Higdon & Holst Oratorios Keep Choristers Aloft

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The New York Choral Society and music director David Hayes performed oratorios by Higdon and Holst at Carnegie Hall.
The New York Choral Society and music director David Hayes performed music by Higdon and Holst at Carnegie Hall.
By Leslie Kandell

NEW YORK – Not every Carnegie Hall concert sells out, and not all performers are as pricey as the sought-after Vienna Philharmonic or the irresistible Barbara Cook. In the world of amateur concertizing,  performers and sponsors are enlisted to sell tickets, which can be a big challenge in New York. At these concerts, audience members are convivial – some wave at the stage – and enthusiastic, as they were on April 29 when the New York Choral Society and Orchestra, with violinist Jennifer Koh and the Princeton Girlchoir, presented an intriguing, provocative program of oratorios by Gustav Holst and Jennifer Higdon.

Composer Jennifer Higdon with feline assistant. (Candance diCarlo)
Composer Jennifer Higdon with feline assistant. (Candance diCarlo)

The 180-voice volunteer Choral Society, founded in 1958, made its name when Robert De Cormier took over in 1970. Its current music director, David Hayes, also leads choruses in Philadelphia and is an orchestral staff conductor at the Curtis Institute of Music. Koh – who suggested the form of The Singing Rooms to Higdon, introducing it in 2008 – studied there, and Higdon is a faculty member.

Temperamentally, Holst and Higdon couldn’t be farther apart. Holst was annoyed by the surprise popularity of The Hymn of Jesus, his setting of Gnostic chants and prayers that he translated, and he fretted that it might tempt him to repeat himself. (He needn’t have worried: The work, a poignant 20-minute, mixed-forces oratorio memorializing the horrific World War I slaughter of the British on the Somme in 1916, has become a rarity.)

Higdon, on the other hand, seems to bask in unceasing sunshine. She smiles in photos, and her appealing works – a violin concerto for Hilary Hahn won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize – reassure outsiders by hewing to tonal, harmonic and instrumental norms. In an online interview about The Singing Rooms, set to poems by her Curtis colleague, Jeanne Minahan, about household rooms with their own songs, Higdon stated, “I guarantee you’ll like it.”

David Hayes is music director of the New York Choral Society.
David Hayes is music director of the New York Choral Society.

Believe it or not, the New York Choral Society program uncovered similarities between The Hymn of Jesus and The Singing Rooms. The composers are or were teachers who achieved success in the larger music world. They experiment with original sonorities, texts, and musical grouping, without departing from traditional instrumentation or instrumental use.

Hymn, which Holst composed shortly after The Planets (a mostly orchestral work that swings between pedestrian and transcendent), is scored for two mixed choirs physically separated, which apparently has never been realized in performance,  plus a treble choir. For this outing, the Princeton trebles stood in the side balcony nearest the first violins. This was apparently its teenage division, whose pleasant tone was displayed in the unison passages and lovely thirds of “Fain would I be saved,” creating an ethereal atmosphere similar to the finale of The Planets.

Violinist Jennifer Koh suggested the form to Higdon.
Violinist Jennifer Koh suggested the form to Higdon.

The somber brass chant that opens Hymn is suffused with the sober, measured solidity of a funeral procession. Dominated by English horn, it took a minute or two to settle, but the orchestra and the conductor buckled down when the full chorus exploded into harmony on “Glory be to Thee.” Radiant harmonies of the non-contrapuntal piece neither push nor pull as the serene processional passes your pew. Time is suspended, and perhaps thought.

Holst dedicated his work to Ralph Vaughan Williams, a contemporary who 20 years later would write Dona nobis pacem, setting Whitman’s lines, “Oh strong dead march you please me. Oh, my veterans passing to burial.”

Higdon, in her early 50s, is one of a few contemporary Americans whose works, recorded on the Telarc label, receive second hearings – and third and fourth. Koh introduced the optimistic Rooms in 2008 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of its co-commissioners. The others include the Atlanta Symphony, which recorded it under Robert Spano, and the Minnesota Orchestra. This was its belated New York premiere.

Members of the New York Choral Society in concert. (Judy Ong)
Members of the New York Choral Society in concert. (Judy Ong)

Described by Higdon as “a house where the violin sings, the choir sings and the orchestra sings,” Rooms shows her sure hand at combining forces. It has more percussion than the Holst but shares its thirds, luminous chords, and little counterpoint. The poems, and the music that goes with them, vary from respectful mediation to impassioned activity. Texts representing rooms are separated by accompanied violin interludes of varied moods, during which Koh’s committed, satisfying musicianship demonstrated why her reputation has grown so quickly.

Higdon has composed better works. So did Holst. But nothing bad happened here, and no time was wasted listening; ask the cheering audience. Just don’t ask for a prediction as to how the future will treat them.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, MusicalAmerica.com, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.