Music Before 1800 and Miller Theater are around Columbia University’s magnetic north while the increasingly important Trinity Wall Street is south of City Hall, its current Twelfth Night Festival filling the gap between Christmas and New Year’s (Dec. 26-Jan. 6) at a level as high as anything I’ve encountered in the early music festivals of Antwerp and Utrecht.
At least on Saturday …
I caught The Play of Daniel and the Noël et la Vierge Marie concerts, respectively at 3 and 6 p.m. It was the latter program – Julian Wachner conducting the Trinity Wall Street Choir in Josquin, Ockeghem, Dufay, etc. – that drew me to the festival. After all, aren’t medieval mystery plays just Bible stories presented in a deliberate, ceremonial style, with chant-like melodies sung rather impassively by singers surrounded with embarrassing buck-fifty production values? My previous encounters suggested as much. Other music from such distant centuries can have an inward, entre-nous quality: To say that the authors were preaching to the choir was an understatement. Their audience was perhaps as captive as any this side of prison.
This production of The Play of Daniel (which is called a “Latin liturgical drama) was already seen in 2008 and 2013 at The Cloisters (speaking of the north pole of Manhattan). It isn’t lavish, but what was there counted for much. It’s significant that the stage director was countertenor Drew Minter. Rather than staging the piece with the text as a starting point – and assuming that the surviving mostly-monophonic vocal lines were just along for the ride – Minter began with a canny assessment of what the music can do (a great deal, poetically and emotionally) and what it perhaps cannot do – at least to a 21st-century mind used to more psychological detail. The real problem with past productions I’ve seen is that they end up being an extended apology for some quaint little mystery play that somehow survived by default into modern times.
How this one survived is hard to imagine. The Play of Daniel is a school play compiled and written by “the youth of Beauvais” (as in the Cathedral of St. Peter in Beauvais in the north of France), But there’s nothing timid, tentative or dutiful about the vocal lines that have come down to us from the 1100s, in what was the dawn of notated music in the West.
Yet one never had the sense of eavesdropping on an obscure society from a distant century – and not because the cast somehow determined how to sing these vocal lines with the specificity of German lieder. That would be wrong. Under Mary Anne Ballard’s musical direction, singers projected an inner sense of personal truth, creating an immediacy I never realized was possible.
The melodies have expansive, chant-like contours, yet there’s always a note, a turn of phrase, a quasi-cadential release of tension that steps out of what was perhaps typical. My ear, for one, immediately paid attention to what might be called the ‘rogue gesture’ in the music, and instinctively applied it to the iconic character who was singing it.
Dramatically, we’re dealing with archetypes of the most basic sort that could come off as mundane. The poetic elusiveness of the music combined with the Bible-pageant reality of the stage presentation created a poetic friction that, in its own way, held me as strongly as any Handel opera. Iconic poses in the staging were held with a naturalness that gave the story’s imagery a psychological impact that modern audiences, consciously or not, expect.
The lack of surtitles or lighting levels that allowed easy reading of the program’s synopsis meant that newcomers to this piece didn’t always know the plot details as they unfolded. Yet never did one feel left behind, any more than when you lose your way in more outwardly sophisticated Baroque operas.
As we head into 2014 without the New York City Opera, such convincing alternative music theater is more important than ever. Also, it’s nice to have it downtown. Remember, at one point, the City Opera was going to relocate to a complex that was proposed for Ground Zero.
More characteristic of Trinity Wall Street was the concert later in the day – Wachner’s Noël et la Vierge Marie program, with Josquin’s Missa de Beata Virgine movements interspersed with Marian motets by Ockgehem, Dufay, Bushois, Obrecht and Gombert. And sometimes it was more of an earful than, say, an Elliott Carter retrospective: When Wachner stepped up the tempo in Busnois’s Gaude coelestis domina, he risked creating melismatic gridlock in the inner voices. Most impressive was the way Wachner differentiated each composer – as opposed to the Tallis Scholars, who make everything sound like Palestrina.
With Dufay, you were left with a startling overview of the music’s logic. The oddly independent bass-voice lines in Ockeghem gave a sense of the composer successfully herding cats, creating entrancing inner tension in the relationships between one voice and the next. With his 12-part vocal writing, Gombert felt less rigorous, more pretty, more frankly lush, like Richard Strauss in a predominantly Beethoven program.
Vocally, the chorus held up beautifully. The only struggle I sensed was cognitive. The program gave performers and listeners so much to ingest, your brain could be forgiven for hitting overload halfway through the concert’s second part.
And what a luxury problem that is.