26th SEASON - 2014-2015
Concert Review: At St. Ignatius Loyola, Bach's Mass in All Its Elements (New York Times) May 2015
Concert Review: The Heavy Weight of Faith (Superconductor) May 2015
Concert Review: Transcending the Gloom Outside of St. Ignatius Loyola (Ludid Culture) October 2014
Concert Review: It's All in the Context (Superconductor) October 2014
Sacred Music in a Sacred Space Begins 2014/2015 Choral Season (Broadway World) September 2014
Sacred Music in a Sacred Space Begins its 2014-2015 Season with Polydora Ensemble (Broadway World) September 2014
25th ANNIVERSARY SEASON - 2013-2014
An Echo of Rachmaninoff: St. Ignatius Loyola Choir Performs ‘All-Night Vigil’ The New York Times, October 20, 2013
Say Hallelujah – ConcertoNet.com, May 2011
Hallelujah: Handel and Beethoven Choral Works in New York - Seen and Heard International, May 2011
Hallelujahs, But Not The Ones You Think – The New York Times, May 2011
Handel’s Old Testament Dramas Received in New York – The New York Times, October 2010
Jephtha, New York – Opera Today, October 2011
Jephtha – Opera News, October 2010
British Orchestral Review: St. Ignatius Loyola Choir & Orchestra - American Record Guide, January/February 2010
Sacred Music in a Sacred Space Begins at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola - The New York Times, October 9, 2009
Sounds of Bach and One of His Models, Buxtehude - The New York Times, September 19, 2009
Some Sounds Embracing the Past, Others Straying Far - The New York Times, February 13, 2009
CD REVIEW: Virtuosity and versatility lead to thrilling readings of these two contrasted works - Gramophone, August 2009
Organ Recitals as Worthy as Concerts ArtsBeat Blog - The New York Times, February 12, 2009
CD REVIEW: Lush Choral Textures from Park Avenue - Classical Voice of New England, May 2009
CD REVIEW: Two remarkable discoveries of the highest order (Schnittke and Ginastera) - Audiophile Audition, April 2009
The Top Ten Classical Events - New York Magazine, December 7, 2008
MUSIC IN REVIEW: 'Petite Messe Solennelle' - The New York Times, November 10, 2008
Rethinking Lenny - New York Magazine, October 5, 2008
Challenging Concert in a Religious Setting - The New York Times, October 3, 2008
Shaping a Work That Has Returned to Fashion - The New York Times, May 16, 2008
Sometimes Those Magicians of Song Need to Show What's Up Their Sleeves - The New York Times, February 15, 2008
A Young Shepherd's Ageless Trek - The New York Times, December 17, 2007
Babylon, Persia and Israel in Full Voice - The New York Times, October 27, 2007
3 Soloists Give Voice to a Mighty Instrument - The New York Times, July 4, 2007
CD REVIEW: Les Corps Glorieux - All Music Guide, May 2007
The breadth of experience and responsibilities of Kent Tritle is extraordinary. He is in charge of musical activities at the acoustically and visually splendid Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. He leads the New York Oratorical Society and Musica Sacra and is Director of Choral Activities at the Manhattan School of Music. He is the official organist for both the New York Philharmonic and the American Symphony Orchestra. He is on the graduate faculty at Julliard and hosts his own radio program, The Choral Mix. Mr. Tritle is clearly an expert in time management!
He’s also a creative programmer, finding a thematic link between Beethoven and his favorite composer, Handel – the celebratory choruses that end each of the choral works on this program. One is a staple of the choir repertoire and the other rather unknown and, on the basis of this performance, wrongly neglected. For his Anthem, Handel borrowed from himself; the concluding section is the “Hallelujah chorus” from the Messiah. The Anthem was written for a charity concert in aid of the Foundling Hospital in London. Handel was a dedicated supporter; indeed, the yearly performances there of his Messiah, were an important source of income for the charity. On this occasion, as performed by the chorus under the baton of Maestro Tritle, with crisp textures and rhythmic verve, this familiar piece sounded utterly fresh.
The finale of Christus am Ölberge, Beethoven’s only oratorio and the first of his three choral works, was a hallelujah chorus in spirit but not in name. The text, by Franz Huber, chronicles the fear and foreboding of Jesus in the face of the realization of his impending suffering, and his ultimate acceptance of and transcendence over that suffering. Joseph Kerman, citing the work of musicologist and psychoanalyst Alan Tyson, has pointed to Beethoven’s letters, raw with anguish over his progressive deafness, and found a thematic similarity with Christ’s struggles. Whatever his motivation and associations, it’s unarguable that Beethoven produced a magnificent work which fully deserves to be heard. Musically, his debt to Mozart is apparent in the tenor’s vocal line and also in the instrumentation. I heard echoes of Die Zauberflöte and even Die Entführung aus dem Serail. But this is, above all, a highly dramatic work in subject matter and in scoring, particularly in the dueling choruses of apostles and soldiers. The chorus’s powerful “Verdammung ist ihr Loos” was chilling. And the orchestra, in all of its moods and styles was simply splendid.
Paul Appleby, who sang the role of Jesus, is clearly a Tamino in waiting. With his sweet, ardent voice, even from top to bottom, he would do ample justice to the vocal challenges of “Dies Bildnis.” He would also bring to Tamino an ability to convey the metaphysical dimension of his dark night of the soul – the anguished questioning in the finale to act one. Appleby, a participant in the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists Program, is the 2011 winner of the George London Foundation Award. The soprano, Rachel Rosales, sang with power and warmth. Her middle voice is particularly rich, but the coloratura requirements at times seemed to be beyond her abilities. Bass-baritone Charles Perry Sprawls made for a stentorian Peter. In the organ concerto which began the evening Nancianne Parrella, Jorge Ávila, and Arthur Fiacco, all in the organ loft, gave a moving, richly detailed and committed performance.
In a city as large as New York that offers music of all kinds every evening of the year, it is easy to forget how active churches are in adding to its musical life. Last night’s concert followed another substantial one performed at a church just one block north the week before. Some churches present their own choruses and orchestras, while others serve as venues for outside groups. For audience members who are not church goers, it is often a visual as well as auditory treat. The secular façade of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola hides a late-nineteenth century mix of Baroque and Roman basilica elements with a long nave and an interior paved partly with pinkish marble. It also houses the largest track organ in New York City, with over five thousand pipes.
The organ, rising above the back choral loft, has a magnificent sound. Handel played these organ concerti, though, on a small positive organ with registrations probably limited only to open and stopped flute ranks. If Handel had played the Concerto in G minor on an organ such as this one, the sounds of other instruments would have been drowned out. This brief opening piece was played on the organ with solo violin and cello, and without amplification this reduction of Handel’s score to a trio would have been totally covered by the organ. Here the result of amplification, plus not being able to see the players in the chorus loft, made it feel like listening to a recording of the work rather than a live performance.
