NEW YORK - Trinity Church near Wall Street is the place to be for serious music-seeking New Yorkers in January. When many major institutions are on hiatus, all manner of left-of-center concerts fill the gap. And two Philadelphia groups that have been steadily gaining traction here would have been part of it had a snowstorm not intervened early this year.
Not until Thursday could the Crossing and Prism Quartet reschedule their joint concert of Gavin Bryars music in a program titled The Fifth Century. But how would they fare without the momentum of wintertime festivallike programming?
The concert drew a more-than-decent-size new-music crowd, mostly under age 50, inclined to linger and discuss without the enticement of any formal reception. Performances showed these two ensembles at their best (aided by a Wednesday concert in Philadelphia - plus having premiered the piece two years ago), but the program was anything but a guaranteed success. Far from radical, Bryar's 2014 piece The Fifth Century for chorus and saxophone quartet drew on relentlessly visionary texts from poet/theologian Thomas Traherne's 17th-century Centuries of Meditations. Scanning the words of the seven movements, one repeatedly sees eternity and omnipresence - beautiful stuff, though with strictly circumscribed musical textures with low-key rhetoric and musical development that's more contemplative than dramatic, masterfully sustained by Crossing director Donald Nally.
Occasionally, the warm, sonic wash would part like clouds revealing a blinding glimpse of the great beyond. Rhapsodic saxophone-only passages happily ambush one's ears. No surprise the piece has been recorded by ECM: Music this inward is best experienced in the hermetic safety of one's home.
But the more-of-the-same factor in the piece was mildly wearing to these ears, especially since Tonu Korvits' 2009 Hymns from the Western Coast, also on the program, had more emotional complexity, with Estonian folk texts full of water imagery and a recurring theme of feeling abandoned by God. The descriptively liquid saxophone writing had musical tempest and downward glissandos in "Alas, my ship is sinking." Vocal writing conveyed fine shades of poetic ambivalence that make you want to reexamine the music repeatedly. A seriously magical piece. For more where that came from, consult Korvits' new ECM disc, Mirror.