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Holy Trinity

03.10.14
Julian Wachner
The New Yorker

A mini Lincoln Center for classical music downtown.

by Russell Platt

In the evening, even a well-lit cathedral space will take on a touch of gloom, with the awareness of the day’s demise enforcing a certain intimacy among the congregants. The dozens who arrived on a night last April to hear a concert in Trinity Wall Street’s Stravinsky Festival were probably skeptical: were the Master’s late-period sacred works, seldom heard and composed according to a demanding and idiosyncratic twelve-tone technique, really that good? “Threni,” a setting of texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, had suffered a disastrous Paris première in 1958. But Julian Wachner, Trinity’s Director of Music and the Arts, brought out the tortured beauty of the piece, leading the unflappable musicians of the Trinity Choir and of Novus N.Y., the church’s in-house contemporary ensemble, with palpable enthusiasm. Doubts dispersed like wafts of incense.

Trinity’s upcoming Lenten festival of sacred works also takes the Lamentations as its theme, though it will surely be brought off with the same joyous energy of last year’s Stravinsky Festival. “Lamentatio” (March 9-April 13) is centered on six Sunday early-evening concerts. They will feature not only Novus and the Trinity Choir but also guest appearances by the recently formed chamber collective Decoda and by the ancient Choir of Merton College, Oxford. The repertory begins with early-Renaissance masterworks by Dufay and Ockeghem, stretches through twentieth-century landmarks by Messiaen and Ginastera, and continues into the present with music by Philip Glass and the admired British choral composer Gabriel Jackson (the North American première of “Passio”). The abundant lunchtime series offers, among other attractions, Bach cantatas sung by the Choir and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra. (The Choir will head up to Alice Tully Hall, on March 17, to join the Juilliard 415 ensemble in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.)

It’s an unusual move for a church to underwrite a Baroque orchestra and a new-music ensemble; many affluent religious institutions maintain performances of liturgical music, and occasional concerts, at a very high level, but don’t seek to turn themselves into mini Lincoln Centers. Trinity is a parish of renowned wealth, but its vicar, the Reverend Canon Anne Mallonee, insists that ultimately “everything flows from the altar,” and that Wachner’s program “is part of an integrated ministry of outreach efforts that extend through music, education, housing placement, and food relief. We hired him not only because of his entrepreneurship but because he has Anglicanism in his blood.” (Julian’s wife, Emily Wachner, is a priest on the church’s staff.)

“My pitch to the church,” says Wachner, who was hired in 2010, “was to bring the liturgical music and the concert performances into one vision.” The results have been impressive, as last December’s performances of “Messiah”—which ended with a victory-lap presentation at Tully—proved. Wachner’s vibrant crew includes such expert and versatile musicians as the violinist Owen Dalby, who not only leads Novus but plays in the Baroque Orchestra as well. It was a quick “Messiah” but a thrilling one, with every phrase from the players and vocalists charged with conviction and formed with care. The Reverend Mallonee’s desire to “bring people nearer to God” through the beauty of great music is noble, and perhaps a bit naïve. But even for those of little faith, it is reaping a bountiful harvest. (trinitywallstreet.org.) ♦