Mon, April 23, 2012
The Feldenkrais Method, and why singers should take note
Vocal Area Network
What do Jiu Jitsu, physics and neuroscience have in common? The answer is The Feldenkrais Method, so named for its founder, Moshé Feldenkrais, whose extraordinary life and professional career reads like it came from a John Le Carré spy novel. An Russian physicist, judo expert, mechanical engineer and educator, Feldenkrais drew on his wealth of experience to develop a ground-breaking form of somatic education—a category which includes such disparate forms as Yoga and the Alexander Technique—that aims to improve movement repertoire and the way in which the mind and body work together, in order to reduce pain or limitations in movement, and promote general well-being…
So, what does all of this mean in practical terms, and why should singers take note? On Friday, May 4 and Saturday, May 5 in New York City, and Friday, May 11 in Montréal, conductor/composer Julian Wachner (pictured above, of Trinity Wall Street) and dancer/choreographer Maud Tizon (Opéra de Lyon) will explore this very question with a Feldenkrais workshop designed specifically for musicians, actors, dancers and other artists…
Julian Wachner began his Feldenkrais training in order to maximize his own potential as a musician. He received his diploma as a certified Feldenkrais Practitioner following a four year course of study in the south of France. He has taught the Feldenkrais Method at the Tanglewood Music Center, Glimmerglass Opera Young Artists Program, McGill University, Yale University, and at Boston University, and maintains a private practice in New York City.
“Several years ago, I found myself in a very dark place where I would see a problem and not meet it with softness,” he says “When you are a conductor or leader, when you hit a problem, you have to find ways through it with creativity, with compromise and with team work. The Feldenkrais Method got me to the point where I have a more balanced approach. I think it’s part of the next wave of our human development.”
Wed, April 4, 2012
Passions Alight in Sacred Season
The New York Times
The action moved downtown on Sunday, centering on an afternoon performance of the “St. John Passion” by the superb Trinity Choir and Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Julian Wachner…
The afternoon service, as it was now fashioned, began and ended with hymns (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “Now Thank We All Our God”); included a prayer and a blessing; and replaced an intermission with a sermon. Listeners were encouraged to sing along with the hymns and with the chorales throughout the Passion, rendered in English translations, provided in the program along with the music in four parts…
The ovation was fully deserved…it then momentarily drowned out the postlude, a magnificent performance of Bach’s “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue (BWV 552) by the Trinity organist, Renée Anne Louprette, on the chapel’s wonderful Schlicker organ.
Mon, March 26, 2012
Another Passion Rises to Prominence This Season
The New York Times
But this spring, for whatever reasons, “St. John” reigns. Of the four major Bach Passion performances in New York…only one offers the “St. Matthew.”
The Trinity Choir…is going all out for its performance of the “St. John Passion” within a liturgical context on Sunday afternoon at St. Paul’s Chapel. As a sort of preparatory antidote, Trinity Wall Street announced on Monday, the Trinity Choir will present an “improvised Passion” on Sunday morning at Trinity Church, using a text created by the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now the National Conference for Community and Justice.)
Fri, March 23, 2012
NSO and Washington Chorus offer deeply felt performance of Dvorak’s ‘Stabat Mater’
The Washington Post
Top honors vocally, however, go to the amassed voices of the Washington Chorus, which had a beautifully tuned and balanced sound, due at least partially to standing in mixed formation. Here is music that was made for a chorus of this size. Dvorak wrote home to his friend about leading more than a thousand musicians at a performance in London’s Royal Albert Hall, and the Washington Chorus filled the Concert Hall with sound — on the iterated howls of “Fac!” in the “Eia mater” movement, for example — yet also brought remarkable suavity to the many more delicate passages, such as the legato of “Tui nati vulnerati.”
Sat, March 10, 2012
Cadenza Radio Interview
WWFM, The Classical Network
...Last Monday WWFM presented the first in our series of live broadcasts coming to you from St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan of the Trinity Church Wall Street’s Bach at One concerts, featuring the Trinity Choir and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra, all under the direction of the Director of Music and Arts at Trinity Wall Street (and my guest today), conductor, organist, composer, Julian Wachner. Mr. Wachner is only in his second season at Trinity. It has been a year [in which] he has refocused the entire music output and profile of that historic and venerable church. He instituted the Bach at One series, each Monday presenting cantatas of Bach at St. Paul’s Chapel, a few blocks up Broadway from Trinity, and right next to Ground Zero.
Wed, March 7, 2012
After Fiscal Woes, Trinity Church Revives Lunchtime Series
WQXR Classical Music Blog
...they established the series Bach at One, featuring the extraordinary Trinity Choir, led by its equally extraordinary music director Julian Wachner. These 45-minute concerts…quickly established themselves as a midday respite in downtown Manhattan.
This week, Julian Wachner performed a Bach organ prelude – and conducted the choir – when Bach at One returned to St. Paul’s. As Trinity Church Vicar Anne Mallonee put it on Monday, “Spread the word! Bach is back!” And the concert was, as expected, glorious. These professional musicians were clearly thrilled to be there, doing what they do best.
