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Choral Music Review Print

The Soul of the World Meets The Seven Last Words

April 11, 2009 - Raleigh, NC:

You'd be unlikely to encounter a program with more diverse slants on matters spiritual. Meredith College's Jones Chapel hosted the North Carolina Master Chorale Chamber Choir, with chamber orchestra, in two contemporary works about as theologically dissonant as they were musically consonant. Alfred E. Sturgis directed all forces, with the crisp precision that one has come to expect of the offerings from that director.

Scottish composer James MacMillan’s cantata for chorus and strings, Seven Last Words from the Cross, dates from 1994. The publisher ranks the choral difficulty at 4-5 (5 greatest). The chorus and strings played roughly equal roles as they negotiated that complexity with dexterity. The Last Words here are gleaned from the books of Matthew, Luke, and John. Among the more dramatic treatments was Word 2, ”Woman, Behold Thy Son!... Behold, Thy Mother!” After repeatedly intoning the text, the voices and strings die away in apparent exhaustion. In reference to Word 7, the composer’s notes explained the powerful ending: “The choir has finished – the work is subsequently completed by the strings alone.” Words come to an end with “Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit,” and it then remains to the strings to wail and weep.

Suppose a great composer should be charged with the task of updating a collection of medieval chants and plainsongs for application in this present age. The result might sound surprisingly like this MacMillan cantata. This setting of the Good Friday liturgy is probably destined to take its place among the enduring classics.

Anima Mundi (Soul of the World) by composer J. Mark Scearce (present at the program to well deserved accolades) adapts for its text a collection of ten sayings by various philosophers and thinkers. These words cover an expanse as broad as recorded time. Included are excerpts from the Book of Job (prehistory), Zeno the Stoic (334-262 B.C.), Swiss alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541), Polish-born philosopher Schopenhauer (1788-1860), and Viennese theologian Martin Buber (1878-1965).

The oldest section of the text came from Chapter 38 of Job, that ancient story of human suffering, where the “denouement” is just getting underway: “The morning stars sang together, and shouted for joy!” Somewhat at odds with that quote is the one a few verses earlier when the Lord asks Job, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” In his notes the composer explains the texts as supporting the doctrine of panpsychism, “the view that all parts of matter involve consciousness…the world [itself] must be living, possessing a world-soul.” Might this be a variant of the better-known doctrine, pantheism? Closing the work is a slightly bowdlerized quotation from Buber, declaring that “the great rapture is born: the final oneness of all things!”

Though the text of this piece might strike some as a bit recondite, the music itself can be unambiguously celebrated. Featured were five soloists as fine as one is likely to encounter. Better make that six soloists. Percussionist Scott Pollard assumed a starring role along with soprano Leda Scearce, mezzo Jennifer Seiger, mezzo Karyn Friedman, tenor Wade Henderson, and baritone Gary Poster. Of the near-flawless performances, perhaps the shimmering highs of Leda Scearce (“Morning Stars”) and the luscious lows of Karyn Friedman (“The Plant”) rate special mention.

The three instrumental “Interludes” exhibited particularly expansive and engaging orchestration. “Life and Reason,” the quotation from Zeno, constituted an uncommonly gorgeous chorus, a tribute to the quality of the composition and the skill of the twenty-five singers. The Soprano I, II, Alto trio (“The Moon”) was downright Mendelssohnian with “one breath pervading the whole cosmos like soul....”