The following composition, The Foundling Hospital Anthem, was performed in its original version. There also exists a revised one, and I wish the choice here had been to do the earlier version. Handel’s revision added one aria and modified some of the choruses so that they were sung by soloists instead. These changes redefined the whole emotional tenor (ahem!) of the work. The revised score opens with a solo aria by the tenor introduced by violins played in unison. The soloists take over some of the chorus’s parts such as in the line beginning “O God, who from the suckling mouth,” sung in the revised version by an alto. Handel also added the delightful and winsome aria “The people will tell of their wisdom,” an angelic give-and-take between two sopranos. The first two choruses were not written specifically for this anthem, but were borrowed instead from his earlier work, the “Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline.” By making these revisions, Handel was looking to change the elegiac mood into something more upbeat.
This being said, the performance of this original version was a solid one. The conductor Kent Tritle knew exactly what he wanted from his musicians and singers. The surprise for the audience was the “Hallelujah Chorus” from The Messiah in its original placement as the final chorus of the anthem. I wondered if it would have been appropriate for the audience to have stood up during its performance!
The major work on the program was Beethoven’s Christum am Ölberge. While this is Beethoven’s only oratorio, he wrote many other pieces for chorus and/or soloist and orchestra. Often these works, including the one performed tonight, were quickly written to meet a specific event; the accession or death of an Emperor, or a political event such as the Congress of Vienna are bombastic with cloying texts. Tonight’s oratorio stands out in quality with better written works for chorus and orchestra such as the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra and the larger Missa Solemnis. Despite the sacred tradition the recitatives, arias and choruses are operatic in scope. Paul Appleby, the tenor, had just the right voice for the role of Jesus, presenting a powerful, yet emotionally fragile figure. I might have wished he were a little more in sync with the other members in regard to when he was required to be seated, but this didn’t impact his fine singing. Rachel Rosales didn’t have the sweetest voice and strained a bit in some of Beethoven’s difficult arias, but still was able to give a strong performance. The bass Charles Perry Sprawls had too short a role to comment on his voice. Both the orchestra and chorus, under the direction of Mr. Tritle, played flawlessly and knew how to deal with the Church’s acoustics so as not to have one group overpower the other.
Hallelujahs, But Not The Ones You Think
The New York Times, May 2011
By James R. Oestreich
To read the review in its entirety: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/27/arts/music/sacred-music-in-a-sacred-space-at-st-ignatius-loyola-review.html
Handel, an inveterate recycler, knew a good tune when he had written one. Or, for that matter, when anyone else had.
Listeners who did not read the program notes of the Sacred Music in a Sacred Space concert at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue before intermission on Wednesday evening must have been surprised to hear the “Hallelujah” chorus from “Messiah,” in all its glory, ending Handel’s “Foundling Hospital Anthem” of 1749. (“Blessed are they that considereth the poor.”) The piece also draws on other music of Handel and of Antonio Lotti, and makes deft Bachian use of the old chorale “Aus Tiefer Not” (“From Deepest Need”).
But it was the “Hallelujah” that afforded a unifying thread of sorts for a program culminating in Beethoven’s oratorio “Christus am Ölberge” (“Christ on the Mount of Olives”). The work dwells on Jesus’ vigil before his crucifixion, but in the end Christ, sung by a tenor, announces the coming victory over the powers of hell, and the piece concludes with a triumphal chorus of angels, often called “Beethoven’s Hallelujah.” The word hallelujah does not appear in the German text (as it does in the dismal English translation provided), but the orchestra punches out the Handelian rhythm a couple of times.
Seldom encountered live, the work, first completed in 1803, can sound like an early laboratory for the continuing experiment of Beethoven’s lone opera, begun as “Leonore” in 1805 and completed as “Fidelio” in 1814. Here too there are demanding roles for soprano (Seraph) and tenor; and there are male choruses (disciples or soldiers) as well as mixed choruses.
Still, it is good to hear the piece, especially with a splendid tenor like Paul Appleby as Jesus. Once past a misplaced hint of an Italianate sob at the outset, he sang with superb strength, clarity and expressivity.
The Choir and Orchestra of St. Ignatius Loyola, conducted by Kent Tritle, the mastermind of Sacred Music in a Sacred Space, were everywhere excellent. The chorus seized its real opportunity to shine as a whole in the Handel anthem, to glorious effect.
The program began in the loft, where the orchestra joined Nancianne Parrella in a smooth performance of Handel’s Organ Concerto in G minor (Op. 4, No. 3). The organ dominates the fast movements in this work, but the opening Adagio centers on violin and cello solos, beautifully played here by Jorge Ávila and Arthur Fiacco. (Mr. Fiacco also stood out in a Beethoven duet.)
In what amounted to a mini-convention of New York organists (with Renée Anne Louprette playing portative in the Handel anthem but Mr. Tritle otherwise occupied), David Enlow, the organist and choirmaster at the Church of the Resurrection, also on the Upper East Side, gave an unusual preconcert recital on the mighty St. Ignatius organ of Mozart and Beethoven works written for tinny-sounding devices variously called mechanical organs or musical clocks.
Mozart called writing for mechanical instruments “loathsome work,” but the two fantasies presented here (K. 594 and 608) are astonishing creations that transcend their limited scope: especially the second, with a powerful fugal proclamation that returns, this time elaborated with a countersubject. All this is built into a machine easily enough, but it makes for a couple of cramped handfuls in live performance; Mr. Enlow managed handsomely.
A particular delight of the New York classical music season at its teeming height is the way seemingly unrelated events intersect to produce a spontaneous minifestival, or at least a theme. It happened last week on consecutive evenings, when two of the city’s finest professional church choirs presented contrasting Handel oratorios touching on more or less parallel Old Testament subjects.
On Wednesday the Choir and Orchestra of St. Ignatius Loyola and its music director, Kent Tritle, offered the relatively late “Jephtha” (1752), something of a rarity these days. And on Thursday the Trinity Choir, with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra, presented the relatively early “Israel in Egypt” (1739). (“Messiah” appeared in 1742; Handel died in 1759.) Though “Israel” has become commonplace in a truncated version in two parts, the Trinity ensembles, conducted by their new music director, Julian Wachner, resurrected Handel’s seldom-heard revision of 1756, laid out in three parts, like the original.
Mr. Tritle and his St. Ignatius forces are a known commodity, and they delivered the handsome performance expected, a few moments of shaky ensemble aside. “Jephtha” is a more intimate drama, less of a choral showcase.
