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Music of Mystery

New York
All Souls Church
03/12/2023 -  
Arvo Pärt: The Beatitudes – Spiegel im Spiegel
David Lang: The Little Match Girl Passion
Caleb Burhans: Super flumina Babylonis
Caroline Shaw: Limestone and Felt
Eric Whitacre: Cloudburst

Erinn Sensenig (Soprano), Madalyn Luna (Mezzo-soprano), Nathan Siler (Tenor), Paul Whelan (Bass), Laura Villanueva (Narrator)
Trent Johnson (Organ piano, celesta), Márta Hortobágyi Lambert (Viola), Clara Abel (Cello), Kathryn Fortunato, Tasha Becker (Percussion), Musica Viva NY, Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez (Music Director, Conductor)

Musica Viva in Church of All Souls

We must dream the dreams of a river seeking its course of the sun dreaming its worlds. We must dream aloud, we must sing till the song puts forth roots...
Octavio Paz (Translated by Lysander Kemp)

Had Raphael’s angels soared through time and space to Manhattan’s Upper East Side yesterday afternoon, they would have doffed their wings, settled down on an imaginary Arcadian sward, unsheathed their flageolets and harps, played and listened with beatific pleasure to the concert from Musica Viva.

One rarely encounters spirituality within the prison-confining pallid walls of a church. This was the exception. A program, chosen by Musica Viva’s Director/Conductor Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, made to create a seamless vocal painting which could have been created by a Florentine Renaissance artist. True, only two of the six works were liturgical. But both the secular and religious music evaded the boring religiosity of the usual come‑to‑Jesus church programs. It became 20th Century art as a mirror from the Age of Belief.

In the 20th Century music by David Lang and Arvo Pärt, was heard resonances of both Ars Nova and mysterious Byzantine. In the choral works by Caleb Burnham and Eric Whitacre, both Biblical and poetry breathed movement, aleatory chance, and a forest filled with bells and shouts.

As for Caroline Shaw, a mere viola and cello would have lulled those supposéd Raphaelite cherubim and seraphim to happy solace.

Together, this sextet of instruments and chorus transcended any architectural prison.

One could always question whether Musica Viva was the “right” choral group for such an eclectic program. For 46 years, the group’s size has perhaps restricted their repertoire. At 30 singers, they are too large for, say, madrigals or chamber works. But (except for priggish purists), a B Minor Mass would lack the massiveness of Baroque behemoths. Size, though, is for the repertoire.

Musical Director Hernandez-Valdez not only took advantage of its dimensions but gave the partly-professional chorus, balance and clarity. Even with the finespun percussion, voices, celesta and bells were impressive.

True, I once heard Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst with a huge choir and lots of percussion. Musica Viva gave a splendid reading, but this was far different. In a previous concert, the “thunder sheet”, the narration, the aleatory singing and hand gestures gave a deafening picture of Octavio Paz’ great narration of “blue suns, green whirlwinds, burnt earth...” Musica Viva’s was more delicate. Less thunder, more whispering. Less pure naive excitement, more fragile poetry.

The longest work was David Lang’s now‑classic The Little Match Girl Passion, based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen. Long, but never too long, as Mr. Lang’s own libretto (based on the original, with Biblical prayers) is emotionally as affecting as possible.

David Lang’s music might be explained in a music theory class. But the inspiration, the effect on any audience is cryptic...no, it’s Orphic. The effect of canons which aren’t quite canons, of tropes and organums and ancient music motifs. The story of the girl freezing to death to hallucinations of beauty is the Danish equivalent of Trotsky’s short story of a coachman freezing to death while his employers cry inside at a tragedy. That was Slavic tragedy. This was Danish fairy‑tale loveliness.

D. Lang/C. Shaw (© Peter Serling/Karl Moreno for Nonesuch Records)

Each time one hears Lang’s treatment, one is on tenterhooks. The Little Match Girl Passion never unwraps one in emotion. As Musica Viva proved yesterday afternoon, one wandered through these strange musical organisms wandering about like non-spatial atoms.

Two contrasting works by the sometimes mystical, sometimes occult master Arvo Pärt started each half of the program. His Spiegel im Spiegel (badly translated as “Mirror on Mirror” or “Mirrors in the Mirror”) has such an optically-curious title that one can be diverted by the music considering what the hell it means. It meant yesterday the simple piano triad played by the conductor and a soulful (to me, a too conscious soulful) viola melody by Márta Hortobágyi Lambert.

Pärt’s Beatitudes was of course Sermon on the Mount, and here was a huge arc, each line ascending higher and higher, louder and louder until–oh that Arvo Pärt sound of celestial surprise!–an organ comes in and Musica Viva went back to the beginning.

The Musica Viva vocalisms were contrasted with viola, cello, celesta and percussion for another Biblical tale, Psalm 16, the “sorrow and beauty” of the Israelites isolated from their temple, singing “on the waters of Babylon.” Caleb Burhans never allowed the instruments to dominate. Rather, with tonal discretion, they were allowed to softly ring, quietly drum, immaculately stand behind the choir.

I had previously heard Caroline Shaw play violin for her duet, Felt and Limestone, and her sound was inimitable. Here, violist Lambert and cellist Clara Abel did a fine understated job. Like all Ms. Shaw’s compositions, the feelings, the pure feelings transcended the title. At first, we heard a duet of pizzicati by violin and cello. From here, she created a dichotomy, like Mr. Lang’s work, of canons and mystical chordings, the strings playing against one another, colliding with fragility, with iridescence and–for Ms. Shaw’s artistry is sculpted with her innate craft–an underlying unity.

Was this “the sorrow and the beauty” of the concert’s title? That is questionable. Unquestioned, though, was that it captured the atmosphere, the tenderness and the mysterious sonorities of the entire concert.

Harry Rolnick



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