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After Fiscal Woes, Trinity Church Revives Lunchtime Series
Wednesday, March 07, 2012 - 03:42 PM
By Naomi Lewin : WQXR Host
When I was a fledgling opera singer, Trinity Church Wall Street was one of New York's musical powerhouses, with noonday concerts at St. Paul's Chapel every Monday and Thursday, and at Trinity every Tuesday.
The monthly flyer for those concerts listed performers with embryonic careers like mine side-by-side with the likes of Paula Robison and Eliot Fisk, the Crystal Cathedral Choir and Anonymous 4 (who were somewhat more anonymous at the time). And Trinity Church also sponsored Concerts-to-Go, an outreach program that sent folks like me to perform in nursing homes all over the city.
Apparently, Trinity Church has backed off from that kind of music outreach. Instead, they established the series Bach at One, featuring the extraordinary Trinity Choir, led by its equally extraordinary music director Julian Wachner. These 45-minute concerts (with a tiny dollop of religion) quickly established themselves as a midday respite in downtown Manhattan.
So it was fairly distressing for the music faithful when, at the final installment of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio this January, the announcement came that Bach at One was being temporarily suspended. After that, Trinity canceled the premiere of Robert Sirota’s opera Iscariot, which had been scheduled for this May. The explanation? "Expenses for the music and arts program exceeded what was anticipated for 2011."
This week, Julian Wachner performed a Bach organ prelude – and conducted the choir – when Bach at One returned to St. Paul’s. As Trinity Church Vicar Anne Mallonee put it on Monday, "Spread the word! Bach is back!" And the concert was, as expected, glorious. These professional musicians were clearly thrilled to be there, doing what they do best.
Back in the day, the Trinity Church music flyer always had a little note at the bottom, saying that their free concerts were made possible by the Church, and "an anonymous gift to the glory of God and in honor of Johannes Brahms." I don’t know if that Brahms lover endowed the Trinity concerts in perpetuity, but word is that the church has received additional donations for the music program, and has provided some additional funding itself. I can’t think of a better, more spiritually satisfying use of their money.
Wed, March 7, 2012
Trinity Wall Street resumes Bach at One
Bach is back. Trinity Wall Street’s popular Bach at One concerts at St. Paul’s Chapel resumed on March 5 with a Bach organ prelude in E-flat major, two Bach motets, a motet by Bach’s predecessor, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) and a reading by Anne Mallonee, Trinity’s vicar, of a meditation for Lent.
The audience enthusiastically applauded the reappearance of Trinity’s free midday music program that was put on “hiatus” in January…
Tue, March 6, 2012
Bach at One Series Returns in New York
The New York Times
Bach at One, the flagship series of Trinity Wall Street’s music program at St. Paul’s Chapel, which was suspended in January, returned on Monday afternoon in a modest way. Julian Wachner, the director of music and arts, conducted 12 members of the Trinity Choir in a shortish program of motets, two by Bach, one by Heinrich Schütz…
The format has been tweaked slightly to make the concert feel more like a service; in addition to the usual brief prayer and now a Lenten reading, an Offertory hymn has been added, with the audience encouraged to sing as a congregation. Bach at One actually starts 10 or 15 minutes before 1, with a performance on the chapel’s restored Schlicker organ, and Mr. Wachner led off here with Bach’s great “St. Anne” Prelude (BWV 552a).
Fri, March 2, 2012
Frolicking With Bubbly Saints and Marching With the Band
The New York Times
This time Mr. Morris pairs his hourlong version of the Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein opera “Four Saints in Three Acts,” from 2000, with the exuberant premiere of “A Choral Fantasy,” set to Beethoven’s Fantasia in C minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra. Both feature the splendid 24-member Trinity Choir, which Stefan Asbury, of the dance company’s music ensemble, conducts…
It’s a touch that creates harmony between the dancers and the beautiful voices of Trinity Choir. As the libretto for “A Choral Fantasy” declares: “And all a choir of spirits resounds in response,” this meeting of dance and music is reciprocal. “Accept then, oh you beautiful spirits/Joyously of the gifts of art.”
Sun, February 26, 2012
Hawaii Opera Theatre brings the best out of ‘Pearl Fishers’
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
...Wachner’s pacing was excellent for both singers and storyline. His balance made it easy to hear the singers and orchestra as a single melded soundscape, which is especially important for French opera.
Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” has its quirks, but HOT’s production is excellent — and it may be the last chance to see it live for another quarter-century.
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Hawaii Opera Theatre brings the best out of 'Pearl Fishers'
By Ruth Bingham / Special to the Star-Advertiser
February 26, 2012
Most people know Georges Bizet only for his "Carmen," one of the most popular operas ever composed.
For the first time in 25 years — during which there have been four "Carmen" productions — Hawaii Opera Theatre is performing one of Bizet's "other" operas, "The Pearl Fishers."
"Pearl Fishers" is an early work — composed when Bizet was only 25 — and its librettists, Carre and Cormon, quite frankly could have done a better job. Still, it is a charming work when performed well, and it has the same atmospheric painting and tunefulness that audiences love in "Carmen."
The title "Pearl Fishers" is really more about the opera's exotic setting than its storyline, which revolves around a love triangle involving two friends and a woman. It is an intimate story with only five characters, all typecast by voice: Leila, the soprano, a beautiful high priestess passionately loved by two men; Nadir, the tenor, who of course gets the girl and has been best friends since childhood with the baritone, Zurga, who is elected king of the pearl fishers in the first scene; Nourabad, the bass, the high priest accompanying Leila; and the Chorus, a major character in this, as in many French operas.
