Press

Sun, October 28, 2001

Wachner, in Montreal, stays loyal to Providence Singers
The Providence Journal

Providence Singers profile by Channing Gray

Sat, September 1, 2001

Review: Wachner Sacred Music CD
Fanfare Magazine

[Wachner’s] experience as a conductor shows everywhere, as the music is beautifully voiced, something helped by the crystal-clear recorded sound…The solo moments in the long reflective central section of Alleluias, Intercessions and Remembrances, where the voice drifts in utter loneliness over a long-held organ pedal with seemingly distant commentaries by the brass quintet, are utterly haunting.. Performances and recording are splendid.

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Wachner: "All Creatures of Our God and King," "Alleluias, Intercessions and Remembrances," "Arise My Love," [and Others]

John Story
Fanfare - The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors 25:1
[September-October 2001] p.303-304

Julian Wachner is deeply associated with music for the church, both from a spiritual standpoint and a practical one. He is on the faculty of the Boston University School of Theology, and I gather much of his output is sacred in orientation. In addition to being a composer and academic, he is also a concert organist as well as music director of a number of organizations. Here he conducts the professional choir that he founded for period performance in a recording of his sacred music. All of the music is for choir and organ with occasional use of other instruments--brass quintet and percussion in the Alleluias, Intercessions and Remembrances and All Creatures of our God and King, flute in At the Lighting of the Lamps. Wachner writes within a tonal context, using the sort of sweet/sour harmony one associates with the milder forms of modernism. The choral writing is often homophonic, with the inflections of melody and harmony being used to give the line impetus and bring out the meaning of the words. Even when the vocal writing is contrapuntal, he is always at great pains to make sure the words are as clear as possible. His experience as a conductor shows everywhere, as the music is beautifully voiced, something helped by the crystal-clear recorded sound.

As to the music itself, I find it mostly very attractive but rather bland. There is a certain easiness to the music, perhaps reflective of the composer's concert experience as an organist and choral conductor, and his very fluency perhaps overly informs the writing. (I am one of the few people I know who finds Palestrina's music utterly professional and endlessly dull--give me the untidy ecstasies of the Tudor composers any day. In the present context one could substitute the names Rutter and Messiaen respectively.) Still, the music is very attractive, although I also find the comment, contained in the composer's bio, that he has been praised for his ''unabashed emotionalism and showy orchestration'' sort of telling. To my ears, Wachner is at his very best when he restricts his means, a variant of Stravinsky's freedom through constraint. The unaccompanied second of the Three Songs of Isaiah is the most compelling part of that work. The solo moments in the long reflective central section of Alleluias, Intercessions and Remembrances, where the voice drifts in utter loneliness over a long-held organ pedal with seemingly distant commentaries by the brass quintet, are utterly haunting. The more exuberant moments make a splendid noise, but never quite make the leap into the sort of overwhelming experience for which Wachner seems to be aiming. (For entirely the opposite point of view, see David Denton's review in the May/June issue.) Performances and recording are splendid.

Fri, July 13, 2001

Composer, conductor Wachner to exit Boston
The Boston Globe

Boston is about to lose one of its most versatile, charismatic, and talented young musicians, Julian Wachner.  Since arriving as a student at Boston University 13 years ago, Wachner has built a prominent career as a composer and conductor.  This fall Wachner, 31, becomes associate professor of music and director of choral activities at McGill University in Montreal, where he will be active in the opera program.

Mon, June 4, 2001

Second Intermezzo a pleasant afternoon interlude
The Charleston Post and Courier

Spoleto Festival Orchestra review by William Gudger

Fri, June 1, 2001

Guide to Records: Wachner, Sacred Choral Music
American Record Guide

Wachner’s classy Magnificat is animated by a fluttery organ motif that’s very engaging. His ‘Quaerite Dominum’ glows with warmth, and he puts the organ and brass to effective theatrical use in the opening Alleluias, Intercessions and Remembrances. The recording sounds fine and the booklet makes for nice reading, though the notes by a Boston University Professor of Theology make Wachner sound like Thomas Aquinas with a baton. Who knows? maybe he is. In any event, he is a talented musician who will, no doubt, be heard from often, so church musicians and choral aficionados may want to check him out.

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Guide to Records: Wachner: Sacred Choral Music
Boston Bach Ensemble/ Julian Wachner

Mr. Greenfield
American Record Guide 64:3 [May-June 2001] p.196

Julian Wachner is a young Boston-based composer-conductor who is very much at home in the Anglican choral tradition. Indeed, his Boston Bach Ensemble does its best here to out-Brit the Brits; transparent textures, croony timbres, and pale, vibrato-less sopranos. They're pretty good at it, too. Most of the music here is slow, introspective stuff; it can become a little wearing over a 69-minute span, but the talent level is impressive.

Wachner's classy Magnificat is animated by a fluttery organ motif that's very engaging. His 'Quaerite Dominum' glows with warmth, and he puts the organ and brass to effective theatrical use in the opening Alleluias, Intercessions and Remembrances. The recording sounds fine and the booklet makes for nice reading, though the notes by a Boston University Professor of Theology make Wachner sound like Thomas Aquinas with a baton. Who knows? maybe he is. In any event, he is a talented musician who will, no doubt, be heard from often, so church musicians and choral aficionados may want to check him out.

