NEW YORK — The Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera never lacked for champions in his lifetime, and since his death in 1983, several of his works — most notably his keyboard music — have remained in the repertory. But Ginastera’s output was enormous, and much of it currently dwells in the purgatory where works languish after their composers’ deaths, awaiting rediscovery.
That rediscovery may be at hand, and Julian Wachner offered a glimpse of it at Carnegie Hall on Saturday evening, when he conducted the first New York performance in 40 years of Ginastera’s monumental Passion setting — formally, the “Turbae ad Passionem Gregorianam,” Op. 43, from 1974.
Wachner, who is director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street, as well as the music director of the Washington Chorus, stumbled upon the work while poring over a catalogue of Ginastera’s music in search of ways to commemorate the composer’s centenary in 2016. And since the work demands an enormous performing force, he was able to use all his ensembles, and more: Crowded onto the Carnegie stage were the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, the Trinity Youth Chorus, the Washington Chorus, the Boy and Girl Choristers of Washington National Cathedral and NOVUS NY, the new-music orchestra Wachner founded at Trinity.
Ginastera used pretty much the full palette of Western techniques and timbres, from Gregorian chant to 12-tone rows, with fleeting glimpses of neo-Romantic orchestral lushness, South American percussion coloration and occasional ad libitum passages, sung (or even shouted) by soloists from within the choir along the way.
The work’s frame is the chanted narrative of “The Evangelist”, drawn from the New Testament, projected with a calm fluidity by the baritone Thomas McCargar, with occasional contributions, also cast in plainsong, by baritone Scott Allen Jarrett as Jesus and tenor Geoffrey Silver as both Pilate and Judas. But the real action is in the choral writing, in which Old and New Testament texts and passages from the Liber Usualis mingle. The massed choir presents the crowd scenes, Jesus’s supporters and detractors, and at one point, an inner rumination by Judas on a text from Jonah.
Much of the choral writing is ecstatic — not merely energetic — with soaring, fortissimo soprano lines and rich, vigorous bass passages slicing through the often dense, percussion-heavy orchestration. But the most compelling, emotionally gripping sections are more restrained, among them several haunting, contrapuntal (and occasionally pointillistic) Psalm settings and the serene setting from Matthew that describes the moment of Jesus’s death. The combined choruses here produced a beautifully blended and often thrilling sound.
Before the Ginastera, Wachner led NOVUS NY and a smaller, offstage choir in a suitably gritty, roaring account of Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 4. Like the Ginastera, Ives combined antique elements (hymns and folk melodies) with freewheeling, modernist dissonance. It may not be, as Wachner suggests in a program-book interview, “the definitive 20th century American symphony,” but it captures Ives’s ornery New England spirit and makes a joyful noise, conveyed here in a virtuosic, high-energy reading.
Kozinn is a freelance writer