Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Trinity Wall Street - Time's Arrow: Webern Part 2 - Webern, Schultz & Brahms - 06/23/18

Conductor: Julian Wachner 
Anton Webern: Passacaglia, Op. 1 
 NOVUS NY 
Anton Webern: Im Sommerwind, Op. 21 (arranged for 16-art choir by Clytus Gottwald)
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 
Downtown Voices 
Anton Webern: Cantata No. 2, Op. 31 
NOVUS NY
Colleen Daly: Soprano 
Paul An: Bass 
Heinrich Schütz: Selig Sind die Toten, SWV 391 
NOVUS NY 
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 
Downtown Voices 
Johannes Brahms: A German Requiem 
NOVUS NY 
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 
Downtown Voices 
Colleen Daly: Soprano 
Stephen Salters: Baritone

After a week dedicated to the music of Anton Webern, I was bracing myself for the grand finale of Trinity Wall Street’s “Time’s Arrow - Webern 2” festival, which would include not only more Webern pieces, but also Brahms’ magnificent Requiem, as it had been expertly masterminded by Trinity Wall Street director of music and the arts Julian Wachner. However, little did he know at the time that Trinity Church would be closed for revocation by now, and that he would have to downsize (or not!) in St. Paul’s Chapel, but he obviously decided to roll with the punches, and it has clearly been working. As a hard-core uptown girl, it takes a lot for me to come downtown in the weekend, but in this case at least, I had no doubt that the trip would be worth it.
Apparently a lot of people thought so too, as even over a half hour before the concert’s starting time the little chapel was filling up quickly and steadily. There were loyal music lovers and curious out-of-towners, as well as the full NOVUS NY orchestra on the ground floor, and then the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Downtown Voices in two of the upstairs balconies, and more audience members in the third one. I guess that’s what people mean when they say “packed to the rafters”.
In addition to securing a good seat, the early birds were also rewarded with a particularly illuminating lecture on Brahms and Webern music and the connections between them (Quick trivia question: Who knew that Brahms was so forward-thinking?! Answer: Webern.), by young, deeply knowledgeable and naturally engaging musician and musicologist David Miller, who had made the trip down all the way from Cornell University. And suddenly the Upper West Side did not seem that far anymore.

After a series of concerts featuring all kinds of compositions by Webern, we started the ultimate one with the first score he officially bestowed upon the world, his roof-raising Passacaglia, Op. 1. Characteristically crafted with the utmost care, and paying noteworthy hints at the last movement of Brahms Symphony No. 4 and the Late Romanticism period of his mentor Schoenberg, it has been regularly performed since it first came out, unlike the original efforts of many other highly respected composers. Under the dynamic baton of Julian Wachner, the NOVUS NY orchestra got chance to give their all to the first and last work Webern ever wrote for a large orchestra. And that they did.
Even earlier Webern was next with Clytus Gottwald’s choral adaptation of his lushly lyrical, openly Straussian tonal poem Im Sommerwind. Whoever is not into Webern-The-Serialist may still want to check out Webern-The-Late-Romantic, whose output is for sure straightforwardly beautiful enough to please even the most conservative minds. The 80 singers of the two chorus being mixed and matched all over the two balconies, their voices blended and interwove remarkably well together for a gorgeously atmospheric evocation of summer wind. Although Webern quickly disowned it and consequently never heard it performed, the original orchestral version has been a hit ever since it was rediscovered in the 1960s, and the choral version proved to be just as popular on Saturday.
Then it was time to put our modernist hat and hold on to it for dear life while listening to Webern’s Cantata No. 2, Op. 31. However, as if to ease the unusually drastic transition – Same composer, two radically different genres – first Julian Wachner led us through some brief, informative and fun interactive singing exercises in no less than pointillistic technique and the klangfarben concept so that we would get a better grip of what the hell happened in early 20th century Vienna.
Then it was on to the cantata, which also remains the last work Webern completed. This also meant that we had come full circle, and the contrast could not have been starker. With a sparse score connecting Renaissance and modern traditions through a wide range of sonorities and techniques, this was Webern at his most serialist. Ironically enough for such a challenging piece, it is also the longest composition he ever wrote at 24 minutes. But hey, nobody said that earning one’s Webern stripes was easy, and although this one required some effort on my part, I did make it to the end with a new appreciation of him and the performers.
After the vegetables came the dessert, and what a dessert it was with Brahms’ glorious, sacred but not liturgical, German Requiem. It was preceded by Schütz’s mid-17th century motet “Selig Sind die Toten, SWV 391”, which integrated seamlessly into the much larger work, and would kind of find its way actually in it at the end. Although I’ve had the privilege to hear A German Requiem performed by various ensembles in various venues, St. Paul Chapel’s was unquestionably the smallest of them all, and I had been wondering how the whole thing was going to turn out.
Well, all I can say is that I am glad the renovations were completed before this performance because I highly doubt that the windows would have resisted the sheer force of the epic, and epically executed, funeral march of the second movement and death-defying taunts of the sixth movement, in their pre-reinforcement state. Not to mention that the contribution of the mighty organ added a resounding touch of irrepressible spirituality to the thrillingly uplifting experience.
That’s not to say that the quieter moments were less commendable, especially when the soloists by default calmed things down for a bit. Soprano Colleen Daly’s “Traurigkeit” stood out for all its moving unfussiness and inconspicuous longing for all that had been lost. Her part was nicely balanced with baritone Stephen Salters’ slightly more prominent role, all burnished darkness and inner warmth.
All in all, Trinity Wall Street achieved the rare feat of delivering a larger-than-life performance while somehow preserving the profound human quality that makes Brahms’ requiem so powerful and so universal. Coming full circle, the second part of the concert ended back where it started, with the same passage from Revelation 14:13 used by Schütz, “Selig Sind die Toten”. The dead may be blessed, but so were the living in St. Paul’s Chapel on Saturday afternoon.