I knew it would be good. I sat in on the open rehearsal on First Friday and heard our Artistic Director Charles Bruffy lead the choir in portions of the program. I had previews from Joel, our executive director/assistant conductor/tenor. I had full warning that the concert would combine music from some of the top handful of modern choral composers, compositions that would stretch the immense capabilities of the choir, and compelling texts.
But there I sat in my pew at Brophy Chapel on Sunday, totally unprepared. You cannot be prepared for the experience of “Darkness and Light.” One compelling piece of music after another reaches somewhere deep inside you and both pokes and caresses your soul with the amazing artistry that is the hallmark of the Phoenix Chorale, with an OMG! gorgeous new composition as the highlight of this stunning program of choral music.
“Darkness and Light” was a fitting title for a program full of juxtapositions that stretched you in every emotional and spiritual direction. It was fire and water. Love and heartache. Joy and sorrow. Tenderness and brutality. Conflict and peace. Fear and comfort. Death and survival. East and West. Tradition and mysticism. Sensuality and solitude. Dissonance and harmony. Huge swells of luscious chords and haunting bass drone or repetitive chant. Sound that filled every inch of the room and notes rendered with an almost imperceptible whisper. Tears running down my face and an almost irrepressible urge to jump up from my seat and burst into joyful applause. Exhaustion and exhilaration. It was an experience best summed up by a phrase my significant other used years ago to describe a Chorale concert: “I am as a jellied mass…”
There are no words to convey this experience, but those found in the program notes and text offer a glimpse that might allow you to imagine the beauty of the music they inspired. There is music set to poetry of Rumi in honor of a wedding anniversary: “May this marriage have a fair face and a good name, an omen as welcomes the moon in a clear blue sky.” There is music set to poetry based on the Orthodox wedding service: “Let her now tenderly spread her bridal veil…And he listens.” There is music honoring MLK: “Sleep, sleep tonight, and may your dreams be realized.” A child’s prayer honoring schoolchildren slain by a gunman: “Welcome, Jesu — Deep in my soul forever stay.” A song for a young woman killed in an accident: “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” A lullaby in which a father comforts his child frightened by the sounds of gunfire: “It’s just the drums of a new music.”
And then there was new music — literally. Sunday’s concert featured the world premiere of “Dark Night of the Soul,” the Chorale’s composer-in-residence Ola Gjeilo‘s new piece for choir, piano and strings. The text of St. John of the Cross is powerful juxtaposition itself — of his experience of heavenly visions while enduring barbaric conditions in prison, and his poetry of the spiritual journey from earthly constraints to communion with God — “Ah, the sheer grace!” The music compounds the power of his words by contrasting percussive piano accompaniment with melodic strings and a broad band of choral sound, all surging and retreating with cinematic drama. It was music that had my friends and I sharing glances and muttering “Oh my God…” I have a feeling this piece will gain familiarity way beyond the world of choral music; I look forward to seeing the cinematography that can do it justice.
Fortunately, this weekend offers second and third chances for this once-in-a-lifetime experience: Trinity Cathedral on Saturday night, American Lutheran Church in Sun City on Sunday afternoon. Don’t miss it. You know it will be good. Be prepared. Read the program notes and texts. Bring a hankie.
by Loral Deatherage, Phoenix Chorale Board Chair
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DARKNESS & LIGHT