Music in Concert January/February 2010
Music composed for a church space is about silence and reverberation. Silence acts as a bridge between phrases and is part of the sound decay. Conductors and performers figure it out and figure it in, depending on the shape of the church and the style of the music. To give that sacred echo feeling, silences must sustain interest and sound reverberations cannot accidentally overlap.
Kent Tritle, who leads the choir-and-orchestra series “Sacred Music in a Sacred Space” at the Church of St Ignatius Loyola, is attuned to its Park Avenue space as well as matters pertinent to church performance: height of the dome, length of the nave, width of the chancel. His thrilling October program—works in three languages informed by Russian and Eastern Orthodox faith—showed his talent for conducting and also for selecting works for their United States premieres.
Tritle, organist at the New York Philharmonic, has climbed to the top of the New York choral scene. From a start at Dessoff Choirs, he succeeded Judith Clurman at Juilliard, Lyndon Woodside at the Oratorio Society of New York (where he sent some volunteer singers for voice lessons), and Richard Westenburg at Musica Sacra. He records for MSR and gives master classes—one of which, about oratorio form, is coming up in April at the Metropolitan Opera Guild.
The 40-voice St Ignatius Choir, with an orchestra of the same size plus organ, is a paid freelance ensemble. Its able members include the tenor and conductor Steven Fox, who is to succeed the troubled Owen Burdick as music director at Trinity Church.
Rachmaninoff’s richly sonorous Liturgy of St John Chrysostom was a wise opening choice, foreshadowing recent pieces by Valentin Silvestrov and John Tavener that followed. The five languid excerpts rolled smoothly until the final responsive ‘Glory to the Father and Many Years’, a single chord loudly chanted.
In its US premiere, Silvestrov’s 1995 Diptychon proved that you can indeed go home again. Formerly an avant-garde composer, Silvestrov turned back to Rachmaninoff’s “olden style”. A diptych is a two-panel painting, often iconic: this piece’s two musical sections were the Lord’s Prayer and a setting of a peaceful 19th-Century poem about death. Its spaciousness, like Messiaen’s, was for the end of time, and the singing was polished and graceful, with tenor solo over choral ooh and aah. (The music for “Bury me and then rebel, tear apart your chains” didn’t evoke any of the words.)
What a find this piece is—completely tonal but harmonically surprising, reflecting access to bitonality and modern options. Tritle knew what he wanted but couldn’t quite elicit indigenous Russian depth. Tavener, England’s mogul of mysticism, has been looking East, in a phase associated with several American greats. Another US premiere, The Veil of the Temple with two Byzantine texts in major mode, had chords Ned Rorem might wish to emulate. Voices suddenly became layered at “Thou art the mystic tongs”, muddling into a sound swath that prepared the ear for the Requiem that followed.
This imposing, intricate 2007 Mass is scored for choir, brass, and organist (here Nancianne Parrella) in the rear loft, with soprano, tenor, and cello soloists plus conductor and orchestra—whose varied percussion included gongs and Tibetan bowls—in the chancel. Some sections were call and response; others suggested Britten’s War Requiem with chorus intoning the Latin Mass text, while a soloist—soprano Jennifer Zetlan, tenor Matthew Garrett, or cellist Arthur Fiacco—had sacred poetry. The center section, ‘Kali’s Dance’, made a terrific noise with its steady timpani beat and plucked low strings. Zetlan’s slow, high, dignified ‘Primordial White Light’ was breathtaking and fabulous.
Garrett’s “How beautiful on her brow the drops of moisture appear” had passionate leaps, declamations, and high notes. The choir’s ‘Dies Irae’ roiled under the cello, and an instrumental interlude created the effect of thundersheets. Averting disaster, Tritle kept it together in the well-lighted cathedral space, where listeners could contemplate statuary, art, and gold.