Press

Mon, March 26, 2018

Differentiating Music Education from Entertainment Arts
edCircuit

Dr. Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts for Trinity Wall Street in New York City, took time out of his busy schedule to sit down and speak about music education. Trinity Wall Street has a rich history of public school outreach and has seen first hand the power that music has to transform lives.

Julian points to a glaring misconception in the minds of many as to what constitutes music education. To many, music is perceived as an add-on to the entertainment arts rather than a vastly meaningful part of student learning. There needs to be differentiation, according to Julian between what people see as entertainment arts and music education. More emphasis needs to placed on the impact that music has on the overall pedagogical environment.

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Differentiating Music Education from Entertainment Arts

Changing the semantics in the narrative of music education

by Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts for Trinity Wall Street in New York City, took time out of his busy schedule to sit down and speak about music education. Trinity Wall Street has a rich history of public school outreach and has seen first hand the power that music has to transform lives.

Julian points to a glaring misconception in the minds of many as to what constitutes music education. To many, music is perceived as an add-on to the entertainment arts rather than a vastly meaningful part of student learning. There needs to be differentiation, according to Julian between what people see as entertainment arts and music education. More emphasis needs to placed on the impact that music has on the overall pedagogical environment.

The ancient Greeks and Romans perceived music to be just as vitally important as mathematics and languages, and they understood that it activated the learning senses differently. In many respects, Dr. Julian Wachner is calling for a return to the original design of music’s involvement in the education of the mind.

Rod Berger:  Julian, it's nice to spend some time with you today. I will start off by saying that I am continuously fascinated with the arts and the way in which they can impact communities, young people, regions, and areas of the entire world. We're trying to understand the changes in the world around us through the arts and exploring the ways in which we can engage at different levels with each other.

So talk to me about the obvious power of music in your life. What was that moment like when as a young person you said, “This is what I want to dedicate my life to.”

Julian Wachner:  I come from a musical family. Dad was a professional musician, a conductor, and my mom was a pianist. That meant that they actually didn't want me to become a musician. (Laughter)

But I fell in love with music at a very young age. Specifically, I fell in love with sacred music when I walked into a cathedral in Buffalo, New York when I was as a boy chorister about six or seven years old just starting out. I heard the director there improvising, and I just thought that it was the most incredible thing.

There was no turning back at that point. And even though my life is both in concert music and sacred music, this has been the trajectory that started when I was almost a baby.

RB:  In your professional career in the arts you’ve always reached out to local schoolchildren. Tell me a little about the way in which you've experienced the power of outreach from the musical community.

JW:  Absolutely! The first time that I ventured into the public school system was when I was the university organist and choirmaster at Boston University. We went into the Allston/Brighton neighborhoods in Boston with a choral program. At that point, the school system there didn't have the funds to support that kind of program, and we had a couple of hundred kids immediately involved as soon as we walked in the door.

It's incredible how the short-term teacher feedback is not so much about “Oh, the kids are really musicians” but rather that their interaction with the arts radically transforms their behavior and aptitude in other fields; specifically in our case, with music.

Here in New York City at Trinity Wall Street, we have a massive outreach program with many schools. It's similar to what it was at Boston University; we're not so much interested in people becoming professional musicians. We’re interested in how music impacts neurological development and how it impacts learning and developing skills in terms of problem-solving and getting along with one another. All the ways that music has traditionally, over thousands of years, been utilized in the pedagogical environment.

RB:  I recently spoke with a representative of a district on the West Coast that lost their arts program for over six years. How can the music community or the arts community better support the music and arts education programs around the country that often seems to be cut on the heels of slashed budgets? How can the professional community do more or provide support in ways where we're communicating the value of the arts in the development of a young person?

JW:  I think the first thing that's very important is that there needs to be ─ from the top ─ a differentiation between entertainment arts that is happening for instance at the Metropolitan Opera or the New York Philharmonic (which is wonderful and great) and music education and how music impacts the pedagogical environment.

The ancient Greeks and Romans and even into the Medieval Period, everyone knew that music was as vital a course of study as mathematics and grammar and languages. It activates neurological patterns that other sciences do not.

One of the issues is to stop talking about the arts as if it's some kind of elite type of entertainment activity and return to the original design of the purpose of the music as described by Plato, Socrates, Luther and other thinkers throughout the millennia.

That's one major issue in which just the semantics of the narratives need to be redesigned.

Specifically, I think the more that artists can bring themselves into public, private or whatever school programs the better. Forget the whole “People who can't do, teach” thing ─ get rid of that mentality completely. To have somebody like renowned opera singer Renée Fleming walk into a public school somewhere in the Bronx and get down on the ground with the choirs where the real learning is going on.

RB:  Julian, do you see ─ from the music side  ─ technology impacting the way that you can engage the next generation of musicians or the layperson who wants to enjoy music? When we speak about education broadly, engagement is a keyword that we're focusing on. How do we perk the interest of students so that they stay engaged for extended periods of time and hopefully, impact their learning?

JW:  I think one of the things that we know about all creative processes even if it's some mundane work task at a corporation is that if people are actively involved in the creation of “X” project, they are more interested in staying connected to it.

The more we can have musical performance and musical nourishment be interactive so that people can actually be involved in the creation of the art, the better. In a way that's not just receiving information in a classroom, but it’s actually DOING it. That's a little bit against what we're dealing with, with social media and so many screens giving people information as fast as they want it. It's about having a way that we can interact with art and music so that people are connected to it in a creative way themselves.

RB:  Julian, for those who don't know about Trinity Wall Street outside of New York, give us the backdrop of Trinity Wall Street and its mission.

JW:  Trinity Wall Street is really a fascinating place because, at the very core, it's just an Episcopal parish like any other Episcopal parish. But because it was endowed by Queen Anne several hundred years ago and because the resources there were carefully nurtured through great stewardship over the centuries, there is a rather large portfolio from which our budget is derived.

Our mission is multifaceted but, historically, we've been part of the narrative that for instance, helped South Africa. In the apartheid era, we were providing support for Desmond Tutu, as an example. The list goes on in terms of our outreach into the world.

But in the local arts community, there has always been an incredibly active free concert series at Trinity, and it's really a gift to the community and to the city.

I've been there now for seven or eight years. When I came, the charge was to combine the liturgical offerings with the concert offerings; so now, we have a single vision. The mission is all about the aesthetics of beauty and the power of beauty to transform lives, and then the power of education in educating the next generation and giving it to the public schools and doing that kind of work.

The peripheral issues are:  We've commissioned a number of works. We make a number of recordings. We have a couple of Grammynominations during the past five years. Two of the works we helped developed have both won Pulitzer prizes: Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fieldswhich is about the coal mining industry in rural Pennsylvania and then Du Yun’s Angel’s Bonewhich deals with a very difficult issue of human trafficking, particularly sexual human trafficking.

We hit difficult issues head on, and we try to make transformative moves in the community.

RB:  It's incredible when you talk about that, the outreach and the impact that you have.

Let's close with this, Julian. What genre of music would the audience be surprised that Dr. Julian Wachner would be listening to outside of composing? Is there a genre of music that we would be surprised that you enjoy on a Saturday while you're driving?

JW:  I don't know if the people would be surprised. Probably, my go-to is Depeche Mode and The Cure. I’m a child of the eighties.

RB:  I think that might surprise some people. They're very lucky to have you there at Trinity Wall Street. It has been fantastic to spend some time with you today. Thanks, Julian.

JW:  Thank you so much.

About Julian Wachner

Dr. Julian Wachner is the Director of Music and the Arts for the Trinity Wall Street Church in Manhattan, New York City.

Named one of New York City’s “10 Imagination-Grabbing, Trailblazing Artists of 2014” by WQXR, music director Julian Wachner continues to enjoy an international profile as a conductor, composer, and keyboard artist.

Wachner’s extensive catalog of original compositions has been variously described as “jazzy, energetic, and ingenious,” (Boston Globe), having “splendor, dignity, outstanding tone combinations, sophisticated chromatic exploration…a rich backdrop, wavering between a glimmer and a tingle...,” (La Scena Musicale) being “a compendium of surprises,” (Washington Post) and as “bold and atmospheric,” while having “an imaginative flair for allusive text setting,” and noted for “the silken complexities of his harmonies” (New York Times). The American Record Guide noted that “Wachner is both an unapologetic modernist and an open-minded eclectic – his music has something to say.”

Sat, March 24, 2018

Julian Wachner Named Artistic Director of Grand Rapids Bach Festival
Classical Source

Trinity Church Wall Street’s Director of Music and the Arts, Julian Wachner, has been appointed Artistic Director of the biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival, founded in 1997 and now an affiliate of the Grand Rapids Symphony, which has administered it since 2013. The Grand Rapids Bach Festival also announced the inauguration of the Linn Maxwell Keller Distinguished Bach Musician Award, a $10,000 prize honoring the festival’s late founder to encourage and support gifted young singers in pursuit of professional careers in music.

Lori Lee Curley, president of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival’s Board of Directors, says of Wachner’s appointment: “From the beginning of the symphony’s involvement, the goal always has been to expand the Bach Festival while honoring Linn Maxwell Keller’s legacy and vision. Julian definitely is the right choice to accomplish this, as he has many ideas for innovative programming, education and community engagement. I believe that he’ll elevate our festival to a new level. It would be wonderful if the Grand Rapids Bach Festival were to become a destination for Bach and Baroque music lovers of all ages.”

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Julian Wachner Named Artistic Director of Grand Rapids Bach Festival

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Trinity Church Wall Street’s Director of Music and the Arts, Julian Wachner, has been appointed Artistic Director of the biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival, founded in 1997 and now an affiliate of the Grand Rapids Symphony, which has administered it since 2013. The Grand Rapids Bach Festival also announced the inauguration of the Linn Maxwell Keller Distinguished Bach Musician Award, a $10,000 prize honoring the festival’s late founder to encourage and support gifted young singers in pursuit of professional careers in music.

Lori Lee Curley, president of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival’s Board of Directors, says of Wachner’s appointment: “From the beginning of the symphony’s involvement, the goal always has been to expand the Bach Festival while honoring Linn Maxwell Keller’s legacy and vision. Julian definitely is the right choice to accomplish this, as he has many ideas for innovative programming, education and community engagement. I believe that he’ll elevate our festival to a new level. It would be wonderful if the Grand Rapids Bach Festival were to become a destination for Bach and Baroque music lovers of all ages.”

Wachner, who dates his love of the music of Bach to his childhood growing up in a musical family, has shown ample evidence of that enthusiasm, and an affinity for Baroque music in general, through his programming at Trinity. With The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra he earned a 2013 Grammy nomination for Best Choral Performance for their recording of Handel’s Israel in Egypt, and Trinity’s rendition of Handel’s Messiah has long been a staple of New York’s holiday season. The same forces recently concluded a cycle, lasting five seasons, of Bach’s entire monumental output of sacred vocal music, largely performed during the celebrated “Bach at One” series in St. Paul’s Chapel. The series continues this spring, on the heels of a just-completed week-long festival to inaugurate the chapel’s newly restored and relocated Noack three-manual pipe organ. The spring concerts feature favorite Bach Cantatas, with soloists drawn from The Choir of Trinity Wall Street.

Trinity’s “indispensable and unmissable” (New York Times) array of free, ambitious musical offerings, many of which are professionally filmed, streamed live and available on-demand, also celebrates the centennial of iconic New York composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein this spring. “TOTAL EMBRACE: Leonard Bernstein at 100” will showcase a wide-ranging selection of Bernstein’s music, as well as that of related New York composer-conductors including Lukas Foss, Gustav Mahler, Pierre Boulez, Aaron Copland, and Wachner himself, who is one of Lukas Foss’s protégés. The celebration launches during the April and May Concerts at One series in St. Paul’s Chapel, and concludes with a three-concert finale (May 31-June 2). With a special emphasis on lesser-known and vocal compositions, the concerts will feature resident contemporary music orchestra NOVUS NY and a roster of North America’s leading instrumental and vocal soloists, all under Wachner’s direction. Pianist Lara Downes makes a guest appearance, performing the complete cycle of LB Anniversaries – works she has commissioned from living composers in tribute to Bernstein. In many of the concerts, NOVUS NY will be joined by the Grammy-nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street, with Trinity’s semi-professional choir Downtown Voices and the Trinity Youth Chorus also joining for the finale on June 2.

Formerly Music Director of the Washington Chorus in Washington, D.C., Wachner has made guest appearances with organizations as diverse as the New York and Hong Kong Philharmonics, the Philadelphia and National Arts Centre Orchestras, the Lincoln Center Festival, Spoleto Festival USA, and the Boston Pops. In 2014, he made his debut with San Francisco Opera as a last-minute replacement conducting Handel’s Partenope. A native of California, he studied at Boston University, earning his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition and orchestral conducting. He founded the Boston Bach Ensemble in 1995 and the Bach-Academie de Montréal (now the Montreal Bach Festival) in the early 2000s, and has guest conducted the Handel and Haydn Society, the oldest performing arts organization in the United States. Wachner has served as a Professor of Sacred Music at Boston University’s School of Theology, and is currently an Affiliate Professor of Music and the Arts at The General Seminary of the Episcopal Church, the oldest continually operating Anglican seminary in the world. He is a Fellow of the American Guild of Organists.

Wed, March 14, 2018

Review: ‘Anthracite Fields’ at The Kennedy Center
DC Metro Theater Arts

Performed on The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater stage as part of the two-week Direct Current series of contemporary arts, Anthracite Fields included music and text by Julia Wolfe, who won the Pulitzer Prize for this composition. It was an aural, choral, and visual feast; full of bittersweet beauty, felt physical textures, and colorization that drew upon American folk, rock, and classical music and the utter gorgeousness of 24 human choral voices. (There also two bicycle wheels becoming harps).