There are several wonderful arias in "Pearl Fishers," but in a paean to friendship, Bizet gave the baritone and tenor the opera's best love duet, the famous Act I "Au fond du temple saint" ("In the Depths of the Temple"), which received an extended ovation on opening night.
The plot of "The Pearl Fishers" revolves around the baritone, the only character who grows and changes, but it is the tenor and soprano who literally and figuratively run away with the focus. Among other problems, that tug-of-war between focal points — leading character and lovers — caused Bizet no end of struggles and yielded a variety of endings. Part of the fun is to see which ending the director has chosen — and no, this review won't give anything away.
For its scenes to work, "The Pearl Fishers" needs good staging, and HOT's production has that in spades.
Director Karen Tiller minimized the libretto's weaknesses and brought its scenes to life with vivid, fluid staging. Scenes unfolded smoothly, and she arrayed the Chorus especially well, further highlighting its role.
Designer Peter Dean Beck conjured the story's exotic setting in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with a single set framed in giant bamboo, temple domes and a sun/moon backdrop, using minimal alterations to convey different scenes. The dramatic lighting — blood-red sunsets, blue-black nights, lightning flashes — was fun to watch, but Beck's most interesting touches were subtle: the patterns of light and shadow cast onto Zurga's bedroom floor, for example.
The cast members, most in their HOT debuts, were uniformly strong, their timbres and styles capturing their roles. Baritone Jerett Gieseler (Zurga) had an appealingly rich tone that identified him as The Good Guy, while tenor Vale Rideout (Nadir) had the tonal brilliance and power to steal the girl and the spotlight. Rideout was especially noteworthy. Leila belonged to Nadir the moment soprano Sari Gruber started singing, her power and clarity an obvious match with the tenor's. The exceptionally tall and imposing bass, Matthew Boehler (Nourabad), made an excellent stern priest, dark in timbre and demeanor.
HOT's chorus, co-directed by Beebe Freitas and Nola Nahulu, delivered delightful scenes one after another throughout the performance. Overall, its sound and balance was excellent, and its acting was fully engaged, even when not singing.
In keeping with another long tradition in French opera, HOT included frequent ballets, choreographed by Minou Lallemand and danced by six dancers who added much to Bizet's atmosphere-setting passages.
The orchestra had a warm, transparent sound under conductor Julian Wachner and contributed exciting solos, especially those by flute, harp, cello, oboe and clarinet. The orchestra occasionally overwhelmed the singers, but Wachner's pacing was excellent for both singers and storyline. His balance made it easy to hear the singers and orchestra as a single melded soundscape, which is especially important for French opera.
Bizet's "Pearl Fishers" has its quirks, but HOT's production is excellent — and it may be the last chance to see it live for another quarter-century.
Sun, February 12, 2012
The Business of the Arts - Interview
Hawaii Public Radio
Julian Wachner is in town to conduct Hawaii Opera Theatre’s production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.” But the composer/recording artist/keyboardist/conductor has a lot going on in the rest of his very busy musical life as well.
Sun, February 12, 2012
Bach at One to Return to Trinity in March
The New York Times
Trinity Wall Street’s announcement in January that it was suspending its vaunted music program, to reassess its place in the ministry and examine alternative sources of financing, shocked many music lovers in New York, parishioners or not. But the church held out promise that, thanks to several special donations, its centerpiece afternoon series — Bach at One, featuring the acclaimed Trinity Choir and Trinity Baroque Orchestra, directed by Julian Wachner — would return for a Lenten series in March.
Those concerts — rudimentary hourlong services, actually, generally built around Bach cantatas and including brief prayers and poetry readings — will indeed return, Trinity, an Episcopal church, confirmed on Sunday, as part of what Mr. Wachner calls in a statement a “redefined programmatic vision” for music and the arts at Trinity. Bach at One will run on Mondays from March 5 through May 7 and will also include a performance of Bach’s “St. John Passion” on Palm Sunday, April 1, presented “in its original liturgical context,” the church says, “complete with sermon and congregational participation.”
Sat, February 11, 2012
CD Review: Triptych
Le Journal de Montréal
Créé en 2004 pour célébrer le centenaire de l’Oratoire St-Joseph, l’un des bijoux architecturaux de Montréal, Tryptique pour orgue et grand orchestre s’avère une oeuvre monumentale. Entre le modernisme, il faut quelque temps pour se familiariser avec la masse sonore et l’aspect classique qui rejoint certains thèmes de Broadway, Duke Ellington pour Malletoba Spank et bien entendu, l’organiste Philippe Bélanger. Ce dernier, titulaire des grands orgues de l’Oratoire, fait preuve d’une témérité et d’un « swing » particulièrement redoutable. Au-delà d’une infinie précision des attaques, compréhension parfaite du tryptique. l’organiste va certainement plus loin que le travail demandé. Une surprise de taille et soulignons le rôle puissant de l’Orchestre Métropolitain.