The story involves the freeing of the Israelites from oppression, this time under the rule of the Ammonites. But Jephtha’s victory is merely a pretext for his torturous dilemma: having promised God that if he were to return victorious, “what, or whoe’er shall first salute mine eyes, shall be forever Thine, or fall a sacrifice,” the conquering hero is ebulliently greeted by his daughter. Is he now to slay her as sacrifice or to betray his promise?
Thomas Cooley, a tenor, developed Jephtha as a gripping three-dimensional character, and Susanna Phillips, a soprano, shone as his daughter. Among the characters added to the biblical tale, Charlotte Daw Paulsen, a mezzo-soprano, as Jephtha’s wife, was especially fine in her harrowing “Scenes of horror, scenes of woe.”
The only thing better than hearing this revival well performed was hearing it in combination with an equally attractive “Israel in Egypt.”
Jephtha was Handel’s last work — he went blind while composing it, noting this on the manuscript, and though he lived another seven years, did not deign to dictate new music.
That’s a pity, because Jephtha’s musical and dramatic structures indicate that a closer intertwining of staged drama and static oratorio was coming into being: Chorales are fewer and less involved in the action than in the earlier oratorios, and the action includes a remarkable quartet of conflicting points of view at a moment of high tension, almost unprecedented in Handelian drama and pointing the way to Mozart and Rossini. Characters state their feelings in da capo arias, as one expects, but alternate such static reveries with soliloquies in recitative accompanied by full orchestra or the occasional duet. The characteristic emotions and tunes we know from Handel are here, but new expressive tools are brought to their aid. After forty years in the business, the great man hadn’t run out of, or even low on, new ideas.
The story, though Biblical, resembles the Idomeneo legend familiar to us from Mozart’s opera (Bible stories could not be staged in England before the twentieth century): Israel’s General Jephtha has vowed, if successful in battle, to sacrifice the first creature he encounters on his return. To his embarrassment, the creature who emerges to welcome him is his daughter. He squirms, he bargains, he considers alternatives — but a vow’s a vow. However, like Neptune (in Idomeneo’s case), Jehovah lets him off the hook: An angel suggests that Iphis, the general’s daughter, be offered to perpetual virginity as a Jewish nun, in effect, and that an animal be sacrificed instead. In the Bible, actually, relentless Jephtha sacrifices his daughter, but Handel’s version recalls the tale of Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac. In any case, the unhappy ending would have had unpleasant political ramifications in Handel’s day, when the rationalists were dwelling on such tales to discredit religion generally. Handel, devout believer and lifelong optimist, pulls it off convincingly, and few among his usual audience today are likely to spot the change. Only Iphis’s boyfriend remains unhappy.
St. Ignatius Loyola, Manhattan’s Jesuit church, is an edifice in the style of a great Roman basilica, with porphyry columns, faux marble panels, frescos of the saint’s life, death and apotheosis and a rather muddy acoustic: A small chorus and orchestra (always preferable for Handel) booms down the long nave to Park Avenue, but individual voices and instruments are not as clear as one might like and soloists seemed to lose their clarity at one end or another of their range. Conductor Kent Tritle’s rhythms were happily vivid, and the three lengthy acts passed swiftly to the exciting conclusion.
Vocally the occasion would have been professional but little more had not Susanna Phillips sung Iphis, the designated sacrifice, whose arias must present her as a spirited warriors’ cheerleader, a devoted daughter, a fearful suppliant, and a willing martyr by turns. Phillips, who has been garnering lots of attention lately, proved worthy of it: she has an even, flexible voice with a goodly heft to it, shining power in the upper range and no less force and beauty in lower tones. (Handel never wastes part of a voice — he expects his singers to use it all.) Phillips gave a radiant performance, and by the very fact of singing so well throughout her compass disproved any suspicions that St. Ignatius’s acoustics were kinder to certain ranges of sound than others. Her only failing is a certain imprecision in swift ornament — she has, for instance, no trill, and Handel often calls for one. The quality of her soprano is so thrilling and her musicianship so steady that I hope to encounter it often. She will sing Pamina at the Met this winter; she should be adorable in that adorable (and not too ornamental) part.
A welcome New York revival of Handel's oratorio Jephtha took place at the Church of Ignatius Loyola on October 13, with the church's own choir and orchestra under their music director, Kent Tritle, plus a sextet of capable soloists. The work was Handel's swan song. After a season of concerts in Dublin in 1741–42, for which he wrote Messiah, he had turned from opera to oratorio, and back in London, starting with the Lenten season in 1743, it was with new oratorios that he presented himself again at Covent Garden. During composition of the last of these works, Jephtha (1751), encroaching blindness put an end to his creative career, though he lived until 1759.
The chorus in Jephtha offers comments, as in Greek drama, but plays no active role, leaving the principals to deal with their dilemma. Like Samson after him, Jephtha appears in the Book of Judges, where he is presented as the illegitimate son of a prostitute, a former outlaw risen to leadership through his exploits. In the territory of Gilead, after unsuccessfully trying diplomacy, he defeats the invasive Ammonites in battle, only to find himself trapped by a reckless vow he made — to thank God for victory by sacrificing the first creature he meets. As in Mozart's Idomeneo, this happens to be a member of his own family — his only child, a daughter, rushing to congratulate him. There follows a domestic crisis, with little dramatic action but much wringing of hands.
In his libretto, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Morell fleshed out Biblical history by naming the girl Iphis and giving her a mother, Storgè, as well as a fiancé, Hamor. He also created a narrator — Zebul, Jephtha's brother — and brought in an Angel to announce an invented resolution: the girl need not die but must rather consecrate herself to God as a lifelong celibate, thereby punishing Jephtha by denying him descendants. Anything so pagan as human sacrifice, forbidden under Mosaic law, had to be avoided.
As Jephtha, tenor Thomas Cooley offered little vocal heft or swagger in his opening scene but ably parried the fluent passagework of "His mighty arm" in Act II, declaring victory as the Lord's, not his own, in music that would thwart a more heroic type of voice. Soon after, in "Open thy marble jaws, O tomb!" he delineated the poor man's horror and loss of will at realizing what he had brought upon himself. In the accompanied recitative "Deeper, and deeper still, thy goodness, child" (was Beethoven thinking of this in Florestan's prison?), he reached depths of grief, and in the score's most famous excerpt, "Waft her, angels, through the skies," his forlorn but exalted lyricism provided an interpretive tour de force. As Zebul, Kelly Markgraf made his baritone clearly heard with steady delivery, forthright characterization and the cast's most intelligible diction. As Storgè, mezzo Charlotte Daw Paulsen at first sounded soft, domestic and private; later, dropping into the contralto range, she brought darkness and temperament to "Scenes of horror, scenes of woe," as Jephtha's wife confronts her forebodings.
