Francis Poulenc: Figure Humaine
Conductor: Melissa Attebury
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street
Arvo Pärt: Passio
Conductor: Stephen Sands
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street
When my office decided to move to Lower Manhattan a few years ago, I of course became determined to take advantage of the thriving music scene in the Parish of Trinity Church Wall Street. Although I managed to get out of the office a few times for their wonderful Concerts at One series on Thursdays, I certainly haven’t been as dedicated at implementing my resolution as I was planning to. And I am afraid I cannot entirely blame my slacking off on work overload or Trinity Church’s on-going renovation works.
I still get their emails though, and earlier in the season, I made a point of singling out Friday, November 15 and its appealing combination of Poulenc’s Figure Humaine and Pärt’s Passio in the intimate St Paul’s Chapel. And it turns out that a lot of other people did too, as the little space was packed when my visiting mom and I go there (Who knew New York City had so many Poulenc and Pärt fans?). Beside being a reassuring sight in terms of the future of classical music, it also looked like a good omen for the mini-marathon that we had planned for the weekend.
Based on eight Surrealist poems by Paul Éluard and written in Paris in the dark and turbulent times of the Second World War, French composer Francis Poulenc’s cantata Figure Humaine is widely considered to be his absolute masterpiece as well as his most challenging work. But then again, there’s not much that the highly skilled members of Downtown Voices and The Choir of Trinity Wall Street cannot handle, and sure enough, the 12 singers of the much-admired two choirs got to work on the endlessly polyphonic score with exactness and fervor.
The highlight had to be, and in fact was, the terrific “Liberté”, which was not only the most substantial movement, but also featured a crescendo for the ages… and a personal memory of learning and studying that classic of French poetry back in school. There’s little doubt that the glorious piece stood out for everybody else as well, especially when, for its grand finale, the large chorus filling up the balcony joined the smaller group on the stage into a resounding cri du cœur calling for the ever-elusive liberty.
I am not a big fan of the Bible, but I am a huge fan of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and as such, I was very much looking forward to hearing his Passio for the first time, especially since the historic chapel would, after all, be a particularly appropriate setting. Essentially based on chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John, the uncompromisingly monophonic Passio is a daunting undertaking that, on Friday evening, required four instrumentalists, the two choirs and a solo vocal quartet on the stage, as well as two soloists up on the balcony on each side of the organ, which would be briefly heard too.
Despite the large number of performers involved, and partly due to the medieval tradition-inspired tintinnabuli style and the Latin text-driven composition, the 70-minute performance of the minutely crafted score sounded deceptively simple and austere, the solo baritone, the solo tenor and the vocal quartet doing most of the work, and doing it extremely well, as Jesus, Pilates and the Evangelist respectively. On the other hand, it really felt like a waste to have such an exceptional chorus right there with so little to do.
We did, however, occasionally get to hear subway trains rolling underground and a fire truck rushing above ground. As a matter of fact, it sometimes felt like no matter how dire the biblical predicament was inside, there was more action taking place outside, except maybe for the guy who could not stop fidgeting behind me. That said, Pärt won in the end.
One down, three more to go.