Monday, November 14, 2005

Choral Music: Looking Largely To The Past

I very much enjoyed the National Cathedral Choral Society's - under J. Reilly Lewis - performance yesterday of Arnold Schoenberg's Kol Nidre and, in a Washington premiere, Eric Ziesl's Requiem Ebraico, a work from 1944 dedicated to Mr Ziesl's father and other victims of the Jewish Holocaust. (This Requiem is a setting of Psalm 92.) It was an exquisite 32 minutes of music -- 12 minutes for the Schoenberg and 20 minutes for the Ziesl. (I had a conflict and missed the first half of the late afternoon concert.) The program note concerning the difficult meaning of the Kol Nidre prayer was well written, and it quoted from the late Washington, D.C. composer Herman Berlinsky, himself a missed humanist musical presence on the Washington musical and cultural scene.

I came home, and after dinner, listened a third time to Steve Reich's new choral "Are You? Variations", on Nonesuch, premiered last year by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Set to English and Hebrew texts, this almost 30 minute work, I believe, qualifies as a contemporary (cubist) choral near-masterpiece. The Schoenberg and Ziesl works are absolute masterpieces.


Tonight, Gilbert Levine leads the Orchestra of Saint Luke's and the Morgan State University Chorus in a free performance at the National Catholic Shrine, of Beethoven's Symphony #9 and the world premiere of Richard Danielpour's Washington Speaks, with narrator Ted Koppel. This concert is in celebration of the 1965 Papal Nostra Aetate, proclaimed to set forth the Catholic Church's position toward Non-Christian religions -- in turn, Buddhists, Moslems, and Jews (an interesting order).

From the tonight's concert program note:

“The illuminating Ode by Schiller, so impressively set to music by Beethoven, is characterized by the humanism of that time, which places man at the center and — where there is a reference to God — prefers the language of myth. Nevertheless, one should not forget that Beethoven is also the composer of the Missa Solemnis. The good Father, of which the Ode speaks, is not so much a supposition, as Schiller’s text might suggest, but rather, an ultimate certainty. And thus, we can clearly see the divine spark, of whose joy the Ode speaks, as that spark of God which is communicated to us through the music and reassures us: yes the good Father truly exists and is not utterly remote, but is here in our midst." [Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 2003].

Thus the choice of the major work on our program was perfectly clear. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is our touchstone as it reaches toward the universal brotherhood of all mankind. It portrays our soul’s struggle to find meaning, asks the question in Movement I, portrays the struggle in Movement II, shows the profound illumination of the answer that is God in Movement III and bursts forth in song—the very first time in any symphony—to give voice to our universality as mankind in the famous “Ode to Joy.”

It is important and fitting that our national concert “Rejoice In This Land” include not only an American work but also a world première. We set out first to identify a text that was uniquely American.We found it very close to home in the words of our first president, George Washington. Over the course of his public life, he wrote missives of tolerance and religious freedom to the Catholic community, the non-Catholic Christian community, the Quakers and the Jewish communities of our nascent American land. Excerpts from these letters were selected and then set to music by the extraordinarily gifted major American composer Richard Danielpour. Therefore, tonight’s concert encompasses the old and the new, Beethoven and Danielpour."...

Program Note (including text of Nostra Aetate):

Washington National Catholic Shrine Mosaic Pancrator.

Photo credit: Arlington Catholic Herald.


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