Fri, May 25, 2001

Back Bay Chorale ignites fervor of Wachner’s works
The Boston Globe

Works of Haydn and Wachner reviewed by Ellen Pfeifer

Fri, May 18, 2001

Superconductivity
The Boston Globe

Wachner Symphony No. 1 preview by Richard Dyer

Sun, May 6, 2001

Review: Wachner Sacred Music CD
Fanfare Magazine

The accompanying booklet carries a quotation from the Boston Globe that describes the compositions of Julian Wachner as ‘‘unabashed emotionalism and showy orchestration.’’ I am not quite sure which way I would take that if I were Wachner, but it certainly sums up the present disc in a nutshell. He is an extremely gifted young man, equally at home as a choral trainer, orchestral conductor, concert organist, and lecturer, Lukas Foss identifying him as ‘‘a talent that will invigorate the musical world.’’ The present disc would portray Wachner as a composer who is pinning his hope that melody will eventually triumph over atonality. The result is a group of works possessing the characteristics that have brought John Rutter’s sacred scores an international recognition and commercial success.

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Wachner: "Alleluias, Intercessions, and Remembrances";
3 Songs of Isaiah;
"At the Lighting of the Lamps"; [and Others]

Fanfare - The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors 24:5 [May-June 2001] p.239-240
David Denton

The accompanying booklet carries a quotation from the Boston Globe that describes the compositions of Julian Wachner as ''unabashed emotionalism and showy orchestration.'' I am not quite sure which way I would take that if I were Wachner, but it certainly sums up the present disc in a nutshell. He is an extremely gifted young man, equally at home as a choral trainer, orchestral conductor, concert organist, and lecturer, Lukas Foss identifying him as ''a talent that will invigorate the musical world.'' The present disc would portray Wachner as a composer who is pinning his hope that melody will eventually triumph over atonality. The result is a group of works possessing the characteristics that have brought John Rutter's sacred scores an international recognition and commercial success. The opening Alleluias, Intercessions, and Remembrances makes a striking impact, and, without being disrespectful to the 23 singers of the Boston Bach Ensemble, I would love to hear it with a choir that has the numerical strength to do the work full justice.

Though Wachner may be the first to reject the notion, he is writing music that would be ideal for the great cathedral choirs in the UK. You can just imagine the British boy sopranos hitting those high notes in the Three Songs of Isaiah, which causes some stress for the Boston sopranos. The choir, which Wachner founded in 1995, is a very well-balanced ensemble that produces a tone of considerable beauty, a feature we can enjoy in the more introspective qualities of one of his most recent scores, At the Lighting of the Lamps. The sheer sense of a peace at the conclusion is one of the most magical moments

I have experienced in a contemporary choral work. The factor throughout the disc is Wachner's belief and sincerity in his creativity. If that does include a ''showy'' quality at times, the ends justify the means, to the extent that these works should find a place in the church choral repertoire.

Michael Kleinschmidt on the Aeolian-Skinner organ in the Church of the Advent in Boston adds an atmospheric backdrop to the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, composed in 1992 for the St. Thomas Church in New York, the choir school that nurtured the musical talents of the young Wachner. The acerbic harmonies of the Nunc Dimittis did come as a surprise, and I was not quite sure what the composer was here looking to achieve. An apparently straightforward setting of All Creatures of Our God and King suddenly changes in the final verse, the full forces of the choir, organ, and instruments bringing the disc to a thrilling conclusion.

The recorded sound captures the singers rather set back in the Boston church, which gives a warming reverberation around the choral tone, and adds a quite exquisite quality to the hushed moments in the final section of At the Lighting of the Lamps. The booklet gives a full text, and I strongly recommend the disc to you.

Mon, March 12, 2001

Wachner elevates Bach’s Mass
The Boston Globe

Julian Wachner’s performance of the Bach St. Matthew Passion last April was one of the great musical events of the 2000 season.  So when he and the Back Bay Chorale took on Bach’s B-Minor Mass Friday night at Sanders Theatre, hundreds of eager listeners turned out despite a nasty snowstorm.

Thu, March 1, 2001

OHS National Convention: Boston, Massachusetts
The Diapason

After dinner, off to The Mission Church to hear Julian Wachner on Hutchings Opus 410 of 1897, sounding out of its great west gallery case into a superb acoustical space. Bach, Pièce d’Orgue; Mendelssohn. Prelude and Fugue in C Minor; Cantabile from the Widor Sixth, played on a gorgeous Oboe; Duruflé Prelude and Fugue on ALAIN. After intermission, we were driven hastily back to our seats by a fabulous improvised fanfare, using the splendid. if un-Englishy, Tuba; then the Boston premiere of Les Trés Riches Heures (An Organ Book of Hours) by Marjorie Merryman—the six movements are entitled 1. Procession. 2. Dialogues, 3. Cycle of the Year, 4. Rebellion, 5. De Profundis, and 6. Celebrations. The evening ended with ‘‘Holy Holy Holy’’ to, of course, Nicaea. After the hymn Wachner went into a pretty wild improvisation on Nicaea.

