The western music tradition began as a means to enhance religious services. Composers tailored their compositions after the corresponding church calendar and/or the message of the sermon delivered during that service. In the 19th century there began a movement towards a celebration of the ethnic and cultural background of specific countries – a musical movement known as nationalism. While not technically a sacred service, there was a unique concert at Duke University’s Goodson Chapel that combined spirituality, a renewed nationalistic trend in music, and a crucial issue of today’s world.

There is a sub-series of Duke Performances aptly named the Illumination Series which takes place at the brand new chapel in the Divinity School at Duke, an intimate and lovely space right next door to the imposing Duke Chapel. This concert was named Awakening and was billed as a “multimedia event.” The artists for this event were the Ciompi Quartet, Vocal Arts Ensemble of Durham, Elizabeth Ransom, flute, Joseph Pecoraro, guitar, and Barbara McKenzie, piano. The best way to understand the purpose and ambience of this event is to include the description put forth at the top of the program notes by one of the featured composers, Peteris Vasks: “Every honest composer searches for a way out of his time’s crises. Towards affirmation, towards faith. He shows how humanity can overcome this passion for self-annihilation that flares up in a column of black smoke from time to time. I often reflected upon the passing century. There has been so much bloodshed and destruction, and yet love’s power and idealism have helped to keep the world in balance.” So, to put it mildly, this was not a concert meant to be a mindless diversion or a toe-tapping evening out. This was a solemn, austere and inward reflection on what the human race is doing to this planet and to ourselves. In fact, the music played would have made an appropriate background to Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

The music featured composers of the Baltic region and extreme North Atlantic countries such as Finland, Estonia and Latvia. Much of the music matches the stereotype of our impressions of extreme frigid climates: slow moving, sparsely populated, serious, unchanging vistas and an undercurrent of suspense. All musicians remained on the stage with the 16-voice choir situated behind the string quartet, guitarist and flutist. The piano was on the audience level stage right. On both sides of the stage there was a screen that displayed images assembled and directed by filmmaker Adam Alphin. The program was divided into eight named sections, each containing one or more segments of music with varying visual images helping to underscore the message. A movement of Vasks’ 4th string quartet started off “…in the beginning” as “creation” was played amidst conceptions of what the universe looked like on its birth day. Some of the music used during this concert/meditation session could accurately be called “New-agey,” especially a solo piano work by Lepo Sumera. I will leave it to personal taste as to how to take that description. The musical highlights of the evening were the performances by the Vocal Arts Ensemble. Although much of what they sang seemed derivative of Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi, that did not detract from their other-worldly sound, especially the bass rumblings. Even with the similarity of musical style there was enough diversity of orchestrations to keep the evening interesting aside from the overwhelming intentionally induced feelings of guilt and depression.

One of the more “up tempo” selections (I’m speaking relatively) was a beautifully played song without words for violin and piano by the Finnish composer Lauri Saikkola. Performed during the “earthsong” segment, violinist Eric Pritchard played this simple folk tune with great expressiveness and a warm, focused tone that helped alleviate the unrelenting somberness, at least temporarily. There was also a nicely played trio for flute, violin and guitar by Rene Eespere.

The program was about an hour long without intermission. Many of the images were quite powerful although some might consider them preachy and manipulative. One simple photo of a young girl in a swing was vaguely reminiscent of that old LBJ political ad of a girl picking flowers, with the implied message that if you vote for Goldwater she will die from a nuclear (or as “W” says – Nookular) explosion. Of course, notwithstanding the fine playing of all the musicians, the ecological and humanistic messages of the presentation were unfortunately a matter of preaching to the choir.