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The diverse talents of choral director and composer Julian Wachner

Cover of the first volume of Julian Wachner's choral music
Cover of the first volume of Julian Wachner's choral music
courtesy of ClassicsOnline

I first encountered Julian Wachner and his Choir of Trinity Wall Street in September of 2012 with their release of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 54 oratorio Israel in Egypt. That performance made a sufficiently deep and stimulating impression to be included in my “Memorable recordings for 2012” article. More significantly in the “real world,” it received a nomination for Category 74 (Best Choral Performance) in the 55th annual GRAMMY awards. I am sure I was not the only one to be highly disappointed when it did not come away with the award in that category.

Nevertheless, as I have learned more about Wachner, I have come to believe that he is more interested in building an extensive portfolio of repertoire than in garnering a shelf of awards. In 2010 he began a project with Naxos to record his own choral compositions as part of their American Classics series. The first volume in that project consisted of a single CD sampling both secular and sacred compositions. The second volume then virtually erupted with a three-CD set that Naxos produced in conjunction with Musica Omnia.

While the first volume consisted almost entirely of a cappella performances by the Elora Festival Singers conducted by Noel Edison (with organ accompaniment provided by Michael Bloss on four of the tracks), the second volume was subtitled Works for Orchestra and Voices. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street served as the primary vehicle to showcase Wachner’s compositions, joined by NOVUS NY, a contemporary music orchestra that is also affiliated with Trinity Wall Street. The third CD also features instrumental performances by the Majestic Brass Quintet. In addition, there are vocal solos by soprano Jessica Muirhead and bass-baritone Christopher Burchett, an instrumental duo for trumpet (Stephen Burns) and organ (Wachner), and the participation of the Trinity Youth Choir on several selections.

All this has the potential for a healthy abundance of spectacle, and Wachner’s rhetoric certainly does not shy away from the spectacular. His musical education began with cello and piano lessons at the University of Southern California at the age of four and continued all the way up to receiving a Doctor of Music Arts degree from Boston University’s School of the Arts, where one of his teachers was Lukas Foss. If he learned nothing else from Foss, he probably learned how to approach any compositional project, no matter how large or how intimate, with a total absence of fear.

Note that NOVUS NY is definitely not a “chamber” orchestra. It is a large-scale symphony orchestra, whose personnel are listed in the accompanying booklet. That includes six percussionists, and the album is organized in such a way that one quickly appreciates how Wachner can keep all of them busy. The first two tracks of the first CD are the two movements (which Wachner calls “parts”) of his first symphony, subtitled Incantations and Lamentations, these being the titles of those parts. In spite of its title, “Incantations” is strictly instrumental; but, if the goal of an incantation is to establish focused attention on a ritual, then this part of the symphony certainly achieves that goal, even if the nature of the ritual itself is not particularly clear. (For many of us, going to a concert hall to experience a performance is ritual enough.) The second part is divided into sections entitled “Prayer,” “Exile,” “Remembrance,” and “Reconciliation.”

At this point it is worth noting that the 36-page booklet that accompanies this recording does not include texts for any of the vocal selections. It does, however, provide a URL for finding those texts; but, as of this writing, that URL is ineffective. This is unfortunate, since it is clear from the booklet text (as well as the selections on the first volume) that Wachner has a keen sense of literature, as well as music. He has clearly given considerable attention to the relationship between words and music. However, he also tends to weave thickly-textured fabrics, whether in a cappella settings or in conjunction with instrumental accompaniment on a massive scale.

The attentive listener definitely deserves support from full knowledge of his texts, particularly when they are at their most literary. In this respect the first volume is preferable for those just beginning to know Wachner’s compositions, since the URL for the text sources is more reliable. On the other hand it is hard to resist the spell of Wachner’s high-energy rhetoric, particularly when he is working with large numbers of resources, even if one is not always exactly certain of what the words are trying to say.

It is also important to observe that Wachner is willing to engage his resources in the service of contemporary composers, rather than solely for his own music. His latest Musica Omnia recording, released a little over two weeks ago, presents a single composition, the Opus 16 of Ralf Yusuf Gawlick, entitled Missa gentis humanæ (mass for the human race). This is scored for eight voices a cappella and is dedicated to both Wachner and the “Eight Great” Trinity Wall Street vocalists participating in the recording, sopranos Sarah Brailey and Linda Lee Jones, altos Luthien Brackett and Melissa Attebury, tenors Steven Caldicott Wilson and Timothy Hodges, and basses Thomas McCargar and Jonathan Woody.

Gawlick is a German composer of Kurdish descent. Ironically, he has never lived in his native land or the town in which he was born. One result of his background, however, is a polyglot approach to text that goes beyond the Latin origins of the Mass text. Opus 16 has the subtitle “Von B-A-S-I-A beflügelt,” which basically means that the music was inspired by the letters of his wife’s name, Basia. Following the German “spelling” conventions, these provide the names of pitches as follows:

  • B = B-flat
  • A = A
  • S (Es) = E-flat
  • AS = A-flat
  • SI = B natural

Opus 16 begins with the vocalists humming these pitches. They then sing them to the names of the Hebrew letters, followed by singing Basia’s name. The names of the letters are then sung in Greek, followed by the Introit text sung in Latin. As the Mass itself proceeds, Gawlick interpolates texts from other sources as diverse as Virgil, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Bertolt Brecht, and Zbigniew Herbert.

One cannot help but be reminded of the relationship between sacred and secular text in Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem;” but the vocal resources are so intimate in Gawlick’s music that there is no danger of confusing the two composers. Indeed, it is because of this intimacy that Gawlick’s Opus 16 rises above the level of mere intellectual exercise. One gets a clear sense of his own religious seriousness of purpose in this music and his ability to invoke secular sources to affirm that seriousness.

Wachner thus deserves as much credit for bringing a composer like this to the attention of the listening public as he does for his efforts to record his own music.