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OHS National Convention: Boston, Massachusetts

Malcolm Wechsler
The Diapason 92:3:1096 [March 2001] p.13-18

After dinner, off to The Mission Church to hear Julian Wachner on Hutchings Opus 410 of 1897, sounding out of its great west gallery case into a superb acoustical space. Bach, Pièce d'Orgue; Mendelssohn. Prelude and Fugue in C Minor; Cantabile from the Widor Sixth, played on a gorgeous Oboe; Duruflé Prelude and Fugue on ALAIN. After intermission, we were driven hastily back to our seats by a fabulous improvised fanfare, using the splendid. if un-Englishy, Tuba; then the Boston premiere of Les Trés Riches Heures (An Organ Book of Hours) by Marjorie Merryman--the six movements are entitled 1. Procession. 2. Dialogues, 3. Cycle of the Year, 4. Rebellion, 5. De Profundis, and 6. Celebrations. The evening ended with ''Holy Holy Holy'' to, of course, Nicaea. After the hymn Wachner went into a pretty wild improvisation on Nicaea.

Along with lots of AGO members and other members of the Boston musical community, in addition to lots of parishioners, we were a huge audience to hear four well-known organists in a program that became even more remarkable than we were led to expect. Julian Wachner, who had given a full evening recital earlier in the week, offered the Bach Dorian Toccata and Fugue. The Toccata was a bit thick for the registration and building, but the Fugue was magical, with a hardly noticeable but very real build-up that left one breathless at the final cadence. Next came Wachner's transcription of El Salon Mexico of Copland. I guess there are cannon shots in the score, and Leo Abbott was ready in the balcony with an enormous bass drum, which he struck with immense authority. At the first blow, the whole audience rose quite visibly just a bit off its seats.

Wed, February 14, 2001

The Measure of a Maestro
Bostonia Magazine

Chaos is not an enemy to Julian Wachner (SFA’91,‘96), ex-wunderkind, current real deal. With so many jobs—conductor, composer, organist/pianist, teacher—and so many performances, chaos is an enabling friend that prompts him to get things done. And he excels at getting things done, and at getting people to notice. Just thirty-one, Wachner has secured a regional reputation and is building a national one as a supremely skilled musician on the rise. Richard Dyer, classical music critic at the Boston Globe, calls him “the most totally equipped musician that I’m aware of to emerge from here in the last ten years. He’s as talented as anybody in his generation.”

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The Measure of a Maestro
Composer, conductor, and kappelmeister Julian Wachner had gone from wunderkind to maestro by the time he reached thirty. What's next?

Bari Walsh (photos by Fred Sway)
Bostonia Magazine, February 15, 2001

As concert stages go, the one at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence is small. At two in the afternoon on the Thursday before the performance, it holds four grand pianos, a pair on either side. At the center, the conductor works from his podium, running through Stravinsky's Les Noces with his pianists, the difficult notes shooting jaggedly through the near-empty theater. Stagehands and technicians walk the house, seeing to the wiring, spiffing up the paint job, and when asked, removing the lids from the pianos. A dog belonging to a crew member meanders; a conductor's assistant sits in a red velvet chair under the dim house lights, napping. It has been a long week, and it is getting longer all the time.

At six-thirty, the four pianists are still at their instruments. The stagehands and technicians still pace, and the dog still roams. But now, joining them on a stage that seems to shrink by the minute are 120 choral singers, assembling themselves on risers far too rickety for comfort. Also: a choreographer and eight ballet dancers, who begin immediately to stretch and pirouette on a black mat at the front of the stage. Five solo singers arrive, and six percussionists, who bring timpani, xylophone, chimes, gongs, glockenspiel, and assorted other soundmakers. The young son of one of the production crew runs back and forth, laughing. A camera-woman from Channel 12 shows up to grab some footage for the evening news. Soon, ten or so members of a children's choir will be here to rehearse their contribution to the program.

And still at the center, anchoring the diminishing stage, is the conductor, Julian Wachner. Tall and commanding, a natural focalpoint, he is being besieged by hugs from singers, by questions from instrumentalists, and by a steady flow of coffee from his assistant. The stage has become a circus tent, and Wachner is going to have to play the lion tamer if he wants to keep chaos out of his rehearsal. But as he turns to take it all in, an improbably wide smile settles on his face. "This is wild, huh?" he says happily, to nobody in particular. And then he starts working.

Chaos is not an enemy to Julian Wachner (SFA'91,'96), ex-wunderkind, current real deal. With so many jobs --conductor, composer, organist/pianist, teacher --and so many performances, chaos is an enabling friend that prompts him to get things done. And he excels at getting things done, and at getting people to notice. Just thirty-one, Wachner has secured a regional reputation and is building a national one as a supremely skilled musician on the rise. Richard Dyer, classical music critic at the Boston Globe, calls him "the most totally equipped musician that I'm aware of to emerge from here in the last ten years. He's as talented as anybody in his generation."

The length of Wachner's resumé belies his age. He is a ten-year veteran already of one of his jobs: Boston University organist and choirmaster at Marsh Chapel. He was offered the position at age twenty, while still an undergraduate at the School for the Arts, where his mentors included David Hoose on the conducting side and Lukas Foss and Marjorie Merryman on the composing side. He took the job without a moment of nervousness. He wasn't a novice, after all; he had been a boy chorister under the direction of Gerre Hancock at the renowned and rigorous Choir School of St. Thomas Church in New York. Conducting choral music feels as natural to him as getting up in the morning.

