Press

Fri, April 23, 2004

Review: Wachner, Rilke Songs
Spectrum-Music.com

Rilke Songs reviewed by staff critic

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REVIEW FROM SPECTRUM-MUSIC.COM

Rilke Songs, Julian Wachner, German text, ECS, Die Gazelle, 5889, Der Panther, 5890, Die Flamingos, 5891, Der Schwan, 5892, Schwartze Katze, 5893, Das Einhorn, 5894, SATB (divisi) a cappella. Commissioned by the Newton Choral Society, Newton, MA, David Carrier, Conductor, for their 25th anniversary, these are very ambitious pieces but extremely original and filled with wonderful compositional moments. Translated from the German by Karin Grundler-Whitacre, all of the editions contain background on the award-winning composer. The entire set of six pieces, each published separately, requires an accomplished choir to guarantee a successful performance. The text painting of these pieces about animals and fowl is brilliantly conceived. Changing meters, challenging rhythms, intervals, and harmonies are all elements of Wachner's compositional style. Difficulty rating 4-5. $1.65 - $2.40

 

Sat, April 17, 2004

Spotlight on Living Composers
Charleston.net

Sunday, March 14, was bright and sunny with a chill in the air, ideal for a 4 p.m. concert by the CSO at the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul. The church was packed for a program devoted to composers not only living but more or less local. The music all required choral singing, so the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Singers and the College of Charleston Concert Choir were on hand, too. Robert Taylor conducted. The composers were Edward Hart, David Maves and Trevor Weston (all of the college faculty), Richard Moryl (who lives here), Eric Whitacre and Julian Wachner (increasingly visible as both conductor and composer in several past Spoletos)...

Wachner’s “Regina Coeli” is a big piece, rowdy but effective…it made an entertaining finale.

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SPOTLIGHT ON LIVING COMPOSERS
from Charleston.net

Sunday, March 14, was bright and sunny with a chill in the air, ideal for a 4 p.m. concert by the CSO at the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul. The church was packed for a program devoted to composers not only living but more or less local. The music all required choral singing, so the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Singers and the College of Charleston Concert Choir were on hand, too. Robert Taylor conducted. The composers were Edward Hart, David Maves and Trevor Weston (all of the college faculty), Richard Moryl (who lives here), Eric Whitacre and Julian Wachner (increasingly visible as both conductor and composer in several past Spoletos).

With one exception, the printed programs gave no dates of the compositions, an important fact in the case of living composers, so it was impossible to know whether the chosen works were new or early efforts. As the afternoon went on, the music seemed to me surprisingly introspective and distinctly melancholy. I couldn't help wondering how much the present dangers and tragedies of the world influenced these pieces, which sounded to me anchored in some past and more pleasant era.

Hart's "Salvation" proved very melodic in a comfortably conservative way, with dramatic sweep, a sure command of the orchestra and a full-throated climax for the chorus. Whitacre's "Five Hebrew Love Songs" sparkled with color and dance rhythms but was essentially thoughtful and lyrical in feel.

Maves' "God's Grandeur" summoned surprising energy and harsh phrases to support a pantheistic poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In a program note, Mr. Maves said the piece dates from 1963 and won him his first big success, a Ford Foundation prize. The work struck me immediately as sounding as if inspired by Jan·cek's music, with those distinctive short phrases, barking brass and slashing string figures. I asked Mr. Maves at the intermission if he knew anything about Jan·cek back in 1963, and he said, "Of course. His music made me want to become a composer." I don't think I'd recommend the eccentric Jan·cek as a model for young composers, but in Mr. Maves' case, it seems to have paid off. It certainly had exciting results in "God's Grandeur."

Moryl's "Illuminations" reminded me of those sonic mosaics people like Messiaen and Ligeti used to write. With its ominous low notes rumbling at the subsonic level, chattering chorus and variously ominous interjections from percussion, it had a weird, spacey fascination and easily held the attention during its too-brief length.

In Weston's "Three Moods," the music was, for the most part, gently ruminative, with delicate response to the words of Carol Ann Davis and Garrett Doherty, poets who edit a literary magazine called Crazyhorse. I hadn't come across these particular poets before, but their "Three Moods" have a moist, slightly other-world quality that reminded me of Sara Teasdale. It proved a beautiful match for words and the gentle phrases in which Mr. Weston had wrapped them.

Wachner's "Regina Coeli" is a big piece, rowdy but effective, though its effectiveness is all too clearly due to Poulenc's "Gloria" and the more strident "religious" music of Leonard Bernstein. I sensed the piece contained more showbiz flair than any particular religious passion. Still, it made an entertaining finale. I was impressed with singer Margaret Kelly Cook, whose soprano has a great deal of impact and a throat full of high C's unfazed by the loudest pages concocted by Mr. Wachner.

Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" showed up at the Dock Street Theatre, produced by Charleston Stage and directed by Marybeth Clark. Four years ago, when everyone was trying to decide what humanity had accomplished in the expiring millennium, The New York Times declared "Earnest ..." the best comedy of the last thousand years. I'll go along with that extravagant judgment, not because I think it true (though I do), but because I can't think of anything to challenge it.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" is witty beyond wit, filled with inside jokes, social comment and sharp criticism of people and their vanities. The story itself is a joke at theatrical conventions, full of disappearances, mistaken identities and impossible coincidences. It involves three couples of different ages and attitudes, with a formidable and funny central figure to keep the action swirling. This is precisely the same comedic setup as Mozart's great comedy, "Cosi Fan Tutte," and it is Wilde's genius that his "Earnest ..." is Mozartian in its joy, brilliance and balance. It lacks Mozart's depth and humanity, but it dazzles so brightly that you don't stop to think that it's all basically heartless.

Ms. Clark's production was true to the style and spirit of Wilde, and she had taught her cast to speak a convincingly fey form of British. Matt Leisy was a superbly smug Algernon, Chris Edwards a distraughtly dignified Mr. Worthing. Lindsey Lamb's Cecily was adorably shrewd, and Tiffany Parker's Gwendolyn all ice and sarcasm. Samille Basler made a lovably flustered Miss Prism, and John Edwards was a model of rectitude as Rev. Chasuble. Mention also must be made of Ben Ryan's smirking, overbearing butler and, later on, Drew Archer's old and deaf version of a different servant.

Michael Locklair, in elegantly fashionable drag, played Lady Bracknell. It has become something of a tradition to cast this role with a man, since it is nearly impossible to find a female actress able to erase memories of the great Edith Evans, who recorded the play for Angel Records and played the role in a film version. Dame Edith's voice and delivery remain incomparable, and I still recall how her thunderous "IN A HANDBAG???" used to bounce the needle out of the groove of my record player. Mr. Locklair went for elegance, kept his voice under control and refused to camp it up. He didn't make me forget Dame Edith, but he kept me from thinking about her when he was on stage.

Over at Footlight Players, "Blood Brothers" proved an up-and-down experience. The musical, by Willy Russell, tells of two babies separated at birth. They grow up in the same town while their birth mother and foster mother try to keep them apart. As children they meet anyway and swear eternal "blood brotherhood." Eventually they fall in love with the same girl, and one brother shoots his twin, and then the police shoot him.

It's a strong story thinned by weak music. Nonetheless, "Blood Brothers" has had successful runs in London, New York and elsewhere. I thought it mawkish and derivative, as if Evita had moved in with the Fantasticks. Mr. Russell's score noodles along in a semi-soft kind of rock, never pulling itself together in a tune worth remembering. The first act was downright embarrassing, thanks to amateurish choreography and limp direction and by amplification (in this tiny space!) that distorted voices and balances. Things picked up considerably in the second half, though, and the last 40 minutes generated real dramatic heat.

Among the large cast, Jamie Westberry stood out for passionate and skilled acting of the more troubled of the two brothers, and he was well-matched by Evan Linder as the more fortunate brother. Rheney Tuten impressed as the conniving foster mother, her progression from sweetness to psychosis subtly and effectively managed. Sharon Graci was the tormented birth mother, acting with her familiar skill but plagued by a cold that turned her voice into an interesting croak (she sounded like Bette Davis). Maybe this was the reason her words were incomprehensible when she raised her voice in "song," but maybe not. In any case, if Ms. Graci intends to incorporate singing into her arsenal of skills, she had better work on her singing diction. There are books and classes for just this sort of defect.

There was nothing defective in the sounds produced by the Czech Philharmonic at the Gaillard on March 15. It's a great orchestra, 107 master musicians conducted by the Russian-born Andrey Boreyko. The program had the Comedians' Dance from Smetana's "The Bartered Bride," plus Dvorak's violin concerto (powerfully played by Akiko Suwanai) and the " New World" symphony. In all works there was rich, glossy sound and that ineffable authority that comes when great musicians apply themselves to their own native music. Too bad there were so many empty seats.

The second movement of the " New World" symphony turned up a week later in a different version. Kathleen Battle, ex-diva of the Met, sang it on her concert for the Charleston Concert Association (which also produced the Czech Philharmonic). Ms. Battle was a great singer in her opera days, with a high, pliant soprano of small size but great beauty. For whatever reasons, she grew into an unbearably difficult diva noted for her rudeness to colleagues. In 1994, while rehearsing at the Met for an upcoming "Daughter of the Regiment," she abruptly was fired, the news sparking loud and enthusiastic applause from her colleagues. Since then, she has stuck to concerts and recordings.

At the Gaillard, she proved a handsome woman of 56, with warmth and great charm, and her relations with a quintet of onstage musicians appeared to be of the best. She used a microphone, holding it mostly at arm's length, and sounded much as she always has. It's a very high voice, soft-textured and easily produced, and she can do pretty much anything she wants with it. Her diction is a marvel of clarity, and her words came through clearly no matter the range in use. She was at her best in songs not requiring vocal strength, and most of the songs last Tuesday night sat just right for her.

