By Barbara Jepson
NEW YORK — The Psalms, song texts written for temple worship in ancient Israel, have fired the artistic imaginations of composers from medieval times to the present. In fact, more than half of the total choral repertoire in the Western classical canon is based on the Psalms, according to an essay by Tido Visser, managing director of the Netherlands Chamber Choir, who created and premiered The Psalms Experience in Utrecht earlier this fall.
Now The Psalms Experience is underway at various locations through Nov. 11 as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, which reliably offers top-notch musical presentations from around the globe. By the time it concludes, four superb choral ensembles will have sung a cappella settings (with occasional organ accompaniment) of all 150 Psalms by as many composers. Where no suitable setting was available, the Netherlands Chamber Choir commissioned works from nine composers, including Michel van der Aa, Evelin Seppar, Nico Muhly, and Caroline Shaw.
The three concerts heard on Nov. 2 and 4 were performed by the 24-member Choir of Trinity Wall Street under conductor Julian Wachner in the light, airy interior of Trinity’s recently renovated sister church, St. Paul’s Chapel, in lower Manhattan. Built in 1766, the Chapel’s exterior and grounds were inundated with debris but otherwise unharmed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The Chapel became sanctuary and sleep space for the rescue and recovery efforts. At the opening concert, two days after a truck-driving ISIS supporter killed eight individuals and injured eleven others in lower Manhattan, it again felt like a refuge.
But as a performance space, St. Paul’s has its pros and cons. It was hard to remain in a state of transcendence given the frequent rumble of nearby subway trains, far louder than those heard at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. On a few occasions, when the full ensemble was singing fortissimo passages, the sound in the otherwise pleasingly resonant but clear acoustic got blurry, and it felt like the music required a larger concert arena. Still, that happened less at the two Nov. 4 concerts, perhaps because of a different seat location, and was a small price to pay for the greater sense of intimacy achieved.
In the Jewish Tanakh, known to Christians as the Old Testament, the Psalmists grapple with the trials of life in an imperfect world. With magnificent poetic language, they not only praise their God’s attributes and actions but pour out their emotions to Him — joy, sorrow, anger, fears, doubts, and questions. They plead for individual or communal deliverance, forgiveness, mercy, and vengeance, finding solace and faith in the texts’ eternal perspectives.
To show the relevance of the Psalms today, and provide musically balanced programs, Dutch scholars grouped the Psalms into twelve thematic segments, including “Mortal Leadership, Divine Guidance,” “Faith,” “Justice,” and “Abandonment.” Translations of text segments used by the composers were shown on video screens. Each concert began with a succinct homily related to the topic by Rev. Phillip A. Jackson, vicar of Trinity Church Wall Street.
Then we were awash in choral music, about a dozen works per concert. Sumptuous, overlapping vocal lines and long, sighing suspensions in the Renaissance motets. The formal complexity and grandeur of Edward Elgar’s Great is the Lord (Psalm 48). A virtuosic, gospel-flavored improvisation on Psalm 12 by the Trinity choir. Pieces by less familiar composers, like the late 16th-century Italian Damiano Scarabelli and the impressive Baroque master Francisco Valls, new to this listener. Medieval plainchant. A Jewish prayer, Kol Adonai, intoned cantor-style.
Among St. Paul’s assets is its balcony, which enabled Wachner, director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street, to deploy his choral forces in different ways. In Venite exultemus Domino (Come Let Us Praise the Lord) by Michael Praetorius, one of many highlights, six choristers stood in the balcony, alternating passages with the choir below. For British composer Nicola LeFanu’s The Little Valleys, an arresting anthem based on portions of her larger choral work, The Valleys Shall Sing, ten female singers and a countertenor were arrayed around the balcony, where they slowly moved closer and regrouped. The most modernist of the settings heard, it featured novel sound effects and created a sense of drama.
William Byrd’s contemplative Domine secundum multitudinem (O Lord, according to the multitude of sorrows) provided Wachner and his flexible, well-trained choir more opportunity for nuances of phrasing and expression than were evident in some of the other works on the opening program. A case in point: The performance of Robert White’s Exaudiat te Dominus (The Heavens Declare), where it seemed like conductor and singers were more attuned to a beauty and balance of sound than to the meaning of the texts. That tendency largely vanished during the second and third concerts. In two of the most musically impressive pieces – Rachmaninoff’s Blagoslovi, dushe moya Gospoda, No. 2 (Bless the Lord, O my soul) and Bruckner’s Os justi meditabitur (The mouth of the righteous) – the sheer expressivity of the singing brought the texts to life, transforming the listening experience into something akin to worship.
James MacMillan’s A New Song, based on Psalm 96, showed how living composers have enriched the choral genre. This extraordinary piece has a simple principal vocal theme embellished with grace notes and the composer’s rapid, hairpin-turn ornaments that play off the longer, repeated organ glissandos. Elsewhere in the piece, the vocal line floats atop bass drones in the pedals. Hearing it performed with such agility by the choir and organist Avi Stein was a treat.
David Lang’s If I Sing, in its U.S. premiere, was also memorable. Lang rewrote parts of Psalm 101, homing in on the question “When will you come to me?” in the second verse. As a result, the declarative statement of the Psalm’s first line, “I will sing unto the Lord” becomes a more uncertain, conditional query: “If I sing of mercy, if I sing of justice, if I sing your praises, will you come to me?” The stirring music, as rendered by Wachner and his choristers, became a vehement plea for God’s presence.
Still to come are the remaining premieres, plus works by Bach, Handel, Brahms, Poulenc, and a four-concert “immersion” experience on Nov. 11. At the final event, which features the Tallis Scholars, members of all four choirs will join in a performance at Alice Tully Hall of Spem in alium, a splendid 40-voice motet by Thomas Tallis, whose psalm-like text apparently comes from the Apocryphal Book of Judith. No matter. By then, anyone who has attended several of the concerts will have gained a deeper knowledge of the compelling musical genre of Psalm settings.
Barbara Jepson is a longtime contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s Life & Arts section. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Arts & Leisure, Smithsonian, Opera News, MusicalAmerica.com and other publications. She is on the board of the Music Critics Association of North America, having recently completed two terms as its president.