Thinking back, I've seen some pretty massive concerts at Carnegie Hall over the years. There was Seiji Ozawa conducting Berlioz' Reqiuem with the BSO barely a month after 9/11/2001. Or James Levine conducting that same orchestra three years later in Mahler's 8th Symphony, requiring a stage extension and the removal of the first six rows of seats. Or last season's operatic performances by the St. Louis Symphony and the Vienna Staatsoper.
But, I hadn't heard anything at Carnegie quite so ambitious as last Saturday's production by Trinity Wall Street, featuring the combined forces of contemporary music orchestra NOVUS NY, the Trinity Choir and Trinity Youth Chorus, the Washington Chorus, and the boys and girls of the Washington National Cathedral Choir, all led by Trinity's Director of Music Julian Wachner. Wachner, who was also the mastermind behind the program featuring rarely performed works by Charles Ives and Alberto Ginastera, seemed completely at ease for someone making their Carnegie Hall debut, cracking jokes and leading the audience in an impromptu hymn singalong.
I first heard Ives' 4th Symphony two years ago by the Detroit Symphony at Carnegie as part of the annual Spring for Music festival. Written in 1924 but not given a complete performance until 1965 (also at Carnegie), the 4th symphony vacillates between wild cacophony and an almost simplistic tonality, quoting popular hymns of the day such as "Watchman" and "Nearer My God to Thee." As in the DSO performance, Wachner placed performers throughout the hall in order to amplify the work's spatial configurations: the chorus in the 1st tier boxes, a chamber orchestra up in the Dress Circle (conducted by Scott Allen Jarrett). From my seat in the center orchestra, the music seemed to be coming from all directions: no 2-track recording does this work justice.
Onstage, Timo Andres performed the challenging piano part from center stage, which did little to obscure Wachner's exuberant jumping and gesticulating on the podium behind. Everything came together in the final movement with its grotesque, decayed d version of the hymn "Bethany," sung as vocalise by the chorus, slowly fading away at the end.
Following intermission was a work that was new to just about everyone in the hall: Ginastera's passion setting Turbae ad Passionem Gregorianam, which has only had a handful of performances - and no recordings - since its 1975 premiere. Wachner, who has Latin American heritage, has made it his personal mission to rescue Ginastera from obscurity on the eve of the 100th anniversary of his birth: next year, Trinity will mount a season-long festival devoted to his music, much as they did last season for Benjamin Britten.
Here, Wachner seemed bent on making the case for Turbae's inclusion in the standard repertoire, alongside other passions such as Bach's St. Matthew Passion and John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary. (Wachner has already announced plans to record the work later this season.) With more than 300 instrumentalists and choristers packed onto the Carnegie stage, the hour-long work was strange, dissonant, explosive, borderline terrifying. At times, the chorus seemed to oscillate like Ligeti's Lux Aeterna or Requiem; at others - such as the climactic "Resurrection" scene that closes the work - it rang with the emphatic, religious ecstasy of Messiaen.
As in the Bach passions, a trio of soloists portray various roles, here singing in Gregorian chant. Anchoring the work was the clear-voiced baritone Thomas McCargar as the Evangelist, with tenor Geoffrey Silver (Pilate/Judas), and baritone Scott Allen Jarrett (Jesus) in supporting roles. Wachner admirably managed to hold together the unwieldy forces, looking completely spent at the end.
Wachner, who is nothing if not ambitious, deserves immense credit for his advocacy and for the sheer logistical execution on display here. But, for all the musicality on display, I couldn't help but wonder who, exactly, this program was meant to appeal to. Musical daredevils? Latent Ginastera fans? Certainly, there is something viscerally exciting about seeing 300+ musicians perform together, but there's may also good reason - other than resources - to explain why such works aren't performed more often.
More pics on the photo page.