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White Light Festival: Berlin Radio Choir at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin

DSC03414After seeing the Berlin Radio Choir open the White Light Festival earlier this week with their indelible, interactive version of Brahms' German Requiem, it was a shock to see them arrive in formal concert attire last night at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in midtown. It was a potent reminder that these 70-odd singers comprise what is arguably the world's leading choral ensemble - like that moment when Princess Leia appears at the end of the first Star Wars movie in her royal regalia instead of military attire. 

Dutch conductor Gijs Leenars, who succeeded Simon Halsey last season as the Berlin Radio Choir's artistic director, arrived at a podium immediately to my right to lead a program spanning four centuries of (mostly) German music. Leenars, 38, was so close that I could hear the rustle of his jacket as he moved his arms.

Heinrich Schütz's "Is not Ephraim My Beloved Son?" was a paragon of 16th century polyphony, the choir positioned all around the nave to create an antiphonal effect in the acoustically-resonant church. Jumping ahead a century, the choir moved up front for a pair of Bach motets, "Do not fear" and "Come, Jesus, Come!" This was singing at it's most beautiful and ecstatic, with blending so seamless I couldn't hear a single individual voice. Providing the gratefully understated accompaniment were a pair of capable musicians from Trinity Church Wall Street: cellist Ezra Seltzer and organist Avi Stein.

DSC03413The choir sang the rest of the program a cappella, starting with Brahms' bright and cheerful "Celebratory and Memorial Sayings", an occasional polychoral work written when he was made an Honorary Freeman of his home city of Hamburg. A second Brahms motet, "Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery," was much darker, punctuated by jarring dissonances and a dynamic of tension-and-release.

Most memorable of all were a pair of works from the 20th century. Schoenberg's "Peace on Earth" (1907) is a powerful Christmas carol, full of rich harmonies and dense chromaticism that crescendo to moments of intense urgency. The choir then dispersed once more throughout the nave for Knut Nystedt's stunning "Immortal Bach" (1988), which began with a straight reading of the Bach chorale "Come, sweet death!" before disintegrating into a series of overlapping clusters like Ligeti's Lux Aeterna. It was a powerful musical statement, both serene and unsettling.

After a long ovation from the capacity crowd, the choir returned with a far more soothing selection as an encore Rheinberger's "Abendlied" ("Night Song"), a perfect lullaby with which to send us out into the New York night. Which, in the case of nearby Times Square, was more like the Land of the Midnight Sun.

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