As amazing as Janet Cardiff's 40-Part Motet is, it simply doesn't compare to the experience of hearing a mixed choir perform live. With that in mind, I made my way back to Alice Tully Hall last night to hear the Collegium Vocale Gent Choir with their longtime music director, Philippe Herreweghe, part of Lincoln Center's ongoing White Light Festival. Herreweghe is best known as one of the world's leading conductors of Baroque music, though he's expanded his palette in recent years to works by Brahms, Schumann and Mahler.
Last year, Herreweghe was invited by the Accademia Chigana in Siena to expand his choir from 18 to 40, opening up the door to a far wider range of repertoire. For their only U.S. appearance this season, the combined choir performed 19th century choral music by Brahms, Cornelius, and Bruckner, along with the Belgian wind ensemble I Solisti Del Vento (who also contributed an instrumental arrangement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden.)
The major draw of the night was Bruckner's Mass in E minor: a rarely heard early masterpiece from the great Austrian romantic, best known for his nine titanic symphonies. Many of the same looping, repetitive motifs from those symphonies could be heard here, not to mention their extreme modulation of pitch and volume. An emotional, utterly sincere response by one of the most devout composers ever to put pen to paper.
The Collegium voices were a thing pure beauty: delicate and pure, with just the slightest punctuation from the brass and winds, which served to amplify the choir rather than compete with it. (The mass was originally commissioned to be performed outdoors in Linz, where Bruckner was organist at the time.) The experience was immeasurably aided by the warm, womblike acoustics of Alice Tully, which seemed to pluck every note out of the air as if it were in high definition (which, btw, can't be said of the other halls on campus.)
As with numerous other concerts in the White Light Festival, the audience and musicians were invited to gather in the soaring the lobby/lounge space after the concert for complimentary champagne and conversation: a thoughtful and generous gesture on the part of my new friend Jane, who I saw grinning widely while clinking glasses with Herreweghe, musicians, and a pair of Shaolin monks who wandered in after their performance in Sutra just down the road. (I'll be there tomorrow night.)
If you want to see those monks, go to Flickr.