Julian Wachner

I heard an ambitious concert at Carnegie Hall a Saturday ago: Julian Wachner, who commands the musical forces of Trinity Wall Street and the Washington Chorus, brought just about every musician at his disposal to perform two comparatively rare works.

About the first, Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 4, I won’t say much other than that it is a strong (if somewhat scattered) piece that received a strong (if somewhat scattered) performance.

The second piece, Ginastera’s Turbae ad passionem Gregorianam, was entirely unfamiliar to me—as I’m sure it was to the rest of the audience. It received its premiere in 1975, and since then has been performed only a few times, no more than a dozen or so. It is a revelation.

The Turbae is a difficult work to listen to, much as Hedda Gabler is a difficult play to watch, or Heart of Darkness a difficult book to read. It is emotionally trying—terrifying, really. The speeches of Christ, the Evangelist, and the other characters (Judas, Longinus, etc.) are simply intoned by three soloists, but they are not the main attraction. Ginastera distills the narrative of the Passion to its crowd scenes, making the chorus the driving force of his work.

There is not much in the way of beauty here, at least not superficial beauty—there are some moments of lyricism to be found, but the music mostly impresses by sheer force, the violent discord of the chorus reminding the listener of his insignificance, his helplessness. Much of the chorus’s text is whispered, chanted, hissed, or even screamed. To these furious episodes the speakers’ occasional interludes act both as a soothing antidote and a point of comparison, exaggerating the madness of the crowd.

But to say that Saturday’s performance was “ugly” or even “unpleasant” would be missing the point. Listening to Wachner and his musicians produced an adrenal thrill—the tumult of the crowd was repellent, but at the same time it had a certain allure. Even as I felt surrounded, threatened on all sides, I had a sense of just how easily one could be swept up in the fanatic frenzy of the mob.

When the concert finished, a sense of relief washed over the hall as Wachner held up the enormous score in triumph. After the chorus had roared at the audience for an hour, it seemed only too appropriate that we should roar back.