Poulenc’s familiar, mysterious and exhilarating 1959 Gloria opened the concert. The chorus was splendid: their singing was simultaneously secure and, within the context of musical discipline, playful.
To those familiar with the work, the work’s opening was a surprise: organ … not orchestra. The program notes contained no explanation; one had to have known from pre-concert publicity that an organ arrangement of Poulenc’s orchestral score was going to be featured.
In 2011, The Church of the Ascension dedicated its magnificent new Pascal Quoirin organ, the first French built organ ever installed in New York City. Excitement about the fabulous instrument extended well beyond its happy congregation: organists and music-lovers alike relished the instrument’s lush, bright sonorities. It seemed like a quintessence of both traditional and modern France transplanted to old Fifth Avenue.
In celebration of the organ’s versatility and its expansive Frenchness, Keene transcribed the orchestral score of Poulenc’s Gloria, producing an organ score specific to Ascension’s instrument: according to pre-concert publicity materials, the Gloria would be performed using “Dennis Keene’s organ transcription to celebrate the brilliant timbres of the magnificence 2011 French pipe organ.” In fact, it’s a wonderful transcription: it shows off the organ marvelously and captures both the caprice and the substance of Poulenc’s Gloria music. The guest organist Renée Anne Louprette, played beautifully. … But when a good orchestra is available – and the musicians who played Honegger’s King David so marvelously just a few minutes later were right there – then an organ, no matter how fine and how well played, just isn’t the same as the orchestra.
Soprano Vanessa Vasquez sang the Poulenc well: she has a strong, supple voice. Yet her performance was in some sense uneven: its strength lay in the security of her musicality rather than in interpretive subtlety or experiment. Puzzlingly, her enunciation was weak: in both the Gloria’s Latin and King David’s English, she tended to emphasize open vowel sounds rather than initial or, especially, closing consonants. (This pattern contrasted sharply with that of the chorus, who routinely enunciate very clearly, and the other performers’ throughout the evening.)
As a whole, this Gloria was shiny, welcoming and enthusiastic; it is a big enough piece, and the chorus sang so well, that it served nicely as a preparation for the longer second half of the concert, Honegger’s King David.
This work used to be presented on a regular basis at The Church of the Ascension in the 1980’s. This performance, however, was the first by the Voices of Ascension. And it was wonderful: it’s a big, fairly complicated work and Keene elicited from chorus, orchestra and individual performers a marvelous presentation.
When Swiss poet Rene Morax (1873-1963) was looking for a composer for his new King David libretto, Stravinsky recommended the twenty-nine-year-old Arthur Honegger, a composer who, just six years later, creating the film score for Abel Gance’s Napoleon, would reveal himself as a master of music’s ability to translate epics into sweeping, evocative sound. In 1921, right on the cusp of his first successes, Honegger wrote the David score in a flush of creative energy.
Over the course of the last ninety years, King David has gone through several iterations. In this Voices of Ascension version, close to Morax-Honegger’s original score, Keene presented David as a narrated oratorio; this format was a great success. Using Edward Agate’s (uncredited) English translation of Morax’s text and a recent adaptation of the Narration, Keene assembled a fine ensemble of the Voices of Ascension chorus and orchestra – both in particularly fine form throughout – together with three singers and two actors.
Soprano Vasquez displayed essentially the same musical qualities in the Honegger that she had in the Poulenc, though the very last solo of Part III was particularly lovely: singing truly beautifully as The Angel, Vasquez embodied an enduring ethereality, at once delicate and strong.
Contralto Heather Petrie’s rich, subtle voice wasn’t quite strong enough to be heard when the orchestra played loudly, but her nuanced approach to the subtleties of her two major arias, “God shall be my shepherd kind” and “Oh my love, take my hand” was rewarding. Her Part I psalm – David’s expression of prayerful certainty that God would protect him – contributed to the bildungsroman quality of the shepherd-boy-and-Goliath-portion of the king’s story, and her mandrake’s flower seduction song in Part III was earthy and suggestive.
Tenor Ian Koziara was a vigorous, compelling David: he brought imaginative dramatic energy and passion to his role, and used his powerful voice to convey the full range of the royal David’s very human strengths and weaknesses.
The briefest performance was the Witch of Endor’s. Her summoning of Samuel’s ghost from the deep earth lasted only about three minutes. Nonetheless, Angelina Impellizzeri’s incantation was thrilling, terrifying and unnerving: her call to the dead, progressing from earth-growl to wild cosmic wail, was astonishing, quite strong enough to summon up not just an Old Testament prophet but half the dead under Washington Square.
Presiding over the entire piece and working in close artistic collaboration with Keene was actor F. Murray Abraham; he read the King James Bible based narrative from Ascension’s commandingly high pulpit. He was magisterially marvelous: whether speaking the omniscient ancient story-tellers’ words or God’s own, Abraham contributed as much as Keene did to the movement, shape and coherence of the King David presentation.
Although each of the work’s three sections has highlights, Part II is the most compelling, and was particularly marvelously performed: one grand, then emotional, then daring, then sensuous, then grand again movement followed directly after the one before it. The full cinematic sweep of the work is seamlessly contained in Part II, and is then picked up again in the final “Alleluia! Alleluia!” Choir of Angels. Here, in this last chorus, Honegger triumphantly places his David in a theological and musical lineage directly descended from Bach: Honegger quotes the “Sacred Head, sore wounded” melody explicitly to remind us that the Prince of Peace came from the House of David.
Honegger’s King David score, in spite of its early 1920’s modernity, is entirely accessible: its aesthetic vocabulary is, for its era, essentially conservative, posing no obstacles or prevarication between intellectual meaning and emotional response. It is a vigorous, young-manly piece: the martial grandeur and personal intensity of the musical Old Testament battle scenes are impressive … and a reminder, almost a century after Honegger wrote, that the world we live in needs the Prince of Peace more than ever.
The packed audience in the Church of the Ascension responded to King David with enthusiastic delight: the sheer energy of the performance contributed to the happy energy of the applause.
Overall: a fine evening, with the Voices of Ascension at their very best.
Voices of Ascension: Poulenc’s Gloria and Honegger’s King David (January 25, 2018)
The Church of the Ascension, Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street, in Manhattan
For more information: visit http://www.voicesofascension.org
For tickets, visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3075921
Running time: two hours with one intermission