By Edward Kliszus

The program opened with two choral works by Francis Poulenc. Poulenc’s first religious choral composition, Litanies à la Vierge Noire (1936) set the aptly spiritual mood of the evening for the audience swathed in the inspiring Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Conducted by Kent Tritle, accompanied by organist Raymond Nagem, it is set in three-parts featuring Sopranos and Altos of the Cathedral Choir. This work represents Poulenc’s return to Catholic faith after the death of his friend and composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud. It consists of a sequence of prayers to Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ, clearly expressing humility and anguish-ridden supplications. It was performed by a superb 12 member women’s choir with crisp precise diction and articulation, marvelous intonation, expressive dynamics, pitch and blend. Tritle’s expressive conducting in which his entire body expresses his direction, along with the choir’s artistry, creates an intimacy unexpected in this large space.

Poulenc’s Quatre petites prières de saint François d’Assise (1948) featured tenors and basses of the Cathedral Choir singing a cappella. Prayers include Salut, Dame Sainte, Tout puissant, Seigneur, je vous en prie, and Ô mes très chers frères. Inspired by the Brothers in the lower basilica of Assisi singing the Divine Office, the choir captured the work’s blend of sacred and secular elements richly expressed through the composer’s merger of medieval and contemporary harmonic structures.

Gabriel Fauré’s exquisite Requiem in D minor, Op. 48 (1890) featured the magnificent soprano Jennifer Zetlan and baritone John Brancy. Performed at Fauré’s funeral in 1924, tonight’s marvelous performance expressed the essence and beauty of Fauré’s musical perceptions of serenity, peace, and tranquility. Tritle gleaned the meticulously designed gentle subtleties and shifts of dynamics and harmony with its hints and references to Gregorian chant. Immersing oneself into this evening’s performance prompts reflection on the irony of expressive beauty and religiosity created by a composer practicing religious agnosticism. Perhaps it is Fauré’s attempt to seek faith and significance through a spiritual, ethereal musical experience. Tonight’s performance provided the atmosphere to prompt such reflection, capturing its meaning, longing, and as embodied through In Paradisum, peace, poignancy and eternal rest. As Fauré noted in 1902, “But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.”

The concert closed with a sublime a cappella encore Olivier Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium (1937) honoring the Blessed Sacrament. We wanted even more.

Kent Tritle has once again brought musica da chiesa to the forefront with integrity, quality, and faithfulness to the original intent of the works. As centuries of superb religious music have slowly disappeared from many churches, Tritle triumphantly proclaims the significance of this genre, presenting it to enthralled listeners who cannot but receive the transcendence and spirituality they seek.

Listening to, better yet, experiencing music in The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is an overwhelming spiritual and artistic experience. The superb acoustics and resonance of marvelous organ stops are breathtaking. Tritle ensures that splendid singers, orchestra and pipe organ amalgamate to best present the music’s essence and import.

Tritle designs a program seemingly perfect for the venue. His artists are superbly trained to sensitively exceed the music’s significant demands. He leads them and his audience into the vitality and depths of exquisite music, sharing the spiritual gifts of the art. I look forward to experiencing his future efforts bringing critical musical works to audiences.

Tonight’s concert was presented in conjunction with The Value of Sanctuary: Building a House Without Walls featuring artist Rania Matar.

Runtime: 75 minutes

Upcoming at St. John the Divine is the marvelous Nightwatch Crossroads: Interspiritual 2018-19 on Friday, April 26, 2019, 6:30 pm. For tickets go to https://bit.ly/2WTO9FA, click this link, or call 866-811-4111. Tickets are $90.

On April 28, 4:45-5:45 pm, in celebration of their magnificent Great Organ, the Cathedral presents a concert following Sunday Evensong featuring guest recitalist Patrick E. Pope from Charlotte, North Carolina. This recital is free to the public.

There are many more upcoming musical events. Click here, go to https://www.stjohndivine.org/music/ or call 212-316-7540 for details.