Conductor: Julian Wachner
Glass: Symphony No. 5 (Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya)
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street
Trinity Youth Chorus
Heather Buck: Soprano
David Cushing: Bass
Katherine Pracht: Mezzo-Soprano
Vale Rideout: Tenor
Stephen Salters: Baritone
One day after the intimate Bach recital by Wha Chung in Carnegie Hall’s vast Stern Auditorium on Thursday night, I was becoming mentally prepared for a much larger musical ensemble in a much smaller space for Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 5, which would be performed by The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, Downtown Voices, Trinity Youth Chorus, the NOVUS NY orchestra and five soloists in the historic Trinity Church Wall Street, which also happens to be conveniently located less than a block away from my office. That, at least, would mean no agonizingly suspenseful train ride followed by a breathless last-minute dash.
Originally composed to celebrate the new millennium at the Salzburg Festival, Philip Glass’ sprawling Symphony No. 5, also known kind of cryptically as Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya, can tentatively be described as a musical smorgasbord whose spiritual influences are the Bible, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Koran, Hindu scriptures, and West African traditions, all expertly put together by the Very Reverend James Parks Morton of the Interfaith Center of New York and Professor Kusumita P. Pedersen of St. Francis College.
This last program of the Trinity Church’s eventful season was obviously a big deal as the beautiful venue was packed by eager audience members half an hour before starting time, and the stage did not have not much breathing room left once all the performers had taken their places. And then we were off.
Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 5 is remarkable for, among other things, the multi-cultural richness of its philosophical and religious content and the resolutely modern, refreshingly unfussy, constantly driven musical score (Once a minimalist, always a minimalist). Although the vast array of sacred texts was originally written in all kinds of exotic languages such as Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and other indigenous idioms, they had all been translated into English to be more accessible and unequivocally establish the astonishing abundance of their common themes.
Ambitiously covering the history of the cosmos and humanity in 12 movements over roughly 100 uninterrupted minutes, Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya is a genuinely exhilarating marathon, and the artists performing it on Friday night formed an impressively tight and committed ensemble. After having experienced the hopeful, angelic voices of the creation, love and joy, and then the dark forces of evil, ignorance and suffering, we faced explosive judgment and apocalypse before death took over. Next we reached the “in between” (Bardo) before moving on to the enlightened rebirth (Nirmanakaya).
The orchestra basically did not stop, except for short breaks between a couple of movements, and NOVUS NY unquestionably proved that their physical stamina is as outstanding as their musical skills. Since the music was intrinsically minimalist, it fell on the voices to make the various episodes individually stand out while still preserving the shockingly natural way they flowed into one another.
Consequently, the three choruses kept busy weaving beautifully contrasting textures, from haunting to threatening to heavenly, always mindful of the formal background. The five soloists filled their parts really well too, alone or in combination, allowing for more intimate moments to sporadically come up and add a true human dimension to the proceedings. Some of them were earth-shattering, like bass David Cushing thunderously inquiring “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in “Suffering”, others were light-filled like soprano Heather Buck luminously describing “Paradise”.
There were many different moving parts to the complex whole, and on Friday night Trinity Church Wall Street director and music and conductor Julian Wachner was probably the hardest working man in show business, constantly keeping musicians, choristers and soloists in check and making sure that the performance went off smoothly and vibrantly. And it miraculously did.
At the end of the musically, philosophically and emotionally rewarding journey, what stuck with me were a few words by 8th century Buddhist monk, philosopher and poet Santideva, which appeared toward the end of the pivotal “Death” movement and certainly put life as we know it in perspective:
My foes will become nothing.
My friends will become nothing.
I too will become nothing.
Likewise all will become nothing.