As he worked toward a doctorate in composition at SFA, Wachner helped make Marsh Chapel a center for choral music in Boston, according to Dyer --something of an accomplishment in a city where the competition in that arena is perhaps stronger than anywhere else in the country. At age twenty-six, he took on the directorships of two amateur choruses, the highly regarded Back Bay Chorale and the Providence Singers, which, from humble roots, has grown in stature and accomplishment under his baton. He also founded and directs a professional chorus and period-instrument orchestra, the Boston Bach Ensemble.

He is now an assistant professor of sacred music at the School of Theology, working with Photograph by Fred Sway students whose musical interests range from the liturgical to the historical to the compositional. He is also a sought-after guest conductor, for groups such as the Handel and Haydn Society, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, the BU-affiliated new-music ensemble ALEA III, and, next year, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. And of course, there is his composing, more frequently commissioned with each passing year and as important to him as any of the rest. Little wonder that his dry cleaning sits in the backseat of his car for weeks before he finds time to drop it off, or that parking tickets, those sour fruits of a busy life in Boston, stack up.

I've always been good with deadlines," Wachner says, explaining a performance schedule that demands every ounce of his prodigious energy. There is a wonderful dialectic of youth and maturity in his nature. At times he seems like a very focused ten year old: there appears no limit on what he can do in a given day, week, or month, and no limit to the enthusiasm that each task receives. He is spontaneous, funny, and quick to laugh. Two of his favorite words, high compliments both, are cool and wild. But in many respects, Wachner has an old soul. A devotee of Bach since early childhood, possessed of an intimate knowledge of the musical canon, he spent his twenties waiting to be thirty, he says, because he felt held back by his youth. Intense and demanding, he expects as much from his musicians and students as he gives.

He loves music, and lives in it so completely as to erase the need to articulate that love. He just immerses himself in it every day, going from late-night rehearsal to early-morning chapel service to organ master class to rehearsal again. His life has a glorious soundtrack.

In the car on the way to Providence one afternoon in late October, Wachner and his longtime accompanist, Linda Osborn-Blaschke (SFA'95), are talking music. Wachner is a deft driver, maneuvering the clogged road in much the same way he maneuvers everything else in his life: without hesitation, with abandon. He has one hand on the wheel; with the other, he unconsciously conducts the music coming from his car stereo. It is Bach, a CD of Wachner's rendition of the Christmas Oratorio recorded at Marsh Chapel and released last spring by Titanic Records. Wachner has several other recent and upcoming releases to celebrate: ARSIS Audio is bringing out a series of four compact discs surveying his compositions for chamber ensembles, orchestra, and chorus, and it is also releasing Benjamin Britten: The Company of Heaven, with Wachner conducting the Back Bay Chorale and Chamber Orchestra. Osborn-Blaschke, whose master's degree from SFA is in collaborative piano, is bonding with Wachner over their mutual love of music theory, a sentiment by no means universal among performers. But Osborn-Blaschke shares Wachner's sensibilities in most things musical. They have a clear rapport; their familiarity allows her to respond almost intuitively to his direction, even at rehearsals of pieces she's just learning, "One reason why it's so awesome to work with Julian is that he is a musician who inspires joy," she says. "Even if it's just a chorus rehearsal on a Tuesday night, I always feel uplifted. It's always fun; it's always a learning experience for me. And for him too, I think.

"St. Matthew was wild, wasn't it?" Wachner responds, referring to an extraordinary performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion that he conducted last April at Harvard University's Sanders Theater. The performance, with the Back Bay Chorale and the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music, was acclaimed by the Boston Globe as a work of "genius…powerful, eloquent." The audience had seemed stunned at the end, swept up in the emotions that swirled through the ornate, wood-toned auditorium. And Osborn-Blaschke admits that she had "literally sat and wept through the dress rehearsal, it was so moving." Time-lapse photography would be an appropriate medium for capturing his life. The events and performances mount up hurriedly, creating a montage of activity along with the illusion of ease. Focus the camera on his conducting life this past fall. He spent a good portion of October driving 1-95 between Boston and Providence, where he rehearsed with the Providence Singers for the show at the VMA in early November. It was an ambitious, fully choreographed program that paired the rarely heard Stravinsky piece with one of its descendents, Carl Orff's crowd-pleasing Carmina Burana –easily the group's most challenging, biggest budget, and most widely seen performance to date.

He spent an overlapping chunk of the fall preparing for a Back Bay Chorale concert later in November at Marsh Chapel. The group is made up of accomplished singers whose limits Wachner is constantly stretching; for this performance, he pushed them to memorize several pieces and sing without scores, telling them it would vastly improve their sound. After initial resistance, the singers gave Photograph by Fred Sway in to the inevitable --Wachner's will --and the result was just what he'd predicted. In the warm acoustics of Marsh, and with singers looking more frequently at the audience than their scores, their voices - -singing Faure's Requiem, Janacek's Otcenas, and entirely from memory, motets by Bruckner and Rachmaninoff --seemed to carry to the heavens. Once that performance was over, Wachner turned to another gig, his debut as an operetta conductor. He led the Boston Academy of Music in Gilbert and Sullivan's Gondoliers over Thanksgiving weekend, a performance that the Globe said was "smart, keen, pretty, light as air, always in the right proportions." And when that concluded, he turned his attention to his Symphony Hall debut, as conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society's popular annual performance of Handel's Messiah in early December. Although he's done the piece "hundreds of times," as he puts it, this performance, during Symphony Hall's centennial celebration, promised to be the most significant.

