Review by Erika Kliszus and Allison Lander
We entered The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, seeking and finding warmth, solace, and community in the beauty and communion of sublime musical artistry. The cathedral’s Gothic revival grandeur and beauty humbles, a perfect environment for an a capella celebration of Musica Sacra. Superb acoustics inspire, bringing to life the spirituality, meaning and purpose of the octavo.
The Newark Boys Chorus conducted by Donald C. Morris began. Their pre-concert recital of sacred and secular works previewed their upcoming international tour. Dressed in black suit jackets with striking red bow ties and striped vests they sang mellifluously, blending with ease, consonants crisply enunciated. I Dream of a World encapsulated the choir’s hope for the future with lyrics like “I dream of a world…where love will bless the earth, and peace its paths adorn…whatever race you be…and every man is free.” They swayed and clapped Praise His Holy Name, a dynamic, percussive, jazzy gospel song. They bowed in a choreographed unison to appreciative applause.
Eight men and six women dressed in black formed the choir, arranged in half and inner circles on different levels. Thomas Tallis’ Latin motet Salvator Mundi featured bel canto singing with legato lines, rounded vowels, and smooth blending. Tritle masterfully shaped the performance with delicate contours, pacing, and dynamics. Phrases echoed through the voices with points of imitation. Slowing through a melismatic “amen” to a final fermata, voices paused, creating a mysterious expressive resolution, a lingering echo in the cathedral.
Orlando Gibbons’ pinnacle work O Clap Your Hands is a song of praise, doxology, and anthem with text from Psalm 47. Sung in eight voice polyphony, dynamics masterfully maximized textural color elements, complex harmonies abounded, and the work resolved exquisitely. Tritle conducted with long sweeping motions directing voices to the heavens.
The first half concluded with the fantastic world premiere of Pulitzer prize finalist composer Michael Gilbertson’s Migration, a three part setting of Kai Hoffman-Krull’s poem of the same name. Written for cello (Arthur Fiacco, soloist) and choir, parts interact as a duet, trio, and in the third movement the cello accompanies the ensemble, deftly highlighting the poetic meaning of the text, itself a revelatory meditation on sound.
As the chorus sang “Sound becomes shapes/when we cannot see. By waters shaping sand/geese and their tones of migration/rising, falling in pitch,” it offers a commentary on the deep rich tones of the cello intertwining with the vocal line.
The tone painting of Migration journeyed from night to morning, light exuding warmth, and creation of images and shadows. Fiacco’s cello radiated a rich warm tone expressing glimpses of light casting shadows upon silhouettes of shapes. The musicians brought to life “sound shaped by space” in movement one of Migration, metaphorically reflecting the grand scale of the concert. The vast interior echoed and shaped the sounds. Migration used points of imitation, complementing the earlier sacred and renaissance works.
A Future Softening reduced tempo and began with rich bass voices. Music transported the listener into a forest setting, light glowing through “spruce needles and maple leaves.” A key change in the final lines of the second movement foreshadowed movement three, ushering in the gentle morning light.
In Silhouettes, the cello accompanies the supple legato lines of the choir with a bouncy pizzicato beautifully painting the poetic imagery of “crescents of light [forming] along the darkness of branches/contrast allowing lament to be seen.” The poem reflects a philosophical meditation on the revelatory nature of music – its form and shapes – compared to the body of a cello, drawing the origins of sound to the process of creating the instrument.
After intermission Tritle introduced a visual art work The Collective Heart by Eva Petrič on display behind the choir as part of a multidisciplinary exhibition entitled The Value of Sanctuary. It was created in Bulgaria of recycled lace and parallels tonight’s musical and spiritual experiences.
William Byrd’s Sing Joyfully and Kyrie and Gloria from Mass for 5 Voices followed. Sing Joyfully (1850) is a song of praise and worship with text from Psalm 81. It features points of imitation with homophony in the lyrics, “Blow the trumpet in the new moon” and “For this is a statute of Israel and a law of the God of Jacob”. Bassists showed their power and rich timbre.
Thomas Tallis’ O Sacrum Convivium celebrates the Eucharist, transporting us to Elizabethan England. Beautiful sonic swells textured with harmonic suspensions.
In the final movements Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei, rich tone painting expresses the import of the texts. Sanctus and Benedictus repeat “Hosanna in excelsis”, accelerating towards an eventual decrescendo. Agnus Dei projects a solemn entreaty for mercy and peace.
John Tavener’s The Lamb (1982) is based on William Blake’s poem from Songs of Innocence. The ensemble displayed its strengths and abilities to manage complex harmonies and melodic lines. Tritle noted to us its “chromatic crunches” and “lines that move horizontally into a vertical crunch”.
The program completed with Grammy award-winning composer Stephen Paulus’ Pilgrims Hymn from his opera The Three Hermits. Previously performed at venerable events as the funerals of Presidents Reagan and Ford, it uses dynamics masterfully. Lyrics surpassing and beyond crescendo to dramatic climaxes with surprise color chords, conveyance of magical effects and poetic meaning, and predominate shifting meters and chromaticism. Homophony and unison give weight and closure to a concert featuring Renaissance imitative counterpoint, providing a fitting, spiritual, hopeful, and prayerful conclusion.
Extended applause and a standing ovation prompted a well-deserved encore. Tritle dedicated William Byrd’s Laetentur Coeli from The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems to honor Ash Wednesday. It was performed with vivacity, enthusiasm and joy, finely attuned to the conductor, reminding us of the privilege of experiencing beautiful musical works in a grand yet intimate venue.
This evening featured sacred choral works from the English Renaissance. In contrast to the monophonic melodic elements of commonly sung hymns like John Newton’s Amazing Grace, Renaissance composers frequently set sacred liturgy polyphonically ensuring voices share equal roles in explaining scripture. As one voice begins a melody on Agnus Dei, subsequent voices imitate, creating a beautiful mosaic of overlapping sounds as a gently turning kaleidoscope of colors wash over the listener.
Tonight cleansed, refreshed purely and serenely, and provided a warm escape from life’s angst, tribulations, and winter’s cold. It was evocative, imaginative, nuanced, and intimate. Works complemented each other. Tritle conducted judiciously, crafting phrasing while exhorting from the choir professionalism, artistry, attention to pitch, phrasing, tone, and sensitivity to the conductor’s direction and pathos. The sense of calm gleaned from tonight’s event accompanied participants as they exited the cathedral into the dark of evening night.
St. John the Divine is a jewel in New York City. Organist and music director Kent Tritle presents essential remarkable musical offerings that must be seen and heard. We recommend it highly.
The next concert at St. John the Divine directed by Kent Tritle is Tuesday, April 9, 7:30 p.m., entitled French Masters. It features Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, Op. 48, and Francis Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge noire and Quatre petites prières de saint François d’Assise. For tickets go to https://www.stjohndivine.org/music/great-music/ or to the link at St. John the Divine. Tickets $25 to $60.
Runtime: 90 minutes.