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Christophe Rodriguez - Le Journal de Montréal
Créé en 2004 pour célébrer le centenaire de l'Oratoire St-Joseph, l'un des bijoux architecturaux de Montréal, Tryptique pour orgue et grand orchestre s'avère une oeuvre monumentale. Entre le modernisme, il faut quelque temps pour se familiariser avec la masse sonore et l'aspect classique qui rejoint certains thèmes de Broadway, Duke Ellington pour Malletoba Spank et bien entendu, l'organiste Philippe Bélanger. Ce dernier, titulaire des grands orgues de l'Oratoire, fait preuve d'une témérité et d'un « swing » particulièrement redoutable. Au-delà d'une infinie précision des attaques, compréhension parfaite du tryptique. l'organiste va certainement plus loin que le travail demandé. Une surprise de taille et soulignons le rôle puissant de l'Orchestre Métropolitain.
Wed, February 1, 2012
Bach cantatas and motets: Aus der Tieffen and beyond
Wachner’s performances sound like a defiant and joyous celebration of life, befitting the occasion of the commemoration…strong and satisfying.
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Bach cantatas and motets: Aus der Tieffen and beyond
The cantata Aus der Tieffen, bwv131, is arguably one of Bach’s first masterpieces of church music, written when he was 22 or 23. It is based on Psalm 130, a cry from the depths of despair, and is stylistically different from most of his later cantatas: the sections flow together with only slight breaks, and there are no recitatives. This review of several new recordings of this piece also considers other recent interpretations of Bach’s cantatas and motets.
Marcel Ponseele and Il Gardellino’s recording of bwv131 and Christoph Graupner’s Aus der Tiefen rufen wir, De Profundis (Passacaille 969, rec 2010, 58) competes with Ponseele’s own 1991 Ricercar performance of the same work, as oboist, in the Ricercar Consort led by Erik van Nevel. That reading was superlative, but it is evidently out of print. This new one of bwv131 sounds brighter, in large part because it is performed in A minor rather than G minor, causing different effects with the string and vocal parts. This piece exhibits the Chorton/ Cammerton distinction from Mühlhausen: Bach’s parts for the strings and voices are in G minor, but the oboe is treated as a transposing instrument playing in A minor. If the oboe part is transposed down, some of the low notes become unplayable and must be recomposed. If all the other parts are transposed up, the strings and voices sound more brilliant (not necessarily an asset in this piece), and the tenor and bass solos have some especially high notes. One recording that preserves Bach’s dual-key scheme is by the Purcell Quartet (Chandos, 2005); there may be others.
In comparing Ponseele’s new recording against his own earlier work, the differences are fascinating. The performance led by van Nevel had one singer per part, generally slower tempos and a darker key; Ponseele adds several ripieno singers, and has the transposed orchestra. It sounds as if he also uses a different edition. Ponseele’s bass soloist sings ‘So du willt’ instead of ‘So du willst’ in his aria, and everyone sings ‘Aus der Tiefe’ (instead of ‘Tieffen’) in the first movement. The booklet librettos, the Bach-Gesellschaft and some other scores, have ‘willst’ and ‘Tiefe’, reflecting that edition’s 19th-century modernization of Bach’s dialect. Many other recorded performances, following the Neue Bach-Ausgabe and other recent editions, restore earlier quirks in the words, but they also transpose the whole piece to A minor and alter its basic character. This is an area where the NBA did not neces- sarily do ‘the right thing’ in its general editorial policies— do the 20th-century assumptions of modern instruments, equally tempered keyboards and simplified clefs still hold, given the skill levels and information available to today’s period-performance specialists? The NBA’s transpositions of parts or entire scores overrule Bach’s choices of keys and the corresponding Affekt, which could be just as important as the words.
In Graupner’s composition, again compared with van Nevel’s pioneering recording, Ponseele’s performance is more flexible and emphatic. This also appears to be the only currently available recording. (Graupner’s auto- graph score and parts of this important work are available for free download from the International Music Score Library Project <imslp.org>.) This was one of Graupner’s three audition scores, as he successfully applied for the Leipzig position that eventually, and most famously, went to the council’s next choice, Bach.
Ponseele’s ensemble performs these pieces with two or three singers per ‘choral’ part, adding ripienists. The blend is exceptionally fine, and the delivery is graceful. Bach’s Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, bwv177, similarly gets a performance with strong Affekt and buoyant motion. The present release is the second in a projected series of five, and the booklet’s interview with Ponseele explains his personal aims for these thematically focused CDs (no.1, Desire; no.2, Liberation; no.3, Lamentation; no.4, Sorrow; no.5, Death). ‘This series of recordings must testify to the way we approach Bach at the begin- ning of the 21st century, and above all the manner in which we attempt to pass on to the receptive soul the universal message which shines out from the music of Bach.’ Interestingly, the ensemble did not use ripienists in the works on disc no.1 (cantatas bwv32, bwv49 and bwv154, plus a motet by Johann Christoph Bach).
Ponseele has recorded and performed bwv131 not only with van Nevel, but also with Herreweghe (in G minor), Koopman, Suzuki, et al. That makes an interesting comparison between these recordings, since all have the same star oboist. For his own recording, bringing all this varied experience to the piece, Ponseele has chosen the path of the transposed orchestra, the older German dialect, eleven singers instead of four or 16–20, and a less ‘conducted’ interpretation. I compared ten recordings, with and without Ponseele’s participation, and rated this new one among the best. I eagerly anticipate Il Gardellino’s remaining three volumes.
