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Duke Chapel's "Remember and Rejoice" Oratorio Program Unites and Uplifts

April 3, 2022 - Durham, NC:


For the first time since 2019, the complete collection of ensembles under the Duke Chapel Music umbrella, plus the Mallarmé Chamber Ensemble, came together for an oratorio program. The Duke Chapel Choir, Vespers Ensemble, and Evensong Singers recorded The Marvel of This Night on November 24, 2019, a lessons and carols service, that was broadcast on CBS on Christmas Eve.

This April 2022 performance, entitled Remember and Rejoice, led audiences through struggle and loss into resilience and hope for the future. Gabriel Fauré's Requiem in D minor and Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb were flanked by shorter pieces along this theme, all connected by readings of Susan Palo Cherwien.

Cherwien, a poet and hymnist who visited Duke Chapel just a few months before her death in late 2021, was already facing a devastating fight against metastatic cancer, but spoke about facing her own mortality with an inspiring, hopeful faith. Her exemplification of Christians' faith in heavenly resurrection served as a major inspiration to this program and glows within her words. Passages in this performance were excerpts from her books Crossings: Meditations for Worship and From Glory into Glory: Reflections for Worship. Cherwien's words were read in place of Biblical readings or prayers by Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery, the Dean of Duke Chapel, and Pastor Amanda Highben, the campus minister for Duke Lutherans.

The performance was presented in the fashion of a traditional oratorio; the readings and music were delivered from start to finish as a whole, with the audience encouraged to hold all applause until the end – although there was an invitation to sing along with the final hymn. Chapel organist Christopher Jacobson led the combined chorus through the first set of repertoire, beginning with the Kyrie from Jean Langlais' Messe Solennelle, a dark, stately piece that utilized the resounding Kathleen Upton Byrns McClendon organ, played by Robert Brewer (and, after he was done conducting, Jacobson). This work, though an invocation and entreaty for mercy through suffering, ended with a hopeful tone. Further developed through peaceful and placating swells, the hopeful feeling continued with the lovely, low-strings opening of Felix Mendelssohn's setting of "Verleih uns Freiden," which was itself a Martin Luther adaptation of a medieval Latin prayer dated back to 1279. Beautiful melodies spread pleasantly through the voice parts as higher winds and strings gradually joined in.

After a brief personnel shift - the removal of flute, oboe, clarinet, and all but one of the violins - and a reading, it was time for the main portion of the program, Faure's Requiem. While the Requiem Mass can often be thought of as a dark, sorrowful affair, this composition in particular approaches death as a comfortable eternal rest, rather than something to be feared. Words from Cherwien's "The Present Pilgrimage" served as a kind of mantra upon which to meditate during the course of the work, echoed by the texts sung:

"There is no stillness in life

but what one holds in the heart.

There is no peace

but what one has in the soul."

Philip Cave took up the baton, directing the combined force of singers, orchestra, and organ in expert balance. It did take a few moments to settle into the reverberating wash of sound in the large space. The space by its nature muted and muddled the precision of entrances and rhythms, but the effect was dramatically ethereal. The first Introit and Kyrie already conveyed a wide range of feeling, then gave way to a beautiful a cappella opening to the Offertory. Baritone Caleb Hopkins delivered robust yet calm tenor lines full of dark, sustained tones. This was in contrast to the following, more cheery Sanctus, underpinned by a bubbling harp line played exquisitely by Jacquelyn Bartlett. This allowed Jennifer Curtis' soaring solo violin and the higher voices to sparkle, before soprano Catherine Kelly's peaceful, if more sedate, Pie Jesu. Again, the tone shifted during the Agnus Dei, which, although suffering from some muddling of the intricate, syncopated rhythms, alternated compellingly between quiet reverence and heavier power. Hopkins' solo in the penultimate section, Libera Me, continued this strong power, surrounded by horns heralding sounds of wrath and calamity. After effectively exploring darker themes of dread and misery, the work ends with In Paradisum, a high, quiet resolution that was wholly peaceful and calming.

The full orchestra returned, with Dr. Zebulon Highben leading the final set of compositions. First in this set was Mack Wilberg's arrangement of James L. MacBeth Bain's "Brother James' Air," which began with a lush, warm wind instrument opening to offset a gorgeous a cappella verse, dramatic after the previous composition's more intricate texture. The following work, a premiere of Brandon Spencer's "The Lamb," sounded much more contemporary. Set to lines from William Blake, it was searching, full of dissonances and suspensions and a sparser sound, yet always managed to satisfyingly resolve.

The second large-scale work was Benjamin Britten's miniature cantata, Rejoice in the Lamb. Cherwien's "The Song of Innocence" was an effective prelude, encouraging a return to the sense of wonder a child has for the world. Soloists helped to propel the work's varying moods, from dancing celebrations, to quiet moments of mysticism, to triumphant declarations. Each solo section brought a unique feeling; mezzo-soprano Nora Burgard, Kirsten Overdahl, Henry Branson, and David Faircloth each brought a high level of artistry to their respective section.

The final work was the premiere of Tim Sarsany's arrangement of the familiar hymn "All Creatures of our God and King (Canticle of the Sun)," a varied, seven-verse work that effectively celebrated aspects of life, from mundane to sorrowful to glorious. The audience was invited to sing along for the first two verses, which generally followed the standard hymn's setting, but quickly the verses developed into antiphony, a cappella, a minor setting and a quiet, contemplative instrumental moment. An incredible modulation served as entreaty for the audience to join in the full-throated, powerful singing of the final verse, overtop of which the chorus sang in glorious descant and harmony.

The final strains were earth-shakingly powerful, thanks to the strings, winds, and organ, and there was hardly a moment for the music to end before the air exploded into applause. The content of this performance emerged through Biblical themes and imagery, and the lyrics and readings very directly referenced the Christian faith, but the overall event was a welcoming, cathartic experience, recognizing and appreciating the hardships we've faced as a community in the past two years – but ultimately reminding us to find joy where we can.