Still unaware, Iphis warbled cheerfully about "The smiling dawn of happy days," in the lovely, clear soprano of Susanna Phillips, equally effective throughout its range. As the news turned grim, her meltingly expressive tones took on stronger shading and thrust, from innocent and positive to crushed and resigned. Playing Hamor, her luckless fiancé, Ian Howell had some trouble making his gentle countertenor heard in this company, though his tone brightened, and his technique firmed up, at the challenge of "Up the dreadful steep ascending," a solo fraught with roulades illustrating its text. Soprano Jamet Pittman stepped out from the chorus to deliver in glowing, celestial tones the Angel's announcement of Iphis's reprieve.
Jephtha shows Handel's innovative skill at adapting Baroque conventions to a more fluid, conversational style. A duet between Iphis and Storgè grows naturally out of the girl's response to her mother's baleful mutterings; a quartet and quintet arise at moments when the emotional climate has grown most charged, drawing in the other characters. Under Tritle's alert but unstressed pacing, the appropriately small chorus and orchestra executed their work with verve and discretion. One's ears gradually grew accustomed to the soft halo of sound (preferable to harsh resonance) provided by the gargantuan basilica, but clarity was softened as well. While the singers' tone bloomed on bursts of volume, coloratura details got blurred. It helps to remember that works of this genre were actually meant for performance in such spacious surroundings.
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. Leslie Kandell
Hearing the British composer John Tavener’s Requiem in its United States premiere at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Wednesday night, in the opening concert of the Sacred Music in a Sacred Space series, you felt literally engulfed in pantheistic ecstasy. The 2007 work, which features passages from the Requiem Mass, the Koran, the Upanishads and Sufi texts — was meant to be played by musicians dispersed at the four ends of a cruciform space.
Here the conductor Kent Tritle positioned three soloists, four percussionists and a string orchestra at the sanctuary apse. The cellist Arthur Fiacco, who represented primordial light, shifted between tender solo reveries and agile accompaniment; Jennifer Zetlan, a soprano, sang with an almost unearthly brilliance, countered with an earthier ardor from the tenor Matthew Garrett. Glowing responses emanated from the chorus and a brass octet in the organ loft behind the audience, directed by Renée Anne Louprette. A hypnotic stasis familiar from Mr. Tavener’s earlier works often took hold, punctuated with pealing Tibetan prayer bowls. But the central section, “Kali’s Dance,” featured ferocious volleys among two sets of timpani; a massive, squat American Indian powwow drum; and a variety of gongs.
The excellent choir was more conventionally deployed during the first half of the concert, in which a mesmerizing account of five sections from Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom set the stage for another United States premiere: Valentin Silvestrov’s “Diptychon,” which gently nudged Rachmaninoff’s austerity toward the opalescent harmonies of Ligeti.
Two hymns from Mr. Tavener’s “Veil of the Temple” were closer in spirit to these works than to the flamboyant spectacle of the Requiem.
Sacred Music in a Sacred Space continues on Nov. 11 at 8 p.m. at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, 980 Park Avenue, at 84th Street; (212) 288-2520, smssconcerts.org.
The Sacred Music in a Sacred Space series at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola is best known for the superb choral programs that Kent Tritle conducts. But Mr. Tritle, who is the church’s music director — and the organist of the New York Philharmonic — usually plays an organ recital as part of the series as well, and on Wednesday evening he opened the season by taking to the organ loft.
Just about everything on his program was either by Bach or had him in its sights. The exception was a C major Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne by Buxtehude, a master of the organ when Bach was still learning the craft and one of Bach’s acknowledged models.
As both a sample of Buxtehude’s art and a glimpse of what the young Bach might have heard when he traveled to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude in 1706, a year before the older composer’s death, the Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne (BuxWV 137) has plenty to tell us. Its point is virtuosity, both of the fingers and of the imagination: grand chordal passages present a harmonic notion, then brisk, fugal writing explores its implications. Free fantasy and structural formality (the fugue and the chaconne demand both) coexist, and Mr. Tritle deftly balanced the tension between them in a driven, rich-hued performance.
He also did as much for Bach’s expansion on Buxtehude’s techniques in the “Wedge” Prelude and Fugue in E minor (BWV 548), playing the prelude assertively and bringing remarkable transparency to the strands of involved counterpoint in the fugue.
The other two Bach works were from the more ruminative end of his catalog. Both were chorale preludes on “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein,” the first (BWV 641) a graceful, flowery setting from the “Orgelbüchlein,” from around 1714, and the second (BWV 668a) a more expansive but less florid version, probably composed at the end of Bach’s life, in 1750. In the later setting particularly, Mr. Tritle’s color choices — a reedy chorale timbre and a fluty elaboration — conveyed the subtlety of Bach’s subordination of invention to piety.
Mendelssohn’s music is rarely as harmonically adventurous as it is in the Prelude and Fugue in C minor (Op. 37), but his lyrical gift shines through as well, as does his debt to Bach in the freewheeling fugue. And Bach’s spirit turned up again, filtered through a Gallic prism, in the closing Chorale and Fugue of Félix-Alexandre Guilmant’s Sonata V in C minor (Op. 80). Mr. Tritle’s sense of color was at its most vivid (and fluid) in this 1894 work. You almost wished he would set aside the Bach theme and give some Messiaen a spin. By Allan Kozinn
Contemporary works were the main business of Kent Tritle’s Sacred Music in a Sacred Space concert on Wednesday evening at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. But perhaps as a point of reference — as a way to show how far some sacred choral music has traveled, and how completely other works are linked to the past — Mr. Tritle opened his program with a setting of “Lux Perpetua Lucebit Sanctis Tuis,” by the 16th-century composer Philippe de Monte. The most immediate comparison was with Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (1966). The works’ texts are similar: each asks God to shine eternal light on the saints. But where de Monte framed the request in the fluid, overlapping lines and sublimely consonant harmonies of the late Renaissance, Ligeti used close dissonances to create hauntingly eerie, slowly evolving clusters. Light, heavenly or mundane, tied other works to the Ligeti and de Monte. Morten Lauridsen’s “O Nata Lux” (1997) is closer in spirit to the de Monte work, or at least its syntax is more conventional than Ligeti’s, and its harmonies have a Fauré-like bloom. Its text is a prayer. But though Gavin Bryars’s involved, rich-hued “On Photography” (1983) has the sound of a devotional work, its text is mostly drawn from a secular poem (an 1867 paean to the camera), in Latin, by Gioacchino Pecci, who became Pope Leo XIII. Mr. Tritle also led his choir in two pieces with texts from the Russian Orthodox liturgy. Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Song of Cherubim” (1986) is largely built on the steady rhythms and compressed melodies of unadorned speech. Its attraction is Mr. Penderecki’s flexible use of texture, which varies from quiet and thin to powerful and expansively harmonized. Its companion here, Rachmaninoff’s “Bogoroditse Devo” (“Rejoice, O Virgin Mother of God”), from the Vespers (1915), wastes no time on textural novelties; it presents its text with sweet, simple directness. The second half of the concert began and ended with works in English. Arvo Pärt’s “Beatitudes” (1991) trades less in neo-medievalism than many of his choral works, although that element is heard occasionally, amid more chromatic, modern passages. Kevin Oldham’s “Boulding Chorale No. 4” (1992), written a year before his death from AIDS, is a passionate, beautifully shaped setting of a prayerful poem by Kenneth Ewart Boulding. The works could hardly have been more varied, but they flourished consistently in the lush, seamless blend that Mr. Tritle’s 32-voice Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola produced. The next Sacred Music in a Sacred Space concert, a Baroque program, will be on March 4 at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, 980 Park Avenue, at 84th Street; (212) 288-2520, smssconcerts.org.
