Conspirare: Company of Voices/Craig Hella Johnson,
St. Martin’s Lutheran Church
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 &
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.
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.
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.
Joby Talbot’s singular vision has found its ideal interpreters in conductor Craig
Hella Johnson and Conspirare’s Company of Voices.
Labels: Austin Texas, classical music blog, Concert_Review, Conspirare Company of Voices, Craig Hella Johnson, Joby Talbot, Path of Miracles, St.Martin's Lutheran Church