La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 2 February 2012

A Miraculous Musical Pilgrimage With Conspirare's Company of Voices

Talbot: Path of Miracles
Conspirare: Company of Voices/Craig Hella Johnson, conductor

St. Martin’s Lutheran Church
Austin, Texas
Friday, January 20, 2012

Now in the middle of its 19th season, Conspirare's 24-member Company of Voices continues to be innovative and inspiring. Its latest presentation was the regional premiere of Path of Miracles, a 70-minute work by British composer Joby Talbot; a beautiful work, it was given a superb performance on this occasion by Craig Hella Johnson & Company.

Path of Miracles depicts the famous medieval Christian pilgrims’ walk from France to Santiago, in homage to St. James, one of Jesus’ disciples, and the patron saint of Spain. Legend has it that James evangelized in Spain, was martyred in Jerusalem, and his body then miraculously ended up Spain. His tomb was rediscovered there 800 years later and his remains were taken to their final resting place near Santiago.

The pilgrims’ path, known as the “Way of St. James” or “Camino de Santiago,” is a 780 km. walk and thousands of pilgrims still make the trip today, stopping along the way to have their official church passports stamped. While there are several different routes for pilgrims to take to Santiago, the one from France known as “Camino Frances” is the most popular. It is marked with yellow signs to keep walkers from getting lost and there are dozens of hostels along the way catering exclusively to pilgrims.

Musical Pilgrimage in Four Movements
Path of Miracles is in four movements, which represent the starting point, two stops along the way and the destination of the pilgrimage, Santiago. The composer takes the city of Roncesvalles as his starting point and this is the name of his first movement; for the record, however, the actual starting point of the Camino Frances is St. Jean Pied de Port, leading to a grueling 23 km walk over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles.

The text of this piece is by Robert Dickinson, with quotations from the Bible and from medieval sources. There are passages in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Basque, French, English and German, and this is entirely appropriate in a rite of passage involving pilgrims from many different cultures.

The opening of Path of Miracles is remarkable - a hymn of praise to St. James. The men of the choir begin on very low notes and gradually ascend by means of a vocal glissando, increasing in volume at the same time. Upon reaching their highest pitch, they are met by a huge wave of sound from the female voices of the choir; the combination is thrilling and rather frightening in its power. The movement then proceeds to tell the story of St. James.

Musically, Path of Miracles is difficult to describe. It is eclectic, to be sure, in its use of sounds and styles from the entire history of music. There is plainchant and polyphony. There are hymns, droning bass notes from Russian liturgical music and bouncy rhythms that seem entirely modern, yet never did I feel that the composer was simply parading his virtuosity or showing off the virtuosity of the choir performing the music; rather, I was convinced that he had simply found the perfect musical expression of his religious conviction and the text.

Path of Miracles is almost entirely a cappella, except for episodes in the first and last movements when high-pitched cymbals or crotales are used. It does have optional stage directions which were employed very effectively in this performance. From time to time members of the choir walked up the aisles of the church while singing and this had the effect of bringing the audience – literally – inside the music. At the very end of the piece, the male singers walked slowly out the doors at the front of the church and the female singers did the same at the rear. They sang as they moved and gradually the music died away into silence with the words “Holy St. James, great St. James. God help us now and evermore.”

While I have said that this piece was not about virtuosity, I must say that it makes extraordinary demands on the voice – difficult intervals, extremes of register, notes sustained over many bars, tricky rhythms, etc. – all of which the members of the Company of Voices executed with astonishing precision.

Composer Joby Talbot’s singular vision has found its ideal interpreters in conductor Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare’s Company of Voices.

For Those Wanting More…
Readers interested in learning more about the "Way of St. James" may find the following websites useful:;

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, Classical Airs.

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