6,183 New Voices Added to the Chorus:Works for Organ and Chorus

Pipes and Voices: Works for Organ and Chorus: Soloists, Voices of Ascension, Mark Kruczek (organ), Dennis Keene (Artistic Director and Conductor), The Church of the Ascension, New York City, 8.6.2011 (BH)

Dorothy VanAndel Frisch: At a Solemn Musick (2011, World premiere)
Marilyn Shrude: How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place (1999, New York premiere)
Chiayu Hsu: Three Movements from Five Essences for Solo Organ (2011, World premiere)
Dobrinka Tabakova: Syng, hevin imperiall (2011, World premiere)
Zoltan Kodály: Missa Brevis (1904)
C. Hubert H. Parry: I was glad when they said unto me (1902)

Dennis Keene and Voices of Ascension

(Photo: Liana Rasmussen)

It’s not every day that listeners get to test-drive a brand-new pipe organ, but The Church of the Ascension has been giving them that opportunity this spring. And at least from this particular concert, the church must be thrilled with its new acquisition, built by French master organ builder Pascal Quoirin. This sold-out evening with conductor Dennis Keene and the Voices of Ascension also featured the winners of the 2011 Sorel Composition Competition, one of the legacies of piano prodigy-cum-businesswoman Claudette Sorel, and recognizing works by women composers.

Dorothy Van Andel Frisch uses a text by John Milton for At a Solemn Musick, and also seemed eager to use the capabilities of the new instrument. She deploys the voices delicately – sometimes in small groups – perhaps to focus on some of the organ’s more transparent sounds. A mention of “Angel trumpets” generates a passage for the instrument’s trompettes en chamade. And in an imaginative touch, Frisch uses aleatoric sections to depict the multilayered, perhaps slightly chaotic sounds that might emerge from a large crowd of saints and angels.

Manton Memorial Organ console

(Photo: Tom Ligamari)

How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place is Marilyn Shrude’s setting of Psalm 84, and she uses the choir in a flowing cantabile with quiet support from the organ. In the final two lines the chorus holds the final syllable of “Alleluia” as a soprano solo floats above with “Look kindly on the face of your anointed.” Next came a brief break for the singers, with Chiayu Hsu’s Three Movements from Five Essences for Solo Organ.  “Metal” uses violent, asymmetrical rhythms and timbres settling lower and lower until reaching bottom. “Water” begins pensively, with melodic lines and a mild minimalist pulse, but then becomes more ecstatic, ending with a fabulously complex chord. The final section, “Wood,” opens with a loud fanfare and uses material from the opening section. Organist Mark Kruczek seemed to revel in the new instrument’s ability to extract Hsu’s colors.

Manton Memorial Organ pipes

(Photo: Tom Ligamari)

The Latin texts for the first-prize winner, Syng, hevin imperiall by Dobrinka Tabakova, come from “On the Nativity of Christ” by William Dunbar, a 15th-century Scottish poet. Tabakova relies on some dramatic contrasts: an opening organ sparkle punctuates the voices, and later slows down into long breaths as the singers bind together in closely-knit chords. In the final stanza with the words, “All Gloria in excelsis cry,” the texture becomes broader and even more sustained.

After intermission came a passionate reading of Kodály’s Missa Brevis, written during World War II, while the composer was forced into hiding. Its complex message ultimately seems to be about peace, and Keene and his well-drilled choir made an emotional case for this underplayed masterwork, with Mr. Kruczek handling the organ solos with great sensitivity. A sonic burst ended the evening: C. Hubert H. Parry’s I was glad when they said unto me, with its luminous, richly scored plumes of sound. Not to take anything away from the superb singers and Dr. Keene’s incisive direction, but this new organ – the first French-built instrument in New York City – is going to be a destination for many aficionados.

Bruce Hodges