This is the first Easter season that I have lived in Utah. During the previous 9 years, I had been extremely spoiled as a classical musician living in Cincinnati. The Lenten and Easter season on the Cincinnati scene is always packed with fantastic concerts of sacred music, many of which I sang in, and for several of which I composed the Eastertide music as composer-in-residence at the beautiful St. Thomas Episcopal Church.
Naturally, when I heard of this year’s Mormon Tabernacle Choir Easter Concert, which included a not too often performed, albeit beloved Beethoven sacred cantata, as well as a world premiere by Mack Wilberg, I was interested in attending.
In full disclosure, I’ve been a little less than thrilled with the Choir for the past few years. One of my 2 or 3 complaints has been the repertoire selection and homogenizing sound of Wilberg’s many, many arrangements. English tunes, Irish tune, Scottish tunes, American tunes, Hymn tunes.
To be fair, I’m sure it is an enormous challenge to consistently create high quality and new sounding arrangements. And I have to give adequate dues for the many, truly masterful arrangements of LDS Hymn Tunes he has composed over the years. I believe one of his super powers is his ability to create high quality arrangements. But to program them so often, well, they are getting a little tiring.
But a new work, a new Easter work based on New Testament texts....this was very intriguing. Would it sound like his arrangements? Would he use this opportunity to weave a new tapestry of sacred music?
Beethoven’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives” is a beautiful dramatic work for 3 vocal soloists, choir, and orchestra with the fiercely passionate final chorus, “Hallelujah,” his answer to Handel’s chorus of the same name. This final chorus was indeed very rousing and exciting last night. The choir gave a full throttle performance with energized text delivery. The 3 vocal soloists were exceptional, especially the soprano, Celena Shafer.
I was somewhat disappointed with the orchestra, however. Any Beethoven work requires great focus and a clear, dedicated delivery. Instead, it was quite bland throughout. Even the rousing “Hallelujah” was less than energetic to my ears. Perhaps they were being reined-in and bridled by the Maestro. It certainly seemed as though they were on a tight leash to provide only a harmonic backdrop instead of a vital voice in the drama.
Mack Wilberg’s Easter cantata, “A Cloud of Witnesses,” brought a very welcome change to his typical sound world. Over all, the piece was a colorful and enjoyable 22 minutes.
Tapping into the late 20th century tradition of Spiritual Minimalist which, heard most powerfully in composers like Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt, and John Taverner, Wilberg created a fresh new sound for himself. For this, I give him many deserved “bravos.”
David Warner provided a text threaded together from the Easter story as found in the New Testament. Without any movement breaks, Wilberg set the text in the recitative-like, quasi-spoken delivery of a fine melodrama. This text setting reminded me of the syllabic style of Gregorian Chant, a cornerstone feature of the Spiritual Minimalist composers, especially Arvo Pärt. The great advantage of such a text setting is that the story is told very naturally, almost like a grandmother reading from the sacred text in her sing song voice, to the delight and instruction of her grandchildren.
But, a composer has to be careful when setting a text in this style for any length of time. This was one of my 2 issues with the piece. And granted, I’m being the picky-and-opinionate-composer with these comments. What was missing from Wilberg’s setting of the text was variation. After 22 minutes, the constant ascending a descending interval of a 5th gets pretty pedantic. I’m all for this style of syllabic text setting and have used it quite often myself. But, have more fun with it Maestro. Take us places we’re not expecting with interval selection, duration of certain syllables, arc of phrase, etc. There was some of this, but very little. Not enough.
Wilberg’s harmony and cleverly orchestrated and varied layering for the strings (the poor wind players surely grew tired of so many long notes when they are so well equipped for gorgeous, melodic phrase work) masterfully portrayed the emotions of the drama. But Wilberg did not capitalize on the opportunity to match the colorful orchestral story telling with what could have been a more varied and colorful text setting. I’m being a bit hard on him, perhaps undeservedly so. But I hope he continues to experiment with this style of delivery. It suits his new sound well. There were many lovely effects with this text setting, including the “Holy Ghost” moment and the final fading word of the piece repeated over and over, “Alway.”
The other Big element missing in the piece, my 2nd complaint, is a crucial element that the piece was so close to accomplishing at various points. Melody. Pure, unadulterated, memorable, soul searching, melody. All the piece needed was one great lyrical melody that could be reprised 2 or 3 times throughout. That one great missing melody would have been the perfect rounding off and arrow to the heart of an overall beautiful work. I have never heard a great, original, Wilberg melody. He is master arranger, a master at emotional harmony, a master at many other things, but as far as I can tell, he does not have a natural strength for melody. Think of the Star Wars films, all that amazing orchestral music tells the drama so well, but it’s held together by 4 or 5 extremely memorable melodies. Think of a work like “O Divine Redeemer” or “He Watching Over Israel, Slumbers Not Nor Sleeps." These great anthems have heart wrenching, simple, beautiful, lyrical melodies that stay with us, that we can sing as we leave the concert and for days after. This was the curial missing element in “A Cloud of Witnesses” that could have raised it, in my mind, to a masterpiece.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable evening. I can only hope that there will be more original works to come from the Tabernacle and Temple Square ensembles. In a culture and religious tradition that rightfully prides itself on an ‘open-heavens’, on great new revelations, on a continuing restoration, why can we not achieve the same revelatory experiences in our new music, both on and off Temple Square, with new works setting the Gospel texts and bearing down in pure melody to bring the Good News powerfully down into people’s hearts? I believe that we can.