The End Of Trinity Wall Street As We Knew It. This article is about the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, conducted by Dr Julian Wachner, in lower Manhattan. Julian is Director of Music and the Arts at Trinity Wall Street (TWS), a parish church of the Anglican Communion.
Hola a todos. I am so disappointed and disgusted. After watching part of the Liturgy on el 18 de septiembre de 2016 (18 September 2016, and the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost) I turned to mi amigo/my friend and rhetorically asked: Why do so many things have to go in the wrong direction? He knew what I was talking about and said: Well, it’s usually because we have idiots running things. They’re in positions of power and think they know best, even when they have no expertise or training in the field of study they’re making decisions on. This is especially true when it comes to the music in churches. And the often musically-illiterate clergy think they know best so they proceed to insult the highly-trained musicians by their decisions. And with many, if not most churches, in the minds of the clergy it’s all about the “spoken word” and not the music, even though I think most people are there for the music. Yes, I think most people are there for the music too. If you look at the videos for Washington National Cathedral in the District of Columbia, their full Liturgy videos get 1-2,000 hits, but their Homily videos only get 1-200 hits. Quite a difference. So that would seem to confirm that most people prefer the full Liturgy which includes the music as opposed to just listening to the Homily.
I was looking forward to the return of the full Trinity Choir after Labour Day 2016. During the Summer months The Trinity Choir is reduced in size to about 8 voices (2 choristers per voice part – SATB), or what I call the Trinity Chamber Chorus. Other than watching parts of their 2015 Messiah performance at TWS, I’ve not heard The Trinity Choir in almost a year and I’ve missed watching and hearing them. They are such a splendid Chorus and with impeccable diction. In my opinion they’re in the same league with the Chorus of Les Arts Florissants (William Christie), the Collegium Vocale Gent (Philippe Herreweghe) and the now-retired University of Maryland Chorus (Dr Paul Traver), as three examples. Choral Excellence. The Trinity Choir, along with the Choir of Men and Boys at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan (Anglican Communion) are the two best Anglican parish choirs (at least with webcasts) in the US, in my opinion. And I would point out that St Thomas takes their music seriously, unlike TWS (and I’m not referring to Julian who is outstanding). St Thomas doesn’t shove their superb Choir into the back of the church.
About a year ago, I stopped watching the Liturgies at Trinity Wall Street for a couple of reasons: One, because of their inept production/camera crew. Instead of creating an enjoyable and peaceful/calming experience, the Liturgies became too frustrating for me to watch. I honestly think their camera crew would be much better suited for a museum where they could spend hours focused on the walls, the windows in the building and the ceiling of the museum. At least there would be artwork one could look at. As a choral person with years of Symphonic Chorus experience (I’ve listed this many times before, but for any new readers: Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington, Dr Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus – Margaret Hillis/Vance George), I thoroughly enjoyed watching and listening to the exquisite Trinity Choir and their consistently high level of choral excellence as well as the artistry from their organist, Avi Stein. Choral people like to see/watch Choruses perform. So I became very familiar with the choristers of The Trinity Choir. I didn’t know most of the chorister’s names but I knew their faces. Julian had a “core” group of choristers who were there every week, and then there were others who were there less frequently, having other musical commitments. The choristers of The Trinity Choir are among the finest one will find in NYC and beyond. Julian attracts and requires the best choristers. His standards of choral excellence remain consistent. Watching them perform was a critically important part of the experience of the Liturgy for me and mi amigo/my friend. That’s why I complained many times about inept production disrespecting their own Choir by not showing them when they sang at times throughout the Liturgy, especially for their Communion Anthem. Production felt it more important to show parishioners receiving communion. Their Choir was to serve as background music which we found very irritating.
Some Background/History (if this is your first time here): When I first started watching their Liturgies, their camera crew was very respectful of their Choir and kept the cameras on them when they performed. I had no complaints at that time with production. But as is usual and with the attitude being “let’s mess with something that shouldn’t be messed with,” something changed for some unknown reason. It’s as if some crazy person at TWS said, “People don’t like to watch singers/choirs sing.” Nonsense. Production at TWS seem to think that their Choir should be background music. Heard and not seen, and they’ve since taken that to a new level (which I’ll get to later). With that anti-artistic attitude — heard and not seen — one might as well just play music from CDs, not to give them any ideas. I would like to remind TWS that singing is merely an extension of speaking, so why do we need to see the priests speaking? To be consistent, shouldn’t the priests be heard and not seen too? Why is important to see them, if it’s not important to see their Choir?