Never a pity party, the multimedia, quite immersive, Anthracite Fields was the partnership – no, make that marriage – of the award-winning, six-member musical ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars, the GRAMMY-nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street, and in-demand conductor Julian Wachner.  Evocative scenography and projection design by Jeff Sugg used black-and-white from the archives of Lewis Hine, Frank Delano, and others, along with gray-toned graphics as educational tools.

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Review: ‘Anthracite Fields’ at The Kennedy Center

by David Siegel on March 14, 2018

It was a haunting, atmospheric triumph. It was an urgent, yet respectfully accomplished multimedia exploration of American cultural issues rarely presented on DC stages about the unknown laborers in the deadly work that help energize our lifestyles (including the vast digital “clouds”). It was about those who toiled and still do, deep underground. It was the striking accomplishment of Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields.

Performed on The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater stage as part of the two-week Direct Current series of contemporary arts, Anthracite Fields included music and text by Julia Wolfe, who won the Pulitzer Prize for this composition. It was an aural, choral, and visual feast; full of bittersweet beauty, felt physical textures, and colorization that drew upon American folk, rock, and classical music and the utter gorgeousness of 24 human choral voices. (There also two bicycle wheels becoming harps).

Never a pity party, the multimedia, quite immersive, Anthracite Fields was the partnership – no, make that marriage – of the award-winning, six-member musical ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars, the GRAMMY-nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street, and in-demand conductor Julian Wachner.  Evocative scenography and projection design by Jeff Sugg used black-and-white from the archives of Lewis Hine, Frank Delano, and others, along with gray-toned graphics as educational tools.

The evening with Anthracite Fields brought forth the once intense life of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal-mining past. But this is not musty history for just a certain segment of patrons. Wolfe easily connected that past and those miners with today in the last movement, “Appliances,” that made clear how much coal miners did, and how often they died, to make modern life and modern conveniences possible.

In its one-hour performance without intermission, Anthracite Fields had five movements. First was “Foundation,” beginning with low ghostly bass sounds from Robert Black and percussion from David Cossin evoking what a deep mine with its shiny black coal shafts might sound like – until the echoing Choir voices were heard. Then came the reading of names of some who died in the mines as images were projected with Vicky Chow on keyboard. Then came “Breaker Boys,” a high-energy piece revealing the fears of adolescent boys working in the mines, with an ardent vocal performance by cellist Ashley Bathgate.

The third movement was “Speech,” with stirring words voiced by guitarist Mark Steward from a speech by United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis. The movement poignantly asks: “If we must grind up human flesh and bones in the industrial machine that we call modern America, then don’t you and I who consume the coal and benefit from that service because we live in comfort owe those who mine – and owe their families some protection if they die?”

“Speech” was followed by a much different movement called “Flowers,” not stirring but comely, almost sweet, with piano by Vicky Chow. This movement paid homage to the mining families who grew flowers above the mines to provide beauty in their lives.

Lastly was an unexpected movement, “Appliances.” In this movement, through music and voices, we are not left off the hook. No longer just history, Anthracite Fields connected a hot steaming shower, ordering a book, going to the gym, calling a friend and other conveniences to energy and electricity. But this is not a teary or angry musical movement railing to go back to what once was – rather, it aimed to inspire awareness of what once was. (That was not lost on the audience I overheard, discussing the performance and the results of the Pennsylvania special election of the same evening).

Anthracite Fields gave honor to those who toiled with their hands all their working life in a world without government safety nets. A life that fewer and fewer of us know. Anthracite Fields is a steely oratorical challenge to the status quo of short-term knowledge and forgetting the past, thinking it of no relevance to the now.

In her program notes, Wolfe, originally from Pennsylvania, wrote, “My aim with Anthracite Fields is to honor the people who preserved and endured in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal region during a time when the industry fueled the nation and to reveal a bit about who we are as American workers.” Wolfe certainly did that.

Anthracite Fields winningly paid homage to those then and those now who get dirty every day working with their hands. It gave visibility to the too often unnoticed or scoffed at. Those who work in dangerous jobs to keep rest of us comfortable even as we may sleep.

So, to Julia Wolfe, thank you for Anthracite Fields and for remembering those who toiled with dirty hands and broken fingernails from working each day. And, one more note. My Dad worked with dangerous chemicals every day for 12 hours. He came home smelling of those chemicals and his own sweat, wearing his soiled green cotton work clothes. You made his work honorable as you did for long ago Pennsylvania miners depicted in Anthracite Fields. Thank you for that.

Running Time: About one hour, with no intermission.

Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields played one performance on March 13, 2018, at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For upcoming Kennedy Center events go online.

Note: US Government data about year-by-year deaths of miners since 1900 can be found here. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2012, the average miner in the U.S. earns an hourly wage of $27.62, over the course of a 43.6-hour work week. This amounts to an annual salary of $62,620 – in DC terms, about what a GS-12 starts at. Wages vary based on location and specific job duties.

Wed, March 14, 2018

Two years after Pulitzer, a cool coal oratorio comes to Washington
The Washington Post

The result was a distinctive dream world, shot through with the words of the finely tuned Choir of Trinity Wall Street, and conducted with large gestures by Julian Wachner.

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Two years after Pulitzer, a cool coal oratorio comes to Washington

By Anne Midgette 

March 14

New York and Washington aren’t far apart as the opera audience travels — plenty of Washingtonians are frequent attendees at the Metropolitan Opera — but they seem to be separated by quite a distance when it comes to new music. The Kennedy Center’s Direct Current, its new two-week “celebration of contemporary culture,” has been spotlighting this by bringing down some of the things this city doesn’t usually hear — not, at least, since the demise of the Atlas’s fine new-music series a couple of years ago. So far, it’s given us So Percussion and Philip Glass and, on Tuesday night, the Bang on a Can All-Stars performing “Anthracite Fields,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio by Julia Wolfe, which had its premiere in Philadelphia in 2014 but only now made it to Washington.

“Anthracite Fields” is a thoughtful docu-oratorio that is ripe fodder for prize-giving, like the serious biopic taking the Oscar over rom-com contenders. Its subject is the coal country of Pennsylvania and the lives of the people who lived there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — from the names of miners who were injured, taken from the historic register and intoned by the chorus in the first of the work’s five movements, to the names of the flowers in their families’ gardens, as remembered by a miner’s daughter quoted in the fourth movement.

It’s also musically accomplished. Wolfe, a member of the composers’ triumvirate Bang on a Can, writes intensely and thoughtfully. Each movement stands alone, from the whistling opening, like wind from the past, yielding to the keening drone of the names in the first movement, punctuated by the repeated punch of “John . . . John . . . ,” to the jingly syncopation of the second movement, about the children who worked in the mines until their fingers bled. A flickering film by Jeff Suggs, with archival footage of miners and mines and towns and names and flowers, creates a visual continuity and sets the tone of the work as a piece steeped in history.

Wolfe has been writing for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, an eclectic sextet that includes percussion and electric guitar, since the ensemble was established as Bang on a Can’s performing arm in 1992, and she knows how to make the most of the group’s individual talents, which in the case of the polymathic guitarist Mark Stewart include instrument construction (a kind of harp made out of a bicycle wheel was featured) and singing (the group’s cellist, Ashley Bathgate, also had a vocal solo).

The result was a distinctive dream world, shot through with the words of the finely tuned Choir of Trinity Wall Street, and conducted with large gestures by Julian Wachner. Yet like a dream, it was also slightly distant. All the components were finally polished and smartly put together, but it didn’t, for me, quite lift off the page: something to be esteemed more than loved.

Tue, February 27, 2018

Concert review: ORA Singers at LSO St Lukes, EC1
The London Times

Julian Wachner’s Regina Coeli stood out from the European pack with its American sonic engineering.

Thu, February 22, 2018

Audio: A New Organ For Manhattan’s Oldest Church
WNYC

Last year, the chapel, which is part of Trinity Church Wall Street, celebrated its 250th anniversary with a major renovation – a renovation that concludes this year with the installation of a new organ. All this week through Saturday, the chapel is marking the occasion with concerts of various sorts, from Bach cantatas to a screening of the Harold Lloyd silent film Speedy with organ accompaniment (that one’s on Friday night).

Music Director Julian Wachner gives WNYC’s John Schaefer a tour of the instrument – which has a couple of sonic surprises.

Fri, February 16, 2018

An Organ — and Soon Another — Lands on Broadway
The New York Times

To hear Julian Wachner tell it, playing the organs of Trinity Church Wall Street in recent years has posed risks to both body and spirit.

“It is soul-numbing to play that thing,” Mr. Wachner, the church’s hard-driving director of music and arts, said of the digital instrument in Trinity Church, on Lower Broadway. He also called the Schlicker pipe organ, long resident in St. Paul’s Chapel, Trinity’s historic satellite a few blocks north, “tendinitis central.”

But all that will soon change. Some of it already has.

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An Organ — and Soon Another — Lands on Broadway

By JAMES R. OESTREICHFEB. 16, 2018

To hear Julian Wachner tell it, playing the organs of Trinity Church Wall Street in recent years has posed risks to both body and spirit.

“It is soul-numbing to play that thing,” Mr. Wachner, the church’s hard-driving director of music and arts, said of the digital instrument in Trinity Church, on Lower Broadway. He also called the Schlicker pipe organ, long resident in St. Paul’s Chapel, Trinity’s historic satellite a few blocks north, “tendinitis central.”

But all that will soon change. Some of it already has.

The chapel’s instrument has been replaced by one purchased from a church in Massachusetts.

As part of a renovation of the chapel for its 250th anniversary last year, the Schlicker has left the building. Built in 1963 for St. Paul’s in purportedly Bachian style, with an eye toward the then-burgeoning early-music movement, the organ has been replaced by a more versatile, well-used 1989 Noack pipe organ, which was fitted into the chapel’s slightly expanded 1802 cabinet. And as part of another renovation, of Trinity Church itself, the 15-year-old digital instrument will be replaced by an $8 million pipe organ now being made by Rosales Organ Builders, which also produced the acclaimed example in Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The Rosales is projected to be in place by April 2021. But first things first: the installation of the Noack organ will be celebrated with an inauguration festival at St. Paul’s from Feb. 19 to 24.

On opening day, Mr. Wachner and Jonathan Ambrosino, Trinity’s organ consultant, will demonstrate the instrument, which was purchased (from the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill, Mass.) and installed for $1 million; there will also be a concert with Mr. Wachner conducting the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Trinity Baroque Orchestra in works of Duruflé and Bach; and an organ recital by the noted performer Peter Sykes. On Feb. 22, Paul Jacobs, himself a grand New York institution, will play concertos by Poulenc, Christopher Rouse and Mr. Wachner, who will also conduct Novus NY, Trinity’s contemporary-music ensemble.

As Lower Manhattan grows ever more residential, Trinity has become more intimately entwined with the life of its neighborhood. It was pulled in by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an event that ended up spurring this frenetic organ activity.

St. Paul’s, across Church Street from the World Trade Center, somehow survived the conflagration without significant structural damage. But its contents were coated with dust, grime and debris, and in the case of the Schlicker organ, with its intricate inner workings and its use of degradable materials, like leather, the damage proved disabling.

Though slightly farther from ground zero, the Aeolian Skinner organ in Trinity Church, dating from 1923, suffered similar damage, and it lay idle and dismantled for several years as the church awaited an insurance settlement. Finally, realizing that reconstruction or the manufacture of a new pipe organ could take another five years, Trinity Wall Street, which was in constant use, arrived at a radical solution: the manufacture of a new digital instrument by Marshall & Ogletree, with sampled sound reproduced by ranks of large speakers, 74 in all, hidden behind dummy pipes in the choir loft. The instrument was developed quickly, at a cost of $300,000.

Electronic organs have been slow to gain respect from pipe organ enthusiasts. The sound emerging from speakers can be tacky, flat and superficial, and typically lacks the gut-wrenching impact of the roar that mighty pipes can produce. Avi Stein, the associate organist and chorus master at Trinity Wall Street, allows that the Marshall & Ogletree “fakes a pipe organ very well” but adds that it “lacks some of the tangible singing quality that turns a machine into a work of art.” He agreed with Mr. Wachner that playing the instrument is, in a way, like listening to a recording.

Owen Burdick, a former director of music, was somewhat more enthusiastic when the instrument was installed, in 2003, saying, “This instrument raises the bar for electronic organs.” But he stopped well short of seeing in it any wave of the future.

“Is it beautiful?” he asked, and answered in the negative.

But Mr. Burdick, who left Trinity in 2008, now sings a different tune. Trinity, he said, has not availed itself of improvements that have since become available, including a behemoth of a subwoofer made by Thigpen that can supposedly produce depths of sound down to 0 Hz.

“This thing could kill you,” Mr. Burdick said.

Now the organist and choirmaster at the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes in Washington, Mr. Burdick said he hoped that Trinity would donate the digital organ to his parish, adding, “I think Jesus likes the sound of electronic organs just fine.”

At St. Paul’s, meanwhile, the Schlicker organ languished, unused, for eight years. Then things started hopping.

Larry Trupiano, a master organ technician in New York, was asked in 2009 to undertake the painstaking process of cleaning and restoring the Schlicker. And a year later, Mr. Wachner blew into town like a whirlwind to take over Trinity’s music program, seemingly bent on turning St. Paul’s into a prime destination for classical and, particularly, early music.

His efforts reached an early, majestic height with Trinity’s landmark commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, with a full day of concerts alternating between St. Paul’s and Trinity. But drama seems to dog Mr. Wachner’s footsteps, and early the next year, in a stunning reversal, Trinity Wall Street abruptly announced that it was suspending most of its concerts, including the backbone Monday series, Bach at One, while the clergy and vestry re-evaluated the benefits and costs of the music and arts program.