Virtuosity and versatility lead to thrilling readings of these two contrasted works
Alberto Ginastera's Lamentations of Jeremiah (1946) and Alfred Schnittke's Concerto for Choir (1985) may at first appear to be strange bedfellows. It's clear from the fierce cries and dance-like, syncopated rhythms that begin the Ginastera, for instance, that the score is imbued with elements of Argentine folk music. And it is equally and immediately evident that the Schnittke belongs to the Russian Orthodox choral tradition. Yet despite the marked difference in style and ancestry, these works are really rather complementary. Both are richly textured, overwhelmingly lyrical, emotionally forthright, and (as the title of the Schnittke suggests) demand considerable virtuosity.
The Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola cope admirably with the numerous challenges. Yes, the sopranos struggle somewhat with the impossibly high notes in the Schnittke, but they survive (and it's conceivable that the composer did not intent for those passages to sound effortless in the first place). There is an edginess to the women's voices in the opening of the Ginastera, too, yet this actually suits the music's feral character well. Indeed, conductor Kent Tritle has made the choir's sound quite adaptable. They sing the Schnittke with a darker, more resonant tone than the Ginastera, for example; it's not the profoundly inky sonority one would get from a Russian ensemble, but it's stylistically apt.
Still, the most striking aspect of the choir's interpretations (recorded live in concert) is its warmth and depth of feeling. They sustain a breathtaking atmosphere of ethereal melancholy in the middle movement of the Ginastera (Ego vir videns), and the Schnittke is thrillingly ardent.
MSR Classics' engineering conveys a sense of immediacy within the reverberant church acoustic, though in loud passages the sound becomes muddied and slightly aggressive. But certainly this small caveat shouldn't dissuade anyone from hearing these superb performances. Andrew Farach-Colton
Preconcert recitals are hardly anything new — the Mostly Mozart Festival has been offering them for decades — and lots of people skip them. But as the economy tightens, they can seem a welcome bonus, a significant expansion of what you get for the price of a ticket. Sacred Music in a Sacred Space, Kent Tritle’s choral series at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue, offers organ recitals as preludes to the formal programs. The church’s Mander organ, completed with considerable fanfare in 1993, is a magnificent instrument, and the preconcert recitals often include works that aren’t heard much otherwise. On Wednesday, just before Mr. Tritle led a program of mostly 20th-century works (to be reviewed in the Friday paper), Renée Anne Louprette, the church’s associate music director, played a program that nestled Ligeti’s 1953 “Ricercare per Organo (Omaggio a Girolamo Frescobaldi)” among more familiar scores by Reger, Frescobaldi and Duruflé. Her thoughtful, rich-hued performance prefigured Mr. Tritle’s program, partly because he also presented Ligeti (“Lux Aeterna,” composed 13 years and a major style change later), but mainly because both programs were built on the links between the antique and the modern. In the Ligeti, that link is explicit: the composer had Frescobaldi in mind, and Ms. Louprette helpfully played the “Recercar Cromatico, Post il Credo” from Frescobaldi’s “Fiori Musicali” just before it. Ligeti pushed Frescobaldi’s adventurous chromaticism forward, to the point where it flirted with serialism. The contrast with the works surrounding it was striking — but not as striking as the contrast between this thorny piece and Ligeti’s eerie tone-cluster work in Mr. Tritle’s program. Ms. Louprette made a brief appearance in the main program as well, playing the gently chordal piano line near the end of Gavin Bryars’s “On Photography.” But the one big organ moment in the mostly a cappella choral concert — the explosive postlude to Arvo Pärt’s “Beatitudes” — was played by Nancianne Parella, the church’s associate organist. By Allan Kozinn
Alberto Ginastera: The Lamentations of Jeremiah, Op. 14; Alfred Schnittke: Concerto for Choir; Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola, Kent Tritle dir.; MSR Classics, MS 1251, Music from St. Ignatius, Vol. VIII, © 2008, 49:41, $14.95. As part of its ministry efforts, the St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish Choir in NY City presents myriad performances under the series heading “Sacred Music in a Sacred Space.” Under the direction of NY Philharmonic principal organist Kent Tritle, the choir has brought to light many gems of the sacred choral repertory, as well as released several live recordings of their concerts. The most recent addition to their discography features works by Alberto Ginastera and Alfred Schnittke.
Ginastera’s Lamentations of Jeremiah, Op. 14 was composed amidst a period of estrangement from his Argentine motherland during the Perón regime, which is evidenced on numerous levels in the selected text as well as the general aural aesthetic. His setting of the opening movement (“O Vos omnes”) is a markedly bombastic interpretation compared to the more traditionally subdued, pensive approach of his predecessor composers. Immediately, the depth of the St. Ignatius choir’s tone surrounds the notes and animates the intensity of Ginastera’s composition, the driving nature of the rhythms enhanced by the energetic articulation of the text.