Why did the performance turn out so well? The answer, Wachner says, lies not only in long hours of rehearsal, but also in the fact that an old, familiar piece was made to yield up something new. A fellow conductor, Wachner recalls, told him that the performance "was informed by the early music types --John Eliot Gardner, Philippe Herreweghe, Christopher Hogwood, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the big pioneers of the early-music movement that started in the late 1960s. I grew up with that stuff." But the conductor felt it also had the feel of a more romantic interpretive tradition, represented by German conductors of an older generation, such as Klemperer and Furtwangler. "There wasn't a strict adherence to one world. It was a hybrid, a learning from all of those different styles," Wachner says. "There's now a standard of how this music should be performed on period instruments. But when you perform the music on modern instruments and you come to it with a more nineteenth-century perspective, there's a possibility of worlds meeting."

A similar hybrid stands at the intersection of Wachner's conducting and composing lives, creating something of an irony. As a conductor and audience member (and as "a very mathematical person"), he is drawn to "crafty" music, the music of Bach and Dufay but also of modern composers such as Perle, Davidofsky, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern --"all hyper-German types" whose work is heady and academic. As a composer, however, his sound is "more French" --colorful, emotional, fluid, melodic. "It's like I am," he says. "It's very out there on the surface."

The first release of the ARSIS series, Julian Wachner: Sacred Music, demonstrates the point: Wachner is expert at clarifying musical textures and at sensing the theological nuances of the liturgical texts on which the compositions are based. The music is mostly tonal, with dissonances added more for color than for structure. It is music that draws people in and welcomes them. "None of this is conscious, but in looking at my music, I think I want people to have a visceral reaction," he says. "There are composers like George Perle who don't expect people to get it the first time. What I want is to achieve a point where anybody going to a concert can have an emotional reaction to the music, but where there's also craft and integrity and substance, so that it's not just a Hollywood experience. My primary concern is my audience, and my second concern is the performer. I don't care so much what other composers think."

The morning after the trip to Providence, while Wachner tutors one of his organ students in the chapel, his musical self-analysis is seconded by Josh Slater (CAS'99), the assistant organist and choirmaster at Marsh and a sacred music master's candidate. "My pH test is my grandmother," Slater says. "As far as my grandmother is concerned, music history stopped at Mendelssohn. But she came to a concert of Julian's Lamentations and Canticles --it's violent and turbulent music, very loud. That's rare these days, sacred music that deals with difficult issues of faith and life. And she loved it. She responded to the clear presence of emotion. Not excessive sentiment, but basic human emotions communicated directly."

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Leonard Bernstein and tax returns. On the line that asked him to list his profession, Bernstein didn't write "conductor," or "composer," or "pianist," or "teacher." He simply wrote, "musician." Polymaths in the Bernstein tradition are encouraged, and even pressured, to specialize these days, but Wachner doesn't intend to, not yet anyway. "Composing and conducting feed into each other," he says. "I'm not the type of person who can sit in a room and compose all day. It doesn't help my composing. I need to be in the world and doing it --conducting other people's new music, conducting old music, the whole spectrum. It keeps the ideas flowing in my brain. I mean, there has been a lot of fantastic music written by people who sit in rooms and write music, but for me, that's just not the way it works." Can he maintain this productive dichotomy? Globe critic Dyer wonders. "Will he be a composer who conducts, or a conductor who composes a little? He certainly has the ability to take it in any direction he wants. To go the distance, he might have to select one of his many abilities – but I could be wrong. People said that about Bernstein all his life.”

Sun, December 31, 2000

A Conversation with Composer-Conductor Julian Wachner
Fanfare Magazine

Every few decades a young musical firebrand bums his Zorro mark across a city, seeming to be everywhere at once, forcing people to question the cultural status quo. In the Boston area right now that firebrand is 31-year-old Julian Wachner. He is (take a deep breath) director of the Young Artists’ Composition Program at Tanglewood, music director of the Back Bay Chorale, artistic director of the Providence Singers, music director of. the Marsh Chapel Choir and Chamber Orchestra, founding music director of the Boston Bach Ensemble (a period-instrument orchestra and vocal ensemble), a fellow of the American Guild of Organists, and an assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Theology. Somehow, Wachner has eked out enough hours to produce an already hefty catalog of compositions in nearly every genre but opera and electronics. Much of this work is being documented by Arsis Audio. The first of three releases, already out, offers nearly 70 minutes of Wachner’s sacred choral music, with the composer conducting the Boston Bach Ensemble. The second disc will feature vocal and instrumental chamber music, and the third will be an orchestral program. So this three-volume portrait of the artist as a young man should cover every facet of Wachner’s adult career aside from teaching.

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A Conversation with Composer-Conductor
Julian Wachner

James Reel
Fanfare Magazine, January/February 2001 pp. 54-60.