After several tense months, the crisis disappeared as mysteriously (to an outsider) as it had appeared, and 2012 ended with further musical growth. Mr. Wachner expanded the activities of Novus NY, and Renée Anne Louprette, then the organist and associate director of music and arts, inaugurated a new Wednesday series, Pipes at One, on the Schlicker organ, by now largely restored.

But Mr. Wachner arrived at Trinity, he says, with a dual mandate: to integrate Trinity’s concerts with its liturgical activity into a unified vision for music and arts in Lower Manhattan, and to sort out the organ situation. And there was still that ergonomic issue with the Schlicker.

Mr. Ambrosino, Trinity’s organ consultant, explained that the instrument, though beloved by many for its bright, crisp sound, could be strenuous to play, partly because — in keeping with its North German Baroque design — it was a tracker instrument, and one of the Schlicker company’s first such ventures. On a tracker organ, the player’s touch on the keyboard or pedals sets in motion a complex mechanical action that produces the sound directly, without the electronic intervention that had come into wide use to ease the player’s burden, as with power steering in a car. (Note that an organ with an electric action is different from an electronic organ as described above, where it is the sound being manipulated, not the touch.)

Later Schlicker tracker organs were evidently much improved and easier to play. “This one,” Mr. Wachner said, “seemed like an experiment.”

Mr. Trupiano, the technician, who probably knew the instrument better than anyone else from countless hours spent scouring its innards, takes a less drastic view. He acknowledged the instrument’s “technical limitations” but said it was decently playable.

In any case, when Mr. Wachner, early in his investigations, learned of the availability of the Noack organ in Chestnut Hill, an instrument he knew and loved from his student days at Boston University, he set off on a single-minded pursuit. He has become only more enthralled since its arrival.

“I knew it was going to be good,” Mr. Wachner said, “but I didn’t know it was going to be world class.” And Mr. Trupiano, close as the Schlicker was to his heart, has endorsed Mr. Wachner’s decision to opt for an instrument of greater stylistic range and the highest quality.

“They couldn’t have made a better choice,” Mr. Trupiano said.

The Noack is somewhat larger than the Schlicker, with three manuals to its two and a swell box. Added stops include a rather trivial one that emits a feeble, warbling imitation of bird song, which is jokingly labeled “Byrds,” after the Elizabethan organist and composer William Byrd.

Mr. Wachner worked with Mr. Stein recently, mapping out registrations for future performances, and both marveled at the Noack’s versatility.

“A French work, and suddenly you’re in Paris,” Mr. Wachner said as Mr. Stein played parts of Duruflé’s “Messe cum Jubilo.” “I can’t believe we have that sound on this thing. The Schlicker could never do that.”

Nor, for what it’s worth, could the Schlicker do bird song.

Fri, December 22, 2017

Review: Du, Angel’s Bone
Opera News

Too often, winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Music seem to be chosen according to politics rather than aesthetics.  But Du Yun’s opera, ‘Angel’s Bone,’ - which received the prize in 2017 - is the real deal. I’ve never experienced a work quite like this. The libretto, by Royce Vavrek (who has recently become ubiquitous in contemporary opera), is a disturbing parable of modern-day human trafficking and sex slavery…

...In response to the brutality of Vavrek’s text, the Chinese-born, American-based Du has developed a fractured, schizophrenic music language that pieces together hacked up bits of various styles and genres. Reflecting the angels’ divine origins, she draws on religious choral music in a series of bizarre interludes for the Choir of Trinity Wall Street [under the direction of Julian Wachner].

...

Sat, December 16, 2017

Retelling the Sacred: Trinity Wall Street Presents Handel’s ‘Messiah’
Medium

Nothing can describe the sensations one receives when hearing the Baroque Orchestra strike their first notes of Sinfony in Trinity Church. The acoustical reflections of the hall reverberate in a haunting way when the first few dramatic notes are struck…

...This was by far, one of the best performances of the piece I have seen yet.

Read Full Text

Retelling the Sacred: Trinity Church Wall Street Presents Handel’s ‘Messiah’

by Kevin Christensen

“Show of hands first, how many of you know that tonight’s Messiah going to be a little different than normal?”

Ms. Brailey words resonated among the 19th century arches.

“Okay so maybe not even half. So, for the rest of you we’re flip flopping everything.”

My attention was caught. I immediately had mixed feelings. Being a purist — to an extent — on many things I was hesitant. But, I’m always willing to be persuaded. She continued:

“So, the sopranos are singing the tenor arias. The Basses are singing the mezzo arias and vice verse. We’re even flipping things in one of the choruses, but I won’t tell you which one, you have to…wait and see.”

You could sense in the air a mixture of feelings. But, just like myself, you could tell that people were willing to consider the possibility.

“This already happens with a few of the aria’s in the Messiah, ‘Who May Abide’ is frequently done by both mezzos and baritones — basses. But, besides the typical cuts that are done in the Messiah there’s sort of a standard convention these days as to how it’s done. But if you happen to have had the chance to look at a score in many editions there is an appendix in the back that includes several of the arias in different keys, and even a few different movements that are generally included.”

You could tell she was excited and nervous — but mainly excited. Her excitement was contagious.

“For a variety I have always thought this would be a fun idea, so I got excited when Julian sent this email. But, in rehearsing it, I think many of us found something that we didn’t expect — which I think is actually very relevant to the public conversations we are having today about gender and expectations of masculinity and femininity. So, for example, you know when we hear an aria like ‘The Trumpets Shall Sound’ typically you expect this big thundering bass, right? That’s not what you are gonna get tonight. The wonderful Mezzo friend of mine Ms. Brackett is singing that tonight — and it’s not just that it’s this female voice singing this text and heralding the triumph of the resurrection — but if you look at the typical roles that the voices play, especially in Baroque music, they are generally pretty narrow. The soprano is the true believer, the soul, the angel, the Mezzo is generally the maternal one, but to hear this text sung in a voice you don’t expect I think really makes you think about it in a new way.”

She continued, elaborating and giving historical justification to the decisions made. This eased some of the initial feelings of skepticism I experienced. It calmed the purist voice in my head, soothing it into a lull.

“And, like the duet ‘He Shall Feed His Flock’ is now this big beautiful bass and this lovely tenor. And, to hear this really masculine voice singing these words of comfort I think is really beautiful and profound. And, I and several of my colleagues found it very moving. This Idea of flip flopping isn’t so strange — Handel himself would transpose arias for new singers and new performances, so I think there is a little bit of historical practice here also — but I would like to encourage you to also listen to the text tonight and to examine how you think about the gender issues that we are talking about in this day and age. So I hope it’s not disappointing. I hope it is revelatory. And, we hope you enjoy. Thank you.”

Ms. Brailey resumed her place among the choir, and the the first soloist resumed her place beside the conductor to sing the first Arioso.

It was snowing when I left my room uptown to catch the Two train to the Wall Street station. I had been looking forward to this night all week and it was finally here.

I don’t remember what exactly spurred the tradition into existence, but when I moved to New York in the fall of 2016, it rekindled me desire to connect with a side of me that I hadn’t tapped into since before the military.

Growing up in the Willamette valley there weren’t too many opportunities to participate in cultural experiences. But in the winter of 2006 I remember taking my 1987 Subaru Justy and a couple of my friends to attend Western Oregon’s performance of Handel’s Messiah. I was a senior in high school at this time, and was a member of my schools choir. And something about it moved me in a profound way.

I hadn’t had the opportunity for 10 years, but finally I was living in a city where participating in cultural experiences was possible, if not encouraged. So, I purchased tickets to the New York Philharmonics production of the Messiah. That was in 2016. This year, however, I chose to attend the Trinity Church production of Handel’s Messiah, conducted by Julian Wachner.

Trinity Church stood majestically at the end of the street when I came up from the warm subway. Its neo-gothic spire jutting into the sky. Snow whirled around and the ground was slick. But this was not the original iteration of Trinity Church on this plot of land.

In 1696 the plot of to build the first Trinity Church was purchased by the Church of England. King William the III the following year gave it it’s charter, and it’s rent was to be 60 bushels of wheat. In 1968 the first iteration of Trinity Church was built.

In 1705, Queen Anne expanded the parishes land to 215 acres, and over the next 50 years two schools — Trinity School and Kings College (now Columbia University) would be built.

Finally, in 1776 the church was destroyed in the Great New York City Fire.

Meanwhile, across the pacific, two men following in the trend of English language operas, which had become popular in the mid 1700’s, worked on what would become one of the most famous Oratorios to ever grace the stage. As Charles Jennens — the librettist — put in a letter to his friend Edward Holdsworth: “I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other subject. The Subject is Messiah.”

The Messiah, was composed in three to four weeks in 1741 and eventually premiered at Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The piece was so popular and so many people arrived that the management pleaded with the women not to wear hoops so that they could fit as many people possible into the hall.

Handel also found success with the piece when it was brought to London audiences, however it did take time for it to be recognized as a Christmas favorite and tradition. The decision to premier it in Dublin was due to some of Handel’s lack of success in recent past works and fear of a critical failure at this time, and since Dublin was the budding economic powerhouse, it was chosen to test the unorthodox loose narrative piece about the life of Christ.

While the Messiah is often attributed to Handel, he wasn’t alone in the creation of the work. Charles Jennens — a oxford trained Shakespeare scholar — wrote the libretto. Jennens purpose in writing the piece was to be a declarative statement about Christ’s divinity in the wake of the rise of rationalized atheism.

It is uncertain how Handel felt about religion, but his fondness of grand myths and legend is known, and this piece fit the bill.

It seems like nearly every day a new person speaks out about an experience they have had regarding sexual misconduct or mistreatment. More often than not those speaking out, the victims, are women or women passing. The #metoo movement, paired with recent events in American civil and political life, ignited a fire, and started a conversation.

What are the implications of gender? What of Masculinity? What of Femininity? How do they intersect with power? These are only a few of the many questions being discussed in the public spheres.

Last year we had the first woman presidential nominee in major party. She, unfortunately, lost to a man with a horrific track record of using his power to manipulate women. Meanwhile, the republican front runner in an Alabama special election for a senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a man accused of multiple instances of Ephebophilia, sexual assualt while charading as a and fundamentalist evangelical.

It is this intersection of the “patriarchal religions” and gender roles that makes this particular production of Handel’s Messiah interesting, as many religious folk hold to the belief that women shall not take high leadership roles such as that of a pastor.

At the time when Handel wrote this, the conversations surrounding the roles of women were in discussion. In fact, Mary Wollstonecraft — one of the grandmothers of feminism — wrote her Vidication of the Rights of Woman as a push back on the conversations surrounding gender roles (the roles of women in particular) in 1792. Only a few decades after the premier of the Messiah.

Knowing this historical context is important, and pairing it with what we know of women in patriarchal religions — like Christianity — helps us develop a baseline to think about the ramifications of flipping the genders on their head, which this particular production chose to do.

After the context was given to the particular differences in this performance as opposed to others, Scene 1: Isaiah’s Prophecy of Salvation began — Sinfony.

Nothing can describe the sensations one receives when hearing the Baroque Orchestra strike their first notes of Sinfony in Trinity church. The acoustical reflections of the hall reverberate in a haunting way when the first few dramatic notes are stuck.

The first musical phrases of the piece are dramatic and mysterious. Sinfony is in E minor, and while the piece isn’t directly related to the following vocal pieces, one familiar with the Oratorio as a complete work, does recognize its relationship to the piece by its rhythms and passages as clearly being of the production.

Following Sinfony, is the Recitative “Comfort ye my people” from Isaiah 40, 1–3. This piece is normally done by a tenor, but for this performance — do to the flipping of the parts on their heads — it would be performed by the beautifully talented soprano Ms. Molly Netter.

I was already overcome by emotion witnessing the Sinfony, that when the first she let from her lips “Comfort ye…” in, I could not help but continue be overcome with emotion. The only descriptions I can give to the emotions are that of a burden being lifted. The articulation was with such gentle grace that watching I felt a single tear fall from my left eye and drip down my cheek. This was by far, one of the best performances of the piece I have seen yet.

My favorite piece within the first part of the Messiah is the final chorus at the end of Scene 3: The prophecy of Christ’s birth. The song, which has always reminded me of Christmas, is titled “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” and just like nearly every other aspect of the evening, they did not disappoint. Following the Chorus, and beginning Scene 4: The annunciation to the shepherds, is a break from accompanied pieces and we receive the famous Pifa — “Pastoral Symphony.” Making this particular scene the more interesting and beautiful, we were graced by three soloists from the Trinity Youth Chorus. Each one of them sang a different Arioso or Recitative. This provided a beautiful telling of the story. It was as if four young angels approached the shepherds announcing the coming of Christ.

The walk from my room to the redline was slick, and I was nervous. I had left myself an hour and a half to get to the venue, but unfortunately, you never know whether or not MTA would delay you.

When I got inside the 135 station, I was pleased to see that there was a two minute estimate on the arrival of the next subway to take me downtown.

This is good. It would take me 45 minutes — with no delays to get to the venue and so if all went smoothly I would arrive with plenty of time. Unfortunately, with the MTA one can experience severe delays depending on possible unforeseen events, and even giving yourself a 45 minute buffer may not be enough time. I remember a time when I was nearly late for a production of “Something Rotten” and I had given myself a 30 minute buffer. I boarded the subway when it arrived, and we were off.

Along the way I played one of my daily podcasts that I would normally listen to on my commutes, and observed the comings and goings of other riders. It’s Friday, around 6 in the evening, people are getting off of work, others are making their way to dinner and happy hour. Everyone is bundled up in winter attire.

72nd street…42nd street…34th street…14th street…

We were making incredible time. My fears began to subside. Periodically, I would try to scroll through Facebook like the addicted Millennial I am, unfortunately while there is excellent wifi at the subway stops the tunnels still have not implemented wifi. It’s only a matter of years — given we still have the internet (my concern triggered by the recent FCC vote to repeal Net Neutrality).

Canal Street…Chambers Street…Park Place…Fulton Street…Wall Street.

