The Church of the Transfiguration presents: The Burning Fiery Furnace by Benjamin Britten in Review

The Church of the Transfiguration presents: The Burning Fiery Furnace by Benjamin Britten in Review

The Burning Fiery Furnace by Benjamin Britten
The Transfiguration Boys Choir, Claudia Dumschat, director
The Church of the Transfiguration, New York, NY
March 28, 2014

The Church of the Transfiguration, also known as “The Little Church around the corner,” was the venue for a performance of the second of composer Benjamin Britten’s three Parables for Church Performance, the 1966 The Burning Fiery Furnace, Op. 77, on March 28, 2014. This work was preceded by a “curtain raiser,” the composer’s Missa Brevis in D, Op. 63, scored for three-part treble chorus and organ. Anyone expecting a simple euphonious work would have been quite disappointed. The Missa Brevis is a complex and demanding piece, full of polytonality, complicated meters (7/8 in the Gloria), and other twentieth century devices which would have challenged any adult chorus. The Transfiguration Boys Choir was fully up to the task, singing with note-perfect precision and flawless intonation. The unnamed soloists, drawn from the chorus, sang beautifully. The boys were rehearsed and conducted by the choir’s director Claudia Dumschat. Erik Birk was the skillful organist.

The performance of the Transfiguration Boys Choir set a very high bar for the adults performing the Burning Fiery Furnace. I am happy to report that they were all up to the challenge. Repeating a dramatic motif from The Church of the Transfiguration’s 2012 performance of the third Parable, The Prodigal Son (The Prodigal Son: NY Concert Review, March 9, 2012), the opening of The Burning Fiery Furnace featured chanting monks dressed in robes and cowls, proceeding down the center aisle. When they reached the front of the church, the monks’ Abbot addressed the audience/congregation. The soloist was bass-baritone Peter Ludwig, who with warm and persuasive singing drew us all into the drama and mystery which was to follow. The monks then took off their robes, revealing the costumes of the characters they were to play. Mr. Ludwig became the work’s villain, his dual roles allowing him to show his skills as a wonderful singing actor.

All of the vocal soloists were fine singing actors: Tenor Daniel Neer as Nebuchadnezzar; Nicolas Connolly as The Herald and Leader of the Courtiers; Bill Cross, Christopher Preston Thompson and David Baldwin as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the three men who would be put in the fiery furnace. Masters Jeffrey Kishinevsky and Charles Rosario, members of The Transfiguration Boys Choir, stole the show with their jolly portrayal of the Boy Entertainers. Another high point was the beautiful singing of boy soprano Matthew Griffin as the Angel who protects the three men in the fiery furnace. Also memorable was the ethereal singing of the Angel Chorus made up of Alexis Cordero, Jeffrey Kishinevsky, Charles Rosario and Kennin Susana, and to be complete, mention must be made of the strong contribution made by the Chorus of Courtiers.

I described The Church of the Transfiguration’s March 9, 2012 production of The Prodigal Son as “a performance that succeeded in all aspects.” The same can be said of tonight’s production of The Burning Fiery Furnace. Praise again must go to Music Director Claudia Dumschat who led the fine chamber orchestra and performed the organ part. Under her leadership, the musical preparation and execution were exemplary. Mention should also be made of the evocative costumes by Costume Designer Terri Bush. The dramatic action, which was the responsibility of Dramaturg/Stage Manager Betty Howe and Stage Director Richard Olson was persuasive and melded seamlessly with the singing. All in all, it was another wonderful performance.

Benjamin Britten: Noye’s Fludde

The Church of the Transfiguration, New York, NY
June 6, 2010

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) composed his chamber opera “Noye’s Fludde” in 1957 specifically for church performance. Writing for musicians and actor/singers, all a mix of professionals and amateurs, and a large group of children, he deliberately kept his music simple, accessible, tonal, and only mildly dissonant. The text is based on W.H. Auden’s adaptation of a Chester mystery play, and tells the story of how God commanded Noah to build the Ark and save himself, his family, and assorted animals from the impending storm and flood. Noah’s wife is depicted as a shrew; she refuses to leave, but is overpowered by her husband and their children, and, once on the Ark, gives up her resistance. The audience is invited to join in the singing of three hymns, and given a chance to learn the tunes during the first of several verses.

The lovely Church of the Transfiguration (affectionately known as “The Little Church Around the Corner”) was an ideal setting for this endearing, intimate work. Judging from the performers’ names, the production was a community effort, with entire families participating in various capacities. Conducted by the Church’s Music Director, Claudia Dumschat, the performance was a delight.

The work begins with the percussion erupting in a frightening imitation of the coming storm; then God’s voice is heard through a loudspeaker. The trumpets go into glorious action to announce and celebrate good news; two pianists at one piano provide a harmonic framework; the organ adds sonority in the climaxes; the orchestration – for strings, recorders, percussion and handbells – is so discreet and the playing at this performance was so fine and sensitive that the instruments never covered the voices.

The staging used the Church’s layout to good advantage. The cast entered through the aisles, affording the audience a close-up view. The singing, acting and dancing were excellent; Andrew Martens’ Noah, Leslie Middlebrook’s Mrs. Noah, the Gossips, and several of the older children stood out. Some of the younger children were at times unsure of the pitches and their voices were a bit shrill. However, all the children’s performances were admirable, natural and spontaneous, carefully coached but not drilled. Their animal costumes were simple but imaginative; one hopes they will wear them again at Halloween.

The Church’s Boys’ Choir got its turn in the spotlight in the program’s opening works. The oldest such choir in New York, it is the only one not affiliated with a school. Coming from various backgrounds, its 16 members are selected by audition and rehearse several times a week. Their seriousness and hard work showed in their performance of Vivaldi’s Laudamus Te, Parry’s Jerusalem, and especially Franck’s Panis Angelicus, which featured an impressively talented boy soprano, Ajonte Anderson. The arrangement was by bassist/composer Victor Kioulaphides, who also contributed an original work called Purcelliana; a slow prelude and a lively canon, it was played beautifully by the strings.

The audience displayed as much involvement and enthusiasm as the performers; a record number of flashing cell phones preserved this enjoyable, successful event.