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Ancient Psalms Speak to Modern Audiences


The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, under conductor Julian Wachner, performs The Psalms Experience at St. Paul's Chapel. (Kevin Yatarola)

The 150 poems in the Book of Psalms represent a range of human voices and emotions, and are among the Bible’s most widely read verses. They have been a source of solace for generations.

"Historically, what the psalms have been for are challenging times," says Lincoln Center's director of programming, Jane Moss. "I mean, they are really explicitly designed to help you out when the going gets rough. And they include, which I find wonderful, all sorts of human complaints to God — about, like, where are you in these challenging times?"

Tido Visser, the music director of the Netherlands Chamber Choir, agrees. “Although they are two and a half to three thousand year-old texts that were written by our ancestors, they are about the here and now,” he says, noting that the psalms have inspired composers for thousands of years.

He and Moss teamed up to create a series of twelve hour-long concerts featuring all 150 psalms by 150 different composers – including nine U.S. premieres. Lincoln Center is now presenting the festival of choral settings, called The Psalms Experience.

Relevant messages

Four choirs from around the world are singing music from the 12th century to today. Each concert is centered on a theme, Visser says, such as justice, faith, gratitude, lamentation. “The Psalms are about refugees, they are about unrighteous leaders, they are about abuse of power, so they are incredibly timely.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw was commissioned to write music for Psalm 84, which begins, 'How lovely is your dwelling place, oh Lord.'

“I really identified with it because it has to do with finding a home and finding a refuge and a place and sort of celebrating this sense of safety, but also there's a yearning for a home that feels very relevant today.” Shaw says she was thinking of Syria as she wrote it. “And the second verse is 'the sparrow found a house and the swallow her nest, where she may place her young,' which is just a beautiful image of, you know, a bird trying to keep her children safe. People trying to keep their family safe.”

The Netherlands Chamber Choir, with conductor Peter Dijkstra, is one of four choirs performing the Psalms Experience in New York. (Remco van der Kruis)
The Netherlands Chamber Choir, with conductor Peter Dijkstra, is one of four choirs performing the Psalms Experience in New York. (Remco van der Kruis)

Pulitzer Prize-winner, David Lang, who set Psalm 101, says the poems were meant to be sung.

“One thing I really like about the Psalms is that they're sort of like a catalog of all the different ways that you could have a conversation with God. So, some of them are very hopeful and some of them are very lamenting and some of them are very full of praise; really sort of like every way you can imagine talking to God. This one seemed the one that was most like a negotiation.”

Writing choral music is not easy, says another composer commissioned for the project, Mohammed Fairouz. “Because it requires a certain commitment to simplicity. There's nowhere to hide, the counterpoint’s very, very exposed. It's sort of like the Oval Office has no corners, you know.”

And, in these difficult times, conductor Tido Visser hopes audiences will get some comfort, contemplation and community.

“I truly believe that there's one amazing thing about choral singing," he says, "and it's the fact that it unites people.”

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