By STEVE SMITH
The Trinity Choir, the superb resident ensemble of Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, is rightly renowned for its polished, spirited renditions of major works from the classical choral repertory. Its activities in contemporary music, though distinguished, have been emphasized less. That changed on Thursday night, when Julian Wachner, Trinity’s director of music and the arts, conducted the first formal concert by Novus NY, the church’s newly formed new-music ensemble.
This poised, youthful orchestra joined the Trinity Choir in a program devoted to four works by Elena Ruehr, a composer on the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (A brief preview was presented earlier in the day; both it and the evening concert were streamed live on the church’s Web site and archived there for on-demand viewing.)
For Mr. Wachner, the development seemed appropriate: a composer himself, he participated in New York City Opera’s Vox series of new opera readings last year, both as a conductor and as the composer of an included work, “Evangeline Revisited.” As the music director of the Washington Chorus, Mr. Wachner conducted a nearly identical program of Ms. Ruehr’s works at the Kennedy Center in April.
First impressions count for a fledgling ensemble, and Ms. Ruehr’s music, sumptuously scored and full of soaring melodies and piquant harmonies, was well chosen. The first piece on the program, “Rain Down,” cast a concrete poem by Mary Ellen Solt with shimmering vocal counterpoint and a burbling piano line showing the influence of Steve Reich.
In “Cricket, Spider, Bee,” Ms. Ruehr embellished three Emily Dickinson poems with vivacious rhythms and smart, colorful orchestration; performed in a seamless sequence, the works formed a satisfying arc, with mild dissonances complementing Dickinson’s ever-ambiguous tone.
“Gospel Cha Cha,” a Langston Hughes setting, featured lively Haitian-inspired melodies, call-and-response choral writing and a grand solo part for the baritone Stephen Salters, whose soaring delivery intentionally conjured the intensity and singsong cadence of great black orators.
Mr. Salters returned in the last work on the program, “Averno,” a striking and contemplative cantata based on 11 remarkable poems by Louise Glück. Concerned with mankind’s relationship to the natural world, the poems intermingle ancient Greek myths and pensive observations, keenly detailed; Ms. Ruehr set them in vocal lines passed among Mr. Salters, the elegant soprano Marguerite Krull and the choir.
At times the choral writing was too luxuriant for the text to register clearly in the resonant church. (Printed texts were provided.) But the music — which included fleeting snatches of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” and Mahler’s “Lied von der Erde” and a final quotation from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — balanced communicativeness, melancholy and grandeur in a manner befitting the poetry’s sustained intensity. For the Trinity Choir, this was one more job well done; for Novus NY and Ms. Ruehr, a most auspicious introduction.