Posted tagged ‘first trinity lutheran church’

A Place of Greater Safety: 18th Street Singers at First Trinity Lutheran Church, January 24, 2014

January 27, 2014

Unlike the other 18th Street Singers concerts I’ve heard, there was zero pop music in this year’s winter program (which I caught on Friday; it was repeated on Saturday). Instead, artistic director Benjamin Olinksy and the chorus presented a program entitled “Beauty in the Cathedral” (although they sang in their usual winter-concert spot, First Trinity Lutheran Church). The program juxtaposed ancient polyphony by the likes of Josquin Desprez and Tomás Luis de Victoria with modern works influenced by the old styles from composers like Sergei Rachmaninov, Maurice Duruflé, and Herbert Howells.

The music played well to the 18th Streeters’ strengths: With Olinsky conducting, their sound blossoms warmly even in dissonances or tight contrapuntal spaces (although the sopranos sometimes became screechy at the top of their range on Friday, with the altos occasionally disappearing). Just as important as their sound, they make sure you can hear the words they are singing, so you can actually follow the effects the composers used to illuminate the texts.

As if to prove the point, a couple of pairs of settings presented the thoughts of ancients versus moderns, with versions of “Exsultate Deo” by Palestrina and Francis Poulenc providing an especially piquant contrast: smooth Renaissance homophony and rhythmic oddities and dissonances, the same words filtered through different musical notions of joy and exaltation.

The Singers did an especially good thing in presenting Howells’ Requiem, a work underheard in concert. Howells juxtaposes impassioned settings of brief fragments of the requiem text with settings of answering psalms that begin as monody but blossom into more. The whole thing is not a note longer than it needs to be and more powerful for it, as Howells perfectly integrates his Tudor influences into a personal style and structure. Olinsky led a performance that met Howells’ passion with equal fervor from the singers.

Howells would probably have enjoyed this performance. From the Howells Trust.

Howells would probably have enjoyed this performance. From the Howells Trust.

Howells’ Requiem was the only large-scale work on the program; otherwise, shorter works in which rhythm typically took a back seat to harmony dominated. Individually, they expressed the theme of “sanctuary” that Olinsky outlined in remarks during the concert; collectively, they sometimes felt like a series of applications of balm to already well-moisturized skin, especially in the nice warm acoustic of First Trinity. “Tomorrow shall be my dancing-day,” a Christmas carol a little late, got the pulse up before intermission. Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Komm, Jesu, komm,” should have done the same to end the concert, but the choir didn’t bring out rhythmic vigor of the motet’s fugal section.

Still, this concert was an achievement for Olinsky and the 18th Street Singers, who continue to present concerts largely composed of semi-obscure music that becomes fresh and vital in their performances. Plus, they filled a church with people to hear it! As the strains of “Shenandoah,” an obligatory song for this group, echoed in an encore, you could feel the community in the room – the music had become a personal offering from the singers to the audience. In this sense too, the group created a space of sanctuary on Friday night.

Shine a Light: The 18th Street Singers at First Trinity Lutheran Chuch, January 20, 2012

January 21, 2012

“You are either a really morbid crowd or very good supporters of friends and family,” Benjamin Olinsky told the audience assembled Friday night to hear the winter concert of the 18th Street Singers, for whom Olinsky serves as artistic director. Titled “In These, Our Darkest Hours,” the program embraced the bleakness of midwinter rather than ignoring it or trying to repel it with cuteness. But, of course, you only realize that any set of hours was the darkest after said darkness has lifted, and the collection of pieces presented Friday reflected that as well.

Benjamin Olinsky in greener seasons, from the 18th Street Singers website

Francis Poulenc’s “Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noel” (“Four Motets for Christmastime”) and “Un Soir de Neige” (“A Night of Snow”) led off the first and second halves of the program and received some of the evening’s most satisfying performances. In the sacred work, the 18th Streeters crisply rendered the text — even though a few lines of Latin were missing from the program, I was able to keep up — while making a lovely sound that easily filled the warm acoustic of First Trinity Lutheran Church. The basses, in particular, sounded like a force of nature here and throughout the concert, a palpable presence deep in the harmonies yet capable of nimbly navigating melodies when called for.

The Gregorian chant inspiration in the first of the four motets came across with appropriate gravity, and when the severity and wonder of the first three motets gave way to joy in the finale, “Hodie Christus natus est” (“Christ is born today”), the chorus’ sound lifted up too. “Un Soir de Neige,” conducted by assistant music director Nick Bath, also showed the singers at the top of their game, vividly limning complex harmonies and giving life to the wandering sufferer depicted in the texts and Poulenc’s settings thereof.

This being an 18th Street Singers concert, classical mingled with other genres, but all the pieces were cannily chosen to reflect the theme of the evening, making for a tight, focused program. Felix Mendelssohn’s “Richte mich, Gott,” doesn’t ever seem fully committed to the laments with which it begins before finding light and hosannas, but the 18th Street Singers made the journey enjoyable all the same. Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei” sounded just distant enough from its source, his Adagio for Strings, to transcend the cliche the latter has become and accumulate great power from its implacable buildup, well-managed by Olinsky. These pieces bracketed warm performances of two traditional hymns, “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal” and “We Gather Together,” and the juxtaposition flattered all of the music.

Some flubs made this concert a little less satisfying than last year’s winter edition. The soloist in “We Gather Together” could not be heard; a few entrances came in staggered fashion rather than in unison; and, most significantly, one or two of the sopranos could not comfortably hit the very highest notes they were called upon to sing, resulting in some unfelicitous screeching during the “Agnus Dei” and in a couple other pieces.

In addition, the transition to the skein of nonclassical pieces that ended the program felt awkward, with the finely grained nervousness and exhaustion of “Un Soir de Neige” followed by a labored “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” “Deep River,” though, leaned on those wonderful basses to make a strong impact, and while at the time I was not wholly convinced by the arrangement of U2’s “MLK,” it’s grown more compelling in my memory. The concert closed with “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” which was as vigorous as you could want and also provided the perfect closer for the program.

Though this concert had the benefit of texts and translations in the program, Olinsky, assistant directors Bath and Sarah Redmond, and other chorus members took turns talking about the pieces before singing. Even though some of these remarks could have been pared by a sentence or two, they went a long way toward making the concert feel warm and personal, which (along with good singing) is what you want when you duck out of the bitter cold January wind to hear a chorus. The concert repeats tonight; tickets are $10, so if you like the idea of wallowing in darkness for a while before emerging into musical light, it’s worth stopping by.

Updated to add Other People’s Perspectives: Michael Lodico.


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