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Voices of Ascension: Tracing the Path of Zurbarán’s “Jacob and His Twelve Sons”

A rich and gorgeous evening of Baroque choral music coordinated with a unique exhibition at the Frick Collection.

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Soloists Siman Chung and Amanda Forsythe with Voices of Ascension Chorus & Orchestra (March 13, 2018)

Jean Ballard Terepka

Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic

New York City is blessed with several major classical choral groups; each has its own distinct character, mission and strengths, determined by its founders, its current director, its governance structure and its financial resources. The Voices of Ascension is a leader among these groups, founded in 1990 by Dennis Keene, specializing in music for chorus and orchestra. Voices of Ascension Chorus & Orchestra can be counted on for its disciplined musicianship and consistent artistic integrity; this season has been particularly strong. Keene has a well-informed sense of music’s place in the larger developments of cultural and intellectual history; his programming choices reflect both deep love of choral literature and a clear-eyed intellectual desire to locate the music he selects within its historical contexts.

Voices of Ascension’s most recent concert – a triumphant and gorgeous offering – represented an unusually rich and deft collaboration with another creative and artistic enterprise: the monumental, ground-breaking exhibit of “Jacob and his Twelve Sons” by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) currently at The Frick Collection, provided the occasion for Voices of Ascension’s “Poetry of Kings and Prophets,” a concert “tracing the path of Zurbarán’s ‘Jacob and His Twelve Sons’.”

The traveling loan exhibit from the Aukland Castle Trust, has been extensively covered and praised: Peter Schjeldahl’s “Brotherhood” in The New Yorker (February 19, 2018) and James Fenton’s “The Bishop’s Elders of Israel” in The New York Review of Books (April 5, 2018) constitute thoughtful assessments of the exhibit. The dense exhibit catalog is handsome and scholarly. The powerful thirteen life-sized portraits of Jacob and his twelve sons – each one a depiction of the individual man’s Genesis story, half icon and half character-study – are intrinsically interesting as masterpieces of Spanish Baroque paintings. In addition, the story of the massive set of paintings contains interwoven historical elements – the lure of the New World; early modern anti-Semitism; ideals of religious tolerance; patronage; legacies of emperors, kings, prophets and priests … in the ancient and early modern worlds – that resonate with our own twenty-first century global preoccupations and presuppositions.

One of the several pleasures of Voices of Ascension “Poetry of Kings and Prophets” concert resulted from the many connections among the Zurbarán paintings and the music Keene chose for the concert.

Before the concert, audience members were invited to a special showing of the Zurbarán exhibit at the Frick; the museum and the site of the concert – Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church – are just four blocks apart. The music of the concert was organized around the successful and felicitous conceit of a journey: the concert, according to Keene’s program notes, “follows the progress of the Zurbarán paintings themselves from their creation into the hands of the Bishop of Durham.” According to the ‘geography’ of the program, “the trail starts in Seville, home not only to the artist but to three of the finest composers of Spain’s Golden Age,” then moves to Lima, Peru with the music of Roque Ceruti  – because of guesses that Zurbaran’s paintings were “intended for the New World” – and then concludes with the arrival of the paintings in England. Excerpts from George Frederick Handel’s oratorio, Joseph and His Brethren, whose manuscript is maintained in the Durham Cathedral archives, completed the journey: Jacob and his painted sons had arrived in their permanent – and, with Handel, musical – home.

Artistic director & conductor Dennis Keene with Voices of Ascension Chorus & Orchestra

It’s hard to remember, in recent New York City cultural life, as marvelously and coherently coordinated an intellectual and artistic evening; to make this event possible, many institutions collaborated, including The Aukland Project, the Frick Collection and Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in addition to the Voices of Ascension.

And the treat of it all: The concert was splendid, even for audience members who might not have seen the Zurbarán paintings at the Frick or even known much about them.

For those used to hearing Voices of Ascension in their Fifth Avenue and 10th Street ‘home,’ the site for this concert – Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church – provided a distinctly different listening experience: the acoustics of this 1901 nave brought out a textured warmth of vocal sound in the Voices of Ascension chorus which is typically hidden in the brightness of the 1841 Gothic Revival Church of the Ascension with its high stone vaulting.

The three opening Seville pieces were all short, each only a few minutes long; they set the high standard for the evening. Cristobal de Morales’ Lamentabatur Jacob for altos, tenors and basses was elegantly meditative, a somber, deeply felt lament in which the alto voices were particularly lovely. Alonso Lobo’s Sanctus, from his Mary Magdalene Mass, presented a profound and subtle reflection on the nature of God’s holiness. Lobo constructed this Sanctus to reveal the variety of human responses to God’s divinity: when the basses rejoin the chorus for the final line, after dropping out and letting the sopranos dominate in the Benedictus couplet, Lobo’s intimacy of worship is enlarged to a universal proclamation of praise.