As I said earlier, production thought it was more important for viewers to see the parishioners coming and going to receive Communion than it was to show their Choir singing the Communion anthem. Oh, they would occasionally show the choir during Communion way over there in the distance as the camera parked at the very back of the Nave. But there’s one thing they never do at TWS: They never disrespect their priests by wandering off and showing the ceiling of the Nave, stained-glass windows, baskets of flowers, or the High Altar when a priest is speaking. They keep that camera locked on the priest until s/he has spoken their last word at that point in the Liturgy. Why don’t their highly-trained and regarded musicians receive the same level of respect? Again (to hammer this point for the thick people who may show up), production never wandered off to show stained-glass windows, slowly scanning the High Altar, showing baskets of flowers and their unchanging ceiling which they have the deepest affection for — don’t ask me why since there’s nothing special about it and it looks like any other Nave ceiling and it never changes — when the priests were/are giving the Homily or during the Consecration or any other time. I got tired of seeing the same ceiling and stained-glass windows week after week when I wanted to see their outstanding Choir. Production seemed obsessed with the windows in the building, and they still do. I don’t understand this at all. Another reason I stopped watching their Liturgies was because they began this nearly-weekly repertoire of gospel/spiritual music for the Offertory and/or Communion Anthems. One might be asking: In an Anglican Liturgy? Yes. I never was clear who’s idea this was, whether it came from the clergy or from Julian. I came to suspect it was Julian’s idea and not that of the new rector since this was going on before he arrived. Regardless, it was really misplaced and caused a clashing of styles because you would have gospel music one moment and a superb High Church organ improvisation from Julian with incense the next. It was like being in a southern baptist church one moment and then quickly walking across the street to an Anglo-Catholic parish the next. Loco. Two very different forms of worship right back-to-back. It did not work. And I think some choristers knew it didn’t work. Consequently, their Liturgies became more a frustration for me than a pleasure to watch. It also frustrated me to see the talent of The Trinity Choir wasted on gospel and spiritual music, when they excel at High Renaissance choral works and those works were being neglected. I’m not putting down gospel or spiritual music at all. Both have their place, but not in an Anglican Liturgy in my opinion. And there’s a very different/advanced skill level required for High Renaissance compared to gospel music. There’s no shortage of churches out there featuring gospel and spiritual music on a weekly basis, so if one wants to hear that genre one could go to those church. But churches with High Renaissance performed as superbly as The Trinity Choir performed those works are most rare by comparison. So why join the herd and try to be like those other churches? So I stopped watching their Liturgies. I was also linking to their Liturgy videos in my articles about the Choir. Then I realised I was ending up with lots of dead links because Trinity deleted the videos of their Liturgies after roughly 3 months. I’ve yet to understand why they don’t upload their videos to
YouGoogleTube — like they do at Washington National Cathedral — where their videos can remain indefinitely since they (TWS) own the copyright to them. I had also linked to their superb performances of Messiah and Israel in Egypt. Both of those oratorio performances were deleted too. By doing so, they were deleting legendary performances (if you had heard them you’d know I’m not exaggerating) of choral works — especially the High Renaissance music I mentioned earlier — and all of those performances were deleted. Unconscionable. That told me that TWS does not have a serious respect for their music. They consider their music more filler or fluff. Because only someone with no ear for music and a lack of appreciation for choral excellence would delete those outstandingly superb performances by their own Choir. For those who don’t know, this is a Choir that performs at Lincoln Center every holiday season (Messiah). How many church choirs do you know of that perform at Lincoln Center For The Performing Arts?
This brings us up to the current time. Well, The full Trinity Choir is now back for the 2016 Fall Season. But most unfortunately we can no longer see them or see Julian conduct or see Avi. I am thoroughly disgusted with what has happened since I stopped watching their Liturgies.