On Cantatas ‘Aus der Tiefen’ bwv131 & ‘Himmelskönig, sei willkommen’ bwv182 (Oehms Classics oc 783, rec 2010, 47)Thomas Gropper directs a considerably larger chorus, the Arcis-Vocalisten München, with the Baroque orchestra L’Arpa Festante. The performance exhibits careful preparation and good balances. In bwv131, performed in A minor, the rhythmic and dynamic expression sometimes seems studied and cautious, rather than naturally flowing from the music and words. This is perhaps a side-effect of needing to control so many musicians. The ensemble seems a bit nervous, rushing the first movement at several places. The bass and tenor soloists also have a few small mishaps of intonation. On the whole, though, the performance is impressive.
Gropper’s singers and players all sound more comfortable with the style in the second cantata, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, bwv182. As the booklet notes point out, this was Bach’s first cantata for Weimar, and his exploration of a more Italianate pseudo-operatic structure. This is the more successful half of the disc, in my opinion, with a fine balance between sprightliness and control. The orchestra plays alertly, and the recorder player must be singled out for handling the treacherous solos (where Harnoncourt opted for a transverse flute in the alto aria). Still, a comparison with Eric Milnes’s superlative recording of bwv182 (Atma, 2007), and with the Purcell Quartet (Chandos, 2007), shows what is missing here: fluid rhetorical delivery of the musical figures. These principles of expressivity are well explored in the late Bruce Haynes’s book, The end of early music (New York, 2007). Pierlot and Koopman (amongst others) have also done very well with this cantata. Against such competition, the musicianship of Gropper’s ensemble is fine, and I would say it is above average among the eleven recordings I compared, but my favourites remain these others.
Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande continue their projected 20-CD series in which they record one Bach cantata for each Sunday or high feast of the liturgical year. The present review includes Cantatas for the complete liturgical year vol.6 (Accent acc 25306, rec 2007, 56), Cantatas for the complete liturgical year vol.7 (Accent acc 25307, rec 2007, 65), Cantatas for the complete liturgical year vol.9 (Accent acc 25309, rec 2008, 77), Cantatas for the complete liturgical year vol.10 (Accent acc 25310, rec 2008, 74), Cantatas for the complete liturgical year vol.11 (Accent acc 25311, rec 2009, 56), Cantatas for the complete liturgical year vol.12 (Accent acc 25312, rec 2009, 70), and Cantatas for the complete liturgical year vol.13 (Accent acc 25313, rec 2009, 60). The cantatas are bwv18, 23 and 1 (vol.6); bwv20, 2 and 10 (vol.7); bwv61, 36, 62 and 132 (vol.9); bwv108, 86, 11 and 44 (vol.10); bwv67, 85 and 12 (vol.11); bwv138, 27, 47 and 96 (vol.12); and bwv249 and 6 (vol.13). Each disc typically represents three or four Sundays; an exception is volume 13, which has the Easter Oratorio, bwv249, for Easter Sunday and bwv6 for Easter Monday.
Each release has two trilingual booklets (German, English and French). One is a didactic treatise about the series as a whole, with topics including form, metre, poetry, and vocal and instrumental forces. These remov- able booklets remain similar to one another, with only minor details adjusted as the series progresses. The second booklet in each volume is glued into the cardboard pack- age, and includes Kuijken’s detailed analysis of each composition, along with librettos and biographical sketches of the performers. All of this is thorough and insightful. This series is an outstandingly good way to learn about these compositions, if the aim is to grasp them intellectually by reading. The only misstep that I see in the production is that the booklets, the album spines and the CDs do not always match in the sequence of compositions presented. When following along with the written notes, it is some- times necessary to jump to a different part of the booklet.
In these seven individual discs, mezzo-soprano Petra Noskaiová takes all of the alto parts, and baritone Jan Van der Crabben all the bass. Christoph Genz is the tenor, except for vol.6 (Marcus Ullmann). The soprano parts are sung by Siri Thornhill, Gerlinde Sämann or Yeree Suh. There is no separate chorus. As Kuijken explains in the series booklets: ‘Ultimately this music can show its true face only if performed by soloists. Since the “conductor” in the modern sense is dispensable in that kind of performance (I conduct, where necessary, from the first violin), these cantatas and related pieces gain greatly in terms of collective devotional power.’
The essay about the continuo group presents Kuijken’s convictions about using a shoulder-held violoncello da spalla with a strap instead of a conventional cello held between the legs. That distinction is interesting, although I do not hear much difference in the resulting sound. The continuo keyboard is a small organ playing almost all the time on only an 8 flute stop. It all blends well in these performances, but sometimes I wish the bass-line could have been played with more incisive bite and presence, using either a stronger stroke from the bowed instru- ments, or bringing in a harpsichord for more dramatic and percussive thrust. There is evidence that Bach pre- pared separate harpsichord parts for at least some of the cantatas presented here: bwv6 (vol.13), bwv23 (vol.6) and bwv27 (vol.12), according to Laurence Dreyfus in his book Bach’s continuo group: players and practices in his vocal works (Cambridge, MA, 1987). Every director of a Bach cantata performance may make practical and tasteful choices, of course, omitting an instrument if it is not available, but in a series as scrupulous about musicological details as this one, I would have expected to hear all the parts Bach wrote.
