Four world-class choirs hailing from Norway, the Netherlands, England, and New York City will undertake a marathon of sorts from November 1 to 11, performing 150 psalm settings by 150 composers in four venues from Morningside Heights to lower Manhattan. Any way you view it, The Psalms Experience, a centerpiece of this year's White Light Festival, is an ambitious project. But the logistics and the numbers—impressive as they are—are beside the point, according to Ehrenkranz Artistic Director Jane Moss. "We're living in challenging times—for some of us the most disorienting we've ever experienced," she says. "As the only book in the Bible where humans address God as opposed to the other way around, the psalms provide exceptional solace; that is what they were designed for."
The project's creator, Tido Visser, managing director of the Netherlands Chamber Choir, says that the idea came to him "literally in five seconds of the brain making quick connections" while he was standing in a church in Amsterdam. The execution was another story, taking three years to put together what he describes as "a highly complex puzzle." The first challenge was to impose some order on "a huge mound of pieces lasting anywhere from four to seven minutes." He turned to two expert collaborators: theologian Gerard Swüster and musicologist Leo Samama, charged with sorting through thousands of psalm settings to come up with 150 that met certain criteria. "We decided to limit this to settings of the Psalms of David and to mostly a cappella pieces, because we wanted this to be a monument to the voice," Visser explains. "In addition, we wanted the choirs to focus as much as possible on their own musical traditions."
Reflecting the psalms' deep roots, the musical programs—each lasting about an hour—range over 1,000 years of music history, from ancient chants to newly commissioned works by leading composers, including Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, and David Lang. Because these texts are shared by Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and are treasured as poetry by countless others, the settings selected by the organizers speak in a multitude of tongues, from English, French, Spanish, and Latin to Polish, Hebrew, Armenian, and Arabic. Texts are arranged thematically so that each concert focuses on one aspect of the human condition: uses and abuses of power, justice, redemption, gratitude, abandonment, lamentation, and rejoicing.
"These texts—some as much as 3,000 years old—came across to me as if they were written yesterday," Visser wrote in a recent article for the website ChristianToday.com. "They were about me. About my own hope, about my wife's joy, my son's comfort, my friend's sadness. But even more than that, they dealt with what fills the newspapers: the White House, Red Square, Brussels, or Syria." In a follow-up interview, he adds, "Reading the psalms should be the starting point for every politician—to see what unites us rather than what divides us."
"As the only book in the Bible where humans address God as opposed to the other way around, the psalms provide exceptional solace; that is what they were designed for."
The Psalms Experience opens with four programs performed by the 24-voice Choir of Trinity Wall Street, led by conductor Julian Wachner, at St. Paul's Chapel on lower Broadway (November 2, 4, 5). The church, completed in 1766 and the oldest public building in continuous use in New York City, counts among its treasures George Washington's pew. The little stone chapel became famous in the months following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack after it miraculously survived, becoming the headquarters for first responders and a magnet for visitors.
For Wachner, who directs music activities at Trinity Church and St. Paul's, the setting complements the universal messages of the psalms in a unique way. "Everything we do here is affected by the people who come to lower Manhattan as a 9/11 pilgrimage site," he says. "As the only church choir participating in this project, we know the power of this music because we see it every day as thousands of tourists stop in their tracks when they enter this sacred space and hear us singing."
In addition to the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, the concerts will be performed by the Netherlands Chamber Choir, led by Peter Dijkstra (November 9, 10, 11); the Tallis Scholars, with conductor Peter Phillips (November 9, 11); and the Norwegian Soloists' Choir, conducted by Grete Pedersen in its New York debut (November 10, 11). For the final concert at Alice Tully Hall on November 11—after the Tallis Scholars perform a group of settings on the theme Consequences of Power—members of all four choirs will join forces for Thomas Tallis's monumental motet for 40 voices, Spem in Alium.
A thirst for that kind of communal experience is greater than ever, says Moss, who created the White Light Festival as an opportunity to explore the healing power of art. "We hear it from audiences all the time," she explains. "My favorite comment was the person who came up to me and said, 'Can you do White Light 365 days a year?' The Psalms Experience really speaks to that idea. There are wonderful messages in the psalms, and the solace they offer is not confined to religious believers. In challenging times, this seemed like a wonderful opportunity to highlight their universal message as a nourishing resource."
For more information and tickets, visit PsalmsExperience.org.
Madeline Rogers is a creative consultant to nonprofits and former director of publications for the New York Philharmonic.
The White Light Festival presentation of The Psalms Experience is supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.