“They’re amazing,” the friendly retiree whispered to her brand-new concertgoing pal, a New York City firefighter in his 20s. A couple of rows closer to the Carnegie Hall stage, two women in their forties, a married couple, quietly affirmed that. And after the mighty voices of the New York Choral Society had wound up their triumphant performance of Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass there last night, a teen in the third row dressed like one of the rappers in the 80s group Kid ’N Play gave them a standing ovation. The accolades on the ensemble’s press page run on and on; this concert attested that just about every demographic in this city shares those feelings.
Spontaneous applause had broken out after the first movement, possibly triggered by how meticulously and seemingly effortlessly way the sopranos in the group had followed soprano soloist Vanessa Vasquez’s exuberant flurries of glossolalia with their own, in perfect unison. If you think that’s hard to do by yourself, imagine the challenge of having to match your bandmates’ cadences with that kind of split-second precision.
This piece got its nickname after the story spread that the composer had been inspired by a British admiral’s pursuit of Napoleon. That might well be true, considering that Haydn was an Anglophile. What it also sounds like is that he wanted to write something so glorious that it would earn him a follow-up commission. Beyond being a flamboyant birthday present for a Hungarian princess, its raison d’etre as a “mass for troubled times” doesn’t really make itself apparent until after the opening festivities. This long party for churchgoing late-18th century one-percenters ran its course before getting switched out for more formidable gravitas. The rest of the soloists – tenor Zach Borichevsky, bass Sava Vemic and mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer – locked in on Haydn’s signature humor, as did the choir and orchestra, who took it out in a decisively boisterous, precise yet comfortably fluid series of volleys.
The original program had that piece first on the bill, followed by Maurice Durufle’s Requiem, Op. 9. Flipping the script and putting the Durufle first was logical in that it’s much quieter and has none of Haydn’s fireworks. But it’s a vastly more profound piece of music, and the ensemble delivered it that way. The program notes alluded to the composer following Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, but other than a muted sense of grief, the two pieces have little in common. And this one is hardly easy to sing, with its so-ancient-they’re-new-again Gregorian chant themes and shapeshifting, uneven meters. But musical director David Hayes led the singers through an impeccably balanced rendition that offered guarded hope, something that’s been gravely in need over these past three weeks or so.
The orchestral performance was as sublime as the voices. Durufle, longtime organist of Notre Dame, peppers the work with poignant cameos: distant terror from a tritone riff or two on the organ; ghastly shivers from the low strings, uneasily starry resonance from the harp and a moment where first violist Ronald Carbone took centerstage in his section in the piece’s most harrowing if understated cadenza. Fischer got a solo as well and channeled deep, wounded soul in vivid contrast to her untethered ebullience in the Haydn.
The New York Choral Society sing the New York City premiere of James MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion at St. Bartholomew’s Church on April 8 at 8 PM with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and organist Jason Roberts.