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O Magnum Mysterium

New York
Church of the Ascension
12/15/2009 -  
Traditional Christmas carols and liturgical and secular music by Tomás Luis de Victoria, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Gabriel Fauré, Herbert Howells, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Pau Casals, Enric Morera, Eric Wolfgang Korngold, George Frederic Handel & Gioacchino Rossini
Edward Parks (baritone), Drew Martin (tenor), Silvie Jensen (mezzo-soprano), Kathy Theil (soprano), Melissa Kelley (soprano), Eileen Clark (soprano), Scott Warren (organ)
Choir of Voices of Ascension, Dennis Keene (Artistic Director and Conductor)

Voices of Ascension (© Kenneth Kauffman)

In the twentieth anniversary season of musical offerings by that treasure of New York City, Voices of Ascension, an audience gathered both to celebrate the holidays and to bid adieu to the church as it closes for renovations and installation of a new French organ. Between now and the reopening in 2011, the group will perform at other local venues including Alice Tully Hall and The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. On this very special evening, the church was softly illuminated by candlelight. When the singers entered by proceeding down the aisle, their absolutely gorgeous sound filled the church. The program combined the sacred and the secular as well as classical and more popular holiday fare. Everything was performed with care, even love, and with a very high level of musicianship.

For more than fifteen years, Voices of the Ascension has had a relationship with Delos International, the fruits of which are many superb recordings. Two selections from one of them, “Beyond Chant”, were featured in the program, as were three selections from their latest CD, “Song of the Stars” (with Naxos this time), which has been nominated for a Grammy.

From “Beyond Chant” we heard Victoria’s O magnum mysterium. The luminous performance with its dynamic finesse and striking harmonies drew us into Victoria’s mystical world. He is an extraordinary composer and hearing this work was a magical way to begin the evening. We also heard the Hosanna to the Son of David by Orlando Gibbons, the versatile English Renaissance composer. I particularly enjoyed the fine counterpoint, arresting rhythms, and the evocative word painting. Another English Renaissance composer, William Byrd, who was an accomplished composer of both secular and sacred works, was represented by the “Kyrie” and “Agnus Dei” from his splendid Mass for Four Voices. In the “Agnus Dei”, the floating soprano line was especially beautiful and moving.

The program also included music by nineteenth century composers. My favorite of these was Fauré’s “Tantum Ergo” which began with a solo male voice which yielded to the chorus, returned, was echoed by a soprano, and then yielded once again to full chorus. It was exquisite. His lovely “Virgin and Child” performed in English, featured a solo soprano singing with a bell-like tone. We also heard – and joined in – a selection of popular Christmas carols. The chorus brought a freshness to even the most familiar of them. The ever-popular Oh come all ye faithful for example, was sung with wonderful lively embellishments.

For this concert, Voices of the Ascension was joined by the rising baritone and winner of the 2008 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Edward Parks. Mr. Parks, a member of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, made his house debut this season as Fiorello in The Barber of Seville. Next season, he will sing Schubert’s Winterreise in a solo recital at Carnegie Hall. His versatility was on full display, with contributions ranging from Korngold to Handel to Rossini. He sang with perfect diction, lovely vocal color, and blooming top notes. I would love to hear him sing Mozart. In fact, he will make his debut at Opera Theater of Saint Louis next season doing exactly that -- as their Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro. This evening, however, Mr. Parks sang Rossini – the “Largo” from The Barber of Seville. He was simply superb, full of personality and showing off the wide range of his vocal skills. The audience’s enthusiasm was such that he received a standing ovation, a rarity at a church concert but, in this case, fully deserved.

Voices of the Ascension’s latest CD, “Song of the Stars” provided three marvelous and very different selections. We heard music by Pau (better known as Pablo) Casals – his Recordare Virgo Mater and then his Nigra Sum. The first of these had a solemn, almost beseeching character, and wonderful dynamic variety. The final “Alleluia” was floated to marvelous effect. Ave Maria by Morera was the third excerpt and it too was beautifully realized.

Also on the CD, but not the program, are several selections by Granados – including the lovely romanza for solo violin and his masterpiece, “Cant De Les Estrelles” with chorus and organ. I do hope that Voices of Ascension will perform this work to celebrate the installation of their new French built organ, the first such instrument in a church in New York City. It is being built by Pascal Quoirin of St. Didier, a town in Provence. The organ has been especially designed to play the works of Oliver Messiaen. Its arrival here will be a grand occasion indeed.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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