The Gaillard program contained songs, hymns and a number of Spanish and Brazilian works. All were delivered with elaborate and seemingly spontaneous jazz freedom. Her musicians included Cyrus Chestnut (piano), James Carter (brass), Christian McBride (bass), Romero Lubambo (guitar) and Cyro Baptista (percussion). Incidentally, those hoping to bone up on Spoleto's upcoming "Ariadne auf Naxos" should get the DVD issue of a Met production from 1989, starring Jessye Norman and with Miss Battle in brilliant form.

The Charleston Symphony Orchestra on March 20 pulled in a full house. There were unusually large numbers of young listeners, which one college professor said was due to a recent effort by music appreciation classes. By the look of it, every youngster seemed to be having a good time. Let's hope those M.A. classes continue. The program was all-Beethoven ("Leonore" No. 2 overture, the "Emperor" Concerto and the Fifth Symphony). Despite the large audience, I thought the orchestra in tepid form. The soloist, the lavishly named German pianist Victor Emanuel von Dijon von Monteton, also disappointed, unable to summon the grandeur of this noble concerto, sprinkling the score with piddling mistakes and swooning over the phrases as if the piece were by Chopin. In fairness to Herr E.V.D.V.M., it should be noted that the piano sounded old, tired and tinny. Is this the best instrument this city can offer visiting artists?

Sat, April 17, 2004

Review: Wachner, Ave Dulcissima Maria
Spectrum-Music.com

Review of Ave Dulcissima Maria by staff critic

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REVIEW FROM SPECTRUM-MUSIC.COM

Ave Dulcissima Maria by Julian Wachner, Latin text, ECS, 5811, SATB a cappella. This wonderful setting of this famous Latin text is quite elegant and profound in its harmonic and rhythmic expression. The anthem opens with shimmering/ harmonies whose text greets the virgin Mary. The musical gesture quickly changes to more powerful harmonies that carefully express the text. In general, the rhythms and harmonies become more complex with each phase shape. After the complexity intensifies, each section concludes in organum-like harmonic style reminiscent of the late medieval period. Ave, sulcissima Maria is the fourth movement of a larger work entitled Regina Coeli. The 15 minute work (ECS 5832) has a piano reduction and can be performed with either small or large orchestra. Difficulty rating 3-4. $1.65

 

Mon, March 15, 2004

Audience experiences striking musical moments
Charleston Post and Courier

Julian Wachner’s “Regina Coeli” uses Latin texts extolling the virtues of the Virgin Mary in a strikingly modern way as a rather dour soprano solo by Margaret Kelly Cook became progressively more embellished until it became a soaring piece of coloratura, ending the work on a high note of theatrical triumph.

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Audience experiences striking musical moments
Jeff Johnson
Post and Courier Reviewer, South Carolina

March 15, 2004

 

At times Sunday afternoon, conductor Robert Taylor had musicians deployed throughout the Cathedral Church of Saint Luke and Saint Paul for a concert filled with striking musical moments.

The church was packed for "Music With Our Friends," a joint presentation of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, the CSO Chamber Singers and the College of Charleston Concert Choir.

"Our Friends" were the composers Edward Hart, David Maves, Eric Whitacre, Richard Moryl, Trevor Weston and Julian Wachner, and poets Carol Ann Davis, Garrett Doherty, Beth Webb Hart and Hila Plitmann, whose works were performed and who are vital parts of the Charleston musical scene and friends of Taylor.

Edward Hart musically molded several religious poems by his wife into an Easter piece, "Salvation," which begins in a somber, elegiac mood depicting a wasteland bound in death before moving through sections of consolation to triumphant heavenly rebirth. Hart's great gift at setting the vocal line was brought out by the excellent diction of the combined chorus.

Using five Hebrew Love Songs by his wife in English translation, Whitacre celebrates a vastly more personal love in a variety of instrumental moods. Trevor Weston's "Three Moods" gives powerful musical form to introspective poems by Davis and Doherty.

Julian Wachner's "Regina Coeli" uses Latin texts extolling the virtues of the Virgin Mary in a strikingly modern way as a rather dour soprano solo by Margaret Kelly Cook became progressively more embellished until it became a soaring piece of coloratura, ending the work on a high note of theatrical triumph.

Moryl is attracted by the mysterious majesty of medieval texts, and his "Illuminations" is compelling in evoking the atmosphere of the object with nonverbal soprano solo, voices, six string basses and chamber orchestra.

Only the orchestra is on stage, with the rest of the performers positioned around the audience to envelope them in the texture of the music. The vocal line, sung by Suzanne Fleming-Atwood, is striking, and "Illuminations" is filled with eloquent emotion.

David Maves' setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins' "God's Grandeur" pays attention to the eloquent phrasing of the poet and his language, which the chorus handled with precision. Taylor stressed the power of Maves music so the impact seemed more like the last judgment than Hopkins' pastoral sunrise.

Taylor controlled the long concert beautifully, carefully bringing out the individual nature of each piece. All of the composers and poets at the concert seemed pleased with his and his musician's hard work.

Sat, March 13, 2004

Symphony, Julian Wachner, Master Chorale
SanDiego.com

The San Diego Symphony has its new music director - Jahja Ling - but it seems to be cultivating a most welcome long-term relationship with young Julian Wachner, who has, in the course of four annual “Messiahs” and other bits, become sort of a choral specialist here.

Great idea, say I. Wachner has a rapport with the big chorale works that is evident even to the audience. And the San Diego Master Chorale - safe now after years of tribulations with the excellent Martin Wright as resident boss - fairly purrs when he’s around.

The latest program is built upon the Mozart Requiem in D minor, which was delivered with notable chorale warmth, a rare balance among the four soloists, a stirring trombone solo by veteran George Johnston and all the drama, mystery and passion for which this piece is so respected.

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Symphony, Julian Wachner, Master Chorale
Welton Jones
The Arts - sandiego.com, March 13, 2004

 

The San Diego Symphony has its new music director - Jahja Ling - but it seems to be cultivating a most welcome long-term relationship with young Julian Wachner, who has, in the course of four annual "Messiahs" and other bits, become sort of a choral specialist here.

Great idea, say I. Wachner has a rapport with the big chorale works that is evident even to the audience. And the San Diego Master Chorale - safe now after years of tribulations with the excellent Martin Wright as resident boss - fairly purrs when he's around.

The latest program is built upon the Mozart Requiem in D minor, which was delivered with notable chorale warmth, a rare balance among the four soloists, a stirring trombone solo by veteran George Johnston and all the drama, mystery and passion for which this piece is so respected.

Before intermission, amazingly enough, two works by living composers - both present to take their bow - were given the Wachner treatment, to invigorating effect. One, the "Regina Coeli" for soprano orchestra and chorus, he even wrote himself.

And it's not bad at all, influenced by Leonard Bernstein and rich with surprises, such as the first entrance of the chorus. The engaging soprano Joanna Mongiardo managed the tricky passages of unison ornamentation with the orchestra as a highlight of a most delightful performance, full of simmer and hopefully a source of satisfaction to its creator.

Carlyle Sharpe's "Proud Music of the Storm," a Walt Whitman poem set for four soloists, orchestra and chorus, suffered a bit from being sandwiched between Wachner and Mozart. Though melodious and cleanly orchestrated, the work must be shoved through barren patches by momentum from such inspired sections as a very nice a capella section and some neatly set solos, in which mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella earned notice for her diction and bass Curtis Streetman for his rich middle register.

These three, with tenor Scott Wyatt, were the balanced quartet that so suited the Mozart's sublime moments. More from Wachner. (What else has he written?) And more from the Master Chorale, which is sounding its best in years.

Thu, March 11, 2004

On the Wachner Watch
San Diego Union-Tribune

For Julian Wachner, it’s not enough to be a conductor admired for his skill, insight and exciting podium style. Wachner is also a composer with an ever-growing list of works for orchestra, voices or chamber ensembles. “Being a conductor and a composer – that’s definitely the kind of career I want. And I’m doing it, which is great,” says the 34-year-old associate professor of music at Montreal’s McGill University.

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On the Wachner Watch
The composer has 'the kind of career I want' – and that includes stops in San Diego to conduct his own music
Valerie Scher
San Diego Union-Tribune
March 11, 2004

 

For Julian Wachner, it's not enough to be a conductor admired for his skill, insight and exciting podium style. Wachner is also a composer with an ever-growing list of works for orchestra, voices or chamber ensembles. "Being a conductor and a composer – that's definitely the kind of career I want. And I'm doing it, which is great," says the 34-year-old associate professor of music at Montreal's McGill University.

His versatility will be apparent at the San Diego Symphony's upcoming concerts, slated for tonight at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido and tomorrow through Sunday at downtown's Copley Symphony Hall.

Wachner – known locally for leading the orchestra's annual performances of Handel's "Messiah" – will make his first appearances on the Jacobs' Masterworks Series. He'll lead the orchestra, San Diego Master Chorale and vocal soloists in Mozart's Requiem, one of classical music's profound masterworks. Also on the program is Carlyle Sharpe's "Proud Music of the Storm," a choral piece – set to words by Walt Whitman – that Wachner conducted at its 2001 premiere in Rhode Island.

