By David Walters
Founded in 1977, Musica Viva NY, based out of All Souls Church at 80th and Lexington, is a mixed chamber choir of both professionals and volunteers. They annually put on a four-concert series, and I was fortunate to be able to attend their third presentation of this year’s series entitled The Sorrow and the Beauty. The mission of the choir is to bring to life choral arrangements of new compositions and classic masterworks of magnitude and to provide a venue for this type of music for those both unfamiliar and those steeped in its traditions. Besides their concert series, they also have an outreach component that exposes this type of music and teaches composition and choral work in New York City public schools.
Under the masterful direction of Artistic Director Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez the program was composed of six musical compositions that each tell a story reflective of the transcendence of suffering to another realm, in the same way that music transcends daily life to a higher spiritual plane.
The theme of the evening, The Sorrow and the Beauty, is based on contrasts and was built around the second choral piece of the evening, David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music. It was the centerpiece of the performance with the other compositions chosen to complement this masterwork. Lang’s choral work is both minimalistic and highly intricate, demanding much of both performers and audience. Consisting of fifteen movements it takes from Hans Christian Anderson’s tale and lays it on Bach’s Saint Mathew Passion contrasting the sadness and redemption found in the little match girl story and Christ’s suffering that too gets elevated and lifted beyond this mortal coil.
Beginning the program was a piece by Estonian composer Arvo Part, The Beatitudes, an arrangement for choir and organ (played by Trent Johnson) based on Matthew 5, 3-12. The composition firmly establishes contrast as it rests on Matthew’s Beatitudes and explodes with rejoicing as the organ flies and dances in the clouds.
After the intermission another composition by Arvo Part, an instrumental, Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror), which is a dance between viola and piano, a “tintinnabula,” a technique utilizing the two instruments as dancing between melodic and triadic. It evoked water for me and led beautifully into the next piece.
Super Flumina Babylonis, is a composition for choir, viola, cello, celesta, and percussion by Caleb Burhans that defies simple classification as it embraces the contemporary but does not pull itself away from the sacred and classical as it examines the captive Israelites forced to sing their native songs.
Following this was the next instrumental piece for cello and viola discussing contrasts, Limestone and Felt, a composition by Caroline Shaw (2013 youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music). The two instruments dance off of one another, expressing each one’s gifts beyond traditional bowing, from slaps to plucking (pizzicato). The hardness and the softness of the instruments were on full display as they came together and pulled apart.
The final piece of the evening was a delight and the joy of performing it was evident in all the participants, chorus, piano, and percussion. Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst is just that, a building and then a burst of sound and fury that filled the sanctuary, lifted the roof, and then gradually replaced it as the rain moved on. This piece was a blast, evoking the power of nature, and a wonderful way to end this program of interwoven contrasts.
I do need to highlight the precision that was required for this choral evening, the choosing of the music and how they relate and complement each other, the artistry of the performers, and the acoustics of All Souls Church that allowed the music to sing, apply salve to suffering, and off of that, gave wings to soar.
Musica Viva NY is a treasured institution that makes living in New York a joy.
Their next and final concert for this season, entitled Lux Aeterna, will take place May 21st at 5 PM.
As always, this is just one person’s opinion in a world filled with them.