Francisco Guerrero’s unabashedly joyful psalm, Laudate Dominum de Caelis, featured two antiphonal choruses: members of the chorus positioned themselves in the side aisles, facing each other, and the listening congregation found itself in the exuberant middle of a sacred surround-sound. This psalm was a happy dance, at once sophisticated and open-hearted. Scarcely five minutes long, this piece highlighted particularly happily Keene’s sterling ability to make apparently spontaneous expressivity thrive within the context of metronomic precision.

Harpsichordist Aya Hamada with Voices of Ascension Chorus & Orchestra

The fourth work, Tomas Luis de Victoria’s superb O Vos Omnes, a return to the concert’s opening subject of lament, was sung with an incandescent unity of austerity and lushness, a quintessentially Spanish baroque formulation of spiritual expression.

In a brief shift away from choral works, harpsichordist Aya Hamada played Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in A Major, K24. Her virtuosity highlighted Scarlatti’s artistic determination to push the jewel-sound limits of the instrument without changing its actual character; Hamada’s performance was elegant.

Roque Ceruti’s Dixit Dominus followed. Its swift-moving sequence of choruses, arias and duets declares the vitality of music created in a new world with the instruments and vocabulary of the old. Amanda Forsythe, soprano, Siman Chung, countertenor, and Brandon Hynum, tenor, had solo parts in this piece, each singing with steady command and effective collaboration. The final chorus was especially fine: it was magisterial, leisurely and grand.

It was also a splendid lead-in for the final work of the evening, Handel’s oratorio Joseph and His Brethren. Keene’s savvily chosen excerpts retained the shape and plot-line of the oratorio, presenting the musical best of the long piece. Soloists Forsythe and Chung appeared again, joined by Jason Eck, bass-baritone; Chung sang the part of Joseph, and Eck, Pharoah.

Joseph dates from the close cluster of Handel’s most magnificent oratorios: Saul and Israel in Egypt (1739), Messiah (1742) and Samson (1743) immediately precede Joseph (1744). Some of Joseph’s orchestral writing, as in the overture and the Act I Grand March, and choruses – “O God of Joseph;” “Joyful sounds, melodious strains;” the expansively gentle “O God, who in Thy heav’nly hand” and the triumphant final “We will rejoice in thy salvation” – take their rightful place among Handel’s finest pieces of writing. Each of these were presented marvelously by the Voices of Ascension musicians.

Countertenor Siman Chung and Soprano Amanda Forsythe as they appeared at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church (March 13, 2018)

Chung’s Joseph was confident, subtly expressive and consistently powerful; Joseph was well paired with Eck’s sturdy Pharoah.

The most shimmeringly remarkable moment of the whole concert was Amanda Forsythe’s Asenath aria, “Prophetic raptures swell my breast.” She sang exuberantly; her joy seemed boundless. Her lavish, shining ornamentation, though it could only have been produced by stunningly disciplined technical skill, had the feel of unfettered wild play, of entirely natural and spontaneous outbursts of unrestrained joy. Keene’s direction of the orchestra as Forsythe sang embodied a gracefully organic partnership of soloist, orchestra and conductor.

Throughout this concert, the Voices of Ascension was at its best. The chorus – both as a whole, and in smaller sections – was secure and effective; balances among sections and with the orchestra were just right, even in the challenges of an unfamiliar performance space. The orchestra’s musicians presented these complex and cosmopolitan Baroque works with both historical precision and contemporary accessibility.

Over the course of the evening, the musicians – choristers, soloists, instrumentalists – succeeded in offering a full range of human experiences, from grief to joy, from quiet contemplation to thrilling triumph; in addition, they conveyed the distinctive styles of Spanish, New World and English Baroque composition with sophisticated artistic ease.

In and of itself, the concert was marvelous. Its close and felicitously developed thematic connections to the Zurburán exhibit made for an intellectually and spiritually rewarding experience. The evening was splendid.

Voices of Ascension:  Tracing the Path of Zurburán’s “Jacob and His Twelve Son” (March 13, 2018)

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, 921 Madison Avenue, in Manhattan

For more information: visit http://www.voicesofascension.org

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Jean Ballard Terepka
About Jean Ballard Terepka (127 Articles)
Jean Ballard Terepka, a native and life-long New Yorker, has been writing about music for twenty years. In addition to her continuing career as an independent educational consultant, Terepka also works as an archivist and historian with specialties in American cultural, intellectual and religious history. Terepka serves on the Executive Committee of the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force and on the Board of National Episcopal Historians and Archivists; she is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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