Felsenfeld mass makes a magnificent premiere at Trinity Wall Street

Thu Dec 31, 2015 at 2:17 pm
Daniel Felsenfeld's foofahfah was heard in its world premiere Wednesday night at Trinity Wall Street.

Daniel Felsenfeld’s “Astrophysical Mass” was heard in its world premiere Wednesday night at Trinity Wall Street’s Twelfth Night Festival.

Almost every church in New York offers musical programming of one sort or another, but few today can compete with the quality or sheer volume that Trinity Wall Street has offered under the direction of Julian Wachner. Trinity’s Twelfth Night Festival is an annual highlight of New York’s winter calendar, and Wednesday’s installment saw the launch of “Mass Reimaginings,” a commissioning initiative that will invite composers to work with the traditional form of the mass from a contemporary perspective.

Each concert in the series will pair the new commission with an existing liturgical work of the composer’s choosing. For Wednesday’s concert, composer Daniel Felsenfeld selected the motet cycle Prophetiae Sibyllarum of Orlande de Lassus, a striking piece, known for its chromatic polyphony.

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, led in their loft by Scott Allen Jarrett, are certainly a polished ensemble, but precision is not the most striking feature of their singing. Where many choirs sacrifice depth for the sake of raw power, Trinity’s singers show an uncommon warmth that instantly takes a listener aback. The beauty and vividness of their colors in this cycle were stunning, as they wailed softly in the Sibylla Samiae, and flowed in and out of each other in the closing Sibylla Agrippa.

Lassus’s contemporary counterpart for this program was Daniel Felsenfeld, whose Astrophysical Mass received its world premiere performance by Trinity’s Choir and resident ensemble NOVUS NY, under Wachner’s baton. The mandate that Trinity has given the composers for the “Mass Reimaginings” series is unusually specific: it is not enough for the new pieces to be inspired by or in the spirit of the traditional mass; all of the new pieces will combine a newly commissioned text with portions of the Eucharistic liturgy. Indeed, at the opening of Felsenfeld’s mass, after a pair of ascending intervals from the piano that set out a dominant motif for the first section, the chorus launches into a gleaming, reverent Kyrie.

The sound of Felsenfeld’s writing, though firmly modernist in construction, pays homage to the tradition of the form, its choral writing in the opening Kyrie bright and spacious. To the accompaniment of sharp interjections of the strings, a direct, insistent soprano solo enters, begging “Mercy upon geometers, mercy upon herdsmen,” sung here with cool, penetrating tone by Sarah Brailey. If there is a flaw to be found in Felsenfeld’s writing, it’s that he hasn’t always taken into account the reverberant church acoustic, which doesn’t flatter the violent gestures by the strings, or much of anything from the piano. That problem will likely disappear in any concert hall performance, and is the only shortcoming in what is on the whole a magnificent, moving, and thought-provoking work.

One might expect a “reimagined” Latin mass to be skeptical, and Felsenfeld’s Astrophysical Mass certainly is–not just of religion but seemingly also of the dogmatic scientism that has replaced religion in much of the Western world. The original text by Rick Moody is brilliant, not just for its poetry, but for the openness and ambiguity of its message. The second section dutifully recites, “Credo in unum Deum,” beginning with a foreboding stomp of percussion, and continuing with bleak bellowing in the chorus as they strain against harsh strokes in the woodwinds. What follows in the secular text, though, is no less troubled: from its first line, “We believe in all that is self-evident,” it seems to wander almost aimlessly, the focus of the Kyrie having evaporated. The music rolls into a tireless motion, hanging on the edge of chaos as the text frantically spews a list of quasi-tenets: “We believe in the collision between the earth and a planet-sized object,” “We believe in x-class solar flares,” “We believe in quark-gluon plasma, and that all things are made therefrom.”

Felsenfeld shows superb range in the piece, from the slow fermentation of the Sanctus (“Holy neutrino, Holy Higgs Boson”) to the bucolic but cold Agnus Dei. The Nunc dimittis, given in straight translation, ends with a blinding, harsh light, a comment on the cold comfort of “the light of Revelation.” To say that Astrophysical Mass’s conclusion leaves questions unanswered would be an enormous understatement; hopefully, audiences will have many more chances to ponder the piece’s meaning in future performances.

Trinity Wall Street’s Twelfth Night Festival continues through January 6 at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel. trinitywallstreet.org/music-arts

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