Every few decades a young musical firebrand bums his Zorro mark across a city, seeming to be everywhere at once, forcing people to question the cultural status quo. In the Boston area right now that firebrand is 31-year-old Julian Wachner. He is (take a deep breath) director of the Young Artists' Composition Program at Tanglewood, music director of the Back Bay Chorale, artistic director of the Providence Singers, music director of. the Marsh Chapel Choir and Chamber Orchestra, founding music director of the Boston Bach Ensemble (a period-instrument orchestra and vocal ensemble), a fellow of the American Guild of Organists, and an assistant professor at Boston University's School of Theology. Somehow, Wachner has eked out enough hours to produce an already hefty catalog of compositions in nearly every genre but opera and electronics. Much of this work is being documented by Arsis Audio. The first of three releases, already out, offers nearly 70 minutes of Wachner's sacred choral music, with the composer conducting the Boston Bach Ensemble. The second disc will feature vocal and instrumental chamber music, and the third will be an orchestral program. So this three-volume portrait of the artist as a young man should cover every facet ofWachner's adult career aside from teaching.

As you might imagine, Julian Wachner is a difficult man to track down. When I finally caught him near a phone, I asked him which of his many activities he found most fulfilling. He managed to narrow it down to composing and conducting. "I've been a composer since I was three or four," he said. "So now it's like breathing; it's what makes me happy." Wachner's bio states that he began his musical training as a boy chorister, but that's hardly the whole story. "There was never a time when I can remember not playing the piano," he maintained. "My mom was a pianist, and she was seven months pregnant with me when she did her master's recital in piano at USC, so I got an intense exposure to the piano from the time I was in the womb. I started writing notes down at three or four, and then I started serious composing at the age of nine. I was always improvising. When I was at St. Thomas [the famed choir school of St. Thomas Church in New York City] and working with Gerre Hancock, I really got into the world of Baroque improvisation and the French school of composing entire fugues on the spot. When I was in the eighth grade, I studied organ under Gerre's tutelage, and he'd open the hymn book and say 'Improvise on this,' and I'd just take off"

Around that time, though, young Julian began to channel his creativity into rock music. "I grew up in a strict classical family," he explained. "Not strict in the sense of behavior, but in the sense that I'd never listened to rock music until I was II or 12, and then that was the Beatles, which was 20 years before my generation! My stepfather was a conductor with the Buffalo Philharmonic when Michael Tilson Thomas was there, so I was around serious classical music all the time at home and at St. Thomas. So by the time I got into high school I rebelled a little bit and started a rock band and went off in that direction. I wrote some songs for the band, but when I got to college I immediately reverted to classical music."

Yet Wachner hadn't emerged from his rock affair unscathed. "I think what I carried over was the energy of it, the rhythm of it, and it also gave me exposure to knowing what it's like for people to be viscerally excited by music, not just to listen in a passive manner. So now sometimes maybe I play the organ too loudly or I take things a little fast, and that’s left over from the rock energy. Or I ask the strings to play harder, and that’s reminiscent of dance music. This isn’t really so unusual these days. Some of my colleagues in the conducting world have started making videos of Brandenburg Concertos or The Four Seasons, and they do it in a rock manner, playing harder, with rosin flying off and everything. From a different angle, the historical-performance movement attracts the same kind of energy; there’s less vibrato, so the vocal production and the sound production of the instruments are exactly that of pop singers. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing, but it’s definitely a phase we’re going through.” Obviously, when Wachner returned to classical music he was interested in more than just composing. “I made a conscious decision in my early twenties that if I wanted a life that was completely devoted to music, it would have to be as a performer,” he said. “So I started to study conducting, and I found I was pretty decent at it, and it became a logical connection with composing. That’s a historical pairing, anyway, and it has lasted right up to today; a composer-conductor is what Lukas Foss is, as well.”

Wachner doesn’t pick Foss’s name out of a hat. Foss was one of Wachner’s composition teachers, as were Marjorie Merryman and Charles Fussell. Along the way to a doctorate from Boston University’s School for the Arts, Wachner also studied orchestral conducting, voice, and organ. But composing remained a particular interest; at Tanglewood and other venues he had close encounters with the likes of George Perle, Donald Erb, and Gunther Schuller. Exactly what sort of you composer has emerged from all these influences and natural predilections is a little hard to pin down. "I'm really two styles," Wachner said. "For sacred music, and for choral music in general, the medium doesn't allow for experimentation or advanced tonal language, as does chamber and orchestral music." The sacred selections on Arsis 124 call Benjamin Britten to mind, but often involve the rhythmic ebullience of Leonard Bernstein. Choral singers who lack much experience with Britten might think of Wachner's music as, perhaps, weightier John Rutter. "My chamber and orchestral music, which will be on the second and third CDs in the Arsis set, have some similarities to the sacred music, but it is not really tonal," Wachner continued. "It took me a while to discover that you had to be more conservative writing for chorus, but when I did I started getting commissions all over the place. I've discovered a sound world that I don't think is a compromise but that singers can wrap their voices around, and it feels good to them. On the other hand, I just got out of a rehearsal for my Organ Concerto, which is pretty 12-tone in places."

