What: Vox Humana: Passion and Resurrection, conducted by Brian Wismath
When/where: Friday, 7: 30 p.m., St. Andrew's Cathedral (740 View St.); Sunday, 3 p.m., Church of St. John the Divine (1611 Quadra St.); pre-concert talks at 6: 30 and 2 p.m.
Tickets: $15, seniors $10, 25 and under free. Call 250-483-4010; email firstname.lastname@example.org; online at voxhumanachoir.ca; in person at Long & McQuade and Ivy's Bookshop
This weekend's concerts of the Vox Humana chamber choir will be devoted to a single work, selected with Easter in mind: Passion and Resurrection, by Ivan Moody. Composed in 1992, this oratorio had its Canadian première in 2003 but, according to Vox Humana's music director, Brian Wismath, has never been performed in B.C.
Moody, 47, was born in London but has lived in Portugal since 1990, and over the years, in addition to composing prolifically, he has worked as a singer, conductor, teacher, scholar, writer and editor. He is, moreover, not only a devout member of but an ordained priest in the Orthodox Church. He studied both music and theology in university, and sacred vocal music accounts for most of his works.
Reached by email in Estoril, near Lisbon, Moody says that Passion and Resurrection, though commissioned by a Finnish choral festival, "was a project I was very keen to bring about independently." As he wrote in the preface to the published score, "The Passion is, I believe, at once the most difficult and yet the most important subject with which an artist may engage."
While the best-known Passion settings in the standard repertoire (SchÃ¼tz, Bach) are dramatic, even operatic, in nature, the Orthodox Church has no tradition of dramatizing this story in music.
"What I did not want to do was write a dramatic Passion," Moody says. Instead, he created musical portraits of the most important parts of the Passion story - a structure he compares with a sequence of Orthodox icons. An icon, a stylized visual depiction of an event in Christ's life, "encapsulates its theme in a way that takes one beyond the physical, opening a window onto the metaphysical, transcending emotion and bringing time, as it were, to a halt." Passion and Resurrection, as a result, is more ritualistic and ceremonial than conventionally dramatic.
Running about 75 minutes, the oratorio comprises eight "icons" of widely varying length, beginning with the Incarnation and ending with the Resurrection.
The text, mostly in English but also including Greek and Old Slavonic, was compiled from the Gospels as well as sources relating to Orthodox Holy Week services. The Passion story is narrated by a tenor soloist (the Evangelist), intoning over a drone, with bass and soprano soloists supplying the words of, respectively, Christ and his mother. The choir contributes complementary hymns and other texts, supported by a string quintet and bells, the latter used sparingly but to great effect.
Stylistically, Passion and Resurrection, like much of Moody's work, reflects his research into the musical traditions of the various Orthodox churches, with their emphasis on unaccompanied chant, though he also acknowledges the influence of early Western sacred music. (His work has been championed by many performers specializing in medieval and Renaissance music, including the Hilliard Ensemble, the Tallis Scholars, the Taverner Consort, Fretwork and Red Byrd, which participated in the 1993 première and the 1997 Hyperion recording of Passion and Resurrection.)
The music is spare, slow-moving, austerely beautiful, intended not to titillate or excite or seduce, but to inspire contemplation and veneration and to express communal faith. It is no surprise that Moody's most influential composition teacher was John Tavener, himself a member of the Orthodox Church and especially renowned for his sacred choral music. Moody was particularly impressed by the economy and transparency of Tavener's music: "The one great thing I remember that he taught me was to throw out notes."
When he composed Passion and Resurrection, Moody says, "I was consolidating my musical vocabulary," seeking to replace the "intellectual complexity" that had previously attracted him with a more accessible style "able to transmit the spiritual rather than simply the emotional or the intellectual." After some initial efforts in this new direction, "it dawned on me that I had to get to grips with the central element of the Christian faith, the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, and to employ my newly forged musical vocabulary in so doing."
Moody notes that his oratorio is intended for concert performance, and is not practical for liturgical use in the Orthodox (or any other) rite, though the music benefits from being performed in a church, for reasons both symbolic and acoustic. (Both performances this weekend will be in large, resonant churches.) Anyway, for Moody there is no contradiction in writing religious music for concerts: "Everything I write, I hope, is written to praise the Creator."
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