Review: Hints of Eternity at Trinity Wall Street
By VIVIEN SCHWEITZER
JUNE 17, 2016
In Gavin Bryars’s “The Fifth Century,” a haunting work for choir and saxophone quartet that had an eloquent New York premiere at Trinity Wall Street on Thursday evening, the word “eternity” was clearly audible when intoned by the sopranos at the start of the fourth movement. The syllables of the word were then sung with stately grace before resurfacing later in the section.
The rest of the text, often submerged in densely beautiful polyphony, mostly sounded indistinct during the performance by the Philadelphia choir the Crossing and the Prism Quartet, conducted by Donald Nally.
While many contemporary composers strive to set texts clearly, particularly when writing in their native language, that didn’t seem to be Mr. Bryars’s intention when he chose excerpts from “Centuries of Meditations,” a set of paragraphs by the 17th-century English poet and theologian Thomas Traherne that examine topics of Christianity, philosophy and happiness.
Instead, Mr. Bryars created a meditative space where mood took precedence over clarity. The first sentence of the opening movement — “We see the heavens with our eyes, and know the world with our senses” — unfolded over several minutes, creating a sound world in which following a narrative proved less important than luxuriating in rich harmonies and reflective flow. Vowels were so elongated amid the layers created by the 24 voices of this superb choir that it proved almost impossible to follow along with the text provided in the program book.
Each section of the work — written as an eulogy to Jeffrey Dinsmore, a founder of the Crossing who died in 2014 at 42 — began with a saxophone prelude. The soprano saxophone often echoed the women’s voices. At other times, the quartet created a gentle drone that underpinned the elegiac intertwining of the polyphonic vocal lines.
The first half of the program included “Hymns From the Western Coast” for saxophone and choir by the Estonian composer Tonu Korvits, set to Swedish translations of Estonian folk songs. The writing often proved evocative, such as in the second verse, “Alas, my ship is sinking.”
The folk influences seemed particularly strong in the third section, “For skippers and boatsmen,” which concluded with a declamatory “Heja! Hoja!” The overall mood of the Christian-themed texts, with colorful saxophone accompaniment, was decidedly more earthbound than in Mr. Bryars’ poignant lament.
A version of this review appears in print on June 18, 2016, on page C2 of the New York edition with the headline: Hints of Eternity on Wall St.