The middle movement (“Ego vir videns”) is a disparate homage to Renaissance polyphonic models, its prolonged note durations and meticulous counterpoint dramatically offsetting the fury of the first movement. This drastic shift conveys the hopelessness of the text: “He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light,” and the choir convincingly darkens their aggregate blend, dragging the forward motion to a quasi-stasis befitting the setting. The 3rd movement (“Recordare”) makes use of the erudite fugal construction, betraying a certain yearning quality in its execution. Likewise, the musicians in the chorus betray their artistic connection to the setting and text, utilizing the full dynamic range of their ensemble and the acoustic possibilities the St. Ignatius church affords. Their remarkably rich texture not only does credit to the composition, it enhances it. Presented with special pride and affection by the St. Ignatius choir, the 2nd piece on the recording is Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Choir. Drawing its text from the book of “Lamentations,” written in 977 AD by Armenian mystic Gregory of Narek, it addresses expansive theological appeals and concepts. As the object of equal parts praise and criticism for his polystylism, Schnittke’s musical education provided him with numerous traditions from which to dip his artistic brush. What his education did not provide him, he gleaned from the master composers of his day from Mahler to Schoenberg. Although he did not acquire approval of the Soviet regime until the mid 1980s, his music had achieved notoriety in the West by the previous decade. Premièred in 1985, the Concerto for Choir has roots in the Russian choral music of the Romantic period, though it is harmonically enriched by Schnittke’s idiosyncratic additions, often featuring disorientingly frequent shifts in tonality. Also gleaned from the Russian tradition, particularly Rachmaninoff, the texture of the choral writing is orchestral in style and scope, requiring excellent vocal facility and flexibility to manage the dense harmonies and many-hued aural palette. The St. Ignatius choir is remarkably at home in this repertoire, its sound saturated with vibrancy and resonance throughout the variegated textures and demands it encounters. The music of the 4 movements is intimately connected to the text, as indeed the Russian translation of the \"Book of Lamentations,” a poem by Armenian mystic Gregory of Narek (Grigor or Krikor Narekatsi, 951-1003) written in 977 and published in Marseille in 1673, was Schnittke’s inspirational fountainhead. Although seldom programmed since its première, the St. Ignatius choir captures a performance of this choral masterwork imbued with artistic integrity, perhaps best evidenced by the incredibly masterful diminuendo that concludes the piece, as if the prayers of the author are ascending the heavens to God’s ears. The CD liner booklet is a very thorough and helpful supplement to the recording. It includes a brief biography and overlay of compositional education and background for both composers as well as an eloquent formal discussion of each piece by Kent Tritle\'s colleague Cleveland E. Kersh. In addition, the booklet includes a roster of the Choir of St. Ignatius of Loyola Choir at the time of recording as well as the text to each piece performed (in the original Latin and Russian with corresponding translations). © 2009 Robert Myers
GINASTERA: The Lamentations of Jeremiah; SCHNITTKE: Concerto for Choir – Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola/ Kent Tritle, director – MSR 1251, 49:41 ****1/2 [Distr. by Albany]: First the disclaimer—this would have been a five-star effort if the producers had seen fit to include a little more music—actually a lot more. Surely on this superb concert there were some other pieces available? Anyway, this live recording captures a couple of tremendously affecting pieces of a nature and type that might surprise a lot of listeners. Surprise No. 1: That Alberto Ginastera could write such a profound and appealing setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah as what we have here. These biblical canticles are an acquired taste for a lot of people due to their incessantly somber nature, set in musical stone by so many renaissance masters, including the brilliant Palestrina. The music is liturgical by nature, and recordings often fail to convey the total experience that these settings provide worshippers. In this case, Ginastera takes a different approach altogether and gives us an opening first movement that is strikingly aggressive and annoyed; this is no prophet that is melancholy and repentant but one who is angry as he speaks “all of you who pass through life behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” It puts a whole new spin on how you hear these things, and is a testament to the genius of the composer that he is able to grant us a fresh perspective on this age-old text and music. This is a wonderful discovery. Surprise no. 2: The Schnittke is a late work that uses a religious text from the third chapter of the Book of Lamentations by the Armenian monk Saint Grigor Narekatsi (951-1003). This “concerto” is divided into the four parts that correspond to the text of Grigor’s work, and is an extraordinarily moving and intricate piece that successfully marries the typical and well known techniques of the composer along with a passion and romantic sensibility that seems to come directly from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. There is an inherent difficulty to this work that perhaps does indeed deserve the concerto appellation, but be not deceived; this is a religious piece of music through and through with some gorgeous harmonies and profoundly heartwarming moments, perhaps enough to make many people reconsider the virtues of some of Schnittke’s other compositions. But even I will have to admit that this work is in a category of its own - a marvelous discovery for me, and, I’ll wager, for you as well. The Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola sings with an almost desperate affection in both of these works, while director Kent Tritle (also now taking over the reins of Musica Sacra) maintains a firm grip on the overall pace to wonderful effect. Highest recommendation. -- Steven Ritter
The Choir of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola performs the US Premiere of Gavin Bryars' On Photography on February 11 under the direction of St. Ignatius Music Director Kent Tritle. The first choral work by Gavin Bryars, On Photography was written as part of the composer's collaboration with Robert Wilson on his large-scale operatic project the CIVIL WarS.
(From #4 "Bernstein at 90"): One especially reverberant moment came during Chichester Psalms [October 1, 2008 Sacred Music in a Sacred Space concert], which calls for singing the 23rd Psalm in Hebrew: When 11-year-old Andres Felipe Aristizabal intoned the word "Adonai," it was impossible to disbelieve those green pastures. By Justin Davidson
It seems too easy, given Rossini’s pre-eminent fame as an opera composer, to say that his “Petite Messe Solennelle” breathes the air of the theater as much as it does that of the church. But especially in the rarely performed orchestral version that Kent Tritle and the Choir and Orchestra of St. Ignatius Loyola presented on Wednesday evening, the work does indeed sound theatrical, in much the way Verdi’s Requiem does, though with even a touch of the buffo about it. The Mass began in 1863 as a quirky, intimate creation for small chorus, vocal soloists, two pianos and harmonium, for the consecration of the chapel of friends. Rossini orchestrated it in 1867 to forestall the possibility that another composer might do so after his death, but left the larger version unperformed. That was the version heard here — “for perhaps the first time in New York City,” according to Mr. Tritle’s notes, “and certainly the first time in recent memory” — in the church’s invaluable Sacred Music in a Sacred Space series, now 20 years old. And the St. Ignatius forces made a typically strong case for it. The Mass’s dual nature was reflected in the work of the vocal soloists. But the real star, along with the chorus, was Charlotte Daw Paulsen, a mezzo-soprano with real contralto gravity and power in her lower register; as she gradually shed her earlier restraint in the Agnus Dei, her performance grew dramatic in the best sense and utterly gripping. JAMES R. OESTREICH
Bernstein glided through the sixties with such casual worldliness that it’s easy to forget that he was also a religious composer. The end of Rosh Hashanah brought a pairing of Bernstein’s and Beethoven’s great humanist pleas—Chichester Psalms and the Ninth Symphony—performed in the dazzling nave of St. Ignatius Loyola for the series “Sacred Music in a Sacred Space.” Bernstein would have been pleased at the sympathies between Beethoven’s rock-splitting radicalism and the hard-won simplicity of his own score, between the hortatory German of the “Ode to Joy” and the exuberant Hebrew Psalms. The lusty opening movement got softened a bit by the church’s reverberations, but the payoff was a final timpani blow that an archangel might have struck. Conductor Kent Tritle wrapped the rest of the Psalms in a golden shroud of sound, setting off the silvery soprano of 11-year-old Andres Felipe Aristizabal—yet another fine talent untouched by Lenny’s hands-on mystique. - Justin Davidson
In the last two years Kent Tritle has expanded his influence tremendously in the New York choral world by taking on the music directorships of the Oratorio Society of New York and Musica Sacra. But the Sacred Music in a Sacred Space concerts he started 19 years ago at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola remain his best work.
