A few weeks in and it’s already looking like a good year in New York City for the masterful Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino. His Archeologia del telefono will be played 25 January on the opening night of the Focus Festival at the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center. On 17 January, the vocal ensemble Ekmeles sang his 12 Madrigals in the underground crypt of a Harlem church. And the night after the Madrigals, the ensemble Cantata Profana included his Infinito Nero in a program entitled “Visions of Silence” at St Peter’s Chelsea (repeated 19 January.)

Arash Noori and Alice Teyssier © Russ Rowland
Arash Noori and Alice Teyssier
© Russ Rowland

The severe 1998 work for voice and chamber ensemble, carrying the subtitle Estasi di un atto (ecstasy in one act), is a terror and a thrill. The work takes the transcribed declamations of the 16th-century nun Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi, delivered in quick outbursts while in a trance, and explodes the experience onto an ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano and percussion. Its 30 minutes can be quiet, abrupt and chilling. The piece opens with a prolonged, nearly silent staccato flute solo that competed with the clanks and whooshes of the church’s heating system, not to mention the creaking of impatient pews. The sounds of the room fit well with the smell of old wood and the whispering flute, more environment than concert hall.

Soprano Alice Teyssier didn’t try to personify the ecstatic saint. Positioned behind the instrumentalists and surrounded by four candles nearly as tall as herself, Teyssier negotiating the quick changes in tempi and register with something more than ease. She sang but didn’t act the part, rarely rising above the volume of the ensemble, hard-lining the dramatic potential. Instead, the drama was achieved through flashes of color punctuating the instrumental interjections – blue and green were directed toward the left and right of the altar, blood red glows to the ceiling. Severe white lights illuminated not just Teyssier but the apostles on the wall behind her. Everything about it was unsettling.

Jacob Ashworth and Cantata Profana © Russ Rowland
Jacob Ashworth and Cantata Profana
© Russ Rowland

Infinito Nero occupied the second half of the program. The first half was a stitched-together suite of late 20th-century avant garde landmarks and 17th-century works of simple beauty. The evening opened with house lights suddenly dropping at the first chords of Alvin Lucier’s 1990 Music for Piano and Amplified Sonorous Vessels. When Daniel Schlosberg sounded the second a few moments later, the room began to fill with wavering sustain from the amplified piano case, growing more pronounced with the third, as the stage lights dimmed from white to blue. The piano feedback built to a low, controlled hum and receded. Isolated notes in the upper register brought the electronic hum higher. It served as a perfect preamble for the program, with the added suspense of theorbo player Arash Noori sitting motionless at the front of the stage.

Without letting the piano tones fully fade away, Noori played a quiet phrase, then repeated it more boldly, as Teyssier entered to sing Tarquinio Merula’s 1636 Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna. She delivered the song in warm, round tones, only occasionally employing vibrato. She seemed more comfortable here than in the Sciarrino (as indeed most singers would). She slid gracefully between the sorrow and joy of a dying Mother Mary, never overselling a syllable.

Cantata Profana © Russ Rowland
Cantata Profana
© Russ Rowland

Galina Ustvolskaya’s Symphony no. 5 – a setting of The Lord’s Prayer for oboe, trumpet, tuba, violin, narrator and a large wooden box played with hammers – followed. The piece’s relative popularity puts her at risk of becoming the Log Lady of contemporary music. It’s a shame that her other works aren’t performed more often, but fortunate that this one is so hard to grow tired of. The overtones from Andrew Madej’s tuba resonated deeply and Arthur Sato’s oboe positively sang in the room. Unfortunately, Gleb Kanasevich (who also played clarinet in the Sciarrino) moved in on the microphone to deliver the Russian text, dominating the acoustic space in a room where amplification wasn’t needed. (Teyssier, for her part didn’t use one.) While Kanasevich carried the through-line, it was the crystalline oboe that gave it a spirit and stark beauty worthy of a Messiaen meditation.

Noori stolled back on stage then, playing the opening lines of Allesandro Piccinno’s 1623 Tocatta cromatica (no easy feat in itself) and sat at center to close the first half with an uncommon theorbo solo, closing the first half with a reassurance that little prepared the audience for the single-act ecstasy that was to come.

New York has no shortage of ensembles playing music old and new. Cantata Profana distinguishes itself with thoughtful and striking staging, generally presented without pause or spoken introductions, and often with little light. When the music on the program is this good, they can craft an evening that’s more than memorable.