Visions of mortality by Ticheli and Brahms vie in New York Choral Society program

Sat Nov 16, 2019 at 4:18 pm
David Hayes conducted the New York Choral Society Saturday night at St. Francis Xavier Church.

David Hayes conducted the New York Choral Society and Orchestra Friday night at St. Bartholomew’s Church.

With multiple performances in New York this year of “A German Requiem” by Johannes Brahms, it’s tempting to ask what great loss we are mourning. A quirk of programming probably accounts for Brahms’ grand secular mass turning up at the New York Philharmonic last February at Lincoln Center and again Friday night at St. Bartholomew’s Church. But in a season of splintered politics, ominous weather and general disquiet about the direction of humankind, a great lament — paired with a new work in a similar vein — isn’t the worst way to seek out comfort and reflection.

The New York Choral Society and Orchestra chose an ideal performance space in St. Bart’s, with a company’s worth of singers and instrumentalists arrayed in front of the altar, beneath the high vaulted dome of this bejeweled Park Avenue landmark. A place of spiritual refuge and sobering grandeur, St. Bart’s with most of its seats filled Friday boasted a surprisingly warm acoustic. If anything, sound was more dampened than one would expect in a lofty, stone-walled sanctuary. That blunting effect sometimes muffled the polyphony when a sharper acoustic edge would have brought out more individual tones and voicings. 

The concert opened with the East Coast premiere of Frank Ticheli’s 2018 work, Until forever fades away, which felt compressed, almost hasty, at barely ten minutes in length — like an edit of something yearning to stretch out and develop a fuller idea of itself. Composed of three interlocking segments, Until forever is Ticheli’s brief, poetic contemplation of time — both the ravages and the beauty of its inescapability. 

Ticheli enfolds his own texts in overlapping and alternating currents of instrumentation and choir. The orchestral threads were carried mostly by the strings. A somber bass line set the music in motion and underlined an opening couplet that looked jumbled on paper but somehow fared better when sung: “Flowingly going day after day./ Glidingly slidingly sailing away.” 

The piece moved from contemplative wordplay in the first leg to a more turbulent and complex second section, in which time is a relentless “crashing, thrashing” force “plunging into the infinite sea.” The singing turned from winsome to urgent, and with an arresting sense of time as indivisible from our physical selves — not just a boundary but an embodiment of our humanity. Here, Ticheli marshals better poetry, with language that could describe both time itself and our actions within it: “The more you flow, the more you’ve flown, / the more you steal from Gaia’s throne.” 

Until forever closed with a return to the contemplativeness of the first section, and was practically over before you knew it. Unlike the towering Brahms, it was not the kind of piece to brand itself in memory on first hearing. But there are passages that linger, especially those with little or no orchestral accompaniment that functioned like motets within the symphonic whole.

The seven-movement Requiem, based on scripture and completed in 1868, is always a blessed event in the hands of a capable ensemble. With the Choral Society’s David Hayes conducting, Brahms’ ode of encouragement to the bereft was both majestic and tender. If it lacked the Philharmonic’s dynamic range, emotional peaks and knife-edged balancing between orchestra and choir, it’s always going to be tough to go head-to-head with the New York Philharmonic and conductor Jaap van Zweden, working with the Concert Chorale of New York, in a sound-designed environment (say what you will about the acoustics of David Geffen Hall). 

But this performance had surpassing moments, too: the altos and sopranos arriving like a shaft of light in the first movement refrain of “Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit” (“But the word of the Lord endures for eternity”); the affecting delicacy of the repeated “Wie lieblich” (“How lovely”) in the fourth movement. Even with the muted acoustics, the requiem’s intertwining vocal-instrumental fugues resounded with grace and power.

Another area where this performance improved on last February’s was in its soloists. Sopranao Hera Hyesang Park and baritone Jarrett Ott were stellar without grandstanding in their respective turns: Park in the lovingly maternal fifth movement that Brahms wrote after his mother’s death; Ott in the third and sixth movements, the former all earthly repentance and the latter brimming with hope for redemption. Ott’s bracing first turn, beginning with “Lord, teach me/ that I must have an end,” was a fresh spark after the too-relaxed pastoralism of the second movement. 

The choir’s German diction was arguably stronger than its English in the Ticheli piece, but that was as much a function of one language serving the music more effectively. In choosing German over the standard Latin for his requiem, Brahms also demonstrated the language of the unadorned lieder could be also be an evocative voice of mourning even when multiplied in the company of massive forces. 

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