The church’s finely polished 53-voice choir is comfortable in everything from early Baroque works to conservative contemporary scores, and the freelance orchestras Mr. Tritle assembles have consistently played with the same energy and clarity that his choir produces. He has the vibrant acoustics of St. Ignatius on his side as well. Its bright reverberance is enough to magnify the choir’s sound without turning harmonies or diction into an indistinct haze. All this proved useful in Mr. Tritle’s first program of the season, on Wednesday evening, which posed several challenges — though clearly not insurmountable ones — for his forces.
Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” has a rugged rhythmic element, drawn mainly from its Hebrew text, but also reflects Bernstein’s passion for the syncopations of jazz and the sparkle of theater music. And Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is performed so often by the best full-time orchestras that you would think a freelance group might find the potential comparisons terrifying.
“Chichester Psalms,” for all its vigorous beauty, also had a utilitarian purpose here: it won the program a place in the citywide Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds festival, presented jointly by Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic, and lest listeners regard the Beethoven Ninth as too secular a work for the Sacred Music in a Sacred Space series, the sacredness of the Bernstein setting was unequivocal.
In Mr. Tritle’s reading, the opening movement of the Bernstein was a study in celebratory ebullience; subtlety and reflection were reserved for the remaining two. In the second, Andres Felipe Aristizabal, a boy soprano, gave a sweetly turned account of the verses from Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) that frame the movement’s darker glimpse of the first four lines from Psalm 2 (“Why do the nations rage?”). The emotional tug of that movement gives way to warmth and reflection in the finale, which the choristers sang with a velvety smoothness.
Mr. Tritle used a fairly small orchestra of 62 for the Beethoven, and if the musicians were intimidated by the work, you wouldn’t have known it. The playing was unified and electrifying, particularly in the second and fourth movements; and in the last, the balance between the orchestra, chorus and soloists was just about perfect.
The soloists — Susanna Phillips, soprano; Jane Gilbert, mezzo-soprano; Bryan Griffin, tenor; and Matt Boehler, bass — were well matched and contributed ably, sometimes thrillingly. But this was a performance in which the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, superb as those parts were. The next Sacred Music in a Sacred Space concert, a performance of Rossini’s “Petite Messe Solennelle,” is on Nov. 5 at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, Park Avenue at 84th Street; (212) 288-2520, smssconcerts.org. -Allan Kozinn
Monteverdi’s “Vespro Della Beata Vergine” (1610) seems to be in fashion at the moment. Years go by when performances are few and far between (although recordings are always plentiful), yet over the last five years or so they have been turning up several times a year, sometimes performed by period-instrument bands and Baroque vocal specialists but often by church choirs supported by modern forces. The performance Kent Tritle conducted at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Wednesday evening as the season finale of the Sacred Music in a Sacred Space series was in the second category. But it gave specialists and period-instrument fanciers no reason to feel smug. Mr. Tritle, his superb chamber choir and an orchestra of mostly modern instruments gave a viscerally thrilling performance. (Recorders and a theorbo helped suggest a more antique sound.) Mr. Tritle did not ignore stylistic niceties entirely. He regularly reconfigured his singers to make the most of the work’s antiphonal qualities, and he took St. Ignatius’s vibrant acoustics and appointments into account, both in choosing his tempos and in placing a second singer in the choir loft for the echo movements. (That seems elementary, but conductors sometimes don’t bother, thereby losing one of this score’s great effects.) He used a trim instrumental ensemble, and he clearly encouraged his singers to think carefully about the crisp execution of Monteverdi’s often floridly ornamental vocal lines. And although he used female sopranos and altos, he had his singers use scarcely any vibrato, a decision that yielded a purity of tone like that of a boys choir. But the soul of the performance was in the malleability of Mr. Tritle’s tempos and dynamics. He shaped the “Laudate Pueri” with the impetuousness you might expect in a Monteverdi madrigal more than in a sacred work, but that made all the difference: this setting of Psalm 112 should have an ecstatic undercurrent. At the other end of the spectrum, the dynamic gradations in the gentler “Duo Seraphim” gave the movement a mystical otherworldliness. The soloists, all from the choir, were a mixed lot: some projected beautifully, but several were consistently underpowered. And there were balance problems in parts of the Magnificat, where the instrumentalists sometimes swamped the singers. But these were fleeting problems. When Mr. Tritle and his choir were at their best — in their bright-edged rendering of the “Dixit Dominus” and their warm-hued “Ave Maris Stella,” for example — they tapped into the sublime joy of the work more thoroughly than any ensemble I’ve heard perform these Vespers in a long while. By Allan Kozinn
Magicians are generally ill advised to reveal their tricks, but when the conductor Kent Tritle let the audience in on a few crafty secrets during a concert by the Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola on Wednesday night, the tactic paid off. The major work on the program, presented at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola as part of its Sacred Music in a Sacred Space series, was the Concerto for Choir by Alfred Schnittke. Mr. Tritle and his choir performed the piece here in 2005; this time it was being recorded for a CD. The concerto, a 1985 setting of texts from the “Book of Lamentations” by the 10th-century Armenian monk St. Gregory of Narek, is one of Schnittke’s most sublime and mysterious creations. In place of his usual stylistic juxtapositions and brittle humor, he drew here on Russian liturgical music. To the spare a cappella textures and solemn pace of ancient tradition, Schnittke added a patina of generally mild dissonance. Some passages acquire an almost heartbreaking luminescence, others a terrifying edge. Ghostly voices seem to hover in the thickened air during climaxes. Before performing the work Mr. Tritle had his singers demonstrate the methods Schnittke used to create his special effects: a juxtaposition of similar melodies in slightly different rhythms to create a shimmer in the first movement, spreading the syllables of words among multiple singers to fashion a bell-like pulsation in the second. As it happened, understanding how Schnittke’s effects were created did not undercut a sense of awe inspired by the intense emotions they conjured. In the actual performance the singers did themselves proud, delivering a deeply heartfelt account with polished tone and excellent diction. Another elucidating gesture at the beginning of the concert had the choir deployed around front and side aisles to clarify musical strands in the dense, intricate 40-voice motet “Ecce Beatam Lucem” by the 16th-century Italian composer Alessandro Striggio. The choir sang passionately in Alberto Ginastera’s “Lamentations of Jeremiah,” a substantial, moving work composed in 1946 during Ginastera’s exile to the United States after Juan Perón had assumed power in Argentina. But here climaxes were shrill, and finer points of diction were lost to the resonant acoustic. By Steve Smith
Few composers in the 20th century devoted more time and craft to opera than Gian Carlo Menotti, who died in February at 95. Yet from a sizable body of work that includes two Pulitzer Prize-winning works (“The Consul” and “The Saint of Bleecker Street”), only one of Menotti’s operas can truly be said to have achieved lasting popularity: “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” a brief, modest work created for NBC television and first performed in a live broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1951.
