Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Sancta Civitas & Dona Nobis Pacem: The Music of Vaughan Williams
Nina Nash-Robertson, Guest Conductor; Latoya Lain, soprano; Eric Tucker, bass-baritone
Craig Jessop, Guest Conductor; Kerry Wilkerson, baritone
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
June 11, 2017
Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented a marvelous afternoon concert devoted entirely to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, with two infrequently heard works, one of which was a Carnegie Hall premiere. The first piece was the cantata Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant Us Peace). Those words come from the Agnus Dei section of the Mass. However, Vaughan Williams makes use of three poems written just after the Civil War by Walt Whitman, and a portion of a mid-nineteenth century British political speech to intensify his fervent appeal for an end to senseless human conflict. Vaughan Williams enlisted in World War I (at age forty-two, mind you) and drove ambulances in France, Belgium, and Greece. He saw plenty of carnage, and was forever affected by it. The Dona Nobis Pacem was premiered in 1936, when Europe was only a few years from yet another conflagration.
Nina Nash-Robertson led the excellent Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and the composite choir (she got to bring her “home choir” from Michigan in addition to the others) in a performance that was brisk and always bracingly transparent even when the choral and instrumental writing gets complicated. The choir was thrilling in the forte sections, and very good at the softer ones too. The soprano soloist, Latoya Lain, had a gorgeous voice, with deep sincerity of expression and a wonderful variety of colors—she reminded me of a combination of what is best about Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman. The baritone soloist, Eric Tucker, was more successful in the second of his major solos: The Angel of Death, where his stentorian quality fit the mood. I didn’t feel that he found the tender sadness of Reconciliation, in which Whitman realizes, as he looks at his dead enemy’s body in the coffin, that he is “a man as divine as myself,” tenderly kissing the brow of the departed. The Dirge for Two Veterans was heart-rending, wherein a mother looks down, in the form of moonlight, on a funeral procession for her husband and son, killed on the same day. When the moon appears, the shimmer of string sound was magical.
Men don’t ever seem to learn the lessons of warfare in any lasting way, but Vaughan Williams believed that artists had to be messengers of hope.
After intermission, Jonathan Griffith, the co-founder of DCINY and its principal conductor, presented the DCINY Educator Laureate award to conductor Craig Jessop, who led the next work, Sancta Civitas (The Holy City), a Carnegie Hall premiere. In his remarks, Mr. Jessop said how much he learned from Robert Shaw, one of his choral mentors. Indeed, he had a “Shaw-like” quality to his own conducting that made this apocalyptic vision from Revelations even more intense. To name but one of his many accomplishments- Mr. Jessop led the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from 1999 to 2008, earning many Grammys in the process.
The main choir was on stage (Mr. Jessop also had his “home choir” from Logan, UT, as one of the composite), a divided balcony choir was on either side in the front of the hall, and the “distant” choir (and trumpet), Vaughan Williams’ specification, was all the way at the back of the hall, though it could have used some more acoustic “distance” of the sort provided by the great British cathedrals. The spacial distribution worked like a charm. The concertmaster, Jorge Ávila, was radiant in his personification of the human soul ascending in the And I Saw a New Heaven section, which sounded a lot like a less-ornamented “cousin” of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Mr. Ávila had also been perfect in the Reconciliation movement of Dona Nobis Pacem. The English horn and trumpet solos also were sensitively done. Baritone soloist Kerry Wilkerson rendered all his interjections beautifully, with clear diction and mellow “British” tone.
“Babylon the great is fallen” cried the chorus, and my mind went to the many cities in Iraq (and elsewhere) that have shared the same fate. Another Dona Nobis Pacem moment.