I exited the subway car. It was 7pm. I made it.

I felt tired, and the Messiah is long. It would probably be in my best interest to find some coffee, so I did. I was lucky to realize there was a Starbucks on my way to the venue so I picked up a tall drip coffee and braced myself for the cold.

It was still snowing, as I came up from the warm subway. And looking west I could see the grand gothic steeple jutting into the pitch black sky.

I pressed towards it, careful not to fall on the slippery snow-covered sidewalk.

Both men and women are taught very specific gender rules to follow, and this relates to the music world as well. Indeed, for many years women were not allowed to participate in public singing. And, when they were they were required to sing very specific roles. As Ms. Brailey explained:

“If you look at the typical roles that the voices play, especially in Baroque music, they are generally pretty narrow. The soprano is the true believer, the soul, the angel, the Mezzo is generally the maternal one.”

This, unfortunately is completely unsurprising. To this day there is still widespread discrimination and mistreatment and subjugation of women by men, why wouldn’t women then, in Baroque music, be sanctioned to very specific conceptions of the role of women as viewed by men — maternal, pure, angelic, submissive rather than majestic, bold, angry, powerful.

But why shouldn’t they? What can be experienced when when we flip those roles? What advance towards progress can be made in society by such a choice? What can we learn? The answers to those questions are mostly private ones that each listener will have to answer to themselves. But, I must say, that the beauty of living in an age whereby such question can be asked put into practice make me thrilled to be alive.

Upon reaching the parish, I was greeted by two lovely gate keepers, and they told me I needed to drink my coffee before entering the venue, but they let me pass inwards still. I quickly downed my coffee, as I looked around at the ornate architecture. The two doors at the entrance of the the parish were ornately molded Iron, by the looks of it. And depicted different biblical stories — revelations VI: Verses 15, 16, and 17 — was listed below the top panel on the right hand door. Below it a passage from Luke, and what can be described as an Angel speaking to a kneeling woman — Mary — I assume. And around the panels seem to be depictions of different men, though I did no really recognize any of them. Both doors had three panels, and each one told a different story. I stayed long enough to appreciate their beauty, but after I quickly finished my coffee, I went inside.

Following the Great fire, the the second Trinity Church was built then consecrated in 1790. It was politically significant because President Washington and members of his government often worshiped there including John Jay and Alexander Hamilton (who is buried in the adjacent Graveyard. The second church was eventually torn down after being weakened in 1838 due to the severe snow storms.

Finally the third, and current iteration of the Church was built in 1846. And, since then it has been important location for multiple pivotal in history. On 9/11, the church was a refuge amidst the chaos. And during the Occupy Wall Street movement the church provided moral and practical support. Three of the clergy were even arrested when demonstrators attempted to occupy a space called “LentSpace.” .

Stepping into the third iteration of the Trinity Church, I was immediately in awe of the majestic nature of the beautiful church and it’s neo-gothic architecture

There was a ticket checker, and she directed me to an usher who gave me a program and helped me take my seat.

Being a poor college student, I could not afford on. Of the states int he center, and while I thought I was choosing an excellent seat with only partial visibility, it turned out that seat A104 was nearly no visibility. To make up for the lack of visibility, however, the performance was also broadcasted onto large screens, one of them was displayed directly in front of me.

I was a little disappointed, as I wanted a more pure experience and viewing the production on a screen — even though I was in the venue — didn’t seem to be very pure. Nevertheless I was optimistic.

I took off my layers and made my comfortable — snapping a few photos to share with friends and family on Facebook. Eventually my row filled up with other people including another man who was equally disappointed with the lack of visibility. I told him that if I were to ever return I would choose a row a few rows back as the visibility would be less obstructed. He agreed. “Next Year.”

The other seats began to fill, and the musicians began to take their places. There was a quiet hum as the musicians tuned and tested their instruments, making subtle adjustments.

Then, things got quiet as the Concertmaster, Robert Mealy, provided the proper tuning for the first part on his violin. The other instruments responded.

The show was about to begin.

The Choir took their places too, and finally, the conductor, Julian Wachner, took his position at the head of the stage.

He spoke a few words, talking about the tradition of the performance, then hinted at tonight being a bit different. In doing so, he invited one of the Soprano’s Ms. Sarah Brailey to speak about the nature of this particular performance.

Example of the interior of gothic architecture. In the image we can see the Nave which leads to the Ambulatory. On the sides we see Pointed Arches held up by Piers and reinforced by Ribbing.

When I stepped into the venue I was immediately overcome with a pure sense of calm and awe. I had been in this venue before but it had been a while. The combination of my purpose for being here with the weather outside and the burden that had gathered over the past few months due to the intense nature of my education, seemed to be lifted. The ambiance provided by the lighting down the nave and how it reflected on the piers fading as it approached the rib and the rib vault. The matte brown paint on the ribbing provided a wonderful contrast to the cream colored walls and the dark wooden pews.

The tone of the room was warm and ballanced. Having seen the same production done in other venues which tended to feel much dryer, this venue, with its natural reverbs provided by the architectural design imbued the harmonics with a beautiful warmth that is very hard to describe otherwise.

My only real complaint with the venue are the seats, and while they are indeed padded, ones space is constrained. And, my space was intruded upon buy small carved wooden arches that jutted from the walls, and made it very uncomfortable to rest upon, likewise, there was a heater directly below my seat that I was afraid was going to potentially light me on fire from how hot it got.

Following the intermission after Part One, the performance continued to bless us. Mr. Massey, an alto, performed a wonderful performance of Scene 5’s “Thou art gone up on high.” And, while the end of the orotorio doesn’t end with the “Hallelujah Chorus,” Trinity Choir didn’t let us down. The piece was just as majestic and resonant as one would expect from a choir at this caliper.

I can never help but feel sorry, however for the Timpanist who performs with this oratorio, as s/he is only really utilized for the “Hallelujah Chorus.” But, that is the reality of the job.

Finally, closing up Part 3, we were graced with a wonderful musical trio between Robert Mealy on violin, Ezra Seltzer on Violincello, and Mr. Parsons singing in alto “If God be for us, who can be against us.”

What are your thoughts? What do you think about flipping gender roles in traditional productions like this? Do you think the performance successfully achieved what it sought out to do? Is a production like this a place for social or political messages? Do you think the production should have sought to warn all of the audience that what they intended to do? I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Please discuss this with me below, and I will do my best to respond as much as I can.

Originally published at kevinleechristensen.com on December 16, 2017.

Fri, December 15, 2017

Humble Cinderella: The 8 Best Classical Music Moments of the Week on YouTube
The New York Times

Julian Wachner’s annual presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” at Trinity Wall Street, always eagerly awaited by early-music fans in New York, brings added curiosity this weekend: Advance publicity reports that “parts typically sung by female voices will be sung by men and vice versa.” This version of the soprano aria “Rejoice greatly,” sung by the tenor Roberto Saccà in a performance led by Helmuth Rilling, gives an idea of the possibilities: a rough one, since it is sung in German (“Erwach’ zu Liedern der Wonne” for “Awaken to songs of bliss”) and backed by Mozart’s reorchestration, from his arrangement of “Messiah.” Mr. Wachner promises to explain his reasoning.

Read Full Text

Humble Cinderella: The 8 Best Classical Music Moments of the Week on YouTube

Dec. 15, 2017

Record of Last Year

While tilling the ground for records of the year 2017 recently, I was directed not only to the Danish String Quartet’s collection of folk songs and the like, “Last Leaf,” which qualified, but also to the ensemble’s 2016 recording of works by Per Norgard, Hans Abrahamsen and Thomas Adès, which I somehow missed at the time. Here is a video of the quartet’s account of the same Adès work, “Arcadiana” (1994), as performed at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse during the 2015 Mostly Mozart festival. Particularly captivating is Mr. Adès’s eerie danse macabre “Et... (tango mortale),” as it grows out of the distinctly un-Schubertian “Auf dem Wasser zu singen.” JAMES R. OESTREICH

Harp Does Organ?

As with Handel’s “Messiah,” it’s impossible to imagine a Christmas season without performances of Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” by every church with a boys choir. On Thursday, 15 boys of the Saint Thomas Choir on Fifth Avenue, accompanied by harpist Bridget Kibbey and under the direction of Daniel Hyde, gave a tender, cleanly executed account of Britten’s beguilingly modest piece. But the surprise of the program came at the start, when Ms. Kibbey played her own transcription of Bach’s dark and restless Toccata and Fugue in D minor for Organ. Say again? This mighty organ piece played on a harp? It was remarkable. Yes, you missed the organ’s body-shaking low-bass pedal tones. But the gossamer colorings and improvisatory fervor of Ms. Kibbey’s account hooked me. Here she is playing this transcription in 2015. Catch the Lisztian passage early on when Ms. Kibbey creates a hazy tangle of swirling notes. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

Seductively Intimate

The annual Richard Tucker Gala, a fund-raiser that’s also a chance to get a hoard of opera singers in a room together, was pretty sleepy this year. Except, that is, for some poised, committed arias from Ailyn Pérez and the showstopper: Stephanie Blythe riding her big, chocolaty voice all over the “Habanera” from “Carmen,” an opera a big girl like her is (criminally) almost always overlooked for. Hers is a more unwieldy and hooty instrument than it was back when she sang it in Seattle in 2004; listen to how seductively intimate her mezzo-soprano got for this repetition of “Si je t’aime.” Her tone is luxurious but she doesn’t ladle on the sensuousness too thick. (Listen to all 45 minutes of highlights!) ZACHARY WOOLFE

‘Messiah’ Sex Change

Julian Wachner’s annual presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” at Trinity Wall Street, always eagerly awaited by early-music fans in New York, brings added curiosity this weekend: Advance publicity reports that “parts typically sung by female voices will be sung by men and vice versa.” This version of the soprano aria “Rejoice greatly,” sung by the tenor Roberto Saccà in a performance led by Helmuth Rilling, gives an idea of the possibilities: a rough one, since it is sung in German (“Erwach’ zu Liedern der Wonne” for “Awaken to songs of bliss”) and backed by Mozart’s reorchestration, from his arrangement of “Messiah.” Mr. Wachner promises to explain his reasoning. JAMES R. OESTREICH

Leontyne’s Grammys

I just had the honor of interviewing the great soprano Leontyne Price in Maryland, where, now 90, she is living in retirement near her large extended family. (I’ll be reporting more on this visit soon.) At the 1983 Grammy Awards, Ms. Price stopped the show with a sumptuous and sensitive performance of “Vissi d’arte” from “Tosca.” Every moment of her singing is wondrous. I especially love the climactic phrase when Ms. Price, after leaping to a glorious high B flat, takes a quick breath then sings a plush A flat (a sighing “Ah”) that slips smoothly down to a sustained, uncannily steady G — those two notes prolonged on a single breath for almost 15 seconds. Some in the audience, thinking the aria is over, or perhaps simply amazed by what they’ve just heard, start to applaud. Unruffled, Ms. Price concludes the aria beautifully, eliciting an instantaneous standing ovation from an audience full of pop icons. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

Humble Cinderella

Cinderella operas aren’t rarities: Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” is done all over, and Massenet’s “Cendrillon” has its advocates. (One of them, Joyce DiDonato, will bring it to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time this spring.) But Nicolas Isouard’s 1810 version, which predates both, has all but vanished. So bravo to Manhattan School of Music, where French rarities have found an unlikely home, for carefully reconstructing and reviving the charming work last weekend. Very little of the opera is online, so take this clip (in German!) as a teaser; Isouard’s Cinderella is so humble that the repetition of her sweet, forlorn little early aria is without fussy ornaments or much distinction at all. ZACHARY WOOLFE

Brechtian Distance

Critics of John Adams’s new opera, “Girls of the Golden West,” have largely taken issue with the somewhat anti-dramatic libretto, a collage of primary sources from California’s Gold Rush assembled by Peter Sellars. But Mr. Sellars’s concept has flashes of brilliance when combined with his direction, which owes much to Brechtian distancing. The first act is laden with inert monologues, but the second has the feeling of a pageant: present-day actors recounting California history, sometimes as a show within a show. “Ladies and gentlemen, the ballad of Ah Sing,” Clarence tells an onstage crowd from atop a sequoia’s stump. (Is there anything more Brechtian than introducing a ballad?) Then Ah Sing (the Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee) delivers her story of a Chinese prostitute who dreams of a better life. JOSHUA BARONE

Heartbreaking Farewell

Putting together our list of the best classical recordings of 2017 this week provided an opportunity to revisit Erato’s four-hour (but rewarding, I promise!) concert recording of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg and a luxury cast, including Joyce DiDonato’s assured role debut as Didon. In this excerpt from the fifth act, she bids farewell to her city after singing the aria “Je vais mourir” (“I am going to die”). Listen for the quiet, devastating intensity in her voice as she recalls “stars I admired in nights of intoxication and infinite ecstasy.” JOSHUA BARONE

Thu, December 14, 2017

Classical Music in NYC This Week
The New York Times

“All we like sheep,” sings the chorus in Handel’s “Messiah,” and most of classical music’s more traditional institutions appear to agree when it comes to programming at Christmas. No matter, when it comes to Trinity Wall Street’s “Messiah,” which is undoubtedly the best on offer every year. With Julian Wachner at the helm, there is never a hint of routine, and the story is not comforting, but a gripping, edge-of-the-pew drama. If the performances are sold out, they are all broadcast live on the church’s website, and available later on demand.

Read Full Text

Classical Music in NYC This Week

By DAVID ALLEN

DEC. 14, 2017

Our guide to the city’s best classical music and opera.