The performances are uniformly well prepared, with playing and singing full of consistent detail. Especially when listening on headphones, it is easy to find the position of each player or singer, as if this were a private performance for a seat in the middle of the ensemble. This clarity is welcome for one who wants to take in all the complexity of Bach’s compositions cerebrally. Wer sich selbst erhöhet, bwv47 (vol.12), is a fair case to illustrate this. In this performance, it is easy to follow any or all of the ten parts of the opening chorus at once, as they are presented with equal value, none distracting from any other. Every line has an expert solo musician, and all are evenly balanced. It follows that a good score-reader hardly need hear the performance at all, because nothing numinous or surprising presents itself; we get only all the facts of the score, played and sung accurately. The second movement, ‘Wer ein wahrer Christ will heissen’ (for soprano), has a violin solo where some scores specify organ obbligato. Having made that choice, Kuijken him- self plays every articulation mark and double stop in the difficult part precisely as the page says. A detailed para- graph in the booklet tells us about the word-painting and rhetoric in this clever composition, and while it is intellectually impressive, the performance does not make it jump out as immediately meaningful. So goes the rest of this cantata, about Jesus’s humility, where the text is delivered with such deference that it could have been about anything, or nothing.
Throughout this Kuijken series from its beginning (2005), I have often wished for a stronger sense of spontaneity, spiritual presence or emotional focus. The neutrality has become a defining feature of the series. Everything is so cleanly scrubbed and so careful, so polite and objective with understated gestures, that it does not communicate the meaning of the words as strongly as it might have. I want the music to grab and surprise me, to bypass my intellect, to compel me to take in the imme- diate didactic content and emotion of the words. It could sound grittier and more human. Another example will suffice to show this. In the first tenor aria of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, bwv20 (vol.7), the text asserts a fear of eternity, a terrified quaking in the face of torment, and Bach used notes to illustrate the crackling flames of Hell . . . but the performance gives us little beyond the perfectly delivered notes, without fear. The ensuing recitative for bass continues to tell us of damnation and eternal misery, with a delivery that sounds genteel and emotionally neutral. A later bass aria within bwv20 admonishes the listener to wake up from sin before the trumpet of judgement. The trumpet playing and the singing are technically astonishing, but this probably would not awaken or put a fear of God into anyone.
Sometimes, for all the clarity in these recordings, I get the impression that Bach himself was partly at fault for writing music that is too busy and complicated. There is so much going on at once that no clear message can emerge. If the primary aim is to make cognitive sense of those simultaneous sounds, not merely blasting the listener with overwhelming complexity, the choruses are well served by having only four singers and such precise diction. These movements play to La Petite Bande’s strength: the carefully rehearsed balancing of all the instrumental and vocal parts. That is to say, this ensemble does provide one viable solution to the problem of Bach’s condensed music.
As noted above, from the booklet’s essays, the interpretative profile is a definite choice by Kuijken. He has chosen not to conduct, in the sense of imposing a more subjective interpretation. I wish, however, that more of the advertised ‘collective devotional power’ would emerge. Is all of this music supposed to sound as mellifluous, poised and unchallenging as it does in this series of recordings? I am glad to have these discs for the analyses and the lucid textures, helping me to understand what Bach was up to, but I want to be more profoundly moved or shocked by the music than is the case here. For comparison, within the one-singer-per-part approach, I find the music more exciting and immediate in recordings by Montréal Baroque, The Purcell Quartet, the Ricercar Consort and the Theatre of Early Music.
Thus, at the end of listening to all seven Kuijken discs here, I wanted to hear more personalized risk-taking. Bach’s parishioners probably only heard this music once in their lives, and the message had to reach them from the distance of the balcony. Therefore, it demanded immediate emphasis to make its point: more exaggeration, more disorderly conduct, and sometimes a dose of deliberate ugliness to match the text, as the older Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series of recordings often brought out so vividly.
Does the music still need a performer’s distinctive interpretation to make its effect today, given that one can replay a CD to hear and contemplate any details? That is a valid aesthetic problem. Given the discs here, and Kuijken’s recent recording of the Bach cello suites on his violoncello da spalla, Kuijken now seems to be in the camp that deliberately favours understatement, whereas his recordings of Bach’s instrumental music 30 years ago were more vigorous. It reminds me of Keith Jarrett’s recordings of Bach, in which Jarrett declared and demonstrated, ‘This music does not need my assistance . . . The very direction of the lines, the moving lines of notes are inherently expressive. Without the consciousness of what these lines really represent, one may feel that it needs an expressive addition . . . The way the notes of a fugue follow each other cannot be predicted. But they have to follow certain laws. If you add something to make the fugue more valuable, you destroy these laws. When I play Bach, I do not hear the music, I hear almost the process of thought. Any colouration has nothing to do with this process, one contributes only one’s own emotions. That may sound quite nice for a moment, but then the entire thought is gone.’ (Notes to Jarrett’s 1987 recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1.)
