Since its founding in 1964 by conductor Richard Westenburg, the mission of Musica Sacra has been to create definitive, professional, choral performances of the highest caliber for the widest possible audience. It supports its mission by presenting concerts, recording, commissioning and performing new choral works, collaborating with other top tier performing arts organizations, and educating audiences, students, and the general public in the appreciation and history of choral music.
The story of Musica Sacra, the longest continuously performing professional chorus in New York City, is the story of a dazzling past, a thriving present, and a vibrant future. It’s a tale of six decades of brilliance, every performance filled with new discoveries; profound statements made simply and elegantly. Whether a performance of the great choral masters of the past or the contemporary repertoire of today, MUSICA SACRA stands alone in its ability to positively change one’s perception of choral singing forever.
Musica Sacra was founded by Richard Westenburg at Central Presbyterian Church in 1964; it was the first all-professional, paid admission choral series ever undertaken by a church. By the early ’70s, the popularity of its concerts caused it to become independent and move to larger venues, including Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The repertoire represents the masterpieces of choral music – the motets, cantatas, passions, and B Minor Mass of Bach, the masses of Mozart and Haydn, the Requiems of Mozart, Brahms, and Fauré, Bloch’s Sacred Service, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Strauss’s Deutsche Motette, Bruckner’s motets, and Schönberg’s Friede auf Erden – all part of the rich tradition of presenting the finest choral music by the foremost musicians of our time.
One of the manifestations of this rich tradition has been Musica Sacra’s performances of the Passions of J.S. Bach. The St. John Passion was recently presented at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, implementing a surround-sound volunteer choir singing the chorales of the Passion in addition to the Musica Sacra core of professional singers. This follows a similar practice for the St. Matthew Passion, which in 1992, 1994, 2006 and 2008, filled Carnegie Hall’s Second Tier with over 200 experienced singers who performed all the work’s chorales. Musica Sacra’s manner of performing these Passions has become a standard and well-received version of these masterpieces.
Musica Sacra’s performances of Handel’s Messiah, given annually since 1976, have become a standard by which all other performances of this holiday classic are judged. Its complete recording of the work for RCA was the first all-digital recording of this beloved oratorio.
Premieres and Commissions
An essential part of Musica Sacra’s mission is to provide a forum for contemporary composers through important premieres. Accordingly, Musica Sacra has given the world and New York premieres of more than 25 choral works, of which more than 12 were world premieres. Its concerts have included first New York performances of works by Benjamin Britten, Dave Brubeck, David Diamond, Aaron Copland, Aram Khatchaturian, Vincent Persichetti, Daniel Pinkham, Duncan Patton, and Michael Gilbertson.
Musica Sacra first commissioned a new work in 1982, when Alan Hovhaness’s Revelations of St. Paul was composed for and premiered by Musica Sacra at Avery Fisher Hall. Similarly, in 1986 Musica Sacra commissioned McNeil Robinson to write a major work, Missa Brevis, premiered at Avery Fisher Hall. Subsequently, Musica Sacra commissioned two renowned American composers to write works that are based upon biblical texts for which there is little or no music available for use by church and synagogue choirs. The results of this endeavor were The Death of Moses by Ned Rorem and Richard Danielpour’s Prologue and Prayer. In 2008, Musica Sacra commissioned Italian composer Alessandro Cadario’s Cantata For Revival, which was premiered at the Rose Theater in May of 2008.
Musica Sacra was one of only three choral organizations in the country (with San Francisco’s Chanticleer and St. Paul’s Dale Warland Singers) to have been awarded a Reader’s Digest/Meet the Composer commissioning sponsorship, arranged in conjunction with a project coordinated by the National Endowment for the Arts. These funds made it possible for Musica Sacra to present New York premieres by composers such as Peter Schickele (aka P.D.Q. Bach), Anthony Davis, and Bernard Rands.
Other commissions throughout Musica Sacra’s history include works by Ricky Ian Gordon, Robert Moran, Robert Convery, Kim D. Sherman, Meredith Monk, and Libby Larsen.
Musica Sacra has recorded on the RCA, BMG, MSR Classics and Deutsche Grammophon labels, including the first digitally recorded performance of Messiah, released in 1982 by RCA and reissued on High Performance, BMG’s audiophile label. In August 2012, Musica Sacra released its first recording since 1993. Entitled Messages to Myself, it was recorded in 2011 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music and is released on the independent classical label MSR Classics. It marks Musica Sacra’s first commercial release since 1993 and its first under the direction of Kent Tritle as Music Director and Conductor. The album for a cappella chorus features works composed exclusively in the last 25 years and includes commissions by Musica Sacra of compositions of composers Daniel Brewbaker and Michael Gilbertson.
Musica Sacra’s latest recording, Eternal Reflections, was released in March 2015 on the AMR label and features recent choral compositions by the New York-based composer Robert Paterson as part of Musica Sacra’s commitment to expanding the choral repertoire. The CD includes an important new work, Lux Aeterna, which was written expressly for Musica Sacra and was premiered at a performance in March 2015 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.