Then there's "Regina Coeli," Wachner's 16-minute work from 1999, which is scored for soprano, chorus and orchestra. While the text is in Latin, the style isn't lofty. It's fun – a piece very influenced by Leonard Bernstein," says Wachner, who compares "Regina Coeli's" most effusive passages to the giddy, coloratura aria "Glitter and Be Gay" in Bernstein's "Candide." "It's one of my most accessible pieces."

Born in Hollywood to a musical family, Wachner is a former wunderkind who appreciates music both old and new. Equipped with a doctorate from Boston University and considerable experience leading choral groups, he combines scholarship with a refreshing lack of pretension.

He says that conducting Mozart's celebrated Requiem is like "walking into an icon. You feel unworthy. But I try to think of the music in dramatic stage terms. Mozart knew how drama worked, how pacing worked. Did that influence the Requiem? Yes, absolutely."

Wachner is also an expert in Handel's "Messiah." He made his San Diego Symphony debut in 2001, leading the oratorio that's a holiday staple. This December, he'll return for his fourth consecutive year of San Diego area "Messiah" performances.

His approach is bold, even irreverent. His tempos are fast, but Wachner defends his need for speed. "The 'Messiah' has a reputation for being this stodgy, lugubrious piece," he says, noting that Victorian performances favored slow and stately pacing. "I want it to sound fresh again. One way to do that is to make it more vibrant in terms of the tempos." Vitality is crucial to him, whether the music is by Handel, Mozart or Wachner.

"I often treat choral works as if they are operatic works," explains the conductor-composer-teacher, who's happy to have a hyphenated career. "All music has dramatic energy. And that's what I want to bring out."

Thu, January 22, 2004

‘Paul Revere’ gets Landmarks treatment
The Boston Herald

Boston’s favorite revolutionary silversmith will ride again when the Boston Landmarks Orchestra presents the world premiere of ``The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’’ on Boston Common in June…The composer is Julian Wachner, an associate professor of music at Montreal’s McGill University who was formerly based in Boston.

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'Paul Revere' gets Landmarks treatment
T.J. Medrek
Boston Herald
Thursday, January 22, 2004

 

Boston's favorite revolutionary silversmith will ride again when the Boston Landmarks Orchestra presents the world premiere of ``The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere'' on Boston Common in June. The work for narrator and orchestra, based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem ``Paul Revere's Ride,'' was commissioned by the orchestra for its free children's concert series. The composer is Julian Wachner, an associate professor of music at Montreal's McGill University who was formerly based in Boston. Longfellow's text is adapted by local singer/songwriter Joe Pernice. Landmarks Music Director Charles Ansbacher will conduct the premiere as well as other free performances around eastern Massachusetts. Last year, Landmarks premiered Daniel Pinkham's ``Make Way for Ducklings,'' to wide acclaim

Fri, December 19, 2003

‘Messiah’ performed with flair, drama
The Providence Journal

Every now and then, though, someone decides to dust off the Mozart version of Messiah.  The Providence Singers, perhaps the classiest vocal group around, did just that last night at Veterans Memorial Auditorium, with a fine-sounding New Haven Symphony backing them up…At its core, though, the Mozart version is still Messiah in all its glory, still a dramatic retelling of the Bibical account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

And with the Singer’s Julian Wachner on the podium, it was a story told with great flair and drama, with brisk tempos and precious few pauses between arias and choruses.

This was especially true after intermission, when the Singers tore through a string of choral numbers at a blistering pace, proving that they are one very disciplined ensemble. Entrances were crisp, textures clear, and the overall sound buoyant and unforced.

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'Messiah' performed with flair, drama

by Channing Gray
Providence Journal, Friday, December 19, 2003

 

Not even Mozart could spoil a great piece of music like Messiah.

Not that he tried. Actually, Mozart arranged Handel's beloved oratorio to the tastes of his time. No great sin back then, but it's not the kind of kind of tinkering we tend to tolerate these days.

Every now and then, though, someone decides to dust off the Mozart version of Messiah. The Providence Singers, perhaps the classiest vocal group around, did just that last night at Veterans Memorial Auditorium, with a fine-sounding New Haven Symphony backing them up.

The Singers probably would have never bothered with such a project had it not be for the fact that the New Haven players have been celebrating the genius of Mozart all this season, and were looking for a choral group to take on this 1780s recasting of a 1740s work.

For one thing, Mozart's rather bloated arrangement calling for four horns, flutes, trombones (even a bass one) and tuba, costs way more than Handel's sparingly scored original, with just a handful of strings, and a couple of oboes and trumpets.

What is most perculiar about Mozart's spin on this great baroque masterwork is the tendency to head off on orchestral tangents, letting the flutes and clarinets abandon the singers, rather than back them up. There were several places where Mozart couldn't resist the temptation to not just flesh out Handel's writing, but to add busy passagework that bordered on distracting.

More disappointing, though, was the absence of the high baroque trumpets that had gone out of fashion by the end of the 18th century. Instead of blazing solo in the aria "The Trumpet Shall Sound," Mozart, in a great anticlimactic gesture, gives most of the tune over to the lower-pitched horns.

At its core, though, the Mozart version is still Messiah in all its glory, still a dramatic retelling of the Bibical account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

And with the Singer's Julian Wachner on the podium, it was a story told with great flair and drama, with brisk tempos and precious few pauses between arias and choruses.

This was especially true after intermission, when the Singers tore through a string of choral numbers at a blistering pace, proving that they are one very disciplined ensemble. Entrances were crisp, textures clear, and the overall sound buoyant and unforced.

The solo quartet, which in the Mozart rendition steals several choral sections, was somewhat spotty.

Aaron Engebreth, a light, nimble baritone, was fabulous in "Why Do The Nations Rage," one of the score's great showpieces. But tenor Noel Velasco had to scramble to get through "Thou Shalt Break Them."

Then Velasco, who was joined by his wife, mezzo Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, is more a grand opera sort of guy. His wife was at first hard to hear over the thicker Mozart orchestration, and she tended to sing everything in a clipped, somber fashion.

But soprano Jennifer Foster was a breath of fresh air, confident, stylish with a sweet top range that never failed her.

The Singers give a repeat performance in New Haven tomorrow night.

Sun, December 14, 2003

Messiah is in conductor Julian Wachner’s blood
The Providence Journal

An organist, conductor and prolific composer, Wachner is also something of a Messiah expert. He was even in the running a few years ago to take over Handel & Haydn, the last word when it comes to interpretations of Handel’s masterpiece.

He recalls taking part, as a prepubescent chorister at the famed St. Thomas Choir School in New York, in some of the first “authentic” re-creations of Messiah.

“It’s sort of in my blood,” he said of the music.

But a chance to do the Mozart Messiah is rare indeed. For one thing, it is costly to stage, with an orchestra twice the size of the typical Handel-period ensemble.

But it so happened the New Haven Symphony is celebrating the considerable genius of Wolfgang Amadeus this season, and they called on Wachner to lead the Austrian composer’s arrangement of Messiah.

As the orchestra went looking for a chorus, Wachner pushed his Providence Singers, with the idea of a cultural exchange. The New Haven players will be backing up the Singers Thursday at Vets. The Singers then head for New Haven for an encore performance two days later.

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Messiah is in conductor Julian Wachner's blood
Channing Gray
The Providence Journal, Sunday, December 14, 2003

 

So you've heard Messiah, the popular retelling of the life and times of Jesus that's sung by even the lowliest of choirs this time of year. It's as much a part of Christmas as mistletoe and credit-card debt.

What you might not know is that Handel's beloved oratorio comes in lots of packages.

When English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham made his landmark recording in the late 1950s, he used a scoring of Messiah calling for rippling harps, triangle and glockenspiel.

Jazz great Quincy Jones recorded a soul version, keeping Handel's text but adding saxes, string bass and swing aplenty. And there's a gospel arrangement out there called Too Hot To Handel.

It was not until about 1970, when the so-called early music craze took hold, that we began performing a Messiah that the composer might have recognized, one with modest choral forces and about 20 strings, oboes and trumpets.

Handel himself wrote somewhere between 15 and 18 versions, but those contain only minor differences, such as a soprano singing an alto aria.

"It's sort of like an archaelogical dig," said conductor Julian Wachner, who'll be leading his Providence Singers in Mozart's arrangement of Handel's work this Thursday. "Every century created its own version."

The Mozart Messiah, which was performed some years ago in Boston by the Handel & Haydn Society, is not quite so far out as Jones' upbeat reworking. But it is clearly a departure from the Messiah most audiences have come to know and love.

It was first performed in Vienna in 1789, 30 years after Handel's death, at the urging of Baron Gottfried Van Swieten, an ardent Handelian and patron of the arts.

Mozart went with the tastes and talents of his day, which meant a fuller orchestra with intruments that had come into the fore since Handel's time, trombones, clarinets and horn.

Also continuo, the practice of fleshing out the orchestral harmonies on a non-stop keyboard, had become a lost art.

When Handel composed the thrilling baritone aria The Trumpet Shall Sound, he created one of the great showpieces for high Baroque trumpet, or tromba. But by the late 1700s, this sort of music was all but unplayable for the trumpeters of the time.

So Mozart gives the part over to the lower-pitched French horn. Actually, the trumpet gets to play the first few notes, then when it is supposed to soar heavenward, it hands off to the horn, in a strange and awkward moment.

Mozart also has the soloists sing a lot of the music traditionally assigned to the chorus. Witness that in For Unto Us a Child is Given.

"The orchestral colors are the main difference," said Wachner. "It's like taking an old, classic black-and-white film and making it color."

String of Messiahs

Wachner, who has whipped the Providence Singers into a crack vocal ensemble in the past few years, was speaking from San Diego, where he is leading a string of traditional Messiahs this weekend with the San Diego Symphony.

