Orchestra: NOVUS NY
Conductor: Julian Wachner
Ives: Symphony No. 4
Distant Choir Conductor: Scott Allen Jarrett
Ginestera: Turbae ad passionem gregorianam
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street
The Trinity Youth Chorus
The Washington Chorus
The Boy and Girl Choristers of Washington National Cathedral Choir
Scott Allen Jarrett: Jesus
Thomas McCargar: Evangelist
Geoffrey Silver: Judas
After a festive Carnival Day with Ballet Hispanico and Matuto at El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem on Saturday afternoon, the only place I wanted to be on Saturday night was home, especially since the snow that had started falling earlier in the day was visibly not tapering off any time soon. But that was not meant to be as I had one more item of my schedule, and not a minor one, so I made sure not to get too comfortable during my quick stop in my apartment before heading back out, all the way to Carnegie Hall this time.
As someone increasingly on the look-out for new and rarely performed works, I simply could not resist the perspective of hearing four major choirs and an expanded orchestra, for a grand total of 300 musicians and singers, as well as two conductors, tackle two formidable 20th century pieces, an American melting pot symphony and an Argentinean modern-day Passion. So I expectantly joined a not huge but clearly committed audience in the Stern Auditorium for what had to be - Better be! - an exciting evening.
Upon stepping up on stage, Julian Wachner, the fearless director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street and music director of The Washington Chorus, immediately made a well-taken point of thanking the audience for braving 1) the raging elements outside and 2) the difficult program inside. Then, after a few words of explanation about the concert, he took a seat at the piano and had most people in the audience sing along a few American hymns, which were unsurprisingly totally foreign to me, in order to introduce Ives' Symphony No. 4. His humorous and insightful comments effortlessly lightened up the atmosphere and congenially prepared us for what was coming up next.
Notorious for its endless complexity, some of which requiring two conductors, Ives' fourth and final symphony is a work that is filled with references to American music such as folk songs, marching band tunes and - here they are - religious hymns in a solidly transcendentalist tradition. To say it is very dense would not even begin to describe it, but this kind of hunt for Americana's musical treasures can be a lot of fun too. On Saturday night, it did not take long for well-defined ideas, fleeting melodies and quieter moments to emerge from time to time and prove that there had to be some sort of method to the on-going madness. Moreover, the purposeful energy with which the numerous components of the piece were handled by the excellent orchestra was to be savored, especially when channeled by the resolutely unflappable and deeply involved Julian Wachner.
After a well-deserved intermission, we moved down from North America to South America to become acquainted with the anchor of the program, Alberto Ginestera's little-known and seldom performed Turbae ad passionem gregorianam. Writing a contemporary score for the Passion using a wide range of compositional techniques for choir and orchestra, the equally ambitious and talented Argentine came up with an extended, dauntingly complex, intensely dramatic and downright fascinating oratorio, which manages to convey the concrete brutality of the story with underlying spirituality. On Saturday it certainly sounded like we had all the right personnel in the house to meet the challenge as the combined choirs kept on delivering consistently powerful, occasionally stunning, choral parts, the sheer number of singers offering many thrilling possibilities, the poised Gregorian chanting by the three highly capable soloists kept the action moving smoothly, the fired-up orchestra played with much precision and assurance, all under the tight control of one hell of a multi-tasking conductor. After hearing it, one can understand how the difficulty and scale of the work prevent it from being presented more often, and one can only be grateful to Trinity Wall Street for tempting the impossible and succeeding so resoundingly, even if it meant that we eventually had to go back to the real world and face yet another dreadful cold mushy mess.