Yannatos sets war and peace texts to music in latest work. `Trinity Mass' libretto: now sincere, now ironic

The first New York performance of ``Trinity Mass'' by James Yannatos was mounted with a gusto that testifies to the vitality of the world peace movement that sponsored it. The vast space of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the world's largest cathedral, was filled with the sound of no fewer than six music organizations, including the local Brooklyn Boys Chorus and five visitors from Massachusetts: the Harvard Glee Club, the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, the Radcliffe Choral Society, the Back Bay Chorale, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, of which Mr. Yannatos is director.

All became a single musical voice under his expressive baton, performing with a conviction that suited the urgency of the 75-minute work's pacifist theme. Also on hand were soloists including soprano Lucy Shelton, mezzo-soprano Milagro Vargas, tenor Jon Humphrey, baritone Sanford Sylvan, and bass Robert Honeysucker.

The musicians' efforts were complemented by the earnest voice of narrator Jason Robards, moreover, who filled in for the missing Mike Wallace (called away on assignment, the audience was told) with little advance notice.

Introducing the performance last Saturday night, Paul Gorman of Cathedral Productions said its two aims were education and inspiration. This listener found it more effective in the latter capacity than in the former, however -- largely because of the cathedral setting, which made for a resonant sound but rendered most of the text unintelligible, at least from my vantage point near the rear of the church.

This is a pity because the libretto for ``Trinity Mass'' is an eclectic gathering of fragments from world literature, drawing references to war and peace from sources as varied as Negro spirituals, Indian folklore, the Old and New Testaments, poets, scientists, and children. Some of these are plainly sincere, such as the opening words of a ``wiseman'' invoking the ``Great Spirit'' and the closing verse from Galatians; others are deeply ironic, as in a movement called ``Credo in Reduxio ad Absurdam'' that includes sarcastic tributes to technology (``the protector almighty'') and a refrain taken from a newspaper column: ``Have you made your doomsday plans yet?''

To have these words shine clearly through their musical setting -- instead of blurring in a wave of echoes -- would have enhanced the experience of hearing the work.

One is grateful for the opportunity to encounter Yannatos's labor of love against such an imposing background; but one looks forward to future performances in different acoustical circumstances.

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