What’s the likelihood that the two opening works on a program featuring John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean would hold their own alongside that epically enveloping, meticulously churning, playfully palindromic masterpiece? It happened yesterday at St. Paul’s Chapel downtown, where Novus NY delivered a mighty coda to this season’s program of music on themes of water justice, staged by Trinity Church.
The pervasive cynicism that still exists at corporate rock concerts has roots in the classical world: “Let’s warm up the crowd with something short and random and then get down to business.” From the first few stark, distantly enigmatic notes of Luna Pearl Woolf’s After the Wave, a portrait of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and its aftermath, it was clear that Julian Wachner’s fearlessly eclectic ensemble had come to deliver a message. With just the hint of foreshadowing, the methodical pulse of daily routine gave way to a flood of low tonalities and bracing close harmonies as haunting as anything in Adams’ work. From there the orchestra made their way through an unexpectedly triumphant latin-tinged fanfare of sorts, up to a conclusion that signaled triumph and recovery over an ocean of devastation.
The world premiere of violist/composer Jessica Meyer’s string orchestra piece Through Which We Flow was even more consistently riveting. Introducing the work, Meyer explained how she’d been inspired by Masuru Emoto’s book The Hidden Messages in Water, which claims that human thought directed at water can affect the shape of its ice crystals. Considering that we’re 85% water, if science can validate Emoto’s thesis, this would be paradigm-shifting to the extreme.
Meyer has made a name for herself with her intricate, solo loopmusic, its intertwining themes and atmospheric electronic effects. That influence was apparent in the work’s subtle thematic shifts, intricately circular motives and rhythmic persistence, not unlike Julia Wolfe. But freed from the confines of the loop pedal, Meyer’s mini-suite flowed carefully and methodically from rapt, mantra-like permutations, through grim insistence to a peacefully hypnotic ending. All this demanded plenty of extended plucking and percussive technique, and the ensemble rose to the challenge. It’s the best thing Meyer’s ever written: there isn’t a string orchestra on the planet that wouldn’t have a field day playing this.
So it’s fair to say that Become Ocean wasn’t just the piece de resistance, but a fitting coda. Performed by three separate segments of the orchestra – strings and percussion facing the church’s south wall, brass on the back balcony, with winds, harp and vibraphone under the nave of the church, Wachner (wearing headphones) led the groups through a seamless morass of tidal shifts, endlessly bubbly chains of rivulets and a titanic wall of sound that evoked dread and deadly power as much as awestruck wonder.
It’s easy to describe the early part of the work as orchestral Eno (and just as difficult to play: try pedaling the same note for ten minutes, nonstop, maintaining perfectly unwavering tone and timbre!). But that womb-like reverie gave way to a wall as menacing as anything depicted in Woolf’s piece – at five times the volume. As themes made their way slowly back and forth between the three groups of musicians, it was as if the audience had become part of the orchestra, literally immersed in the music. In an era where the Seventh Continent continues to expand – plastic springwater bottles no doubt being part of it – and the Fukushima reactors continue to leak their lethal toxins into the Pacific, it’s hard to think of a more relevant concert being staged in New York this year.
Trinity Wall Street’s orchestra conclude this spring’s season with a performance of Philip Glass’ similarly rapturous if not necessarily water-themed Symphony No. 5 there tonight, May 19 and tomorrow, May 20 at 8 PM. Admission is free; early arrival is advised.