’Til Death Do Us Part

Jim Farber on February 19, 2019
Eric Whitacre conducts the L.A. Master Chorale in the world premiere of his own composition, The Sacred Veil | Credit: Jamie Pham

Sad as it is to say, it’s almost a certainty that every person in every audience has been affected one way or another by cancer, through living with it themselves or watching friends or family struggle with the disease. Attempting to translate that experience musically is immensely difficult to do without melodrama.

Last summer the Ojai Music Festival presented the world premiere of Michael Hersch’s I hope we get a chance to visit soon, a correspondence opera between the composer (himself a cancer survivor) and a close friend who died from the disease.

On Saturday, the Los Angeles Master Chorale performed the world premiere of a work that also chronicles the loss of a loved one from cancer, The Sacred Veil, composed and conducted by Eric Whitacre to a text by Charles Anthony Silvestri. And while the subject is the same, the approach, the sensibility, and the depiction of the journey is entirely different. The Sacred Veil is cast more in the form of a loving memorial that looks back on Silvestri’s traumatic loss from the perspective of one who has experienced the horror and passed through grief to a state of graceful, even grateful, acceptance.

Poet and lyricist Charles Anthony Silvestri introduces The Sacred Veil, with Eric Whitacre and the L.A. Master Chorale | Credit: Jamie Pham

Hersch drove his audience away by being confrontational, brutal, and strident, Whitacre and Silvestri tip the scale in the opposite direction. Their account softens the blow with a pervasive warm glow of nostalgic sentimentality, an overabundance of sugarcoated harmonies, and a libretto that ranges from the poetic expression of universals insights, to phrases (“You feel like home”) that would fit nicely on a Hallmark card.

The circumstances behind the creation of The Sacred Veil are also unusual and telling, since the composer, the librettist, and his wife (as well as their children) were all close and long-time friends.

Composed for male and female choruses accompanied by a solo cello (Cecilia Tan) and piano (Lisa Edwards), the work unfolds in a chronology of 12 chapters.

Whenever there is birth of death, the chorus sings as the work begins, The sacred veil between the worlds / Grows thin and opens slightly up / Just long enough for love to slip, / Silent, either in or out

After establishing this premise, the chorus tells the story of bookish young man (Silvestri) who meets his soulmate, a fact they both instantly recognize during an idyllic picnic on the beach framed by the Roman fantasy of the Getty Villa.

Eric Whitacre conducts the L.A. Master Chorale, Cecilia Tsan (cello), and Lisa Edwards (piano) in the world premiere of The Sacred Veil | Credit: Jamie Pham

He would often wonder, Who could love a dreamer such as you? Then quite to his surprise, passing before his eyes, a girl unlikely, gently laughing by the shore. She had unlocked his heart and let his spirit soar.

They marry, have children, and are prepared to live happily ever after, until the fateful words are spoken. “I’m afraid we found something.” It’s the turning point in the piece and the only time Whitacre timidly moves out of his harmonic comfort zone and into the realm of dissonant discomfort.

The chorus pronounces the verdict: Total abdominal hysterectomy, bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, periaortal lymph node dissection… Metastasis, metastasis, metastasis!

It was at this point in her life that Silvestri’s wife, Julie, began to make a journal of email entries about the progression of her disease, which are directly quoted by the female chorus.

My hair started to fall out at precisely 1:00 on my birthday.

What follows is one of the most poignant and painfully beautiful chapters in the piece. That vision of impending death is balanced with childish innocence, as the kids turn their mother’s newly acquired wig into a game of masquerade. It was also at this point that I noticed people, for the first time, wiping tears from their eyes.

Eric Whitacre conducts the L.A. Master Chorale in the world premiere of his own composition, The Sacred Veil | Credit: Jamie Pham

The unrelenting progression of the disease elicits a call for heaven-imploring prayers, but the moment of death is inevitable, and the piece ends with a coda of hope for a celestial transfiguration of the spirit.

Without question the rendition by the Master Chorale was beautifully sung and Whitacre is a highly skilled choral composer, as demonstrated in the two brief works that opened the program: Lux Aurumque and I Thank You God for This Amazing Day.  But as a major work  created to grapple with a life-altering loss, The Sacred Veil’s pervasive sentimentality pushes it into the realm of the maudlin.