Reached just after 8 in the morning at his posh downtown lodgings, Wachner was plowing through a breakfast of steak and eggs in his room with a view of the San Diego Zoo. Then it was off to 12 hours of rehearsal.

Wachner had been one of the more active composers and conductors in Boston when he took over the Singers. A couple of years ago, he cut all his ties to Boston and moved to Montreal to head up the choral program at McGill University.

He has an assistant to help with rehearsals. But still, he has been flying into Rhode Island a couple of times a month.

An organist, conductor and prolific composer, Wachner is also something of a Messiah expert. He was even in the running a few years ago to take over Handel & Haydn, the last word when it comes to interpretations of Handel's masterpiece.

He recalls taking part, as a prepubescent chorister at the famed St. Thomas Choir School in New York, in some of the first "authentic" re-creations of Messiah.

"It's sort of in my blood," he said of the music.

But a chance to do the Mozart Messiah is rare indeed. For one thing, it is costly to stage, with an orchestra twice the size of the typical Handel-period ensemble.

But it so happened the New Haven Symphony is celebrating the considerable genius of Wolfgang Amadeus this season, and they called on Wachner to lead the Austrian composer's arrangement of Messiah.

As the orchestra went looking for a chorus, Wachner pushed his Providence Singers, with the idea of a cultural exchange. The New Haven players will be backing up the Singers Thursday at Vets. The Singers then head for New Haven for an encore performance two days later.

Sticking to English

In Boston, Handel & Haydn sang Mozart's rendering in German, as Mozart intended. Handel, who spent much of his career in London, wrote in English, which Wachner is sticking with.

Sit through three hours of Handel and you want to know what the singers are saying, said Wachner.

"That's why Mozart wrote it in German. He wanted his audiences to understand it.

"This thing has to be in the vernacular."

The other thing listeners will notice about Wachner's interpretation is that he performs the work non-stop, without page-turning pauses between arias. This he said, gives it more the feel of a "dramatic opera."

Wachner figures that's one reason Mozart, who like Handel was the greatest opera composer of his day, was attracted to Messiah in the first place -- that it is, at its core, an astonishing piece of theater music.

As for the controversy as to whether to stand during the famed "Hallelujah Chorus," Wachner feels the issue has become just plain silly.

For a couple of centuries, audiences have lept to their feet as the first notes of the triumphant chorus sound. The story goes that when King George II of England first heard those regal chords, he was so moved he stood. The audience had no choice but to follow suit, a tradition that continues to this day.

But when English conductor Christopher Hogwood came to Boston to take over Handel & Haydn, he made something of a stink about standing, insisting it was disruptive and distracting at one of the most dramatic junctures in the score.

Wachner feels we've now become all too "neurotic" about the question.

"I love it," said Wachner, in favor of standing. "It's something our grandmothers taught us. I'm all for it. But it's gotten so only the peasants stand.

"Come on," he said -- the music world is missing the point. "You might say, 'Thank you for being here.' "

Julian Wachner leads the New Haven Symphony and the Providence Singers in Messiah Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Auditorium, Avenue of the Arts, Providence. Tickets are $18 to $38. A Tufts University musicologist will discuss Mozart's arrangement of Handel's score at 6:45.

Mon, December 1, 2003

A Tale of Two Messiahs
MusicView

Handel’s Messiah offers similar universe- spanning opportunities. Not only is MacLeod featuring Mozart’s lush, infrequently heard late 18th-century orchestration of Handel’s earlier baroque masterpiece, but he’s also found the perfect conductor: Julian Wachner, the same man who composed the new pieces for The Planets.

And because Wachner, a specialist in choral and early music, founded the Providence Singers, both New Haven and Rhode Island audiences will hear the same singers and forces perform the work in the same month.

The Hollywood-born Wachner, 34, explains that Mozart created his version of Messiah for purely pragmatic reasons. By the time Mozart was born, three years before Handel died at age 74, performance practice had changed. Though Handel had expected continuo players to flesh out his music by improvising on organ and/or harpsichord, continuo playing had since become a lost art. Mozart therefore filled in Handel’s unwritten continuo parts with writing for winds…

“At times you think you’re hearing Mozart, and at other times you’re hearing Handel. It’s a very interesting juxtaposition.”

In keeping with Mozart’s period and intent, Wachner has chosen soloists gifted with the larger operatic sound Mozart would have preferred for performances of his operas. This achieves a more Italianate effect than do the lighter, early music British-type voices usually heard in Messiah. In fact, the conductor’s only deviation from Mozart’s intent, besides the use of modern instruments, is that New Haven’s Messiah is sung not in Mozart’s native language German, but in Handel’s original English.

“I view Messiah as one of the best pieces ever written,” says Wachner. “It’s hit tune after hit tune.

“Often they drag out the assistant conductor who sort of has to do it, and the performers sit there begrudgingly playing it. But I really fire it up. I try to catch the drama of the work and really get people’s souls stirring. It will be unlike any other Messiah.”

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A Tale of Two Messiahs
In New Haven, Mozart's homage to Handel's Christmas classic
Jason Victor Serinus
MusicView, December 2003

 

New Haven Symphony's managing director Michael MacLeod, has instituted a novel approach to programming in his two years here that is attracting larger audiences. Those who haven't yet had a chance to hear what MacLeod's is up to will get that chance on December 20, when the symphony performs Mozart's seldom-heard orchestration of Handel's Messiah.

When MacLeod came to New Haven two years ago, he discovered the fourth oldest symphony orchestra in the United States grappling with the same issues that affect classical music organizations around the world: changing listening preferences, a graying audience that is decreasing in size, an appalling lack of music education, and fewer opportunities for exposure to classical music.

"People no longer want to go to concerts and sit for two and a half hours listening to classical music in the way that they did 40 years ago," explains the former managing director of John Eliot Gardiner's famed authentic instrument Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra. "People are now into multi-tasking.

"Two examples. Forty years ago, when you watched the news you had Walter Cronkite reading a monologue, with occasional footage of something else going on. Now you've got a person on one quarter of the screen talking about one story. Underneath you've got a script running about a different story. You've got the weather forecast, stock reports, sports, etc. And you are able to absorb it. You also drive your car, probably drink coffee, and speak on the cell phone all at the same time."

To cater to this new consciousness, the New Haven Symphony has come up with imaginative and inventive programming that doesn't dumb down the musical experience. A case in point is the theme of this season's concerts, the marvelous musical universe of Mozart, and the part Messiah plays in it.

The first concert of the season paired Mozart's Jupiter Symphony with a performance of Holst's The Planets, complete with projected images of planets on the ceiling. Composer/conductor Julian Wachner was commissioned to write two new pieces that augmented Holst's popular score with tributes to Pluto and Planet X, the two planets that were discovered after Holst composed The Planets. Finally, thanks to a loan from Yale, the music concluded with optional viewing of the planets using the same telescope through which Halley's Comet was first seen. The evening drew the symphony's largest audience of the past two years.

Handel's Messiah offers similar universe- spanning opportunities. Not only is MacLeod featuring Mozart's lush, infrequently heard late 18th-century orchestration of Handel's earlier baroque masterpiece, but he's also found the perfect conductor: Julian Wachner, the same man who composed the new pieces for The Planets.

And because Wachner, a specialist in choral and early music, founded the Providence Singers, both New Haven and Rhode Island audiences will hear the same singers and forces perform the work in the same month.

The Hollywood-born Wachner, 34, explains that Mozart created his version of Messiah for purely pragmatic reasons. By the time Mozart was born, three years before Handel died at age 74, performance practice had changed. Though Handel had expected continuo players to flesh out his music by improvising on organ and/or harpsichord, continuo playing had since become a lost art. Mozart therefore filled in Handel's unwritten continuo parts with writing for winds.

In addition, by Mozart's time trumpeters had lost the ability to play the wonderful, clarion trumpet lines that characterize the music of Bach and Handel. "The embouchure of players had changed," Wachner explains. "In the baroque period the manner of playing high notes without valves was very well developed, but in Mozart's time trumpet players could only play lower in the range. So in Mozart's version of 'The Trumpet Shall Sound,' the trumpet plays the first four notes, after which the French horn takes over the job of playing on high."

Handel's scoring includes strings, two oboes, one bassoon, two trumpets, harpsichord and timpani. Mozart adds two flutes, one piccolo, two clarinets, different music for the bassoon, two French horns, and three trombones.

"Mozart created quite a rich color and sound world!" exclaims Wachner. "Some of the arias, such as 'The People that Walked in Darkness' that is scored for two clarinets and two bassoons, are just amazing. They sound very magical and quasi-mythological -- like they're from Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. Mozart was the first composer to use clarinets in an effective way, and he used them magically in his version of Messiah.

"Mozart creates an almost romantic, otherworldly take on what is sometimes considered stately. He also provides a more varied palette of color, with more emphasis on the orchestra than in Handel's version. It's as though you're hearing the voice of two composers.

"At times you think you're hearing Mozart, and at other times you're hearing Handel. It's a very interesting juxtaposition."

In keeping with Mozart's period and intent, Wachner has chosen soloists gifted with the larger operatic sound Mozart would have preferred for performances of his operas. This achieves a more Italianate effect than do the lighter, early music British-type voices usually heard in Messiah. In fact, the conductor's only deviation from Mozart's intent, besides the use of modern instruments, is that New Haven's Messiah is sung not in Mozart's native language German, but in Handel's original English.

"I view Messiah as one of the best pieces ever written," says Wachner. "It's hit tune after hit tune.

"Often they drag out the assistant conductor who sort of has to do it, and the performers sit there begrudgingly playing it. But I really fire it up. I try to catch the drama of the work and really get people's souls stirring. It will be unlike any other Messiah."

