Julian Wachner — composer, conductor, keyboardist, teacher, and all-around musical polymath — is now best known as director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street, a New York church with an enviably robust music program, but he was once a prized member of Boston’s musical scene. He holds degrees from Boston University, and became the organist and choirmaster at BU’s Marsh Chapel while still an undergraduate. He directed Back Bay Chorale and the Providence Singers, and cofounded the short-lived yet valuable Boston Bach Ensemble. To every post he’s brought an ambition to expand boundaries, along with the endless energy necessary to maintain the number of simultaneous commitments he manages to juggle.
So it’s always worth keeping an eye on Wachner’s activity, which on the conducting side has included the Washington Chorus since 2008 and Trinity Wall Street since 2010, as well as guest conducting stints. On the composing side, the Musica Omnia label has just released a second volume of his choral compositions. The 3-CD set comprises works written over a 25-year period, spanning a gamut from highly specific liturgical pieces to large-scale concert works.
It’s a significant collection, and not just because of its size. “This recording completes my catalog,” Wachner said recently by phone from California. “I’m turning 45 in a couple of weeks, and now it’s possible for all my music composed up to this point to be available in recorded form. And now I’m going to go on to the next chapter in my life.”
It’s worth noting at some length the two pieces that take up the first CD: the set’s longest, most ambitious works, with particularly strong Boston connections. Wachner wrote his First Symphony, “Incantations and Lamentations,” for Back Bay Chorale, which first performed it in May 2001, just prior to the composer’s departure for a position at McGill University. “Come, My Dark-Eyed One” composed for the same ensemble, was premiered in 2009 under its current director, Scott Allen Jarrett. Both are written for chorus and orchestra; the later work adds baritone and soprano soloists.
Since Wachner’s work is weighted heavily toward sacred music, “Come, My Dark-Eyed One” stands somewhat apart. Its libretto, which was assembled by Wachner’s then-fiancee, soprano Marie-Ève Munger, weaves together a series of poems that outline what Wachner called “kind of a ghost story between two lovers. You don’t know whether one’s dead, one’s alive, what the story is.”
The narrative may be shadowy, but the series of moods that unfold is astonishingly clear, from yearning to playfulness to painful solitude. The third movement is an unmistakably erotic scene built around Sara Teasdale’s “Joy” and Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights!” Wachner recalled that after the first rehearsal of the movement, Jarrett wisecracked, “Anybody else need a cigarette?”
One eerily poignant aspect of the work is that its construction dovetailed with the dissolution of Wachner’s relationship with Munger. “Really, what the whole project becomes, for both of us, is the process of ending our relationship. It’s amazing, because our relationship ended with us just looking at each other and crying over the fact that this just could not work.” (Wachner married Emily Bloemker, a Trinity priest, in 2012.)
Where “Come, My Dark-Eyed One” is accessible enough for talented avocational choirs, the First Symphony, a series of psalm settings, is a fearsome specimen of post-expressionism, moving with hair-trigger speed between fury and uneasy stillness. The rhythms are almost feverishly violent.
The ferocity is theological as well as musical. The psalms on which the work is built span faith, anger, comfort, and suffering. Indeed, the core issue underlying the piece, so skillfully brought out by the music, is that the interleaving of all of these are necessary aspects of any true religious faith. As BU professor Wesley Wildman writes in a program note for the symphony, “Comfort in the face of suffering and loss is the hard-won fruit of a faith in God that does not shrink from welding together praise and accusation, hope and brokenness.”
For Wachner, the most difficult part of the composition was the setting of Psalm 137, a lament from the Babylonian exile. It contains a line that brings many up short: “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones/ And dashes them against the rock.” Wachner said that some of the singers at the premiere told him that they felt sick singing it.
“Most people avoid it,” he said of that line and its deep bitterness. “And I went headlong into it. Not to support its message, but to bring it to the forefront. It’s like, this is the issue we’re talking about: People who are so displaced that they can’t allow themselves into a forgiveness place.”
For all its stridency, the symphony ends in an oddly stable, if not quite serene, place. “I imagine this David figure, on the hills in this vast desert, these canons just echoing around. And the piece ends very questioningly but, to me, optimistically.”
Since the beginning of his career,
Wachner has negotiated a delicate balance between the roles of conductor and composer, fighting, much like Bernstein and Mahler did, to keep the former from overwhelming the latter. That struggle has grown more acute over the last few years, yet in the face of his demanding role at Trinity, he’s still able to compose, and will have a chamber symphony premiered next month.
“It’s just going to be the dance I have to do the rest of my life,” he said. “Because I will never be able to just sit in a room and compose. I need that activity as a conductor. Keeping the two going is important.”