Again, The Trinity Choir is not your typical podunk church choir which often comes with wobbling and slightly flat sopranos whose voice range is closer to altos than that of sopranos, weak/straining and flat tenors, quivering altos and hollow-sounding basses. A real joy to listen to! [sarcasm intended]. So why is The Trinity Choir now stuck in the back of the Nave up in the Gallery? What is wrong with these people who make these insane, insipid, asinine, ludicrous decisions? [SCREAM!] I don’t understand them at all. People who make these ludicrous decisions in churches — and respectfully I don’t think this came from Julian — are not there for the music. To people like this, the music is just something to “fill up” the Liturgy at the appointed time. They have no ear for quality music. They can’t tell the difference between The Trinity Choir and The Family Choir, and there’s a major difference between the two. I remember reading an article about TWS (pre-Julian) that said that they were considering abandoning/closing their music programme altogether. That shows what little respect this parish has historically for music. Appalling.
So now, the camera view they show of the Choir is completely useless. One just sees bodies standing in the back Choir Loft in red cassocks and white surplices. You have no idea which choristers are there. And because production doesn’t need to show a Choir now (which must make them feel relieved), they now have the luxury of giving lots of time to their fixation and obsession with slow panning of the stained-glass windows, of the ceiling, and more stained-glass windows, additional stained-glass windows, and what about this stained-glass window over here?, and the slow panning of the High Altar for the umpteenth time, and of course flower baskets. I take it that production must live under the illusion that they have no regular viewers who have seen all of these scenes many, many times before. Then they’re back to the useless camera view of their Choir stuck back there in the distance in the gallery/Choir Loft behind the faux pipes. They consider this an improvement, do they? Loco.
And they didn’t move any mics for this pathetic arrangement. Or if they did, they didn’t know what they were doing. So the choral sound is now different. It’s as if the acoustics are eating up all the crispness in the highs and lows of the sound in the choral works. It’s a much more muffled sound with the Choir in the back, as if the echoing is eating up or consuming the sound. The sound quality is not nearly as good as it was when the Choir sat near the High Altar. When the Choir sat in front of or on the sides of the High Altar the sound was superb. Very crisp, clear and the highest of quality. They used to have small microphones hanging about a foot above the heads of the choristers when they sat in front of the High Altar. Then those microphones seem to have disappeared; I no longer saw them. With the Choir stuck in the back Gallery, they should never attempt a professional recording from that location. Although upon reflection, I think the back Gallery would be an ideal location for a Homily, then we can all get on our phones and do something else while that’s going on, no?
It seems that someone there said (probably in some perfunctory committee meeting – you don’t leave this stuff to some committee with no ear for music!): What can we do to solve this problem? Because some person online keeps going on about not being able to see our Choir and wanting to keep the camera on them when they perform. Oh I know, here’s what we can do: Put The Trinity Choir in the back gallery/Choir Loft so we can’t show them at all. That’s it! Problem solved. And we can buy a new organ console (I’m assuming that’s what they did) for the back gallery to control the main console for the Digital organ in the Chancel/Sanctuary area. Problem solved.
No, the problem is not solved at all and anyone with an ear for music knows that. In fact, it’s the worst thing they could have done. All of these fine musicians (Choir, Julian and Avi) have become invisible with the lowest of profile. Heard but not seen. I’m just curious how long they’ve been stuck back there in the Gallery/Choir Loft. (Sigh.)
Trinity Wall Street is an odd church in that it was not built with a Quire area. When I began watching their Liturgies, the Choir was sitting in front of the High Altar. Technically, nothing is to be in front of the High Altar but as far as I’m concerned we can make an exception to Anglican protocol in this instance so that we can see this outstandingly superb Choir perform. A Choir of this caliber does not belong stuck in the back of a church. Period. They deserve to be seen as they were when I was watching their Liturgies. The Trinity Youth Chorus Schola sat in front of the High Altar last Domingo/Sunday (18 September 2016). Since it was acceptable for them to sit there, why can’t The Trinity Choir sit there every week? After their new (cold) rector arrived, the Choir began sitting in the traditional Anglican choir style facing each other split on both sides of the High Altar. That worked, although because of inept production/camera techniques — and because they didn’t adjust the production lighting — it was difficult for viewers to see the back row of each side of the Choir. It was sort of dark back there. On occasion, we were looking at the backs of the choristers from over near the organ console. So it appears that rather than refine their camera work — I had suggested they go over to B & H Photo in Manhattan for production assistance and training — they’ve chosen to abandon showing their musicians altogether. And apparently to them that solves the problem. Ludicrous.