Sounds right on track for a symphony set to survive the 21st century. neophytes, as they applauded after each movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter," which made up the first half of the program. This applause is like music to the marketing department at the NHSO.

The sound the orchestra made as it began Mozart’s allegro vivace came like a breeze through cedars — the stage made up mostly of strings and a scattering of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani. The first music was formal, then shifted to a slow aria, poignant, light, but nowhere sentimental. The minuet had a sexy meter, and the wonderful four-note fugue of the last movement was stunningly played, dazzling in its counterpoint. Mozart is pure genius.

After the interval came the heralded "The Planets" suite, Op. 32, by Gustav Holst. The lights in the hall dipped. The audience waited in darkness. The orchestra shone onstage like a painting in the Louvre. The five-note meter introduction of "Mars" — eerie, menacing — immediately spoke of the grandeur and precision of the NHSO sound this night.

And: There was a magic lantern show. Initially impressive but eventually distracting was the crimson and magenta wash of lights on the organ pipes, and Woolsey’s columns lit up in amber and gold. On the hall’s oculus, which is painted with the sky, an image of the planet Mars was projected, but the image was hurt by pollution from the other lights. Then, for clarification, the word "Mars." It was all very Martian.

"Venus," played lovingly by the orchestra, brought a change to greenish everywhere, and the addition of an ambient liquid gel projection, and then really big dancing bubbles projected on the organ — and so on. This was not an edgy laser-light show, although Saturn, projected, was most in focus. Classical music, especially heavily programmatic classical music, does not need to be dumbed down like this. At one point, two of the columns began flashing stroboscopically and with abandon, and giant orange searchlights blasting the balcony were painful to the eyes.

The orchestra’s "Mercury" movement was taken at an unusually effervescent tempo, that of Holst himself conducting a performance in 1926, Pak said. In "Jupiter," the "Roman hymn" trombone figure was especially delightful. And as Neptune drifted off with wordless singing offstage (by Yale’s Whim ‘n Rhythm), Pak blended in the world premiere of Julian Wachner’s tributes to "Planet X": "Pluto, God of the Underworld" and "Epilogue, the Sun."

The diminuendo women’s voices grew, the stage-right door opened, and trance-like they came in, dressed in black and carrying pyramids aglow like Star Trek phasers. This chorus sang a disturbing, atonal song-without-words reminiscent of a pagan rite, repetitive and limpid, up the aisles and out the back door.

"Pluto" was a tone poem, wistful and composed, but upstaged by two Casper the Friendly Ghost white balls threatening the symphony. The music of the "Sun" movement was strangely disconcerting, too, for its lack of optimism until the very end, the wonderful power of the organ almost upstaged by the disco lights. How can we hear new music for itself?

It must be said that the long program was awarded a standing ovation by an exhausted audience. The hoped-for viewing of the heavens in the Beinecke Library courtyard was canceled due to clouds. The Clark Telescope, the priceless Yale instrument used by Olmsted and Loomis in 1835, the first in North America to view the return of Halley’s comet, lay in state in the rotunda.

And The Associated Press reported on Sept. 9 that the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, England, has discovered that the voice of a black hole is a deep bass B flat, 57 octaves below middle C, far beyond the hearing range of humans.

Sun, September 28, 2003

NHSO’s ‘Music of the Spheres’: Lovely music, but light show casts a shadow
Register Arts Editor

The orchestra’s “Mercury” movement was taken at an unusually effervescent tempo, that of Holst himself conducting a performance in 1926, Pak said. In “Jupiter,” the “Roman hymn” trombone figure was especially delightful. And as Neptune drifted off with wordless singing offstage (by Yale’s Whim ‘n Rhythm), Pak blended in the world premiere of Julian Wachner’s tributes to “Planet X”: “Pluto, God of the Underworld” and “Epilogue, the Sun.”

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NHSO’s ‘Music of the Spheres’: Lovely music, but light show casts a shadow
Dale Robinson
Register Arts Editor, Sunday, September 28, 2003

 

Has it come to this? The New Haven Symphony Orchestra opened the 2003-04 season with the heavily promoted "Music of the Spheres" concert Thursday evening at Yale University’s Woolsey Hall.

New Haven

The program was unique for its choreographed light show by Stony Creek’s Projects for a New Millennium and, in the rotunda, hands-on telescopes provided by The Wandering Star Project and The Astronomical Society of New Haven. The event was funded in part by a $19,000 grant from The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.

The NHSO is doing many things right in a noble effort to stave off cataclysm.

It is everywhere, bringing educational outreach and performances far beyond New Haven.

It has trimmed staff and budget (Conductor Jung-Ho Pak and others now write the program notes instead of hiring an outside agent), moved its ticket office and pops performances to the Shubert Theater and shifted some symphony-series events to Saturday nights.

Pak’s "Prelude" talk at the Slifka Center before Thursday’s event was standing-room-only and fascinating.

The musicians, meanwhile, are aware of the difficult finances but play willingly and at the apex of their talents.

But when someone projects an entire planet on the pipes of Woolsey Hall’s Newberry Memorial Organ, it looks like a bowl of noodles. More on that later.

The hall was abuzz from the start, more than three-quarters full. There was a wider than usual demographic in attendance; many in the audience were younger and obviously neophytes, as they applauded after each movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter," which made up the first half of the program. This applause is like music to the marketing department at the NHSO.

The sound the orchestra made as it began Mozart’s allegro vivace came like a breeze through cedars — the stage made up mostly of strings and a scattering of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani. The first music was formal, then shifted to a slow aria, poignant, light, but nowhere sentimental. The minuet had a sexy meter, and the wonderful four-note fugue of the last movement was stunningly played, dazzling in its counterpoint. Mozart is pure genius.

After the interval came the heralded "The Planets" suite, Op. 32, by Gustav Holst. The lights in the hall dipped. The audience waited in darkness. The orchestra shone onstage like a painting in the Louvre. The five-note meter introduction of "Mars" — eerie, menacing — immediately spoke of the grandeur and precision of the NHSO sound this night.

And: There was a magic lantern show. Initially impressive but eventually distracting was the crimson and magenta wash of lights on the organ pipes, and Woolsey’s columns lit up in amber and gold. On the hall’s oculus, which is painted with the sky, an image of the planet Mars was projected, but the image was hurt by pollution from the other lights. Then, for clarification, the word "Mars." It was all very Martian.

"Venus," played lovingly by the orchestra, brought a change to greenish everywhere, and the addition of an ambient liquid gel projection, and then really big dancing bubbles projected on the organ — and so on. This was not an edgy laser-light show, although Saturn, projected, was most in focus. Classical music, especially heavily programmatic classical music, does not need to be dumbed down like this. At one point, two of the columns began flashing stroboscopically and with abandon, and giant orange searchlights blasting the balcony were painful to the eyes.

The orchestra’s "Mercury" movement was taken at an unusually effervescent tempo, that of Holst himself conducting a performance in 1926, Pak said. In "Jupiter," the "Roman hymn" trombone figure was especially delightful. And as Neptune drifted off with wordless singing offstage (by Yale’s Whim ‘n Rhythm), Pak blended in the world premiere of Julian Wachner’s tributes to "Planet X": "Pluto, God of the Underworld" and "Epilogue, the Sun."

The diminuendo women’s voices grew, the stage-right door opened, and trance-like they came in, dressed in black and carrying pyramids aglow like Star Trek phasers. This chorus sang a disturbing, atonal song-without-words reminiscent of a pagan rite, repetitive and limpid, up the aisles and out the back door.

"Pluto" was a tone poem, wistful and composed, but upstaged by two Casper the Friendly Ghost white balls threatening the symphony. The music of the "Sun" movement was strangely disconcerting, too, for its lack of optimism until the very end, the wonderful power of the organ almost upstaged by the disco lights. How can we hear new music for itself?

It must be said that the long program was awarded a standing ovation by an exhausted audience. The hoped-for viewing of the heavens in the Beinecke Library courtyard was canceled due to clouds. The Clark Telescope, the priceless Yale instrument used by Olmsted and Loomis in 1835, the first in North America to view the return of Halley’s comet, lay in state in the rotunda.

And The Associated Press reported on Sept. 9 that the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, England, has discovered that the voice of a black hole is a deep bass B flat, 57 octaves below middle C, far beyond the hearing range of humans.

Sun, September 21, 2003

NHSO ascendant? Symphony fights hard to avoid fate of peers
Register Arts Editor

MacLeod is pinning much of his hope on getting people in the door for the first concerts of the season, which begins Thursday night at Woolsey Hall with “Music of the Spheres.” The program blends tradition (Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony) with spectacle (a visual-effects display by Projects for a New Millennium), novelty (a world premiere of a Julian Wachner composition commissioned by the NHSO) and interactivity (a post-show viewing of the night sky, telescopes included).

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NHSO ascendant?
Symphony fights hard to avoid fate of peers
Laura Collins-Hughes
Register Arts Editor, Sunday, September 21, 2003

 

On the wall in his office at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, beneath a large map of Connecticut, Michael MacLeod sees two things when he sits down at his computer.

Hanging on the right is a luminous photograph of a smiling Mary Miller, his partner and the director of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. It is an alluring photo, and fittingly so. Miller is, after all, a key reason MacLeod came to New Haven from London two years ago to become the NHSO’s executive director.

To the left of his computer screen, in a larger frame, is a calligraphic copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, "If," the words of which serve as an affirmation now that MacLeod is here. The poem is what keeps him going, he says, particularly the first few lines:

"If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, / If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you / But make allowance for their doubting too...."

