Wachner brings new slant to “Americas” program with Seraphic Fire

South Florida Classical Review
Lawrence Budmen
March 10, 2016

Julian Wachner, music director of Trinity Wall Street in New York, was guest conductor for Seraphic Fire’s survey of choral music from the Americas Wednesday night at Miami’s St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral. A finely wrought Canadian discovery and major scores by one of Argentina’s most important voices and an American master highlighted Wachner’s ambitious program.

A vocal version of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9, the concert opener, was an intriguing novelty. Wachner told the audience that this was a very flexible adaptation of Villa-Lobos’ partly illegible manuscript and described the result as a combination of Bach and doo-wop. The result sounded like the Swingle Singers, a group whose jazzed-up Bach vocals has had a strong following for decades.

Alberto Ginastera was one of South America’s most distinguished and prolific composers. The composer evolved from a folklorist who mined indigenous music from the Argentine countryside to a high modernist, embracing atonality and seralism.

His Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae (Lamentations of Jeremiah) dates from 1946, just before Ginastera joined the musical avant-garde. This liturgical setting is a major discovery. Opening with a huge wail from the women, which builds to a crescendo, the three-movement work proceeds to a solemn proclamation of grief–strikingly beautiful in its austere reverence–and closes with a Bachian fugue.

This is the type of score the Seraphic Fire singers excel at, particularly the writing in the low register of the second lamentation where the hushed richness had potent impact. Wachner drew a larger corporate sonority from the singers than artistic director Patrick Quigley often achieves. The 13 choir members sounded at times, like more than twice their number. Dynamic contrasts were huge and wonderfully clear in the cathedral’s warm and reverberant acoustic.

The octogenarian Canadian composer Ruth Watson Henderson has long been associated with her country’s choral music. Henderson’s musical sensibility is clearly French-oriented, as shown by the performance of her Missa Brevis.

The opening Kyrie echoes Renaissance polyphony through the modernist palette of Messiaen while the Gloria suggests the rhythmic and melodic contours of Poulenc’s setting. Henderson’s version of the Hosanna almost sounds like a French carol. The low male voices intoning Agnus Dei sets the stage for a final ascending theme which Wachner called a Mahlerian climax. Henderson’s voice and sensibility are distinctive. If her other choral works are as fine and interesting as the Missa Brevis, her music deserves to be heard more frequently south of the Canadian border.

Two settings of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke concluded the program. Wachner compared the tonal journey in his Six Rilke Songs to the circle of life. Based on Rilke’s animal poems, the 2001 suite is in the modern lyrical choral tradition. The score’s most effective sections exploit contrasts of vocal coloring and dynamics. A languid unicorn and jazzy black cat afforded its best moments.

For all his skill, Wachner’s work inevitably paled next to that of Morten Lauridsen, one of America’s finest choral composers. Lauridsen’s irresistibly charming Les Chansons des Roses, to French texts by Rilke, is a masterful demonstration of his gift for melody and alternating patterns of meter and texture. “Contre qui, rose” is quintessential Lauridsen, an expansive theme that stays in the listener’s memory. “Dirat-on,” the concluding movement, proved both rousing and soothing with a piano line that Wachner adeptly played at the Yamaha, the choir bringing tonal purity and supple blending to this gorgeous score.
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