New York Choral Artists score with Beethoven; Pärt not so much
Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum and Beethoven’s Mass in C Major were the repertory on offer by the New York Choral Society and Orchestra at Carnegie Hall Friday night under conductor David Hayes. More than just music for massed voices, these are liturgical works, and their raison d’être is for people to come together and sing with a sense of ceremony and extra-musical meaning.
That was only half-realized in the concert, through the Beethoven performance after intermission. The performance in the first half didn’t work. The composition is so finely made that its quality comes through any kind of performance—but on Friday night it was missing the point of the music, the hymn of praise to God.
The performance had sufficient contained energy, and the chorus sang with a fine sound, despite some occasional sloppy rhythms. Depending on the demands of the music, they were grand or intimate, warm or dark.
But the piece, which poetically expresses Pärt’s sublime mysticism, came off as prosaic. The problems were conceptual and technical. In terms of the concept, Hayes missed the forest of the music’s plainchant roots and religiosity for the tress of the composer’s section-by-section tintinnabuli style.
Technically, Hayes held a tempo that was just too fast to allow sufficient space within which the sound could settle. Like Sibelius, Pärt has the ability to turn an ordinary triad into something unusually resonant, and there were too few such moments.
The conductor also never brought out the sense of line. Pärt may build his forms in unconventional ways, but the certainty of his form keeps his music together. Te Deum unfolds in episodes that are not only closely related but that build tension towards some luminous climaxes. But Hayes’ direction seemed to jog in place, focussed on each up and down arpeggio, never catching sight of the horizon. For beloved music from one of the few popular composers, the audience was surprisingly restless and inattentive.
After less than two bars into the Mass in C Major, it was apparent that this would be entirely different. Indeed, it was fine and impressive in every way.
Hayes’ pace in the Beethoven felt ideal; relaxed but flowing forward easily. The phrases had the opportunity to rise and fall as if the music were breathing. Perhaps the more modern conception of ceremony and worship that the music holds made more sense to the conductor.
The soloists were strong; soprano Caroline Worra’s notes rang and glided gracefully on top, and mezzo Leah Wool had a rich, rounded tone. The men made for an interesting contrast, with baritone Corey McKern’s crisp singing and articulation sounding antiphonal against Dominick Chenes’ colorfully Italianate tenor. Their ensemble singing in the Benedictus had a classical poise and a romantic depth.
To the sound and color of the first half, the chorus added elegant polish with a blend of voices that was smooth and shining. Under the singing, the orchestral playing had an excellent internal balance.
Where the first half was schematic, the second showed attention to the shape of each phrase, and to the overall design and direction in which they fit. There was also expressive meaning and weight.
The soloists’ individual statements captured not just the music’s great warmth but the liturgical purposes of what they were singing. The entire ensemble played with a sense of purpose and direction—the Credo in particular had a fine mix of gentleness, pathos, and determined energy.
The performance started well and kept getting better and better. The rise and shape of the Agnus Dei had the weight of the profound magnificence the music expresses. Hayes led the music along the formal path to the mass’ final comforts.
The New York Choral Society and Orchestra performs Handel’s Israel in Egypt at Carnegie Hall 8 p.m. May 10. nychoral.org