A choral concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is a celestial experience. Here’s a link to my notes about one of their Messiah performances. Listeners are swathed in tonal orisons that rise gently to the broad, soaring rafters of this magnificent Romanesque and Gothic Revival residence of
worship and reflection. This evening featured this and more, as we were treated to a diverse series of works expanding both the repertoire of listeners and the community at large with a world premiere. The reverential, distinguished Maestro Kent Tritle began the program with a transcendent, prayerful, poignant, choral performance of the Prayer for Ukraine composed by Mykol Lysenko (1842-1912), preceding a period of silence to honor those defending their homeland during these tragic times. Here is a performance of the work by the United States Air Force Band and Singing Sergeants that has received nearly eighty thousand views since March 6, 2022. From the video caption: First published in 1885, composer Mykola Lysenko’s “Prayer for Ukraine” has become a beloved song for the Ukrainian people. Lysenko’s words of “protect our Ukraine, shine on her your blessings of freedom and light” act as a worldwide beacon of hope for democracy.
Brahms’s motet Schaffe in mir Gott, ein rein Herz, Op. 29, No. 2 (Create in Me, God, a Pure Heart) opened the formal program. In the motets that premiered around 1862, Brahms shows his contrapuntal, canonical skills derived from his study of and deference to J. S. Bach’s great works. Composed just before his German Requiem (Ein Deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift. Op. 45), the motet also reminds us of Brahms’ belief in a supreme being that inspired his life’s work and informed the semi-trance state in which he received and crafted his compositional inspirations. This performance of Schaffe in mir Gott by Tritle and his Musica Sacra transcends the technical aspects of the work, sumptuously capturing the spiritual character and afflatus of the piece, composed ironically by a dedicated classicist who dealt primarily with abstract forms and avoided programmatic music, his erudite, transcendent choral works are unique and unexpected. As Brahms explained in a letter to Clara Schumann, “On a system for a small instrument, a man [Bach] writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most tremendous emotions. If I could imagine that I could have accomplished such a thing, could have conceived it within myself, I know surely that the excitement and the shock would have driven me insane.” Tritle is an accomplished cognoscente who selects with erudition a mélange of musical offerings that challenge and inspire the listener. Wang Jie’s work, The Name That Never Dies, is an interesting venture, dedicated aptly as the composer states, “[it] celebrates Kent Tritle, his musicianship, and the man who stared directly into the eye of the black hole. He shows us the music that has penetrated the depth of the universe.” Tritle and his choir successfully projected an ambiguity reinforced by mixed meters, angular harmonics, and hints of early polyphony and its horizontal parallelisms. Adding to this mysterious archetype are its percussive rhythmic patterns with a dash of Carl Orff’s O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, all successfully and seemingly extemporized through artistic intent.
Arnost Kares, the Czech Counsel General for New York, introduced Viktor Kalabis’s Canticum. Kares also spoke eloquently of Ukraine’s current quandary as a target of violent Russian domination. Canticum featured choir and orchestra with marvelous soloists tenor John Riesen, and contralto Nicole Joy Mitchell. The ensemble performed with élan, clearly articulating the work’s neo-classist dissonances in a piece crafted at the height of Kalabis’s creative powers. A marvelous soundscape, its intones hint of the Second Viennese School and its enigmatic serialism and structure. Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum with the wonderful soprano, Elizabeth van Os, provided an apposite dénouement to a marvelous concert. It was a rare treat to hear a performance of a choral work with string orchestra, triple choir, prepared piano, and recorded accompaniment featuring, in this case, droning pedal-point constructs. The work began with an ominous, sustained, recorded low pitch. Basses entered with a monophonic theme shadowed by choirs in plainsong textures, choral acclamations, and soaring angular melodic phrases. The work eventually sighs and fades away like the passing of time. As anticipated, Maestro Kent Tritle et al. delivered a splendid, diverse, and exciting musical program. Blend, articulation, intonation, and phrasing were superb, and conducting was precise and expressive. It was particularly surprising and pleasing to experience live music with recorded sound and prepared piano, a reminder of works developing this genre by composers like Ron Mazurek, Romanian immigrant Dinu Ghezzo, or as noted in John Cage’s Sonatas for prepared piano. Bravo! Cathedral of St. John the Divine 1047 Amsterdam Avenue (at 112th Street) New York, NY 10025
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