Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Gesualdo: Tribulationem et dolorem
Gesualdo: Ave dulcissima Maria - Jason Wirth
Gesualdo: O vos omnes
Brad and Doug Balliett: A Gnostic Passion
Ariadne Greif: Soprano
Catherine Gregory: Flute
Brad Balliett: Bassoon
Ashley Jackson: Harp
Jason Wirth: Piano
Doug Balliett: Double Bass
After the grand-scale Baroque spectacle of Handel's Giulio Cesare and the more intimate classical eclecticism of the Tokyo String Quartet's ultimate New York performance last weekend, my mom and I were more than ready to tread fearlessly onto the unchartered territory that would be Cantori New York's world premiere of A Gnostic Passion. At least, as every adventurous and discriminating choral music lover in New York City knows, nobody would ever be able to accuse them of playing it safe by reheating an umpteenth Carmina Burana.
Written by twin brothers Brad and Doug Balliett, this collaborative composition started with a collection of controversial Biblical accounts of the Passion of Christ - taking place either in a cave or on the cross - that were suppressed until recently. Then they were all individually put to music. This brand new experience had been described to me as "Bach meets Jesus Christ Superstar" and "weird, but in the best possible way", all the more reasons to heed the call and head down to the Village's lovely Church of St. Luke in the Fields expecting the unexpected.
And sure enough, the unexpected manifested itself right away with an unannounced, small but guiltily satisfying amuse-bouche in the form of three sacred miniatures by Italian Renaissance composer, aristocrat and murderer Duke Carlo Gesualdo, who died exactly 400 years ago and whose name has consequently been appearing on quite a few programs this year. The concert therefore started on a highly dramatic and boldly harmonious note. Although homicide should of course not be recommended as a source of inspiration, it looks like Gesualdo's colorful life deeply influenced his remarkable art, and I could not help but feel grateful for it.
Then we moved on to the substantial main course after a short introduction by the composers themselves, who were doing double duty by playing the bassoon and the double bass. Inspired by random, often unorthodox, occasionally simultaneous, episodes from the Acts of John, brought to vibrant life by various combinations of human voices and instrumental sounds under the firm baton of Mark Shapiro, and vividly enhanced by the friendly acoustics of the church, A Gnostic Passion publicly took off for the very first time on Saturday night.
The chorus/Jesus made its grand entrance with a startling call to John, who just as powerfully responded through soprano Ariadne Greif, and pretty much set the tone for the next hour or so, which would include unheard-of religious scenes, underlying classical music influences and plenty of Broadway-style pizzazz (Not a word I'd typically associate with Cantori, but then again, they unfailingly expand my vocabulary every time I hear them.).
That was not all as between Part I and II sprung up the second unexpected treat du jour, a bona fede sonata da chiesa that not only integrated very well into the whole work, but was also a perfectly self-contained showpiece for the tight ensemble of talented musicians. The harp, in particular, which too often tends to be drowned by other louder instruments, was able to make itself beautifully heard and remind us all of its intrinsically dainty qualities.
Ariadne Greif, who first of all needs to be commended for bravely stepping in with a just a few days' notice, did not let anything like a very brief preparation time stop her from giving a fiercely committed performance, her supple and assertive voice ferociously rising above the chorus or harmoniously blending in. I thought she particularly distinguished herself in the mesmerizing aria "I Didn't Suffer", which had the immediately infectious power of a brilliant pop song while still projecting the haunting nature of unexplained divinity.
In this rich kaleidoscope of Passion vignettes, some of them naturally stood out more strongly than others. "The Litany", for one, had been described as a "list of all the parts of the hand/wrist that a nail would pass through", and I was not sure if I was ready for that. The live version, however, turned out to be a downright engaging study in anatomy, complete with an attractive musical background hinting at a Romanticism-spiked Baroque trio sonata. Another undisputed highlight was the two "Round Dance" episodes surrounding the "Strange Feats", which had a genially groovy rhythm to them and gave plenty of opportunities to both chorus and soloist to winningly play off each other and together.
It all ended kind of abruptly, but not before Jesus admonished us all through John that any worship should be kept between him and the worshipper and, presumably, should not be either broadcast or force-fed to unsuspecting audiences. The audience on Saturday night, on the other hand, happily made it through the entire ride and was obviously feeling all the more uplifted by it. As my mom put it, it had been "unusual", indeed, but in the best possible way.