‘THE BOOK OF DREAMS’ at National Sawdust (Dec. 17, 4 p.m.). The premiere of a new work by the composer David T. Little is always worth exploring, and his operas — “Dog Days,” “JFK” — reveal him to be an especially powerful composer for the voice. “The Book of Dreams: Chapter Sand” is a song cycle for baritone and electronics based on poetry by the surrealist Sonja Krefting. David Adam Moore is the singer here, in a production directed by Vita Tzykun.
646-779-8455, nationalsawdust.org

CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY at Alice Tully Hall (Dec. 15, 7:30 p.m., through Dec. 19). Escape the Handel that surrounds us every holiday season with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s annual holiday presentations of that other Baroque great, Bach. The complete “Brandenburg” Concertos are on offer, as ever, with an array of players that includes the violinist Cho-Liang Lin, the cellist Nicholas Canellakis and the New York Philharmonic’s flautist, Robert Langevin.
212-875-5788, chambermusicsociety.org

‘HANSEL AND GRETEL’ at the Metropolitan Opera (Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m., through Jan. 6). Humperdinck’s fairy tale with darkness at its heart returns in a holiday version, sung in English and performed in the Richard Jones production. Donald Runnicles, a sure hand in any music, conducts a cast including Lisette Oropesa as Gretel, Tara Erraught as Hansel, Gerhard Siegel as the Witch and Dolora Zajick as Gertrude.
212-362-6000, metopera.org

JACK QUARTET at National Sawdust (Dec. 21, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.). The American premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet No. 9, from a quartet that has developed a particularly strong relationship with the composer. Like several of his more recent works — including “in vain” and the String Quartet No. 3, “In iij. Noct” — this one takes place in darkness.
646-779-8455, nationalsawdust.org

‘MESSIAH’ at Trinity Church (Dec. 15, 7:30 p.m., through Dec. 17). “All we like sheep,” sings the chorus in Handel’s “Messiah,” and most of classical music’s more traditional institutions appear to agree when it comes to programming at Christmas. No matter, when it comes to Trinity Wall Street’s “Messiah,” which is undoubtedly the best on offer every year. With Julian Wachner at the helm, there is never a hint of routine, and the story is not comforting, but a gripping, edge-of-the-pew drama. If the performances are sold out, they are all broadcast live on the church’s website, and available later on demand.
212-602-0800, trinitywallstreet.org

Mon, December 11, 2017

Notable Performances and Recordings of 2017
The New Yorker

[Included in ‘Ten Notable Recordings’]
Du Yun, “Angel’s Bone”
Abigail Fischer, Jennifer Charles, Kyle Bielfield, Kyle Pfortmiller, Julian Wachner conducting the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Novus NY (VIA Artists)

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2017 In Review

Notable Performances and Recordings of 2017

By Alex Ross

December 11, 2017

The loveliest experience of my listening year took place on a balmy September night at the Hollywood Bowl. Yo-Yo Ma came to the great amphitheatre in the Hollywood Hills to play the six solo cello suites of Bach. I had doubts about the enterprise going in. Could Ma’s instrument be amplified effectively in such a wide open space? Could such intimate music speak to a crowd of thousands? People prize the Bowl for its casual conviviality. Patrons dine, drink, and, sometimes, chatter among themselves. A lighter repertory works best: Holst’s “Planets” is a blast. Bach’s itineraries of the world spirit are another matter.

I sat with a friend well to the back, several hundred feet from the stage. Ma was a mere dot in the middle distance. Video screens on either side of the shell provided closeups of his playing and of his famous grin, but, for the most part, I looked out at the sandy-brown landscape, at the glimmer of far lights, and, most of all, at the crowd, which filled all but a few of the Bowl’s more than seventeen thousand seats. Almost no one made a sound. Almost no one moved. When a large audience is listening intently, it creates an atmosphere that cannot be measured or recorded, only remembered. Here, it was as if music had stilled the world.

Ma applied his customary virtuosity and warmth. At times, he seemed to lose the narrative thread as he savored every twist and turn of Bach’s endless melody. Several of the sarabandes slowed to a contemplative crawl. Thomas Demenga’s new recording of the suites, for the ECM label (see below), has more straight-ahead song and dance in it. But you never doubted the sincerity of Ma’s approach: he was following his natural musical rhythms, to the point that it felt less like a performance than like an interior monologue. Little was lost in the amplification: the cello sound remained full, nuanced, and unforced.

Since the death of Luciano Pavarotti, Ma has been the most popularly celebrated of classical musicians. Very few other soloists could have sold out the Bowl. If Ma enticed thousands to the space, it was Bach who held them rapt, for nearly three hours. The enthusiasm of large crowds is always a bit unsettling: no matter how innocent the occasion, you can imagine the energy of the collective being channelled to less wholesome ends. The huge, serene company at the Bowl was another matter: it was under the spell of a solitary searcher in the dark. One of the only sounds I heard around me was someone quietly sobbing.

Ten Notable Performances of 2017

“Ipsa Dixit” at Dixon Place, February 4th

The composer, singer, and theatre artist Kate Soper is one of the great originals of her generation—a maker of erudite entertainments that inhabit a self-invented realm halfway between opera and philosophy. “Ipsa Dixit,” her most recent large-scale work, was seen in the intimate confines of Dixon Place; she deserves a much bigger stage. Read more.

“Infinite Now” at the Flemish Opera, April 23rd

Chaya Czernowin’s opera “Infinite Now” tells two harrowing stories in alternation: one, of the chaos and gore of the First World War; the other, of a Chinese woman trapped in a claustrophobic male realm. The merging of the stories has an epiphanic effect, as if a mystery of human misery has been solved. Read more.

Mozart at the Pierre Boulez Saal, April 30th

At the age of seventy-five, the conductor, pianist, and intellectual politician Daniel Barenboim is at the height of his powers. This year, he presided over the inauguration of the Pierre Boulez Saal, in Berlin—another concert-hall masterpiece by Frank Gehry and Yasuhisa Toyota. Barenboim’s account of the last three Mozart symphonies with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra exploded with detail. Read more.

The Dream Unfinished at Cooper Union, June 11th

The Dream Unfinished is a visionary chamber orchestra dedicated to discovering and reviving minority composers. The group’s concerts combine music-making with activism: their event in June featured works by William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Margaret Bonds, and others, alongside presentations about the school-to-prison pipeline—the criminalization of minority children in the education system. The most riveting voice was that of Truth Templeton, a thirteen-year-old Brooklynite who held forth precociously on the topic of protest music. You may see his name again.

Roomful of Teeth at the Tank, June 21st

The Tank, a converted water tank in the high-desert town of Rangely, Colorado, has long been a secret gathering place for improvising musicians who prize its hyper-reverberant acoustics. It is now open to the public, and the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth celebrated midsummer there with sounds that welled up out of the earth. Read more.

“La Clemenza di Tito” in Salzburg, July 30th

Peter Sellars instigated two major new productions this year. “Girls of the Golden West,” Sellars’s latest collaboration with John Adams, felt like a work in progress, though a major opera should emerge from it. Mozart’s “Clemenza,” which was seen at the Salzburg Festival, was one of Sellars’s finest, most finished creations—a study in power, betrayal, and compassion, with singers of color dominating the cast. Read more.

Bach at the Hollywood Bowl, September 12th

Read about Yo-Yo Ma’s performance in the introduction above.

“The Force of Things” at Montclair State, October 8th

Photograph by Marina Levatskaya / Peak Performances at Montclair State University

Ashley Fure’s experimental opera “The Force of Things,” which Peak Performances brought to Montclair, New Jersey, rivalled Czernowin’s “Infinite Now” as the most purely visceral music-theatre outing of the year. Fure, who studied with Czernowin, aims to capture the “mounting hum of ecological anxiety around us,” and, unnervingly, succeeds. Read more.

Monteverdi at Lincoln Center, October 18th–21st

John Eliot Gardiner and a brilliant company of collaborators enchanted New York audiences this fall with deft, vivid productions of the three surviving operas of Claudio Monteverdi, on the occasion of the composer’s four-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday. The obvious was again confirmed: the first great opera composer remains the master of the game. Read more.

“War of the Worlds” at the L.A. Phil, November 18th

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is so far ahead of other American orchestras that it is in competition mainly with its own past achievements. This fall, it offered Annie Gosfield’s site-specific opera “War of the Worlds,” created in tandem with the director Yuval Sharon. Musicians positioned in parking lots around downtown Los Angeles helped to replicate Orson Welles’s famous radio hoax. Two performances took place in the context of the Noon to Midnight marathon, an every-which-way survey of Southern California’s vibrant new-music scene. The L.A. Phil has a new leader in Simon Woods, but no change of direction is needed. Read more.

Ten Notable Recordings

Tyshawn Sorey, “Verisimilitude”

Sorey, Cory Smythe, Chris Tordini (Pi)

“Divine Theatre,” works of Giaches de Wert

Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi)

Bach, Solo Cello Suites

Thomas Demenga (ECM)

Jürg Frey, “Collection Gustave Roud”

Frey, Stefan Thut, Dante Boon, Andrew McIntosh, Regula Konrad, Stephen Altoft, Lee Ferguson (Another Timbre)

Scott Wollschleger, “Soft Aberration”

Longleash, Anne Lanzilotti, Karl Larson, Andy Kozar, Corrine Byrne, John Popham, Mivos Quartet (New Focus)

Linda Catlin Smith, “Drifter”

Apartment House, Bozzini Quartet (Another Timbre)

Björk, “Utopia”

(One Little Indian)

Du Yun, “Angel’s Bone”

Abigail Fischer, Jennifer Charles, Kyle Bielfield, Kyle Pfortmiller, Julian Wachner conducting the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Novus NY (VIA Artists)

Kurtág, Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

Reinbert de Leeuw conducting Asko / Schönberg and the Netherlands Radio Choir (ECM)

Berlioz, “Les Troyens”

Joyce DiDonato, Michael Spyres, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Stéphane Degout, Nicolas Courjal, Marianne Crebassa, Hanna Hipp, Cyrille Dubois, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Philippe Sly, John Nelson conducting the orchestra and chorus of the Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Choeur de l’Opéra du Rhin, Badischer Staatsopernchor (Erato)

Ten More
James Weeks, “Mala Punica”

Exaudi (Winter & Winter)

Daniel Lentz, “River of 1000 Streams”

Vicki Ray (Cold Blue)

George Benjamin, “Into the Little Hill,” “Dream of the Song,” “Flight”

Hila Plitmann, Susan Bickley, Bejun Mehta, Michael Cox, Benjamin conducting the London Sinfonietta, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the Netherlands Chamber Choir (Nimbus)

Gregory Spears, “Fellow Travelers”

Aaron Blake, Joseph Lattanzi, Devon Guthrie, Alexandra Schoeny, Mark Gibson conducting the Cincinnati Symphony (Fanfare Cincinnati)

“Sabine Devieilhe: Mirages”

Alexandre Tharaud, François-Xavier Roth conducting Les Siècles (Warner)

Weinberg, Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1-4, Piano Quintet (arr. Pushkarev and Kremer)

Gidon Kremer, Kremerata Baltica (ECM)

Chaya Czernowin, “HIDDEN”

JACK Quartet, Inbal Hever (Wergo)

Sibelius, “In the Stream of Life”

Gerald Finley, Edward Gardner conducting the Bergen Philharmonic (Chandos)

George Lewis, “Assemblage”

Ensemble Dal Niente (New World)

Wagner, “Parsifal”

Andreas Schager, Anja Kampe, Wolfgang Koch, René Pape, Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin and Staatsopernchor, Dmitri Tcherniakov directing (BelAir DVD)

Music Book of the Year
Tim Rutherford-Johnson, “Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989” (University of California Press)

Sat, December 9, 2017

The Choral Society of Durham Brings Reverence and Celebration of Christmas
CVNC Arts Journal

Part of what makes Wachner’s arrangements unique is his determination to write fresh harmonies to very well-known songs, often by adding a descant part or through the audience taking over the melody completely (such as in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or “Angels We Have Heard on High”). After the wonderment and unexpected explosion of “The Snow Lay on the Ground” and the syncopated bass ostinato of “Nino Lindo,” “The First Nowell” was the joyous finale for the set and the concert. Here, all performers came together (including the audience) to experience the jubilance of Christmas.

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The Choral Society of Durham Brings Reverence and Celebration of Christmas

By Chelsea Huber

December 9, 2017 - Durham, NC:

The Choral Society of Durham's annual holiday concert, this year entitled "Christmas Music for Choir and Brass" took place amid an unseasonably early (at least for North Carolina) winter weather advisory. However, that did not hinder either the concert or concertgoers from enjoying an evening of holiday music. This was undeniably a program of contrasts: the first half was chant-like, reverent works, and the second half was more contemporary and exuberant favorites. Put together, the program explored the duality of celebrating the Christmas season – joyfulness and festivities, while recognizing the reason for celebration. Conductor and director Rodney Wynkoopled the choir through both halves with ease.

Modern composer Bob Chilcott's Advent Antiphons consists of seven unaccompanied movements, each using the melody and text of the "O" Antiphons – centuries-old Advent texts that all begin with the word "O," addressing seven different names for the Messiah. Each of these short movements was interposed with another piece of varying origin, with a text that echoes the theme of each antiphon. Most of the Chilcott antiphons begin in a simple chant style, evoking its inspiration, but then delve into thick, lush harmonies. This dense texture was emphasized by the reverberation inside Duke Chapel to great effect. The accompanying pieces to each antiphon provided some contrast in texture and style without losing reverence, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Blessed Son of God," a chorale-like English piece employing lots of suspensions.

Movement three ("O Radix Jesse") was a highlight, due to the choir's execution of Chilcott's employment of aleatoric texture, where the women sang motifs with free rhythmic improvisation over a written part for the tenors and basses. The effect was unique and eerie, yet each motif could be heard from within. The piece sung after movement six ("O Rex gentium"), "Puer natus est nobis" by Arjan van Baest, contained the most bold harmonies and dynamics of the program's first half, with unpredictable chromaticism and sudden, terraced shifts in volume.