Then there’s Julian: I really don’t think TWS knows what they have in him. He gets results that Margaret Hillis and Dr Paul Traver got with a Chorus. When The Trinity Choir sat in front of or split on either side of the High Altar, I also very much enjoyed watching Julian conduct. He has a very unique conducting style. You can see and feel the music in his conducting as you hear it. I remember one occasion for Ash Wednesday when they performed “O Saviour of the World” by the Anglican composer John Goss. Julian lifted up on toes and signaled to the best tenor section in NYC up there on his right — which included my favourites Steven Caldicott Wilson and Eric Dudley — and prepared them/signaled to them to bring out that approaching tenor line. They did. Viewers heard the tenor section soar that line above the rest of the choral texture. It was beautiful. But you would not necessarily get those same results and that detail from any other choral director. Julian is a pleasure to watch and it saddens and disgusts me that I/we can no longer see him. It is really outrageous.
Off topic but still making my point about Julian: I read the review from The Washington Post from when Julian’s The Washington Chorus, performed Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the NSO (I think it was the NSO). His Chorus received a stellar review for their performance. I think it’s accurate to say that when I lived in the District, the University of Maryland Chorus “owned” that monumental work when they performed it with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam conducted by Claudio Abbado at the Kennedy Center. I was there for their performance. “Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus was glorious throughout!” was part of the review of their concert. How can TWS shove a choral conductor/expert who recently received the prestigious Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence for his Symphonic Chorus in the District (The Washington Chorus) behind a wall of faux pipes where you can’t even see him in a back Gallery of a church? Outrageous.
I also thought it was odd way-back-when, when they removed the camera from the organ console. Why would they do that? That was also a sign of a lack of respect for the music. So viewers were no longer allowed to see Avi play his organ voluntaries, the hymns or anything else, compared to before when Eric William Suter (who filled in there for awhile; I enjoyed him) and Janet was there (the organ student from The Juilliard School). We used to have the pleasure of seeing the musical interactions between Avi, and right across from him in camera view was Julian in front of the Choir. That’s the type of scene a choral musician likes to see. The interaction between all the musicians.
But now, there’s none of that. Dead. And they consider this a positive change?
Also with this terrible arrangement, The Trinity Choir no longer processes which in my opinion makes their Liturgy seem Lower Church. I miss the traditional procession complete with the Choir. This is no improvement. And this current arrangement gives no “profile” to the choristers whatsoever. They become beyond anonymous because viewers can’t even see who’s there.
It’s all about the clergy now. Well, I can’t imagine Julian is too pleased with this.
Since they apparently consider this an improvement, I have some other ideas they might consider as an “improvement:” I suggest they stick the priests in the back. See how they like sitting back there, heard but not seen. Also, when a priest is speaking during the Homily (for example), in mid-sentence have the cameras wander off the priest and begin showing stained-glass windows, slowly scan the High Altar showing every crevasse possible, zoom in on a basket of flowers for awhile, then back to more stained-glass windows, and then slowly scan the ceiling for the entire length of the Nave. By then, the Homily should be over. If they were to ever do this (which of course they won’t), I wonder if the priests would feel at all disrespected? If so, maybe they would be able to understand more fully how the superb musicians feel.
If only the musicians of TWS were in a parish that respects them in the same way that St Thomas Fifth Avenue have the highest regard for their superb Choir of Men and Boys, their organists, and focus their Liturgy on their Choir and organists with a Festal Choral Eucharist. If only The Trinity Choir, Julian and Avi received that same level of respect that they certainly deserve. Sadly, it’s as if they’re all in the wrong church. Chau.—el barrio rosa
Here’s an example of how camera work should be done when one wants to be respectful of the musicians (from hr-Sinfonieorchester/Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra, one of my favourites):
or here (in a choral context, Les Arts Florrisants):
Thought you might enjoy this short piece (also Les Arts Florrisants):