The Westminster Choir’s (WC) Wednesday appearance at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Baptist marked the first time that they, or any other festival ensemble, had explored that magnificent edifice as a performance venue. The building’s high, vaulted ceilings offered a unique acoustic environment that was especially well-suited to the music that they chose for us, all of which had to do with human mortality and what awaits the faithful in celestial realms above.
Death being an inevitable part of life, much of the very greatest, most beautiful and most moving sacred choral music we have deals with what is in store for us beyond the great divide, and the kinds of earthly sendoffs that those of us who are left bereft have devised in honor of our dear departed. Such music can be unutterably sad and grief-stricken, but much of it expresses the joyous redemption that those of us who subscribe to the Christian faith in its various forms have reason to hope for. And this absolutely sublime concert offered stunning examples of both kinds.
The opening selection was of the latter sort, characterizing heavenly realms as places of unending excitement and jubilation. Tarik O’Regan is an up-and-coming young British choral composer known for the remarkable appeal of his music, which combines the best of sacred music traditions both old and new. One of the most remarkable among his fairly recent works is The Ecstasies Above, a gorgeous and often thrilling piece for string quartet, eight vocal soloists divided into two quartets, and choir. Setting Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, Israfel, the text recounts the heavenly activity of the title angel, “… whose heartstrings are a lute.” The piece alternates between more solemn, yet lovely sentiment and an almost childlike sense of giddy excitement. As WC director Joe Miller put it in his introductory comments, parts of the piece “…will remind Harry Potter fans of a rousing quiddich match” — and so it did.
The music is often quite complex, tugging back and forth between the divided performing forces, but it offered shiver-me-timbers moments galore. The string quartet (drawn from the Spoleto Festival Orchestra), performed splendidly; soloists and choir alike were absolutely flawless, as we have come to expect from the world’s finest academic choir.
Next, we were treated to Syvati: a rather mournful, yet radiantly heartfelt work from English composer John Tavener, who rose to sudden international prominence when his music was heard at Princess Diana’s funeral. A convert to the Greek Orthodox faith, his music is often inspired by the singular traditions of both the Greek and Russian Orthodox liturgies. This one was a setting of the texts usually intoned in Russian Orthodox funeral rites, joined here by a solo cello (Christopher Costanza of the Chamber Series’ St. Lawrence String Quartet), which wordlessly intoned the role of the officiating priest; he was stationed, alone, in the front of the church, as the choir sang from St. John’s high balcony to the rear of the church.
The net effect was softly meditative, with the cello’s somber lines weaving in and out of the choir’s often repetitive choral verses; the vocal textures floated ethereally over a low, rumbling drone from the basses. The capacity audience sat spellbound throughout, as if in a heavenly dream. The supreme moment came at the end, as the cello’s incredibly soft, rising tones seemed to say “Amen.” The listeners, gradually waking up from a dream, honored their performance with a protracted spell of total, breathless silence before breaking into rapturous applause.
But they saved the best for last. In 1935, revered English master Herbert Howells lost his only son to polio at the age of nine, and dealt with his bereavement in music, as composers are wont to do. But the music was so intensely personal that Howells kept his boy’s Requiem to himself, refusing to have it performed or published until nearly 40 years later, not long before his own death. It immediately became one of the handful of the twentieth century’s most cherished choral masterpieces.
I’m listening to a recording of it, weeping, as I write. It’s quite simply THE deepest and most sublime artistic distillation of grief and spiritual comfort that I know — particularly since I lost a dear friend and companion the week before I heard it for the first time. I can never get through it with dry eyes — and that goes for this performance, too. Being a choral singer, I had the privilege of performing it once … and, trust me, it’s hard to sing past a huge lump in your throat. The music’s lovely, yet shattering emotion spoke profoundly to us all, for who among us has never lost a loved one? Choir and soloists alike, unaccompanied this time, delivered the very finest performance I’ve ever heard.
And, as the choir’s rich and beautifully modulated vocal textures rose, as if heavenward, into the church’s richly adorned, vaulted ceiling, I was struck with wonder that we haven’t heard more choral music at St. John’s during Spoleto. Its highly reverberant acoustics, reminiscent of a massive European cathedral’s, is ideal for music of spiritual purpose and design. The only very minor drawback is that the structure of highly complex music, like the eight-part harmonies heard in this piece, can become obscured in such an echo-rich environment. Still, the net effect was breathtaking, from start to finish. Thank you, Dr. Miller and company, for one of the most transcendental and uplifting sacred music experiences of my entire life.