There are countless ifs in running a symphony orchestra right now in the United States, where the landscape is littered with carcasses of the dead and near-dead: here the San Jose Symphony and the Florida Philharmonic, there the Colorado Springs Symphony, the Tulsa Philharmonic, the San Antonio Symphony.

Many orchestras that haven’t succumbed to the ills plaguing them — a rapidly aging audience, a bad economy, an increasingly homebound culture — are struggling simply to hang on. The NHSO, with MacLeod as chief cheerleader and medicine man, is engaged in that fight for life even as he acknowledges that the orchestra is "in a situation of crisis."

"In round figures, we’ve been losing a quarter of a million dollars year after year after year, and that includes last season," he said bluntly over a recent lunch at a downtown restaurant.

For an organization with a $2.15 million budget last year and an endowment that is, he said, "dormant at $1 million," that is not a small sum. And yet MacLeod, inheritor of an organization whose financial troubles have been exacerbated by the post-9/11 climate, is insistently optimistic, aiming not just for the orchestra’s survival but for its health, not just for its health but for its vivacity.

"I’m very hopeful," he said, then paused to reconsider his wording. "‘Hopeful’ sounds a bit weak. I’m very hopeful. Or you could put I’m quietly confident."

MacLeod is pinning much of his hope on getting people in the door for the first concerts of the season, which begins Thursday night at Woolsey Hall with "Music of the Spheres." The program blends tradition (Mozart’s "Jupiter" Symphony) with spectacle (a visual-effects display by Projects for a New Millennium), novelty (a world premiere of a Julian Wachner composition commissioned by the NHSO) and interactivity (a post-show viewing of the night sky, telescopes included).

The other season starter, Oct. 17 at the Shubert Theater, is the NHSO Pops’ "The Road to Broadway," in which one New Haven institution, the 109-year-old NHSO, mines the history of another. Designed to highlight the Shubert, which is the NHSO Pops’ new home, the program is made up of famous songs from musicals that premiered there, sung by Broadway performers.

Both evenings, and the season that follows, reflect the desire of MacLeod and Music Director Jung-Ho Pak to make each concert an event.

"There needs to be a reason to come back," Pak said by cell phone the other day from Wilton High School, where he was spending part of the afternoon working with a group of students.

He and MacLeod are determined to change the concert-going experience, making it more contemporary and more thrilling, he explained.

"We’re like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: right over the cliff," Pak said, sounding upbeat. "We’re going to jump off together."

MacLeod uses a different metaphor, not of leaping but of climbing. In August 2002, on vacation with Miller in Tanzania, he undertook the five-day climb to the Uhuru Peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. Miller made it to the top camp, and MacLeod soldiered on toward the summit.

"Even my guide didn’t make it to the top," said MacLeod, who enjoys casting himself as an adventurer. "I had to leave him on the path. He had malaria. I carried on on cq my own to the top and picked him up on the way back."

"I like a challenge," he said, "so it’s either Kilimanjaro or sorting out the NHSO."

Part of the way he is doing that is evident in the structure of the season: giving the pops concerts at the Shubert, where (in a cost-cutting move) MacLeod has also put the NHSO’s box office; adding Saturday night concerts to the Thursday night symphony series at Woolsey; mixing interactive symphony programs (coming in April: a face-off between Salieri and Mozart, with the audience casting a voice vote on who was the better opera composer) with programs that offer what MacLeod terms an escape from "sensory assault," also known as modern life. Pak, meanwhile, is in talks to bring Branford Marsalis to town — not for a pops concert, he noted, but for a symphony concert.

Other changes the NHSO has made are not so obvious: reducing its budget from $2.15 million in fiscal 2003 to $1.7 million in fiscal 2004, streamlining staff, canceling Kinder Konzerts, cutting overall expenses.

Ticket sales were up in 2003, but not by nearly as much as had been budgeted. Sponsorship and grants were down significantly, as is the trend for nonprofit arts groups; the $67,000 the state gave the NHSO in 2002 was reduced to zero in 2003.

What the NHSO needs, MacLeod said, is to fill seats.

"Now, the season will succeed or fail depending on whether Joe Public buys tickets," he said.

Pak, entering his fifth season with the NHSO, came to the orchestra when it was in dire financial straits. He signed on as music director in December 1998, just as the orchestra was announcing its need for an emergency infusion of $500,000 to keep it from going out of business. Since then, it has appeared to make progress toward stability.

What ails the NHSO now is much like what ails other orchestras across the country, he said.

"It is somewhat systemic, and part of it has to do with orchestras that aren’t willing to change, orchestras that don’t know how to change, and orchestras that are afraid to change," said Pak, who believes the problem goes beyond classical music.

"It’s a little bit of a canary in the mine," he said, explaining that other art forms so far have not suffered as much because they have lower overhead than orchestras do. "It is all connected. It’s like a great ecosystem of art that exists in our country."

But he does not blame all of the troubles on the economy.

"What is happening besides the economy," Pak said, "is that nonprofit arts groups need to see themselves on a continuum of entertainment. There’s that dirty word: the ‘e’ word."

The reality, he said, is that orchestras have to be more aggressive and meet their audiences halfway.

"We have to accept that we are no longer the platinum American Express card that we thought we were 40 years ago," he said.

If their revitalization strategy pays off, Pak said, the NHSO will be a more valuable institution to New Haven, and not just to the small segment of New Haven that is its existing audience.

"This will be the beginning of a new era for the symphony because ... we are completely consumed with broadening our audiences and creating a product which is meaningful for them," Pak said.

"If we fail, then I know that Michael and I will feel we have failed doing the right thing," he said. "We will have tried to secure the future of the orchestra."

While smaller American orchestras are struggling, larger ones, which inherently have bigger budgets, seem to be having less difficulty. But Pak said smaller orchestras like the NHSO — which has 70 contracted musicians and 1,700 subscribers — have one distinct advantage: Their size gives them greater flexibility, so they can more easily change the way they work.

MacLeod, too, is betting that the NHSO’s new agility will pay off.

"If that doesn’t work, might cq as well pack up," said MacLeod, who has indefinitely extended his original two-year contract, which would have expired in October.

He doubts that the NHSO can withstand another decade of "just trundling along" as it has done in recent years, but he realizes there is a chance that his efforts will not alter the status quo.

"Or," he said, considering a pleasant alternative, "people will realize the NHSO has begun its renaissance."

Fri, September 5, 2003

Organist makes it up as he goes along
Montreal Gazette

In fact we got a lot of Wachner, though with bracing contrasts between sections. A minor-mode variation with agitated figures was astonishing. Again, most people would have to practise to perform something like this. Wachner just made it up.

So far the recital had been an exercise in restraint. Harmonies of subsequent eras were forbidden fruit. In his Triptique moderne, Wachner could avail himself of anything and everything and the results were correspondingly free-spirited. There was nothing atonal in the Prélude, but much that was fun. In the concluding Toccata Wachner again demonstrated his formidable talent for reaching an impressive conclusion.

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Organist makes it up as he goes along
Julian Wachner has gift for improvisation. McGill professor demonstrates his talent on von Beckerath instrument of St. Joseph's Oratory
Arthur Kaptainis
Montreal Gazette, Friday, September 05, 2003

 

Improvisation, the lifeblood of jazz, became extinct in classical more than a century ago - except in that curious parallel universe occupied by organists. On Wednesday, Julian Wachner, the multitalented new McGill professor, mounted the mighty von Beckerath instrument of St. Joseph's Oratory to perform an entire program of improvisations on themes submitted to him 40 minutes before.

Adding to the challenge was his pledge to make the program a chronological review of styles from the 18th century to present. One expected to hear it all much as Dr. Johnson said we watch a dog walking on its hind legs: It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.

In fact the evening had much more than novelty value. In the opening Suite for Organ in the French classical style, Wachner pulled out the right stops and summoned the gravity and grace of the day. The concluding Grands Jeux rose to a resounding conclusion. People (there were fewer than 100) knew when to clap.

Nevertheless, a Fantasy and Fugue in North German style - on a theme submitted by Notre Dame Basilica organist Pierre Grandmaison - had the sound of an engine being started. Sequences were colourful and jubilant in the Bach manner, and the fugue, if not academically orthodox, moved forward with conviction. Imagine: a contrapuntal web of four voices, something a student composer might labour over for weeks, emanating directly from the head of Julian Wachner.

After intermission we heard a Theme and Variations in 19th-century style on a rather banal accidental-free tune by Gilles Vigneault. The 19th century was a big one. We were hoping for a little Beethoven, a little Schumann, a little Brahms, a little Wagner.

In fact we got a lot of Wachner, though with bracing contrasts between sections. A minor-mode variation with agitated figures was astonishing. Again, most people would have to practise to perform something like this. Wachner just made it up.

So far the recital had been an exercise in restraint. Harmonies of subsequent eras were forbidden fruit. In his Triptique moderne, Wachner could avail himself of anything and everything and the results were correspondingly free-spirited. There was nothing atonal in the Prélude, but much that was fun. In the concluding Toccata Wachner again demonstrated his formidable talent for reaching an impressive conclusion.

Maybe I should try improvising a column sometime.

Thu, September 4, 2003

Wachner: très impressionnant
La Presse

Pour terminer, un puissant exercise plus abstrait et de très haute virtuosité, un triptyque plein d’imagination rappelant Jean Langlais dans ses deux mouvements extrêmes et Messiaen dans son bref scherzo médian. En même temps, la confirmation d’une réelle science musicale, s’ajoutant à d’authentiques qualités d’organiste et d’interprète.