In his choral music Wachner acknowledges a debt to Britten, whose music he grew up singing, as well as to Howells. But he also points to Bach as a figure looming in the background, and not merely because Wachner employs an occasional Baroque device: "Like Bach, I analyze my texts and look at the theological underpinnings before I set them." I asked Wachner whether he felt someone who is not a believer can succeed at this process. "Well, I teach a liturgy course in the school for theology," he said. "We have everything from Unitarians who don't really believe in Christ as a deity and wouldn't call themselves Christians, to born-again Baptists. So it's hard to say 'believer' and ‘not believer,’ because there are so many variations. It's hard to find a die-hard atheist these days; most people run from agnostic to mystical and spiritual. So with these texts that are to some people canon and to others collections of lesser mythology, whatever you believe about the source, you can find spirituality in them. It’s not necessary that you believe that Jesus was the Christ in order to write an effective Easter piece. You find moments that are relevant to you in other parts of your life, and re-create that in the music. It’s almost better to be objective when creating a piece of sacred music, because then it doesn’t get syrupy and sanctimonious and clichéd. It’s a complicated question; for me there are so many parameters that go into what belief is. My own faith has gone through questioning; I was raised Jewish, then I became Episcopalian, and now I teach in a liberal seminary.

“Over the years I was hanging around ministers all the time, and my wife is a minster, so I know that language. But I didn’t train in sacred music, and I never really had any background in it more than the average layperson. My education was all theory, history, that sort of thing. But I have a real fascination with it, and my entry to the world of theology is through Bach. In the past 20 years I’ve had a real interest in looking at Bach’s music through a theological point of view, and when you do that a whole new world opens up in the music. I’ve been criticized for looking at religion too objectively, but that’s who I am.”

Wachner has performed quite a lot of Bach over the past 10 years; in fact, he conducts the Boston Bach Ensemble in the composer’s Christmas Oratorio on a recent Titanic CD. Yet, when he prepares a Bach score, he looks at it as a composer rather than as a musicologist. "I think when I analyze the music I analyze it from a craft or compositional point of view," he said. "I take it apart and see what the fugues are, how things are working. Then, in terms of cross-fertilization between Baroque music and my own music, I use the idea of cantus firmus a little bit, I use lots of canon, and lots of fugue. My Magnificat has a fugue, and on top of that is a quote from Stanford's Magnificat in B-flat.  At St. Thomas in New York City everybody knows that tune, so, much in the way that Bach would plop the Lutheran chorales on top of his music, that Stanford quote adds another line of history or understanding to the text."

As if he didn't already have enough to do, Wachner was recently in the running to take over Boston's Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, and his name has been mentioned in connection with the venerable Handel and Haydn Society, although Wachner is quick to snuff any rumors linking him to that group in anything but a guest-conducting capacity. "I'm frankly about 10 years too young for positions of that level," he said. "Now, I think the Handel and Haydn Society will be looking forward to what I'm going to be doing in the next few years, but they're not interested in me right now. They were charged by the board to find a replacement for Christopher Hogwood, and they were told to find an American, but they simply couldn't. They saw a real dearth of American conductors comfortable with the choral world and composition and with a feeling for musicology. The executive director said to me, 'I wish you were five years older.' So maybe next time. This is Boston; it's very conservative in terms of taking chances like that, I've had a lot of experience at a young age, though. In the past five years, with all my groups, I've accumulated the experience of a 60-year-old. But it's difficult being in your thirties and telling a bunch of 50-year-old musicians what to do. I frankly wouldn't feel comfortable in that position yet. To some extent it doesn't matter how talented you are; you have to have some years behind you to gain enough respect for people older than you to allow you to lead them."

The curriculum vita counts a little less for composers, and Wachner feels less that he still must prove himself on that side of his career. Indeed, his performance experience may have helped him mature more quickly as a performable composer. "I feel like I'm careful not to ask the impossible of musicians, but it always seems like my music is hard," he admitted. "But even if it's hard to play, my experience with players is they feel the requests I make of them are reasonable. I don't write anything that's impossible to play. I don't believe in writing for a technique yet to be created. I'm definitely a pragmatic person when it comes to that, especially in the choral world. As choral music becomes easier, it gets more performances. Imagine that. So the challenge is how to write for the medium with integrity."

You can judge Wachner's success in the choral sphere by listening to the first Arsis CD; the next two discs are sure to reveal contrasting facets of his approach. The next disc will include his 1998 Brittenish cycle, War Songs, for baritone and piano with Naumburg winner Stephen Salters. That will be coupled with his 1992 String Quartet; a piece called Enchantment for flute, bassoon, and piano; and a concerto for organ and large chamber ensemble. There's also a 1997 work for clarinet and piano called Cycles. "That's very reminiscent of Alban Berg," he said. "It's sort of like Lulu or the Lyric Suite, with lots of symmetry, but it's also sort of Webernesque. The first two movements are very lyrical, but definitely in a fairly chromatic language, but one that doesn't sound dissonant. Audience members tend to find it fairly consonant, even though it's not C Major. The last movement is similar in language to the flute-bassoon-piano piece; that music is very Greek, which is also part of my heritage. It has lots of mixed meters, some Bulgarian-Greek sounds, very energetic. Cycles has been performed about 20 times now, and at every one of those performances that I attended the audience has held its breath through the last movement; it's really exciting." The third CD turns to orchestral music, and includes a big cantata called Lamentations as well as some nonchoral works. "They are also in that Greek-Bulgarian manner, but they're also very American-sounding," he promised. "It's like Copland meets, I don't know, Skalkottas or something like that. It's definitely energetic, challenging to the players, very rhythmically driven. It's like Stravinsky or Christopher Rouse."