This brings us to another diligent musician with a rather similar non-interventionist approach, Masaaki Suzuki. His complete series continues with Cantatas, vol.48 (BIS bis-sacd-1881, rec 2010, 72). The front cover mistakenly advertises cantata 48 instead of 34; the disc actually includes cantatas bwv34, 117, 98 and 120. As usual with this series, the tempos are generally fleet and the phrasing streamlined. Compared with other interpreters who also use period instruments and a chorus of about 12 singers, for example Koopman and Gardiner, Suzuki’s approach is less overtly dramatic. One might say it is more ‘devotional’, while it also has plenty of punch in the lively parts. In that way, his approach is similar to Herreweghe’s. The strengths are considerable, with immaculate preparation, dependability, an exuberant joy that comes out when the music merits it, and excellent sound in the recording. Suzuki’s own harpsichord con- tinuo improvisations are marvellous in the recitatives and arias. He makes effective use of both organ and harpsichord throughout these recordings.
At the risk of making this sound like a lukewarm recommendation, collectors of Suzuki’s series will already know if they want volume 48, knowing what they already know of the dependable interpretative profile. I myself prefer listening to an approach that makes the music more bumpy and eventful. I did a direct comparison with several other recordings in the first cantata here, O ewiges Feuer, bwv34. Gardiner’s performance from the Bach Cantatas Pilgrimage (2000) has a similarly long-lined drive, but stronger dynamic and tempo contrasts than Suzuki’s.
Leonhardt’s (Sony, 1996, also included in the 2008 ‘Leonhardt Jubilee Edition’ box) has much more interesting articulation and variation within phrases, and this makes the music seem more continuously alive. Suzuki has especially fine solo singing and impeccable togetherness of ensemble, but, to my ears, his interpretations tend to be too predictable, where I would rather be surprised and delighted. I am glad to have this new disc anyway, especially for Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille, bwv120. It has a chorus that Bach later rearranged as the ‘Et exspecto’ section of the B Minor Mass, and an aria that is related to a movement from the sixth sonata for violin and harpsichord. In this cantata, where the music already has much going on within it, Suzuki’s straightforward and moderate way is to let it (seem to) play itself. Given the commercial success of this series, such an approach appears to be what many listeners want.
Finally, moving on from the cantatas, we have three new recordings of Bach’s six motets. These discs show three approaches to the music that are radically different from one another. Die Motetten bwv225–230 (Gramola 98875, rec 2008/9, 65) is performed by the Austrian ensemble Chorus Sine Nomine under the direction of Johannes Hiemetsberger, who founded it 20 years ago. The booklet lists the names of all 53 singers, a very large group, but it says nothing about the continuo team. A quiet organ, a cello and (I believe) also a string bass occasionally double some of the vocal parts, discreetly keeping the singers centred on pitch but without adding much to the effect. The tempos and balances bring no surprises. It is the type of performance that any community chorus or large professional chorus would be proud of, with fine diction, sensible shaping of dynamics, steady tempo, a blend within each section (most of the time) and good control of balance across sections. The problems are few, and not unexpected in a group this big. There is occa- sional flat intonation by the sopranos and tenors where the parts have a high tessitura. The metre sometimes seems too steady, probably in the interest of keeping everyone together cleanly enough. My overall impression is that the music seems plain and pleasant here, but noth- ing special. This is respectable as a published recording, and it might be more desirable to people who have a personal connection with these singers or their anonymous accompanists.
I found the next disc of Bach motets considerably more enjoyable: Complete motets (Musica Omnia mo 0403, rec 2011, 75), performed by Trinity Wall Street ensemble under the direction of Julian Wachner. Trinity Wall Street is an Anglican church in New York City, well publicized through an unfortunate non-religious and non-musical circumstance. Its organ and part of the sanctuary were damaged on September 11, 2001, the church being so near the former site of the World Trade Center (the organ is being salvaged, cleaned and rebuilt in another church during 2011–12). The present CD was released as part of the tenth-anniversary commemoration of the losses in 2001.
The church supports a professional choir and orchestra, directed by Julian Wachner. The booklet lists 31 singers, although not all of them sing in every piece. The period- instrument orchestra includes oboes, bassoon, trumpets, cornetto and trombones, along with strings and organ, to double the vocal parts tastefully and to add dramatic emphasis (as Herreweghe, Suzuki and others have done). Wachner’s performances sound like a defiant and joyous celebration of life, befitting the occasion of the commemoration. Fürchte dich nicht, bwv228, seems to me a bit too fast and perfunctory, but all of the others are strong and satisfying. There is a seventh piece included, O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht, bwv118; Bach labelled it as a motet, but it has independent instrumental parts. The cogent commentary in the booklet is by producer Peter Watchorn, and the cover art also commands attention. It is part of a painting by William Blake depicting two angels, where their wings come together and look like a prayer gesture of the hands.
