Heavenly Harmonies Cast A Spell of Hope
by Victoria Looseleaf
In this era of face transplants, Botox and liposuction, anatomy can still be destiny. And the ability of the body to channel music - be it through the human voice, a piano, or the brain to both compose and perform - is something wondrous, indeed. It is no surprise, then, that Franz Liszt, born in 1811 to a steward in the service of the Esterhazys (patrons of Haydn), was fated for greatness. The Hungarian composer/crack pianist (Ken Russell's 1975 bio-pic Lisztomania, with The Who's Roger Daltrey playing the womanizing musician, depicted shrieking groupies swooning at what had once been fusty piano recitals), wrote works that included 12 symphonic poems, masses, two symphonies and über-Romantic keyboard pieces. In addition, Liszt, who received minor orders in the Catholic Church in 1865 and was known as Abbe, wrote a number of experimental vocal works during his later years that were prophetic of 20th-century developments. The fact that one of his liaisons spawned a daughter, Cosima, who married Richard Wagner, also added luster to the Liszt mystique. Two motets (both sung in Latin), the six-minute Ave Maria from 1863 and the eight-minute Qui Seminant in Lacrimis, further evoke Liszt's showman/monk persona. The former, with its sweeping melodic lines and use of the organ to reinforce harmonies and bridge transitions, may have Palestrinan influences, but its sensuous Italianate quality would be at home if multi-tracked by blind heartthrob Andrea Bocelli. With Lacrimis, which is built on a half-step ascending line, a divine Parsifal-esque sound climaxes with chorus and organ together, the pipes reverberating like human hearts.
The organ also rocks in the West Coast premiere of Andrea Clearfield's 2004 River of God, a commission from the L.A. chapter of the American Guild of Organists for their Biennial National Convention. The composer, born in 1960, set the work to Psalm 65 as a way of celebrating nature and "the personal river of God that flows inside each of us." Employing ascending canons, pumped-up fortissimos and syncopated time signatures, the eight-minute piece illustrates the text magnificently. Each section of the chorus is featured individually, while the words "Let them shout for joy," accented with Stravinsky-like polyrhythms, make for a lustrous overlapping, an ebullient wall of sound. Listen, too, for the organ's running 16th notes ("water"), as well as the steroidal interludes bursting with fanfare- type energy.
Photographer Diane Arbus once wrote, "The world is full of fictional characters looking for their stories." And so it might be said of composers seeking compatible text, as was the case with Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb, Opus 30 (1943). Hooking up with 18th-century poet Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno," a kind of Benedicite tract written while Smart was confined to a lunatic asylum, Britten fashioned a choral hit, melding melody and mood from selected poetic passages. The seven-part, 16-minute cantata for four soloists, choir and organ ventures into the sublime and the surreal: A tenor sings of flower blessings; Smart's personal trials are vocalized in "the watchman smites me with his staff;" a spiritual nature is revealed in four letters of the alphabet; and animals praise their creator by simply being, a Zen credo enjoying popularity today. "I will consider the cat, for he is the servant of God" springs to life with a musical accompaniment akin to meows (shades of Colombian-Lebanese diva Shakira). Britten's manic energy crests with the chorus chirping on the association between the sounds of instruments and words ("the harp rhymes are sing, ring and the like"), after which tranquility prevails. Finally, the repeat of a ceremonially ecstatic, Purcell inspired pianissimo "Hallelujah" (heard earlier in the work), becomes a glorious, unifying coda.
Twenty-six year old British-born Tarik O'Regan wrote Dorchester Canticles, scored for organ, harp, percussion and chorus, as a companion piece to Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. Premiered in 2004, the 12-minute piece is in two movements, which, although they share some musical material (unusual harmonies and furious organ bursts), were conceived as independent entities. Kicking off with "Cantate Domino" (0 Sing unto the Lord a new song) from Psalm 98, primarily written in Lydian mode (think john Williams' score for E.T.), the organ begins on a low pedal tone. Enter chorus basses, followed by tenors, then altos in a Messiaen-influenced bird chant soundscape. Add nee-scherzo writing, and these ideas bounce back and forth like Ping-Pong balls. Flowing directly into the second movement, a tenor solo offers the Benedictus, as undulating figures heat up the choir. A return to the opening music builds to a brilliant organ mini-cadenza, with the unison chorus singing the Gloria Patri, all melting into a jazzy series of 'amens.'
Jazz also permeates Kurt Weill's Kiddush, a prayer of sanctification commissioned by New York's Park Avenue Synagogue in 1946. Weill, born in 1900 in Dessau, Germany, was a pupil of Engelbert Humperdinck and Ferruccio Busoni. His early works include chamber music, two symphonies and such masterpieces as The Threepenny Opera (1928), a collaboration with Bertolt Brecht. Fleeing the Nazis in 1934, Weill became a United States citizen in 1943, having abandoned European art-music tradition for the Broadway stage. Although Weill was not observant, this four-minute work composed for cantor (here a mezzo-soprano), organ and choir is sung in Hebrew. Smacking of Gershwin and successfully fusing cabaret with cantorial chant and folk song (think AI Jolson crossed with Norah Jones), one can't help but surrender to an inner blues child.
If, as French novelist George Sand said, it is "the artist's vocation to send light into the human heart," the late Leonard Bernstein has been shooting lasers since bursting onto the scene in 1943, when he first conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as a substitute for Bruno Walter. The Massachusetts-born triple threat - conductor, pianist, composer - may be best known for ground-breaking musicals such as West Side Story (1957), but his prodigious output also numbers three symphonies, a television opera, a mass, a ballet and numerous choral works. As a conductor who championed Mahler, Bernstein, who composed The Chichester Psalms in 1965 for England's Chichester Cathedral, began the work (based on Hebrew Psalm texts), with a huge declamation reminiscent of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, a motif built on fourths. As with the O'Regan piece, the three-movement, 20-minute Chichester makes use of a score for organ, harp, percussion and chorus. After a jaunty 7/4 dance rhythm reminiscent of his own Candide (and Jamaican reggaetón), prompts the chorus' jubilant praise of Psalm 100, the second movement assuages with lyricism, as a boy soprano, accompanied by harp (representing David), soars in the setting of Psalm 23. Sopranos repeat this, with the men's testosterone-amped vocal swagger dominating with verses from Psalm 2. Recalling warfare, these pounding passages bring the Sharks/Jets battles to mind, as well as the late Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.'s untimely ends. The final movement riffs on earlier themes but with more harmonic angst, as the chorus enters in an unusual 10/4 meter. Heading irrevocably towards an a cappella version of the opening figure and final 'amen,' held seemingly forever in a plea for peace, this godly sonorousness takes root in our hearts, allowing us entry to a more divine world.