New York City Opera brought the work to the stage in 1952. “Amahl” is said to have been performed more than 2,500 times since then, a tally surely due to its eager adoption by semiprofessional and amateur opera companies, schools and churches. One of several New York presentations of “Amahl” this season was mounted on Friday at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola as part of its valuable series Sacred Music in a Sacred Space.
Menotti’s opera isn’t sacred music; still, presenting it in a church seems fitting. “Amahl” is the modern equivalent of a medieval mystery play, except that its story is not biblical but an invented fable. The libretto, written by Menotti, involves Amahl, a lame shepherd given to little white lies, and his destitute mother, who are visited by the Magi as they follow the star of Bethlehem.
The work’s appeal is obvious. Menotti’s music is attractive and unfailingly lyrical. Gaps in logic are countered by humorous touches. When Amahl’s desperate mother tries to pocket a bit of gold meant for the Christ child, the effort is all too relatable. And a selfless act on the shepherd boy’s part culminates in a Christmas miracle.
The director, Kate Bushmann, made resourceful use of the church in a semistaged production that relied on minimal props, evocative lighting by David Castaneda and a long central aisle to create a sense of setting. Kent Tritle, the conductor, performed a near-miracle in balancing performers spread throughout the imposing space.
Andres Felipe Aristizabal, a boy soprano, was the alert, confident Amahl. His voice seemed unruly at times, but this only served to heighten the character’s excitable personality. Both Mr. Aristizabal and the mezzo-soprano Ory Brown, who played his mother, were amplified. Their voices carried well enough, but climaxes were harsh, and their diction was rendered muddy by the church’s resonance.
James Archie Worley, Peter Stewart and Matt Boehler, who portrayed the Magi, and Gregory Purnhagen, their page, sang clearly and powerfully without amplification and brought a winning spirit to their roles.
Mr. Tritle’s orchestra, tucked to one side of the altar, sounded splendid. And the combined forces of St. Ignatius Loyola’s professional choir, children’s choir and Parish Community Choir sang with passion and finesse in the opera and in a group of Christmas carols that preceded it. By Steve Smith.
One of the most unusual musical moments in Handel’s magnificent oratorio “Belshazzar” comes when the blasphemous King Belshazzar of Babylon is warned of his impending doom by a disembodied hand’s writing on the wall in a mysterious script. Handel accompanies this portentous moment not (as might be expected) with a thundering chorus but with strange, stark, unaccompanied fragments in the violins.
There are plenty of magnificent choruses, beautiful arias and dramatic recitatives elsewhere in this seldom-performed oratorio, which has mostly fallen through the cracks in the continuing Handel revival. It received a vibrant performance at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Wednesday, with Kent Tritle conducting the Choir and Orchestra of St. Ignatius Loyola as part of the Sacred Music in a Sacred Space series.
Handel composed “Belshazzar” to a libretto by Charles Jennens in 1744 (soon after “Semele”) but revised it at the last minute the following year when the singer scheduled to perform Daniel became ill. Handel gives the chorus, which represents the Babylonians, Persians and Jews, a full workout, and the St. Ignatius singers sounded superb, singing with plenty of bite, dynamic shading and mostly clear enunciation. They conveyed both the earnest determination of the captive Israelites and the conquering Persians and the belligerence of the pampered, oblivious Babylonians, whose hubris seems disturbingly familiar today.
The orchestra’s lean, taut and fiery playing fully revealed the theatrical turbulence of the colorful score. Mark Bleeke was suitably odious in the title role, conveying the indolent king’s swaggering insouciance with a powerful tenor and dramatic flair. In the difficult role of his mother, Nitocris, Leslie Fagan sang with a bright, nimble soprano and aptly portrayed the anguish of a parent who despairs of her vile son yet still loves him. By Vivien Schweitzer
About 350 organists are registered participants in the regional convention of the American Guild of Organists this week in New York. Some of them could be overheard on Monday night talking with admiration about the organ at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue, before a concert there with the church's orchestra.
Those who know more about the subject than I do say this church's organ, completed in 1993 by Mander Organs in London, is a magnificent instrument that combines modern technology with historical elements. The organ certainly sounded glorious in three concertos and one de facto concerto, Samuel Barber's "Toccata Festiva," during Monday night's concert, which was conducted by Kent Tritle, the director of music ministries at St. Ignatius...
Renée Anne Louprette, a technically nimble and dynamic organist who is associate music director at St. Ignatius, was the soloist in the next two works. First came the Chorale and Waltz from Ned Rorems 1985 Organ Concerto...Mr. Rorem's music became, in effect, a prelude to Poulencs Concerto in G minor, one of the best-known organ concertos...The performance won a deserved ovation.
So did the performance of Stephen Paulus's substantive 1992 concerto for organ, timpani, percussion and strings, by Nancianne Parrella, associate organist at St. Ignatius. - Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times
One wouldn't naturally think of the combination of organ, harp and cello as being a particularly practical or well-matched ensemble. However, this MSR Classics disc, Les Corps Glorieux, which is part of their Music from St. Ignatius Loyola series, may well surprise you. Featuring organist Nancianne Parrella, harpist Victoria Drake and cellist Arthur Fiacco, this unassumingly designed disc has a gorgeous sound and a very pleasing selection of unfamiliar – mostly French – literature. Fiacco plays with a very rich, old-fashioned cello tone that makes extended use of portamenti and blends very nicely with Parrella's organ. Drake's harp playing is tasteful, rather darkly colored and not plucky, and, like Fiacco, relates very well to the organ. The three of them playing together, as they do on Henri Büsser's Le sommeil de l'enfant Jesus, results in a fabulous tonal blend that almost automatically places one in a state of devotional relaxation. Yet the musical program is serious and not New Agey – here is short-lived contemporary composer Chris DeBlasio's setting of "God is Our Righteousness" and a gorgeous "Aria" from a Suite for Organ and Harp composed by Louis White so intriguing that it strongly makes one wonder what the rest of the suite sounds like. Parrella, Drake and Fiacco do not play the whole disc through together, but everyone gets a solo showcase, which is an intelligent choice in such an unusual program. MSR Classics' Les Corps Glorieux is a perfect disc for late night reading, or even for taking a bubble bath in the dark surrounded by candles, and its music will prove strongly accessible to both those of a religious inclination and non-believers as well – all one needs is a desire for a little peace in one's life to enjoy this. ~Uncle Dave Lewis