Julian Wachner's The Snow Lay on the Ground: Festive Carol Settings provided a lot more volume in general, especially with the addition of a brass and percussion ensemble. Despite the challenge of achieving balance in such a reverberant space, the choir was not overpowered by the exuberant brass and percussion. The resulting effect in the cathedral-like space was a very visceral experience for the audience. The brass ensemble really shone in "Un Flambeau," where fragments of the melody were tantalizingly introduced and then brought together. In addition, the choir's execution of the French text was notable, all linked with the gently rocking meter.

Part of what makes Wachner's arrangements unique is his determination to write fresh harmonies to very well-known songs, often by adding a descant part or through the audience taking over the melody completely (such as in "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" or "Angels We Have Heard on High"). After the wonderment and unexpected explosion of "The Snow Lay on the Ground" and the syncopated bass ostinato of "Nino Lindo," "The First Nowell" was the joyous finale for the set and the concert. Here, all performers came together (including the audience) to experience the jubilance of Christmas.

Fri, December 8, 2017

Getting into the Christmas Spirit with The Snow Lay on the Ground
ECS In Tune

Everyone has their favorite Christmas album. Whether it’s Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, The Nutcracker Suite, or Messiah, decorating a tree, sitting by a fire, baking cookies and other traditions just don’t feel the same without the right music in the background. This year we have enjoyed listening to the 2016 Arsis release, The Snow Lay on the Ground, a collection of carols and organ improvisations by Julian Wachner, performed by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, the Trinity Youth Chorus, and Novus NY.

Read Full Text

Getting into the Christmas Spirit with The Snow Lay on the Ground

DECEMBER 8, 2017

Everyone has their favorite Christmas album. Whether it’s Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, The Nutcracker Suite, or Messiah, decorating a tree, sitting by a fire, baking cookies and other traditions just don’t feel the same without the right music in the background. This year we have enjoyed listening to the 2016 Arsis release, The Snow Lay on the Ground, a collection of carols and organ improvisations by Julian Wachner, performed by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, the Trinity Youth Chorus, and Novus NY.

Listen to the full album on Spotify!

And if your favorite Christmas music is Messiah, Trinity Wall Street will live stream their performances December 15-17. More information here.

Wed, December 6, 2017

The Best Classical Music Performances of 2017
The New York Times

The centennial of another American maverick — the composer, pacifist, instrument maker, explorer of Asian music and gay pioneer Lou Harrison — was celebrated this year, including at an exhilarating concert at Trinity Wall Street [Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts] featuring a chorus and percussion ensemble from Rutgers University. Their account of “La Koro Sutro,” a 1971 choral setting of a Buddhist scripture translated into Esperanto, the synthetic universal language, showed Harrison finding wondrous commonalities between Eastern and Western culture while speaking in a modest, authentic musical voice. The concert was a rallying cry for peace and tolerance.

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The Best Classical Music Performances of 2017

By THE NEW YORK TIMES

DEC. 6, 2017

Classical music critics and writers of The New York Times share their picks for the best of the year.

On Jan. 20, the day President Trump was inaugurated, the outspoken conductor Daniel Barenboim seized the moment to argue for the importance of culture and community at a time of bitter divisiveness. The occasion was the second of Mr. Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin’s sweeping survey of Bruckner’s nine symphonies at Carnegie Hall.

After leading a magnificent account of Bruckner’s Second, Mr. Barenboim spoke to the audience to defend classical music from charges of elitism. Concerts like this one, he said, can bring audiences and musicians from around the world together as “one community” in an act of “human communication.” Referring to the events that day in Washington, he emphasized that America, of all countries, has “the possibility” to “make the world great!” The audience applauded vigorously.

Here was a musician who has long channeled social ideals into artistic action, drawing explicit links between a Bruckner cycle and today’s roiling political issues. But I was struck all year by how many performances — challenging new works as well as repertory pieces we may take for granted — spoke to our fractious times. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

‘THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL’ Last year, I included the world premiere at the Salzburg Festival of Thomas Adès’s audacious opera, adapted from Luis Buñuel’s surreal 1962 film, on my list of favorite performances. I’m choosing it again this year, after the Metropolitan Opera presented the American premiere in October with an impressive cast and Mr. Adès conducting. The opera’s themes felt chillingly pertinent: In the plot, the guests at a fashionable dinner party find themselves psychologically trapped in the salon of their wealthy hosts. Some force — internal, imposed or both — seems to be sapping their will to act. There were eerie parallels between these panicked members of the ruling class and the elected officials in Washington who can sometimes seem frozen in deciding how, and even whether, to stand up to a norm-shattering administration.

‘DER ROSENKAVALIER’ The Met’s inventive new production of Strauss’s beloved opera was, on one level, a showcase for Renée Fleming, who sang her last performances of a signature role, the Marschallin. She and the cast were superb. The director, Robert Carsen, drew out this staple’s modern currents by moving its setting from the 18th century to the Vienna of 1911, the year of the opera’s premiere, a time when the aristocratic order that had endured for centuries was about to collapse under the horrors of World War I.

‘WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED’ Opera Philadelphia’s ambitious fall festival offered the premiere of the composer Daniel Bernard Roumain’s new music-theater work, with a libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph. This raw, powerful opera tackles issues of race and inequality by looking back at an infamous 1985 incident in which Philadelphia police bombed a rowhouse occupied by a group of black separatists, causing a deadly conflagration. In an inspired twist, the opera revisits the tragedy indirectly, by depicting a crisis in the lives of five teenagers in 2017, runaways who take refuge in an abandoned house that turns out to be the separatists’ old home. Mr. Roumain deftly folded gospel, funk, jazz and classical styles into his arresting score.

CONRAD TAO As part of the Crypt Sessions series, this adventurous young American pianist presented a compelling program called “American Rage” in the intimate crypt of a Harlem church. He gave blazing performances of Copland’s flinty Piano Sonata and two fiendish works by the maverick composer Frederic Rzewski that incorporate labor movement songs and anthems.

‘BERNSTEIN’S PHILHARMONIC’ Though Leonard Bernstein’s centennial arrives next August, the New York Philharmonic got an early start this fall in honoring its legendary music director, with a series focused on Bernstein’s three overlooked symphonies. Leonard Slatkin led an intense account of the “Kaddish” (Symphony No. 3). In this unjustly criticized work, Bernstein’s poignant setting of the traditional Jewish mourner’s prayer alternates with episodes in which a narrator (a riveting Jeremy Irons), speaking a text by the composer, engages in a fierce argument with God, that “angry, wrinkled old majesty,” backed up by a feisty orchestra and frightened chorus. Bernstein composed this unabashedly theatrical symphony during the early 1960s, when the threat of nuclear war seemed all too real. That threat looms again.

LOU HARRISON’S CENTENNIAL The centennial of another American maverick — the composer, pacifist, instrument maker, explorer of Asian music and gay pioneer Lou Harrison — was celebrated this year, including at an exhilarating concert at Trinity Wall Street featuring a chorus and percussion ensemble from Rutgers University. Their account of “La Koro Sutro,” a 1971 choral setting of a Buddhist scripture translated into Esperanto, the synthetic universal language, showed Harrison finding wondrous commonalities between Eastern and Western culture while speaking in a modest, authentic musical voice. The concert was a rallying cry for peace and tolerance.

DMITRI HVOROSTOVSKY Finally, I must mention the great Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who died on Nov. 22 at 55 after a long struggle with brain cancer. His courageous and unforgettable recital at Carnegie Hall in February, mostly devoted to Russian songs, may not have been overtly political. Yet Mr. Hvorostovsky addressed timeless human issues of impermanence, love and death through the songs he sang so beautifully.

The Best Opera and Vocal Performances of 2017

O.K., I cheated a little with the numbers. So call these, in chronological order, my 10-ish favorite opera and vocal performances of the year — the most joyful, moving, provoking. ZACHARY WOOLFE

‘DUST’ It is so satisfying to see the enigmatic, wry and wistful works of Robert Ashley increasingly entering the repertory in the years after his death in 2014 — and even being done by young artists at conservatories, as “Dust” was in February at the Mannes School of Music. Embodying ragtag park denizens, Mannes students meticulously captured Ashley’s singsong, half-speaking style and his deadpan ruefulness. Another victory for contemporary music at Mannes: A few weeks later, the school announced that it would partner with John Zorn and house the latest iteration of his performance space, the Stone.

‘LA SERENISSIMA’ The too-little I heard at Carnegie Hall’s rich February festival, celebrating the Venetian Republic, was all superb, including Vivaldi’s “Juditha Triumphans,” in a performance of Technicolor vividness by Andrea Marcon and the Venice Baroque Orchestra, and an elegantly restrained take on Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” from Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano. (John Eliot Gardiner’s “Poppea,” part of a splendid Monteverdi trio at Lincoln Center in October, was more lavish and just as memorable.)

THREE TENORS No, not together, alas. But nevertheless a trio of magnetic stars I relished over the course of the year: Vittorio Grigolo, singing so that you could practically hear him sweat at the Metropolitan Opera in “Werther” in February and “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” in September; Javier Camarena, his voice a golden smile through the long, slow lines of “I Puritani” at the Met in February; and Jonas Kaufmann, whose hooded, mahogany sound was uniformly secure throughout his first “Otello,” the pinnacle of the Italian repertory, at the Royal Opera House in London in June.

THE MET’S 50TH This was a party, plain and simple: a five-hour celebration of the company’s 50th anniversary at Lincoln Center at the end of the season in May, and I would have been happy to stay longer. Punctuated by witty and insightful archival and interview footage about the “New Met” were Stephanie Blythe and David Daniels in Handel, Susan Graham and Matthew Polenzani in Berlioz, Piotr Beczala in Verdi and Anna Netrebko in “Macbeth” and “Madama Butterfly,” among (many) others. And, of course, Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s surprise appearance in the midst of cancer treatment to sing (with gusto) an aria from “Rigoletto.” An evening of pleasure — and reflection on a beloved, if vexed, theater — more than the sum of its parts.

‘DAS RHEINGOLD’ Alan Gilbert intended to include Messiaen’s “Saint François d’Assise” among the programs closing his tenure as the New York Philharmonic’s music director; stymied, he chose Wagner instead, and to mesmerizing effect. Without frills or fuss, he shaped a riveting family drama, a plausible potboiler worthy of Arthur Miller, with a cast including a world-wearily granitic Eric Owens, as Wotan, and Christopher Purves, eloquently and chillingly human as Alberich.

JOHN KELLY’S JONI MITCHELL When I had last seen Mr. Kelly’s uncanny evocation of Ms. Mitchell, in 2009, he was in full Joni costume, flowing blond wig and all. In June, at Joe’s Pub, he wore his own clothes and hair, but his voice — airy, languid, day-dreamy — still conjured her, in a homage sweeter and more poignant than ever.

A SALZBURG DUO My 10 days at the Salzburg Festival this summer were filled with music, but two opera productions stuck with me: William Kentridge’s teeming “Wozzeck,” a savage indictment of war’s ravages, and Peter Sellars’ spare, just-as-savage “La Clemenza di Tito,” a racially charged transmutation of Mozart to contemporary Africa. Within them were two star-making performances: Marianne Crebassa, artfully agonized as Sesto in “Clemenza,” partnering with an onstage clarinetist in a performance of the aria “Parto, parto” that made visible and audible the progression of a mind and heart; and Asmik Grigorian as a girlish, irresponsible, daringly unsympathetic Marie in “Wozzeck.”

‘THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL’ The event of the year: A work that wasn’t perfect but was dazzling and proud, impossibly grand and surprisingly subtle. Highest note in Met history and all, Thomas Adès’s score was a force of wild virtuosity and ever-mounting anxiety; diction and characterization did fall by the wayside, but neither so much as some critics would have had you think. Tom Cairns’s alert, savvy production, which opened in October, slyly formed a playing space both domestic and theatrical, making it clear that this is a piece that is messing with opera without quite parodying it. It indicts the art form for its stagnancy, then proceeds to show just what it can do when it’s operating on all cylinders.

‘ARABELLA’ This Strauss opera has never been among my favorites. Yet when I saw it in October at the excellent Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, with a committed cast led by Erin Wall, Tomasz Konieczny and Jane Archibald, I found it newly powerful. There’s such realism, clarity and compassion (to say nothing of beauty) in how the creators show Arabella’s maturation happening before your very eyes and ears; and vanishingly rare in opera is the formation of real, adult love.

‘THE MOTHER OF US ALL’ Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s surreal, endlessly evocative Americana fantasia about Susan B. Anthony and the struggle for women’s suffrage gets no less timely, nor painful. A community-sourced, chronology-crossing staging by R.B. Schlather brought the performers among the audience in November at Hudson Hall in Hudson, N.Y., an intimate setting for the unforgettable exhaustion of Michaela Martens, whose Susan B. had both near-mythical stature and soccer-mom immediacy.

Mr. Bernstein’s “Song of Nature” (1996), based on an essay by Emerson, was presented by Musica Viva together with Brahms’s “A German Requiem” in May as part of a program called “An Elegy for All Humanity.” (What does seem to be a trend is the use of Brahms’s requiem as part of a larger concept, at least since Lincoln Center’s presentation of the English chorus master Simon Halsey’s program, “human requiem,” last October.)

Mr. Currier, writing on a commission from the Minnesota Orchestra to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, produced “Re-Formation,” a sort of choral symphony for performance in Minneapolis in November. The work begins by celebrating Martin Luther, through his use of Psalm 46 for his hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and Mendelssohn, through his use of that hymn in his “Reformation” Symphony.

Then it turns to the dire state of the planet, with a text by Sarah Manguso (“Black sky, …/Black sea, …/Black earth.”) “Re-Formation” turns the tables on the psalm’s notion of God protecting his creatures amid threatening elements to suggest that God’s subjects now have to protect his creation. JAMES R. OESTREICH

A Funky Updating of Minimalism

Jung Hee Choi has absorbed much from her years of study with the Minimalist composer and performer La Monte Young and the singer and visual artist Marian Zazeela. Some of the lessons are easy to spot — as in video pieces that hark back to the hallucinatory effects pioneered by Ms. Zazeela. But Ms. Choi has also been innovative.