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WACHNER: très impressionnant
Claude Gingras
La Presse (Montréal) le jeudi 4 septembre 2003

 

Julian Wachner a fait grand impression hier soir dans son premier récital important ici en qualité d’organiste. On le connaît un peu comme chef de choeur, fonction qu’il exerce depuis récemment à McGill, mais on ne l’avait pas encore entendu à l’orgue.

Invité dans la courte série 2003 de l’oratoire - où, comme d’autres, il n’avait attiré qu’un très faible auditoire -, le musicien américain de 33 ans nous vient de Hollywood, Calif., mais il n’y a absolument rien, dans sa personne, ses choix d’oeuvres ou sa façon de jouer, qui puisse rappeler, même indirectment, ce monde clinquant et assez vulgaire qui l’a vu naître. Au contraire, M. Wachner a maintenu aux claviers une tenue exemplaire et une distinction de jeu dignes des artistes les plus raffinés d’Europe.

Il avait conçu un programme entièrement fondé sur l’improvisation. C’est-à-dire qu’à partir de thèmes qui lui seraient soumis au moment même du récital, il allait construire, en fait composer, diverses oeuvres selon une forme ou un genre précis. Reproduits sur le feuillet qu’on avait remis à la porte (et déposé sur le lutrin de l’organiste comme seul guide), les thèmes étaient variés: puisé au grégorien pour la suite classique français, écrit par Pierre Grandmaison pour la fantasie et fugue nord-allemande, ou basé sur une chanson de Gilles Vigneault pour le thème et variations de style XIXe siècle.

L’organiste s’imposa dès la suite classique française par sa connaissance du genre abordé: austérité, choix des anches, relief des dialogues entre claviers, clarté de l’ornementation, puissance des plenums. On nota la même envergure dans la fantasie et fugue à la Buxtehude où les timbres importent moins que la forme. Les cinq variations d’après Vigneault découvrirent un thème simple, la tendre chanson Qu’il est difficile d’aimer, considérablement élargi, harmonisé, modulè (parfois à la César Franck!), coloré de timbres creux de saqueboutes et débouchant sur une toccata à la Widor et une passacaille des plus chargées.

Pour terminer, un puissant exercise plus abstrait et de très haute virtuosité, un triptyque plein d’imagination rappelant Jean Langlais dans ses deux mouvements extrêmes et Messiaen dans son bref scherzo médian. En même temps, la confirmation d’une réelle science musicale, s’ajoutant à d’authentiques qualités d’organiste et d’interprète.

Fri, June 13, 2003

Organist, orchestra offer rousing finale
Charleston Post and Courier

Mr. Wachner’s own 1999 work, “Cymbale,” opened the concert with a bang. Described as a one- movement concerto for organ and orchestra, it is modeled upon ancient Baroque lines, but its language is as current as its salsa-jazz solo towards the end for unadorned, swinging cowbell. Densely plotted and cleverly scored, it features explosive organ and brass pronouncements and feathery high string passages, all framing a ferociously intricate keyboard and pedal challenges for the organist…

He controlled the third symphony of Charles Ives, entitled “The Camp Meeting,” with graceful authority befitting its unusually lyrical (for Ives) and sentimental use of old hymns and folk tunes for richly evocative effects. The final movement, a Largo denoted “Communion,” demonstrated immense sensitivity within the small orchestra, which managed the intellectualized and solidly structured material with beauty and tenderness.

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Organist, orchestra offer rousing finale
Jack Dressler

Charleston Post and Courier
June 13, 2003


Spoleto's fifth and final program in the Intermezzi series at Grace Episcopal Church on Friday drew upon the limited but richly endowed literature for organ and chamber orchestra by 20th century composers. Brought together by composer-conductor Julian Wachner, the selections were notable for the energy of their presentation as well as for carefully crafted musicianship throughout.

Mr. Wachner's own 1999 work, "Cymbale," opened the concert with a bang. Described as a one- movement concerto for organ and orchestra, it is modeled upon ancient Baroque lines, but its language is as current as its salsa-jazz solo towards the end for unadorned, swinging cowbell. Densely plotted and cleverly scored, it features explosive organ and brass pronouncements and feathery high string passages, all framing a ferociously intricate keyboard and pedal challenges for the organist.

Nancianne Parrella as featured soloist took charge of Mr. Wachner's vigorous complexity with gusto and aggressive control. Her physicality matched his role as conductor, which proved as vital and engaging as his music.

He controlled the third symphony of Charles Ives, entitled "The Camp Meeting," with graceful authority befitting its unusually lyrical (for Ives) and sentimental use of old hymns and folk tunes for richly evocative effects. The final movement, a Largo denoted "Communion," demonstrated immense sensitivity within the small orchestra, which managed the intellectualized and solidly structured material with beauty and tenderness.

For many in this audience, who wound up standing and cheering at the end, the highlight of the program had to be the joyous and nearly abandoned performance of the Concert for Organ, Strings and Timpani in G-Minor (1938) by Francis Poulenc. Combining toccata-like organ introductions and soaring full-orchestra interludes in its several internal episodes, the cracking power of the piece offered Mr. Wachner, Ms. Parrella and the superbly prepared string- percussion ensemble an opportunity to have the time of their lives. It was a mood of enthusiasm fully shared by the listeners.

Thu, May 29, 2003

Making it up as you go along
Charleston Post and Courier

Mr. Wachner made the Bach sound clear and unconfused, even in the generous echo of Grace Church, and he made the Duruflé not only beautiful, but often bouncy. He used a wide variety of registrations (that means he pulled out a lot of different stops) but kept them all within the bounds of good taste…

Mr. Wachner plunged into his improvisation, pulling out all the stops (literally and figuratively), turning Harold Arlen’s [“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”] into a virtual symphony of color and technique. He filled the piece with inventive harmonies and surprising modulations, and he even threw in a section with bells. The piece had everything but Judy Garland. The crowd loved the whole thing, and so did I.

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Making it up as you go along
Robert Jones
The Post and Courier, South Carolina
May 29, 2003

 

Organ recitals have never been this writer's favorite form of amusement. This is not because I am ignorant of that mass of pipes and bellows called "The King of Instruments." In my college days, I studied the organ with some enthusiasm, and even now I can flail away at Bach's "Gigue Fugue," pedals and all, with enough remaining skill that a passer-by would recognize what I am about.

But actually listening to a program of organ music played by someone else has always bored me. There is something magisterial and remote about organ music, and even organists have to admit that church acoustics tend to blur the musical lines until the textures go mushy and turn into a general roar. Moreover, organ consoles -- the actual instrument with all the keyboards and pedals and pull-out stops -- are usually placed in a choir loft or someplace where nobody can see the player. Thus there is seldom anything at organ concerts to provide a visual focus. In short, it's rather like sitting in a large auditorium listening to a huge radio.

But if you have a fine organist playing a fine instrument, and that instrument is right out there on the stage where you can watch him in action, an organ recital can be not only entertaining but exciting. So it was with Julian Wachner's brief concert on the Intermezzo series on Tuesday afternoon. The organ console was squarely in front, all its keyboards (four, plus the pedal one) in plain view. Mr. Wachner himself is young, very tall, with a wide grin, amused eyes and a thick head of floppy black hair. I liked him on the spot.

He played four pieces: J.S. Bach's big "Fantasia in G major, BWV 572," Maurice Duruflé's "Prelude and Fugue on the name of Alain," and "Les tres riches heures" by Marjorie Merryman. For a finale, the program promised he would improvise on some themes submitted to him.

A word about improvisation. There is more of it around than you might think. In the comedy field, this year has The Second City, also The Have Nots. Both do spur-of-the-moment improvisations on themes suggested by the audience. And of course the very spirit of Jazz is improvisation. In "Tamerlano" the repeat section of all those big arias is supposed to be improvised, and in a sense they are, even though the improvisations were probably improvised some months ago, written down and learned.

But in the time of Bach, all performers were expected to be able to improvise. Sometimes such busy professionals as Mozart would write out the orchestral part of a concerto and then go onto the stage and mostly improvise the solo part. Such skills survived into later centuries too. There's a wonderful story about Bèla Bartok and his wife Ditta onstage at Carnegie Hall, playing the Concerto for Two Pianos. During the performance, so the story goes, the tympanist became confused and pounded out some wrong notes. The wrong notes triggered something in Bartok's creative process and he instantly began improvising on those notes, throwing his wife and conductor Fritz Reiner into momentary panic.

Mr. Wachner made the Bach sound clear and unconfused, even in the generous echo of Grace Church, and he made the Duruflé not only beautiful, but often bouncy. He used a wide variety of registrations (that means he pulled out a lot of different stops) but kept them all within the bounds of good taste. I didn't much care for the Merryman work, which seemed to me one of those correct but uninspired things turned out by technically adept academicians.

When it came time for the improvisations, somebody handed Mr. Wachner a sealed envelope with several scraps of paper in it. He examined them and said one was the familiar "Ein Feste Burg" (or "A mighty fortress is our God"), the other was something on more or less the same lines, and the third was "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The crowd overwhelmingly chose "Rainbow."

Mr. Wachner plunged into his improvisation, pulling out all the stops (literally and figuratively), turning Harold Arlen's great tune into a virtual symphony of color and technique. He filled the piece with inventive harmonies and surprising modulations, and he even threw in a section with bells. The piece had everything but Judy Garland. The crowd loved the whole thing, and so did I.

Wed, May 28, 2003

Organist’s artistry amazes audience
Charleston Post and Courier

Organ improvisation is a rarely practiced art, and the chance to hear an improviser of such gifts as Wachner’s was no doubt an unprecedented thrill for the audience. Three themes previously undisclosed to the artist were presented to the audience, which then voted on which one Wachner would use. The winner was “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” the only non-classical tune of the lot.

