Novus NY plays Become Ocean.
(This review is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell.)
St. Paul's Chapel, located in the long shadow of the World Trade Center is one of the oldest and most historic churches in New York. On Thursday afternoon, the last matinee concert of the annual music series sponsored by Trinity Church featured another historic occasion: the second New York pperformance of Become Ocean, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning composition by John Luther Adams. This concert, featuring contemporary orchestra Novus NY under the baton of Trinity Church maestro Julian Wachner, paired Mr. Adams' creation with works by contemporary composers Luna Pearl Woolf and Jessica Meyer. All three composers were in attendance,
The concert was the penultimate entry in a spring series that conductor Julian Wachner has dubbed “ Sunken Cathedral, a festival exploring compositions centered around the element of water. Mr. Wachner and the Novus forces were arrayed lengthwise in the nave of this small church, with the conductor’s podium facing the glass windows to the north and the altar on his right. The first two works on this program were prefaced with introductory remarks and interviews with their composers.
The concert opened with After the Wave by Ms, Woolf. It started with a lone, faraway trumpet, answered from a seemingly great distance by oboe and English horn, that most desolate sounding of wind instruments. These solo parts formed a four-note row (A-C-E-B natural) from which Ms. Woolf germinated the entire piece. Swelling surges of strings and brass crashed and broke on the senses, at turns meditative and anguished, moaning of irredeemable loss.
It was not loss but transfiguration that inspired composer-violist Jessica Meyer to write Through This We Flow. This is a tone poem for multiple solo string players in the manner of Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen. However, Ms. Meyer used half toned, diminish nets and strange chords to create a series of unsettling effects. Her low strong players ground their bows, rotating them hard against the the strings of their instruments to create a harsh mechanical sound. She also instructed the players to work their strings, scratching, plucking and snapping them hard in the Bartók style. Arrhythmic col legno taps using the backs of the players bows added to the sense of unease.
These phantasmagorical textures emerged slowly with the growling low strings answered by keening shrieks in th the little squads of violins. An expressive solo for viola (Ms. Meyers own instrument) provided a kind of narrative drive and the work ended on a quiet, fading diminuendo. This was spoiled by the sirens and klaxons of a nearby fire truck, a normal hazard when playing concerts just off Wall Street. Mr. Wachner calmly had his players repeated the last section from the “K” marker in the score. There were no further interruptions.
Mr. Adams' composition took the world by storm two years ago when the Seattle Symphony gave its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall. Here, the piece was performed in a spatial arrangement, with brass players confined to the choir loft and the woodwind ensemble in the apse. The string players remained seated in the middle of the nave. Mr. Wachner sum he'd the three ensembles, working with the benefit of headphones for optimum synchronization.
It is too easy to write of Become Ocean with words like “flooding,” “surging” or “billowing." None of those adjectives do it justice. The effect of this piece is a like 45 minutes in a primitive diving bell, plunging deep into an aquatic sound-world where the sheer weight of volume rushing in from the choirs of brass wind and strings make it impossible to breathe, even as timpani, gran casa and piano batter at the senses, The work is overwhelming and inexorable as the sea, lifting, crashing, and finally dwindling into a pulse of cellos and bass, exactly where isn't started.