Trinity Wall Street's Music Director Considers Himself a 'Composer Who Conducts'

Julian Wachner
The Wall Street Journal

By Corinne Ramey 

If there are two types of classical composers in the world, the artist-colony type and the extroverted sort, then the composer Julian Wachner falls squarely in the second camp.

"I'd never survive as a guy who sits in a log cabin, composing," he said. "I need the energy of people. I need the energy of music-making."

In New York's classical music scene, Mr. Wachner, 44 years old, is best known as a conductor and music director at Trinity Wall Street, the downtown church where he has created an ambitious music program, focusing on early and Baroque music, new commissions and festivals of works by composers like Stravinsky and Britten. 

But the problem with his success at Trinity, he has found, is that it overshadows the reason he took the job in the first place.

"I think of myself as a composer who conducts," Mr. Wachner said recently, in a hotel lobby near his Tribeca home. "I always said that everything else in life was to support that habit."

On Tuesday, the label Musica Omnia, which is distributed by Naxos, releases a three-disc set of Mr. Wachner's compositions. The album showcases a range of forms and styles, from symphony to oratorio to choral works, performed by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Novus NY, the Trinity-based contemporary music ensemble founded by Mr. Wachner.

Asked to describe his music, Mr. Wachner started with what it's not. "It's an American-sounding music, and it's so not the Bang-on-a-Can, post-Philip Glass world that most of my colleagues are living in right now," he said. (For the record, he has nothing against that minimalism-infused style, and loved conducting Julia Wolfe's "Anthracite Fields" at the New York Philharmonic's biennial.)

"I see his work as very Americana, firmly following in the steps of Copland and Bernstein," said the creative producer Beth Morrison, referring to the hopeful, melodic aspect of Mr. Wachner's music. 

Mr. Wachner's former teacher Marjorie Merryman, who is now provost and a dean at the Manhattan School of Music, called it "modern, but not pandering," with a strong sense of motion bolstered by direct harmony.

Composing, said Mr. Wachner, comes from improvisation. "I try to improvise daily, just to get the creative juices going," he said. "But the real way I write is by someone saying, 'I want you to write this piece, and your deadline is next month.' "

Born in Hollywood, Calif., Mr. Wachner grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and New York City. He began writing music at age 4 (and has the original manuscripts), and went through a rebellious teenage phase that involved dyeing his hair and playing at the punk-rock club CBGB.

These days, Mr. Wachner maintains a schedule just short of manic, commuting regularly between New York and Washington, D.C., where he directs the Washington Chorus. (An Amtrak enthusiast, he "knows all the redcap guys.") 

At Trinity, he's not only programmed challenging music rarely heard in a church setting but integrated nontraditional music with church values.

"Julian brought into the picture an opera about human trafficking," said the Trinity vicar Anne Mallonee, of Du Yun's opera "Angel's Bone." "That was a great example of social outreach and music and education coming together to make a statement that people aren't even aware of."

Today, Mr. Wachner lives in Tribeca, with his wife, Emily, and their American bulldog, Sophie. Ms. Wachner is a reverend at Trinity, and the couple met at work.

One night, while the two were backstage after a Gotham Chamber Opera production, he realized that the woman on whom he had a crush was a minor celebrity.

"All the opera singers knew her. They were like, 'You're 'What Not to Wear' Emily!'" (Ms. Wachner holds the distinction of being the only Episcopal priest to have been on the TLC makeover show.) 

Knowing Trinity's strict policies on sexual harassment, the two nervously went to their boss. "We were like, 'Who's going to get fired? Who's going to quit?'" recalled Mr. Wachner. "But the rector was like, 'This is great! You're in love! We like love.'"

Colleagues and friends described Mr. Wachner as a big personality with a hearty laugh, who is loved by his musicians.

"One of the difficulties of being the conductor is there's a built-in power dynamic," said composer Nico Muhly. "You have to exploit that and undo it, and different people have different ways of doing that, and Julian's is a successful one. He seems to be universally beloved and make great music at the same time."