But Wachner treated it like anything BUT a pop tune, giving it French symphonic-style elaboration. He used a wealth of registrations as he toyed with snippets and reprises of the familiar tune, ingeniously using its intervals to build cunning harmonic foundations. The theme kept coming back at us, often by surprise, from every part of the instrument: all four manuals and pedal. Perhaps most remarkable was his use of non-melodic sounds of certain key note-sequences to create various moods and impressions.

The final result had discernable form, development and calculated effect – something we usually expect only from finished works. This stupefying wizardry was the hit of the recital, and it had to be heard to be believed.

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Organist’s artistry amazes audience
Lindsay Koob
The Post and Courier, South Carolina
May 28, 2003

 

Tuesday afternoon’s Intermezzo recital – the second of the series – featured the supreme skills and musicianship of Julian Wachner in an unforgettable organ recital at Grace Episcopal Church.

Wachner, active as an organist, composer, choirmaster and conductor, is truly one of the most versatile musicians to grace the Spoleto Festival in recent years. This recital left no doubt as to his extraordinary abilities at the organ, particularly as an improviser. Grace Church’s mighty Reuter instrument, rebuilt in recent years, proved a marvelous vehicle for his artistry.

An organ recital without Bach seems somehow lacking, and Wachner obliged us with a fairly seldom-heard work by the master: his Fantasia in G Major, BWV 572, better known by its French title, “Piece d’Orgue.” The work, like most Fantasias, is quite free in form and style. It begins with delicate broken-chord progressions, softly scattering sound in all directions.

Then a powerful chorale emerges; seamlessly surging and receding like great tidal masses through its lengthy course. A skull-splitting chord both stops the onslaught and sets the stage for the piece’s gradual descent, with brief scale-snippets gently escorting the listener back down from heights of exaltation that only Bach can scale. Wachner plumbed the piece’s depths beautifully, using conservative, but well-chosen registrations.

Maurice Durufle left us very few works, but they are all of fastidious craftsmanship and wondrous effect. His “prelude and Fugue on the name of Alain” is probably his best-known instrumental effort. It is his tribute to his colleague, the brilliant composer and organists Jehan Alain, who died tragically young.

The prelude introduces a five-note thematic core – loosely based on the letters of Alain’s surname – in a ruminative, flowing manner; its tricky, repetitive metric patterns lending it a hypnotic effect. The four-voice fugue employs a slightly expanded version of the basic theme, with a second and faster subject soon joining the fray as the piece builds its way to a rip-roaring climax. Wachner redefined the cliché “letting out all the stops” in this one, leaving the audience breathless.

Marjorie Merryman (b. 1952) based her six-movement suite, “Les tres riches heures,” on a series of splendid miniature illustrations from a 15th century prayer book. Although all six sections are richly remarkable, highlights included the “Dialogues,” which expertly evokes a sense of solemn, inquiring conversation. “Rebellion” depicts the earthward plummeting of fallen angels with chaotic, swirling dissonances; but the final “Celebrations” reimposes majestic celestial order.

Organ improvisation is a rarely practiced art, and the chance to hear an improviser of such gifts as Wachner’s was no doubt an unprecedented thrill for the audience. Three themes previously undisclosed to the artist were presented to the audience, which then voted on which one Wachner would use. The winner was “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” the only non-classical tune of the lot.

But Wachner treated it like anything BUT a pop tune, giving it French symphonic-style elaboration. He used a wealth of registrations as he toyed with snippets and reprises of the familiar tune, ingeniously using its intervals to build cunning harmonic foundations. The theme kept coming back at us, often by surprise, from every part of the instrument: all four manuals and pedal. Perhaps most remarkable was his use of non-melodic sounds of certain key note-sequences to create various moods and impressions.

The final result had discernable form, development and calculated effect – something we usually expect only from finished works. This stupefying wizardry was the hit of the recital, and it had to be heard to be believed.

You can hear this amazing musician again – this time as composer and conductor – in next Friday’s Intermezzo V concert at Grace.

Sun, May 11, 2003

Philharmonic warms to the Ninth
The Providence Journal

The surpise of the night, though, was the impressive showing from the Providence Singers. The group has made great strides in recent years, under Julian Wachner. On Friday, this once ragtag neighborhood group proved a crack ensemble with a rich sound and enviable blend.

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Philharmonic warms to the Ninth
After a slow start, the orchestra catches fire
Channing Gray, Journal Arts Writer
The Providence Journal
May 11, 2003

 

It was almost as though the Rhode Island Philharmonic performed two Beethoven Ninths Friday -- the rather polite, scaled-back opening sections, which often did not scratch the surface of this masterpiece, then the crackling finale that almost blew off the roof of Veterans Memorial Auditorium.

That's when conductor Larry Rachleff loosened up, when the orchestra and chorus -- members of the Providence Singers -- caught fire.

The Philharmonic was scheduled to perform the Beethoven just once, last night, to close out its season. But when that concert sold out, the orchestra added a performance, or rather sold what was essentially the dress rehearsal. That was the most cost-effective way to go, seeing that the musicians would have been using the hall anyway.

But it didn't leave a lot of rehearsal time to put together such a huge, and demanding, work. And that may have been one reason for the flaccid feel to the opening movements, which rolled along without a lot of surprises.

On the plus side, Rachleff kept textures clear. There was lots of snap to the opening chords, where many a conductor chooses to go for a more atmospheric wash of sound.

But there was not a lot of fist-shaking to be heard, except maybe toward the end of the scherzo, that driving, demonic whirlwind of a piece that for years introduced the nightly newscast on NBC.

For a while, I wondered if pushing the orchestra to the lip of the stage and out from under the shell to make room for the chorus altered the hall's acoustics, taking some of the punch out of the sound.

But come the finale, when orchestra and chorus joined forces, there was punch to spare, along with joy, wit and grace.

The Philharmonic went all out, importing the same solo quartet that appeared in the Beethoven Ninth played by the Boston Symphony to mark then-music director Seiji Ozawa's 25th anniversary.

Baritone Robert Honeysucker, who has sung here many times over the years, fired off his big opening solo with ease and majesty. Joining him were tenor Richard Clement, mezzo Mary Westbrook-Geha and the luminous Dominque LaBelle in the soprano parts. As expected, the foursome had the edge and poise needed for a great reading of the Ninth.

The surpise of the night, though, was the impressive showing from the Providence Singers. The group has made great strides in recent years, under Julian Wachner. On Friday, this once ragtag neighborhood group proved a crack ensemble with a rich sound and enviable blend.

Tue, April 1, 2003

Music for Organ and Voices
The Diapason

At the Lighting of the Lamps, reviewed by James McCray.

“This is a sophisticated, well-crafted work that will require solid performers in all areas.”

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Music for Organ and Voices
James McCray
The Diapason 94:4:1121
April 2003

At the Lighting of the Lamps
Julian Wachner. SATB, organ and flute solo, E.C. Schirmer Co., 5810

No price given (M+).

There are three movements in this set, with the third longer than the first two combined. The texts are in Latin (translation on inside cover) and date from the fifth century. The flute part has a soloistic character, but is not overly difficult. The choral parts tend to be homophonic with some unaccompanied singing. The organ part, on three staves, has some challenging areas both as solo and with the choir. This is a sophisticated, well-crafted work that will require solid performers in all areas.

Mon, March 17, 2003

Not the same old Passion
Montreal Gazette

It was a St. John Passion with a difference at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul yesterday afternoon. The performance formed part of a church service, as it had done when Bach premiered it in Leipzig in 1723.

Thus, it began with an opening chorale for the congregation, followed by an address and a prayer. A short sermon was heard between Parts 1 and 2. Moreover, the congregation was invited to join in the singing of the chorales, which the choir sang alternately in English and French.

The performance - led competently by the church’s music director; Julian Wachner - also featured the church’s choir, plus a period-instrument ensemble with Hank Knox at the organ, and six soloists.

Although the opening, Herr unser Herrscher, sounded dense and muddy, clarity improved later and the performance proved very rewarding overall. The dramatic choruses and fugues in the second part proved particularly striking.

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Not the same old Passion
Ilse Zadrozny
The Montreal Gazette, March 17, 2003

It was a St. John Passion with a difference at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul yesterday afternoon. The performance formed part of a church service, as it had done when Bach premiered it in Leipzig in 1723.

Thus, it began with an opening chorale for the congregation, followed by an address and a prayer. A short sermon was heard between Parts 1 and 2. Moreover, the congregation was invited to join in the singing of the chorales, which the choir sang alternately in English and French.

The performance - led competently by the church's music director; Julian Wachner - also featured the church's choir, plus a period-instrument ensemble with Hank Knox at the organ, and six soloists.

Although the opening, Herr unser Herrscher, sounded dense and muddy, clarity improved later and the performance proved very rewarding overall. The dramatic choruses and fugues in the second part proved particularly striking.

Top credit must go to some very fine solos: Marcel van Neer proved a highly expressive and exquisite Evangelist with excellent diction, soprano Meredith Hall's two arias had thrilling radiance, and Daniel Taylor's aria Es ist vollbracht was filled with superb and deeply touching feeling.

Baritone Nathaniel Watson sand very good recitatives as Pilate (though his arias were less impressive), but baritone Michael Meraw was a merely adequate Jesus. The arias of tenor Brad Peloquin left something to be desired in German enunciation and evenness of tone.

The unusual historical-instrument sonorities heard in obbligato solos accompanying arias were as remarkable as they were attractive.

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