Finally, my personal favourite among the motet recordings is also the most minimalistic. On Jesu, Meine Freude: Motets (Ramée ram 0906, rec 2009, 70), Peter Kooij directs Sette Voci, which (despite its name) has eight singers, not seven. There is one singer per vocal line, and not all of the pieces need everyone. The performance includes organ and violone as discreet continuo support, although they are sometimes tacet. There is obvious overlap here between Kooij’s and Suzuki’s present projects: four singers from Kooij’s ensemble—Hana Blažíková, Robin Blaze, Satoshi Misukoshi and Kooij himself—are the four concertists in Suzuki’s volume 48, as section leaders of his 16-voiced ensemble. However, the musical effect is quite different, and not only in matters of instrumentation or vocal deployment. As director, Kooij brings more rhythmic freedom and expression to the music. Where Suzuki generally keeps things moving along briskly in Bach’s music, streamlining the structure, Kooij chooses some daringly slower tempos, and gets his singers to provide a more rhetorical and dynamic delivery. The effect here in the motets is intimate, like a group gathered to sing at a friend’s funeral. The compositions sound pure and direct, with nothing distracting from the shaping of the text.
This excellent CD also includes a bonus, the motet Ich lasse dich nicht, bwv Anhang 159. It is evidently an early piece by Bach, written between 1712 and 1713, and had not yet been authenticated by the 19th century; hence its different place within the Bach-Gesellschaft edition, and the Schmieder/bwv numbers based on it. From Kooij’s ensemble, Satoshi Misukoshi, Dominik Wörner and Damien Guillon also recorded this piece (and all the motets) with Suzuki in 2009. That performance has more elaborate instrumentation doubling the parts, and is predictably faster, smoother and more extroverted.
All of the discs here, taken together, show quite a range of interpretative style. All are using period instruments or copies, and singers who well meet the modern ‘early music’ standards of tone and expression. Yet, in matters of numbers, key, instrumentation and in apparent philosophy of rhetorical delivery (or not), the listener still has a wide variety of choices to make. As always, Bach’s music gives us space to experiment as musicians, and plenty to contemplate.
Tue, January 10, 2012
Churchly Sanctuary for Music Cuts Back
The New York Times
Trinity’s weeklong commemoration relied heavily on its music program, long impressive and thriving in recent years as never before. On Friday, Sept. 9, to set the tone for a weekend full of official ceremonies, Trinity imported choirs from Washington, Boston and Bethlehem, Pa., to represent cities and a state directly affected by the attacks, and presented no fewer than 10 concerts, alternating more or less hourly between the church and the chapel. For at least one listener who took it all in, it was a stunning event.
And it was far from the only highlight of the program in a year of glowing promise and stellar achievement. In fact, having installed Julian Wachner as its director of music and arts in September 2010, Trinity Church, the major spiritual center of the financial district, was bidding fair to become its major cultural center as well.
Tue, January 3, 2012
Bach Cantatas Adapted for One Baby’s Early Days
The New York Times
As usual, Julian Wachner, the church’s director of music, led vital, energetic performances, particularly impressive for the rich expressivity of the choral singing.
Thu, December 22, 2011
Varieties of ‘Messiah’
The New York Times
Trinity’s [Messiah], largely on the strength of its extraordinary choir, pierced the heart.
Dense yet light, with biting diction and dramatic dynamic shadings, the Trinity choir [under the direction of Julian Wachner] was particularly revelatory in the great, dark numbers of the oratorio’s second part. They sang a furious “Surely he hath borne our griefs” and an “All we like sheep have gone astray” of rollicking, almost celebratory intensity, egged on by a muscular, unrelenting orchestra.
Thu, December 15, 2011
Tracing the Gospel With Renewed Vigor and Drama
The Wall Street Journal
The holiday season inevitably brings a cascade of performances of Handel’s “Messiah,” and it’s rare to come across one that makes you hear this well-worn piece anew. The Trinity Wall Street version, featuring the superb Trinity Choir and Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Julian Wachner, did just that, and luckily those who missed it downtown at Trinity Church can catch it again at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on Monday. (It’s also available by streaming video from Trinity’s website.)
Wed, December 14, 2011
Trinity Wall Street’s ‘Messiah’ heads to Alice Tully Hall
Trinity Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Julian Wachner gave dazzling performances of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” with two concerts at Trinity Church and one afternoon performance at St. Paul’s Chapel. On Dec. 19, the choir and orchestra will take their “Messiah” to Alice Tully Hall — the first time that the group has appeared at Lincoln Center.
Wachner, director of music and the arts for Trinity Wall Street, said that he wants to introduce the Trinity musicians to an audience that doesn’t come downtown.
Wed, November 23, 2011
Mozart and Wachner: The 51st opening concert by The Washington Chorus
DC Performing Arts Examiner
There was a lot at stake last Friday night as The Washington Chorus opened its 51st season. The program boasted the highly heralded D. C. premiere of music director Julian Wachner’s major work, Come, My Dark Eyed One alongside the performance of Mozart’s timeless ‘Great’ Mass in C Minor. Pairing these two contrasting works on the same program added considerable musical variety for the chorus, but presented a few interpretive challenges for the vocal soloists.
Wachner’s Come, My Dark Eyed One is a magnificent musical portrait of the various dimensions between two lovers. The large work performed by The Washington Chorus with soloists soprano Arianna Zukerman, and baritone David Kravitz was an extraordinary experience. The assembled musical forces created a rich tableau that effectively coveyed the joy and turmoil of human connection. Full of rich harmonies, sinful dissonances, sprinkled with exciting percussion, Wachner introduced to many a fresh, new compositional style. In the choral movements, The Washington Chorus’ talents were truly put on display in the a cappella movements , such as ‘Shall We too Rise’ bringing attention to the superb blend and intonation.