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Trinity Church's Twelfth Night Festival Gala Concert with Music by Britten and Wachner

trinity choir and trinity youth chorus

As most New Yorkers know, the two weeks after Christmas are typically a dead time for NYC performing-arts organizations. But throughout music history, a great deal of music has been written to celebrate Yuletide: the 12-day celebration between Christmas and the Epiphany (January 6). Sadly, most of that music goes unheard these days, as most of it was written for liturgical use.

Enter Julian Wachner, Trinity Wall Street's Director of Music and the Arts, who has stepped in to fill the gap with the Twelfth Night Festival, featuring daily performances of early music at both Trinity Church and St. Paul's Chapel. Now in its third year, the Twelfth Night Festival has benefited from being more or less the only game in town—certainly in downtown Manhattan, which is a ghost town during the holidays.

Dominated by the music of Bach, who wrote numerous cantatas and oratorios to be performed during Yuletide, this year's festival also included seasonal music that ranged from the French Renaissance and Italian Baroque to stage works such as the medieval Play of Daniel and Charpentier's La Descente d'Orpheé. Room was also made for 20th-century composers such as Benjamin Britten and Sergei Rachmaninoff, both of whom made profound contributions to the liturgical canon.

trinity church

Unfortunately, I was out of town for most of the festival, but made sure I was back in time for yesterday's Gala Concert at Trinity Church: a free event featuring the Trinity Choir and Youth Chorus, the NOVUS NY orchestra, and various soloists. The concert was not only the climax of the Twelfth Night Festival, but also the final event in Trinity's monumental Britten 100 celebration, in which nearly 100 of the composer's works have been presented over the past four months in honor of his centenary.  

The concert began with the Trinity Choir singing Britten's A Boy Is Bornan astonishing cycle of carols filled with complicated, often dissonant motives that evoked a sense of mystery and awe. For me, it brought to mind Messiaen's mindblowing organ cycle La Nativite du Seigneur, which is, at turns, "horrible, beautiful, terrifying and ecstatic." Messiaen was 27 when he wrote his masterpiece; Britten was only 19 when he composed A Boy Is Born.

In addition to his abilities as a conductor, Wachner is also an accomplished composer and organist, both talents of which were on rich display in his Regina Coeli (1999), a Bernstein-flavored cantata filled with bubbling textures and infectious melodies. Along with the Trinity Choir and NOVUS NY, the performance featured the Canadian soprano Jessica Muirhead, who lent a pure, clean tone to the often-tricky vocals.

jessica muirhead

Following intermission, Wachner presented a rare performance of Britten's St. Nicholas (1948), a riot of a cantata (or was it an oratorio?) written for a mix of professional and amateur musicians—including adult and youth choirs, tenor soloist, three boy soloists, piano, organ, strings, and percussion. Recounting the story of the 4th-century Greek bishop whose gift-giving exploits became the inspiration for the modern-day Santa Claus, the performance was largely carried by the impressive tenor, William Hite, who sang the recitative with penetrating emotion.

But, for all the musicianship present on the altar—and occasionally in the rear of the church—I wasn't at all prepared for the hair-raising experience of hearing the entire congregation belt out the "Old Hundredth" hymn while the NOVUS strings swelled underneath and the Trinity Choir sang descant above. Forget all the heavy praise accorded Britten as a "great composer": this was simply an astonishing expression of community, as authentic a musical experience as any I've ever had. If you weren't there yesterday, pray that you get to experience it yourself someday.

Trinity's Twelfth Night Festival concludes with tonight's (6 p.m.) Epiphany Service at Trinity Church, with the Trinity Choir and Trinity Baroque Orchestra performing an early Bach cantata, Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, written for the Epiphany in 1724. The service is free and open to the public, or you can watch it streamed live on Trinity's website

trinity choir and trinity youth chorus

More pics on the photo page.