In 2011, she brought a change into the musical lives of her gurus: a new composition to play at their Dream House space in Lower Manhattan. Its current title — “Tonecycle for Blues Base 30 Hz, 2:3:7 Ensemble Version with 4:3 and 7:6” — bears traces of Mr. Young’s obsession with the whole-number ratios of just-intonation tuning. But the approach to blues in Ms. Choi’s piece sounds unlike anything in Mr. Young’s catalog, even the more vernacular touches of his Forever Bad Blues Band, recorded in the 1990s.

Heard in its latest iteration, this October, the deep groove of the work’s slow-tempo “ektal vilampit” section had a unique majesty. Heaving funk progressions from a fretless bass mingled with tabla percussion and sustained vocal tones of pristine calm. Fans of Minimalism often speculate about the opening of a vault said to hold material recorded over the decades by Mr. Young and Ms. Zazeela. But they should also be hoping for a release or two from Ms. Choi’s recent exhibitions. SETH COLTER WALLS

An Opera That Resonated This Year

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of “Der Rosenkavalier” was a major event from the start: It was Renée Fleming’s farewell to one of her signature roles. But the staging, updated to the early 20th century by Robert Carsen, ended up particularly resonant with the biggest news stories at the bookends of 2017.

When Mr. Carsen’s “Rosenkavalier” had its premiere at the Met in April, the Trump presidency was in its infancy and liberal America was searching its soul in the aftermath of the election. What the comedy series “Broad City” had described as the country’s “caramel and queer” future suddenly seemed newly fragile. This mood lent special punch to the opera’s ending, which depicts just how easily a way of life can vanish. After the soaring love duet, the set’s velvet walls came apart to reveal a bare stage with soldiers marching toward the audience (and presumably into World War I) before dropping dead, as if felled by gunfire.

Now the end of the year has brought a watershed of cads getting their comeuppance for sexual misbehavior. Harvey Weinstein and his ilk resemble Strauss’s Baron Ochs, whom the bass Günther Groissböck portrayed not as the usual buffoon but as a dangerous predator. Ochs brags that “some women like to be seized” by powerful men like him before being brought down in disgrace near the end. JOSHUA BARONE

Wed, December 6, 2017

Finding ‘Hallelujah’: How to Navigate the ‘Messiah’ Landscape
The New York Times

Meanwhile, Julian Wachner blew into Trinity Wall Street in 2010 and quickly made its version perhaps the essential New York “Messiah.” With the church’s choir and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra, a period band, Mr. Wachner provides gritty, gutsy, edge-of-the-seat performances…

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Finding ‘Hallelujah’: How to Navigate the ‘Messiah’ Landscape

By JAMES R. OESTREICH and ZACHARY WOOLFE

DEC. 6, 2017

How do you distinguish among the host of performances of Handel’s “Messiah” that crowd New York’s musical calendar each December? Some have choruses of a dozen or so; some field hundreds. Some use baroque instruments; some, modern. Some (a lot) are amateur; some are professionals. Some leave the singing to the people on stage; some (heaven help us) let the audience-cum-congregation participate. Some offer a comfortable holiday tradition; some (we’re looking at you, Trinity Wall Street) offer something closer to a sacred rite.

Here’s a brief and inevitably incomplete rundown of the history and current landscape.

A few decades ago, amateur groups like David Randolph and the Masterwork Chorus dominated the “Messiah” scene. (Masterwork is still out there, doing its thing.) But the first glimmerings of more memorable quality came with Richard Westenburg and Musica Sacra, who were in the ascendancy in the 1970s.

The St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys performs Handel’s “Messiah” in 2016.CreditMichelle V. Agins/The New York Times

There were, in those days, also sometimes scrappy performances at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, with a choir of men and boy trebles led by Gerre Hancock. But it was John Scott who put the St. Thomas offerings on a consistent professional footing after his arrival in 2004, using the period band Concert Royal. Their performances, which were generally the first high-profile ones in the season, in early December, typically set a high standard.

Mr. Scott died in 2015, and Daniel Hyde, his successor, took over “Messiah,” with results more distinguished this year than last. Mr. Hyde has shifted from Concert Royal to the ensemble New York Baroque Incorporated, largely made up of alumni of the Juilliard School’s dynamo historical-performance program; he’s also provided a showcase for the tremendously gifted young contralto Avery Amereau.

Musica Sacra eventually began to grow a little mannered and stale in the later years of Mr. Westenburg, who died in 2008. Kent Tritle, who took over a few years before his death, largely restored the quality, still using modern instruments. But the gifted Mr. Tritle, who also does an annual “Messiah” with his amateur chorus, the 200-voice Oratorio Society of New York, soon came to seem overexposed if not overextended, and Musica Sacra’s performances have lost urgency and a sense of occasion. (This year Kathryn Lewek, the Metropolitan Opera’s Queen of the Night in this fall’s “The Magic Flute,” solos with both Tritle groups.)

Meanwhile, Julian Wachner blew into Trinity Wall Street in 2010 and quickly made its version perhaps the essential New York “Messiah.” With the church’s choir and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra, a period band, Mr. Wachner provides gritty, gutsy, edge-of-the-seat performances — though the vocal solos, featuring choir members rather than guest artists, can be wildly uneven.

The New York Philharmonic, like many other symphony orchestras, has generally moved beyond using journeymen or assistant conductors and now often brings in Baroque-specialist conductors, like — this year — Andrew Manze, with that omnipresent “Messiah” hand Mr. Tritle playing continuo organ. The instruments are, obviously, modern ones, but in keeping with mainstream historically informed practice, assume that vibrato will be kept to a minimum and forces somewhat reduced.

Occasionally music directors will take on “Messiah” duty — Alan Gilbert did on occasion with the Philharmonic; Yannick Nézet-Séguin has with his Philadelphia Orchestra and, this year, his Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal — and Xian Zhang is shortly taking on the run at her New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. It’s always a nice show of commitment from conductors whose specialty is repertory from a couple hundred years after Handel.

Tue, December 5, 2017

MA 30 Movers & Shapers: Cerise Jacobs
Musical America

Last September, her REV. 23, described as “a farcical hellish opera which traverses hell, paradise­on­earth and everywhere in between,” and sporting a poly­styled score by Julian Wachner, was premiered at John Hancock Hall. Future projects include an interactive video­ game opera, PermaDeath (scheduled for September 2018); Monkey, a “kung fu puppet parable” (September 2019); and Cosmic Cowboy, inspired by the robotic space probe Philae (September 2020).

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MA 30 Movers & Shapers: Cerise Jacobs

By Richard S. Ginell

December 5, 2017

Co­Founder, Librettist

White Snake Projects

Cerise Lim Jacobs was a Boston lawyer for more than two decades. Then, three years after she retired, she found a new calling. In 2005, as a birthday present for her husband, she started to write a libretto for a song cycle based on a Chinese folk tale. Upon his prodding to go deeper, she expanded it into an opera, for which composer Zhou Long would write the score. The result was Madame White Snake.

To fund the project, Jacobs and her now late husband
formed a 501(c)(3) corporation called White Snake Projects, which raised the money to put on the work with Opera Boston in 2010. It went on to win the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

But Jacobs didn’t stop there. White Snake Projects ultimately became an expansive commissioning program to include seven operas over a span of five years using original Jacobs stories. She expanded her original idea into a trilogy—Madame White Snake, Naga, and Gilgames—under the umbrella name of Ouroboros Trilogy, which was performed in an all­day marathon in September 2016 at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater.

Last September, her REV. 23, described as “a farcical hellish opera which traverses hell, paradise­on­earth and everywhere in between,” and sporting a poly­styled score by Julian Wachner, was premiered at John Hancock Hall. Future projects include an interactive video­ game opera, PermaDeath (scheduled for September 2018); Monkey, a “kung fu puppet parable” (September 2019); and Cosmic Cowboy, inspired by the robotic space probe Philae (September 2020).

“I want to create American opera that comes from my imagination,” says Jacobs. “I’m not interested in writing libretti derived from a play, book, or movie, no matter how great.... Perhaps I will feel differently later in my development, but right now, there are just too many stories bursting out of me.” 

Wed, November 8, 2017

Psalms Encounter Covers Wide Field Within NY Chapel
Classical Voice America

Among St. Paul’s assets is its balcony, which enabled Wachner, director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street, to deploy his choral forces in different ways. In Venite exultemus Domino (Come Let Us Praise the Lord) by Michael Praetorius, one of many highlights, six choristers stood in the balcony, alternating passages with the choir below. For British composer Nicola LeFanu’s The Little Valleys, an arresting anthem based on portions of her larger choral work, The Valleys Shall Sing, ten female singers and a countertenor were arrayed around the balcony, where they slowly moved closer and regrouped. The most modernist of the settings heard, it featured novel sound effects and created a sense of drama…

...In two of the most musically impressive pieces – Rachmaninoff’s Blagoslovi, dushe moya Gospoda, No. 2 (Bless the Lord, O my soul) and Bruckner’s Os justi meditabitur (The mouth of the righteous) – the sheer expressivity of the singing brought the texts to life, transforming the listening experience into something akin to worship.

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Psalms Encounter Covers Wide Field Within NY Chapel

By Barbara Jepson

NOVEMBER 8, 2017

NEW YORK — The Psalms, song texts written for temple worship in ancient Israel, have fired the artistic imaginations of composers from medieval times to the present. In fact, more than half of the total choral repertoire in the Western classical canon is based on the Psalms, according to an essay by Tido Visser, managing director of the Netherlands Chamber Choir, who created and premiered The Psalms Experience in Utrecht earlier this fall.

Now The Psalms Experience is underway at various locations through Nov. 11 as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, which reliably offers top-notch musical presentations from around the globe. By the time it concludes, four superb choral ensembles will have sung a cappella settings (with occasional organ accompaniment) of all 150 Psalms by as many composers. Where no suitable setting was available, the Netherlands Chamber Choir commissioned works from nine composers, including Michel van der Aa, Evelin Seppar,Nico Muhly, and Caroline Shaw.

The three concerts heard on Nov. 2 and 4 were performed by the 24-member Choir of Trinity Wall Street under conductor Julian Wachner in the light, airy interior of Trinity’s recently renovated sister church, St. Paul’s Chapel, in lower Manhattan. Built in 1766, the Chapel’s exterior and grounds were inundated with debris but otherwise unharmed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The Chapel became sanctuary and sleep space for the rescue and recovery efforts. At the opening concert, two days after a truck-driving ISIS supporter killed eight individuals and injured eleven others in lower Manhattan, it again felt like a refuge.

But as a performance space, St. Paul’s has its pros and cons. It was hard to remain in a state of transcendence given the frequent rumble of nearby subway trains, far louder than those heard at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. On a few occasions, when the full ensemble was singing fortissimo passages, the sound in the otherwise pleasingly resonant but clear acoustic got blurry, and it felt like the music required a larger concert arena. Still, that happened less at the two Nov. 4 concerts, perhaps because of a different seat location, and was a small price to pay for the greater sense of intimacy achieved.

In the Jewish Tanakh, known to Christians as the Old Testament, the Psalmists grapple with the trials of life in an imperfect world. With magnificent poetic language, they not only praise their God’s attributes and actions but pour out their emotions to Him — joy, sorrow, anger, fears, doubts, and questions. They plead for individual or communal deliverance, forgiveness, mercy, and vengeance, finding solace and faith in the texts’ eternal perspectives.

To show the relevance of the Psalms today, and provide musically balanced programs, Dutch scholars grouped the Psalms into twelve thematic segments, including “Mortal Leadership, Divine Guidance,” “Faith,” “Justice,” and “Abandonment.” Translations of text segments used by the composers were shown on video screens. Each concert began with a succinct homily related to the topic by Rev. Phillip A. Jackson, vicar of Trinity Church Wall Street.

Then we were awash in choral music, about a dozen works per concert. Sumptuous,overlapping vocal lines and long, sighing suspensions in the Renaissance motets. The formal complexity and grandeur of Edward Elgar’s Great is the Lord (Psalm 48). A virtuosic, gospel-flavored improvisation on Psalm 12 by the Trinity choir. Pieces by less familiar composers, like the late 16th-century Italian Damiano Scarabelli and the impressive Baroque master Francisco Valls, new to this listener. Medieval plainchant. A Jewish prayer, Kol Adonai, intoned cantor-style.

Among St. Paul’s assets is its balcony, which enabled Wachner, director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street, to deploy his choral forces in different ways. In Venite exultemus Domino (Come Let Us Praise the Lord)by Michael Praetorius, one of many highlights, six choristers stood in the balcony, alternating passages with the choir below. For British composer Nicola LeFanu’s The Little Valleys, an arresting anthem based on portions of her larger choral work, The Valleys Shall Sing, ten female singers and a countertenor were arrayed around the balcony, where they slowly moved closer and regrouped. The most modernist of the settings heard, it featured novel sound effects and created a sense of drama.

William Byrd’s contemplative Domine secundum multitudinem (O Lord, according to the multitude of sorrows) provided Wachner and his flexible, well-trained choir more opportunity for nuances of phrasing and expression than were evident in some of the other works on the opening program. A case in point: The performance of Robert White’s Exaudiat te Dominus (The Heavens Declare), where it seemed like conductor and singers were more attuned to a beauty and balance of sound than to the meaning of the texts. That tendency largely vanished during the second and third concerts. In two of the most musically impressive pieces – Rachmaninoff’s Blagoslovi, dushe moya Gospoda, No. 2 (Bless the Lord, O my soul) and Bruckner’s Os justi meditabitur (The mouth of the righteous) – the sheer expressivity of the singing brought the texts to life, transforming the listening experience into something akin to worship.