What could be missing from Wachner's career? "Opera," he said. "I'd like to write an opera, and I'd like my conducting career to end up in the opera world. It has choral, vocal, instrumental, and dramatic aspects, it has story - it's truly what the word 'opera' means, a sort of collection of everything, a great work. I think it has always been the pinnacle of music, and I really would love to be involved in it in a big way. I'm getting to do my first work with an opera company soon, a Gilbert and Sullivan production. I'd like to do all the Britten operas; I'd like to do the two Berg operas and Stravinsky's Rake's Progress. Those are my lifelong dreams. But at the same time I love Puccini, and also the Mozart operas are fantastic. The lighter 19th-century Italian opera is not yet something I'm not immediately drawn to, though." Well, it's a relief to hear that Julian Wachner is not a complete musical omnivore. It turns out that he's only slightly more than human, and perhaps that makes him more interesting still.

Sat, December 30, 2000

Best of 2000 listing
The Boston Globe

There were several major oratorio performances, and Julian Wachner emerged as one of the year’s musical heroes.  He led the Back Bay Chorale in Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion,’ the Handel and Haydn Society in ‘Messiah’ - and then conducted ‘The Gondoliers’ for the Boston Academy of Music.

Thu, December 14, 2000

Best of 2000 listing
The Boston Globe

At the top of the early music list stands Bach’s ‘Christmas Oratorio,’ performed by the Choir of Marsh Chapel, Boston University, and the Boston Bach Ensemble under the direction of Julian Wachner (Titanic).

Sun, December 3, 2000

Less is more in Society’s ‘Messiah’
The Boston Globe

Wachner has created the biggest stir in Boston’s choral world since the advent of John Oliver and Craig Smith about 30 years ago.  He is a wonderful musician with ideas of his own…Detail was realized throughout and the words always meant something.  There was nothing routine about the performance…

Fri, December 1, 2000

‘Messiah’ makes a joyful noise
The Boston Herald

Handel and Haydn Society review by Keith Powers

Sun, November 26, 2000

Academy makes ‘Gondoliers’ sing
The Boston Globe

BAMopera (Boston Academy of Music) review by Richard Buell

“From the pit came sounds that were smart, keen, pretty, light as air, always in the right proportions - the multitalented Julian Wachner showing that he’s a crackerjack Gilbert and Sullivan conductor, too.”

Sat, November 25, 2000

BAM Opera’s ‘Gondoliers’ enchants
The Boston Herald

...with Sullivan’s score in the hands of conductor Julian Wachner…there was scarcely a moment in this ‘Gondoliers’ production that didn’t enchant.

Sat, November 11, 2000

Guide to Records: Bach Christmas Oratorio
American Record Guide

Two complete recordings enter a field with daunting competition. The Titanic release challenges the period-instrument sphere. It is from concert performances in Boston in November 1998. The forces are modest: a mixed-voice choir of 16 and a period-instrument orchestra of 27. Their work is sturdy and dedicated, if just a little thin or rough at some points, and some of the larger choral movements have a squarish quality about their pacing, but generally Wachner leads with vigor and good sense.

Read Full Text

Guide to Records: Bach Christmas Oratorio
John Barker
American Record Guide 63:6
November-December 2000

BACH: Christmas Oratorio
Anne Harley, Elizabeth Anker, Robert Pitcher, Thomas Gregg, Max van Egmond, Choir of March Chapel, Boston University, Boston Bach Ensemble/ Julian Wachner

Titanic 258 (Allegro) [2CD] 147:34

This is, of course, not a single work, but a cycle of six cantatas, only the first of which was intended for Christmas Day itself. The others were for the ensuing days of Christmas through Epiphany. Not tied only to Christmas in the narrowest sense, it remains a work to be savored at leisure, whatever the season.

Two complete recordings enter a field with daunting competition. The Titanic release challenges the period-instrument sphere. It is from concert performances in Boston in November 1998. The forces are modest: a mixed-voice choir of 16 and a period-instrument orchestra of 27. Their work is sturdy and dedicated, if just a little thin or rough at some points, and some of the larger choral movements have a squarish quality about their pacing, but generally Wachner leads with vigor and good sense.

Among the soloists, the name of Max van Egmond stands out. Apparently an honored guest, he is a relic of much fine Bach singing, and, though his voice (never a big one) sounds a little battle-scarred by now, his agility and good taste are still in evidence. Of the others, soprano Harley makes a particularly fine impression. Pitcher is a clear and earnest Evangelist, Gregg a satisfactory tenor soloist, but contralto Anker really is a bit below par. The recording is bright but spacious, and one would never guess that an audience were anywhere in sight (much less sound) until the applause at the very end. The booklet notes are unusually good, and they include a useful table listing all of Bach's self-borrowings for this work.

Sun, October 29, 2000

Sexy classics
The Providence Journal

Preview of The Providence Singers’ ‘Carmina Burana’ and ‘Les Noces’

article by William K. Gayle

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