s concert by the Washington Chorus at National Presbyterian Church, was exhilarating. Music director Julian Wachner knows how to draw maximum drama from a score, and it didn’t hurt that his large chorus – over 180 singers were listed in the program – was set in a beefy, resonant acoustic.

Indeed, that acoustic tended to cloud such gargantuan moments as the climactic “Alleluia” section of Handel’s “The King Shall Rejoice,” but the thrill factor was worth it. This sort of Victorian-sized choral sound is less frequently applied to Baroque music in these days of historically informed performance practice. But Wachner was careful not to let the larger scale turn into bloated or lugubrious articulation. He insured that soprano tone hinted at the purity of boys’ voices, the mezzos suggested the tang of countertenors, and the male sections displayed a notable mellowness and pliancy.

Wachner’s selection of music was freshly conceived.

Fri, May 7, 2010

In a Laboratory, Turning Traditional Notions of Opera Upside Down
The New York Times

“...on the evening of April 30 and on last Saturday afternoon, Mr. Steel, now the general manager and artistic director of City Opera, was the enthusiastic host for VOX 2010 at the New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.  Excerpts from 10 diverse works were performed by the City Opera orchestra and chorus and an impressive roster of solo singers.  Although these were essentially workshop tryouts, the performances were generally assured and effective…Several pieces upended traditional concepts of the genre. The first two [Conducted by Julian Wachner] on April 30 showed the range of what was to come. “With Blood, With Ink,” by the composer Daniel Crozier and the librettist Peter M. Krask, had its premiere at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in 1993.  It has had subsequent student performances, but still awaits a professional staging.

Tue, April 6, 2010

Modern Choral Music from Julian Wachner
Gapplegate Music Review

Choral music in the contemporary classical mode perhaps has not gotten its due. There are a few composers who have excelled at it, but it is not a genre as central to our age as, for example, the instrumental chamber ensemble.

However based on volume one of the Complete Choral Music (Naxos) by Julian Wachner (b. 1969), there is excellent work being done today. The Elora Festival Singers under Noel Edison sing like angels; they do complete justice to Wachner’s music. It has a touch of the aural voicings of Paert and Reich, but not in terms of style. Wachner uses the tang of modern harmonies as sound color. His music is declamatory or quiescent, depending on mood, and there is a minimalist touch here and there.

Mostly, though, it is Wachner’s extension of choral tradition via his own contemporary vision that strikes this listener. The nine works presented on this volume one have depth and integrity. Here’s a composer who feels completely at home with an a cappella choir, or voices with organ accompaniment. It is a very refreshing listen. The music has moments of true beauty. Bring on the next volume!

Mon, March 29, 2010

Wachner, Washington Chorus offer schizophrenic evening
The Washington Post

Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture” enjoyed a supple and vibrant reading by the orchestra. This nautical work led seamlessly into Marjorie Merryman’s “Jonah,” an artistic treasure, consummately interpreted and performed. [Wachner] knew his audience…and Friday’s standing ovation confirmed it.

Mon, March 29, 2010

The Washington Chorus: Merryman, Mendelssohn and Mozart
DC Performing Arts Examiner

…Maestro Julian Wachner led a masterful performance (of the Hebrides Overture), engaging the orchestra with his expressive, yet direct baton.  The orchestra responded beautifully to Wachner’s interpretation…Mozart’s Requiem was the major work of the second half of the program…Wachner conducted with nice, lilting tempos, allowing the music to simply float…The Washington Chorus under the leadership of Julian Wachner continues to astound its audiences with the exciting programs that it currently presents…The appealing youthfulness and fresh repertoire is a welcome invitation to a new audience of listeners.

Mon, March 15, 2010

Christoph Eschenbach Off to a Rough Start at NSO

…the Washington Chorus sang their amassed hearts out, making the big choral moments, like the famous Dies Irae, the high points of the performance. Standing in a mixed formation, rather than sorted into sections by voice part, helped the group’s intonation and blend.

Mon, March 15, 2010

Eschenbach serves notice of exciting era to come with National Symphony
The Baltimore Sun

In addition to all the admirable playing by the NSO on Saturday, the Washington Chorus (Julian Wachner, music director) offered carefully balanced, vividly articulated singing. It’s impossible to overstate how strongly these first-rate choristers contributed to the experience.

Fri, March 12, 2010

Between Silence: Eschenbach’s Debut as Music Director Designate

…the Washington Chorus sang- and the National Symphony Orchestra played their hearts out. Together, they achieved magnificence and heartbreak, terror and tears. The heft and drama were there for the Dies irae, and the Tuba mirum was caught spectacularly with the trumpet answering antiphonally from up on the third-level balcony stage right. The effect was electrifying. It was the range of expression in the chorus and orchestra, however, which impressed throughout.

Tue, March 2, 2010

Celebrating Lukas Foss:  Alea III Contemporary Music Ensemble in Residence at Boston University
Boston Arts Diary

Eighteen Epigrams formed the basis for the second part of the program. This collage piece is an amalgamation of short works in honor of Lukas Foss by his former students. Though highly varied in tone and orientation, it is a lovely work, a kind of testament not only to Foss but to modernism itself. How many composed collaborative pieces of this sort, in the world of classical music, do we typically hear? It is a pleasure to have the occasion to sew together the varied feelings of devotion to a beloved teacher and to witness the result in a singular form. I noted in particular the segment composed by Julian Wachner…in the end, it was the overall sense of Foss’ legacy and presence that governed the evening.

Fri, January 29, 2010

Concerts classiques - Stravinski en bonne et due forme
Le Devoir

Les spectacles de ce type sont toujours une intéressante revue d’effectifs de la relève, test d’autant plus signifiant que l’ouvrage de Stravinski est extrêmement retors sur les plans de l’intonation, du rythme et de la mémorisation. C’était prendre un grand risque de le programmer. C’était peut-être, aussi, bien connaître les potentialités des trois jeunes artistes portant le spectacle sous la houlette attentive de Julian Wachner.

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