James MacMillan’s A New Song, based on Psalm 96, showed how living composers have enriched the choral genre. This extraordinary piece has a simple principal vocal theme embellished with grace notes and the composer’s rapid, hairpin-turn ornaments that play off the longer, repeated organ glissandos. Elsewhere in the piece, the vocal line floats atop bass drones in the pedals. Hearing it performed with such agility by the choir and organist Avi Stein was a treat.

David Lang’s If I Sing, in its U.S. premiere, was also memorable. Lang rewrote parts of Psalm 101, homing in on the question “When will you come to me?” in the second verse. As a result, the declarative statement of the Psalm’s first line, “I will sing unto the Lord” becomes a more uncertain, conditional query: “If I sing of mercy, if I sing of justice, if I sing your praises, will you come to me?” The stirring music, as rendered by Wachner and his choristers, became a vehement plea for God’s presence.

Still to come are the remaining premieres, plus works by Bach, Handel, Brahms, Poulenc, and a four-concert “immersion” experience on Nov. 11. At the final event, which features the Tallis Scholars, members of all four choirs will join in a performance at Alice Tully Hall of Spem in alium, a splendid 40-voice motet by Thomas Tallis, whose psalm-like text apparently comes from the Apocryphal Book of Judith. No matter. By then, anyone who has attended several of the concerts will have gained a deeper knowledge of the compelling musical genre of Psalm settings.

Barbara Jepson is a longtime contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s Life & Arts section. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Arts & Leisure, Smithsonian, Opera News, MusicalAmerica.com and other publications.  She is on the board of the Music Critics Association of North America, having recently completed two terms as its president.

Tue, October 31, 2017

Hear 9 New Psalm Settings for Challenging Times
The New York Times

When Lincoln Center first planned the Psalms Experience, an ambitious series of concerts that includes musical settings of all 150 biblical psalms, it was thought of as an antidote to what felt like a terrible year: 2016.

“The origins of the project were inspired by the challenging nature of our lives a year ago,” said Jane Moss, the artistic director of Lincoln Center and its White Light Festival, which will present the 12 Psalms Experience concerts from Wednesday, Nov. 1, through Nov. 11. “I’m sorry to report the world seems equally challenging today.”

[The Trinity Choir, under the direction of Julian Wachner, is among the ensembles participating in the Psalms Experience at the White Light Festival.]

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Hear 9 New Psalm Settings for Challenging Times

By JOSHUA BARONE

OCT. 31, 2017

When Lincoln Center first planned the Psalms Experience, an ambitious series of concerts that includes musical settings of all 150 biblical psalms, it was thought of as an antidote to what felt like a terrible year: 2016.

“The origins of the project were inspired by the challenging nature of our lives a year ago,” said Jane Moss, the artistic director of Lincoln Center and its White Light Festival, which will present the 12 Psalms Experience concerts from Wednesday, Nov. 1, through Nov. 11. “I’m sorry to report the world seems equally challenging today.”

For centuries, the Book of Psalms has been fodder for composers. David Lang, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008, called it “a catalog of all the ways you can have a conversation with God.”

But there were gaps. So the project also involved commissioning nine new psalm settings. Here are audio excerpts from each, with comments from the composers.

Michel van der Aa, Psalm 5

This Dutch composer, known for complex multidisciplinary operas, wrote in a relatively straightforward harmonic language for his psalm setting, “Shelter.” The title comes from what Mr. van der Aa said was the most poignant passage, which says that people should shelter all who take refuge.

“This text is so timeless, even urgent,” he said. “We seem to live in a time when the differences between us are getting not smaller, but larger. The more vulnerable people need our protection.”

Mohammed Fairouz, Psalm 14

At its heart, Mr. Fairouz said, this psalm is about “believing in something bigger than yourself,” even while living in divisive times.

In writing his setting, “Diversions,” he felt the psalm’s message was ultimately one of hope. The piece unfolds in three parts: a poem by Michael Bembenek Jr. that opens darkly (“Fresh corpses line the boulevard”); text by Isaac Newton, including his famous phrase “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”; and Psalm 14, which ends with the feeling, Mr. Fairouz said, that “if you look at the world we’re living in today, the opportunities are tremendous.”

William Knight, Psalm 21

Mr. Knight, a British tenor who grew up singing sacred music, is familiar with this psalm. Still, he said, “it was interesting to read it and interpret it in a new way.”

He found himself drawn to the psalm’s message about eternal life — something that “can be achieved through remembrance,” he said — and the concept of divine right. He thought of world leaders using religion to justify their actions, but pointed to the second half of the text, which depicts a wrathful God who has more power than any king.

Zad Moultaka, Psalm 60

Reading this psalm for the first time was difficult for Mr. Moultaka, a composer from Lebanon now based in Paris. “There is a lot of violence in it,” he said, pointing to moments in the text where, for example, God tramples down enemies.

Mr. Moultaka said that while revisiting this psalm for his piece, “Sakata” (its text in Aramaic), he interpreted it as: “We are lost, and we have to find a new way, maybe, to relate and find a new space together.”

Nico Muhly, Psalm 63

Choral music, especially sacred music, is Mr. Muhly’s home base. “It’s the first music that I loved and the first music that I made,” he said, adding that he enjoys setting psalm text “because it can bear the weight of a variety of musical interpretations.”

His setting, “Marrow,” takes its title from the line “My soul shall be satisfied, even as it were with marrow and fatness.” Anchoring the piece is a musical texture in three-quarter time — “a kind of wet aquatic idée fixe,” as Mr. Muhly called it.

Isidora Zebeljan, Psalm 78

Ms. Zebeljan, a Serbian composer, translated her psalm into Portuguese because “there is a very special melody in this language,” she said. The words fit naturally into the tone of her piece, which she described as a slow dance.

Even though the psalm deals in holy fury, Ms. Zebeljan said she wanted the music to reflect the line in which God remembers that people are “but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return.” She said she tried to capture that breeze as “a brief dance of changing and passing,” like the danse macabrethat closes Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal.”

Caroline Shaw, Psalm 84

This psalm opens with one of the most memorable lines in Brahms’s “A German Requiem”: “How beloved is your dwelling place.” Ms. Shaw, who wrote the beginning of her setting like an Anglican chant, made sure to preserve that line while treating the rest of the text more liberally.

Ms. Shaw said the psalm made her think of the immigration crisis, which she alludes to her repeated use of the phrase “the sparrow found a house.” She added that she wanted to set that phrase “in a way that feels urgent and not calm.”

David Lang, Psalm 101

Mr. Lang, who describes himself as religious, rewrote the psalm for his setting, “if i sing.” The piece straddles the line between sacred and secular, as does “the little match girl passion,” his Pulitzer-winning oratorio inspired by Hans Christian Andersen and Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”

The psalm “is really like a bargain,” Mr. Lang said. “It’s like, ‘If I do this, will that work? Will you come to me?’” That question is present in nearly every line. By the end, it appears as a plea: “Come to me.”

Evelin Seppar, Psalm 129

“This is about overcoming difficulty,” Ms. Seppar, an Estonian composer, said of her psalm setting. “Something horrible has been done to you for a long time, but you haven’t given up.”

She aimed to create a dense, sea-like structure “with lots of voices, so that you can’t really tell what exactly is the harmony. I wanted this almost drowning feeling, that you’re in the water and it’s pulling you.”

Yet Ms. Seppar’s message is ultimately one of perseverance. “It ends in unison,” she said. “I don’t normally finish pieces like this, but after this turmoil it felt like clarity was necessary.”

Thu, October 26, 2017

Du Yun’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Angel’s Bone on VIA Records
I Care if You Listen

Angel’s Bone, awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music, was premiered at the 2016 PROTOTYPE festival and co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects, HERE, and Trinity Wall Street. The work is a momentous accomplishment for intrepid composer Du Yun and librettist Royce Vavrek, and it serves as a bold example of the continued relevance of the operatic genre. The recent CD release of Angel’s Bone (conducted by Julian Wachner for the VIA Records label), is a profoundly important testament to the work’s emotional and artistic impact. Unifying traditional forms with modern musical expression and unapologetically graphic and relevant subject matter, Angel’s Bone is a work that deserves to be heard everywhere.

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Du Yun’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Angel’s Bone on VIA Records

LAUREN ALFANO
on October 26, 2017 at 6:00 am

Angel’s Bone, awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music, was premiered at the 2016 PROTOTYPE festival and co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects, HERE, and Trinity Wall Street. The work is a momentous accomplishment for intrepid composer Du Yun and librettist Royce Vavrek, and it serves as a bold example of the continued relevance of the operatic genre. The recent CD release of Angel’s Bone (conducted by Julian Wachner for the VIA Records label), is a profoundly important testament to the work’s emotional and artistic impact. Unifying traditional forms with modern musical expression and unapologetically graphic and relevant subject matter, Angel’s Bone is a work that deserves to be heard everywhere.

The opera opens with solemn procession, setting the mood but revealing little of the impending drama. The Chorus sings “A Prism, A Video, A Flurry,” with exquisite purity of tone. The voices bring the words to life, unfolding across dissonances, navigating meandering tonalities, and finally, unraveling into the next scene. We meet the scorned wife, Mrs. X.E., (rich-voiced mezzo-soprano, Abigail Fischer) and Mr. X.E., who rushes in bearing two beings with bloodied faces.  They are not runaway children, but in fact, angels. The angels, badly wounded, are deposited into the bathtub, wings askew, shaking in agony and fear. Cut and bleeding, they still have hope, singing, “People are naturally generous…good, helpful, kind, welcoming…They would never hurt us.” 

As the Boy Angel, Kyle Bielfield’s bright, youthful tenor encourages the weary Girl Angel (Jennifer Charles), who bravely musters the strength to produce languid, melismatic sighs and shaking exclamations. Lest these valuable treasures fly away, Mrs. X.E. coldly commands her husband to, “Prune them.” Desperate to please, Mr. X.E. does this against a violent cacophony of gasps, screams, and shrill punctuations from the orchestra. Already bloodied and weak, the angels are completely defeathered by sharp pruning shears. One does not need a set and actors before them to visualize the terrible brutality and horror of the scene. In the end, the angels are left gasping and mutilated, and listeners cannot help feeling overwhelmed by this stunning violation. Who could brutalize an angel, and with such violence? Mrs. X.E., bursting with narcissistic self-pity, compares herself to the Virgin Mary, recalling her past financial struggles, and proudly displaying the angels’ feathers now adorning her body. 

Some of the most poignant and beautiful moments in the opera come from the Choir of Trinity Wall Street—virtually unmatched for their exquisitely pure sound and perfect blend. The profound movement, “Feathers are Prickly Things,” has a homophonic, hymn-like feel, a strong contrast to the harsh sounds of earlier scenes. As the voices swell, first the lower ones, and then the higher ones, the message becomes clear: “Feathers are prickly things in the wrong hands.” 

Meanwhile, the angels languish, and the Boy Angel comforts the Girl Angel who is “cut up, marked…from head to toe.” One could guess at how their injuries came to be, and that might be good enough. In fact, some might consider these images too vivid, too disturbing. But Du and Vavrek do not let their audience off the hook. In the next scene, “Taking Orders,” we are forced to witness, in graphic detail, the horrific abuse, torture, and rape of these poor and helpless creatures. “They are at your service!” says Mrs. X.E. to her clients, who arrive to be serviced as they wish. The Female Customer (Melanie Russell)’s sweet soprano belies her repulsive intent as she chokes and kicks the Boy Angel in a fit of rage. Beaten and bruised, he is then raped by Mrs. X.E. to a feverish orchestral accompaniment. 

The Girl Angel fares no better. In “Brick J,” a spoken tour-de-force, she cries over the pulsing orchestra, recounting that her client “likes it rough…I’m wailing. He’s devouring.” She is so broken, that she can no longer sing. She must speak, and sigh, and howl, and moan as she tells her story, and even this cannot truly convey her horror. The Boy Angel cries “I am a wound, gaping, gushing.” They know that they must run away.  Still, confused and broken, the Girl Angel hesitates, as many victims do, “But [Mr. X.E.] loves me.” 

The X.E.’s grand scheme falls apart, however, as Mrs. X.E. reveals that she is pregnant with the Boy Angel’s child. Mr. X.E. throws a bag of feathers at the angels, yelling, “Restore your wings and fly away! Remove your shackles and fly away!” before remorsefully stabbing himself in the heart. Mrs. X.E. unrepentantly hatches a plan to escape justice for her crimes and to turn her transgressions into a source of pity. “My story, a television spectacle…forced to sell the spiritual, the sexual, by a deranged spouse.”

Whatever happens to those beautiful, broken, and tormented angels? We will never know, just as the fates of the most vulnerable victims of abuse are far too often unknown. Unlike so many operas before it, there is no tidy resolution, no happy ending, and no justice. Not even a weak apology can be mustered up for the victims. They are the forgotten ones in this drama. For them, there is only tremendous pain, unspeakable horror, and then, silence. 

Angel’s Bone is a truly groundbreaking work, both in its deft integration of various, sometimes unexpected, musical styles and expressions into a unified whole, and for a libretto that is poetic and beautiful without ever glossing over the ugliness, violence, and horror of the story it depicts. This work serves as mirror, illuminated by bright fluorescents, inviting us to lay bare our own complicity in—or indifference to—these heinous, crimes. Bravo to Julian Wachner for leading a first-class roster of musicians through a complex score with equal parts precision and passion. It is my hope that Angel’s Bone will have a run in every major city and inspire a new generation of composers and librettists to challenge the idea of what is acceptable or desirable subject matter for opera in the twenty-first century, to explore and expose in great detail, the most painful and disturbing taboos, to give a voice to the voiceless, and to elevate the disturbing scenes from the world around them into a bold and engaging artistic creation that demands our full attention—even when we so desperately want to look away.

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