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A Mass for Our Time

May 15, 2007

When he decided to commission a modern Mass from a quintet of contemporary composers, Joseph Jennings, director of the men's chorus Chanticleer, faced some of life's biggest questions. Jennings wanted the new Mass, ultimately titled And on Earth, Peace, to represent different views of faith and people's experiences with faith. "Many people who don't go to church have faith," he says. "I wanted us to work outside of the traditional denominational religious box."
But how could a work arising from such varied beliefs cohere? How could a modern take on an ancient template be true to each composer's beliefs, and yet speak to an audience whose members might have many faiths — or no faith at all?

As Bay Area audiences will learn this month, On Earth, Peace relies on the universal power of music to delineate the universal themes, found in the Mass but transcending religious dogma: forgiveness, faith, and peace. And it achieves musical coherence by virtue of the singular sound of Chanticleer itself.

To broaden the Mass' scope, Jennings sought composers of diverse backgrounds, some with experience in scoring sacred music, others without. England's Ivan Moody had composed Greek Orthodox religious works, for instance. And although he'd written an oratorio based on tales from the Bhagavad Gita, Douglas Cuomo is best known for his film and TV scores, including for Sex and the City. Accustomed to strict prescriptions from directors who needed a few seconds of ominousness here, a minute of humor there, Cuomo prodded Jennings for more direction, but "I didn't give them any guidelines," Jennings explains. "We could have said, 'We're going to do this on a certain chant theme, so everybody take this motive and build material from that.' But we didn't — we left it to each composer to craft it as they were inspired to do." If that amount of freedom weren't daunting enough, none of the composers knew what the others were doing, and their time limits were tight enough to preclude extensive research.

To minimize the potential for jarring shifts between wildly different sound worlds, Jennings decided to interpolate plainsong and sacred Renaissance music by Andrea Gabrieli and Carlo Gesualdo as "palate cleansers" between the modern pieces. Such traditional interludes would also give the singers an opportunity to "reset" if any of the new works proved difficult. The composer latched on to those ancient examples for guidance. Cuomo's Kyrie, for example, is quite modal, though it still has a modern aesthetic.

"What affected me the most was knowing that this was going to be part of a Mass," recalls Israeli composer Shulamit Ran, who is Jewish. "The fact that I was writing it for an ensemble with an intimate connection to Renaissance music had a lot to do with the music I was writing."

The most salient unifying musical factor was Chanticleer's sumptuous, radiant sound. The 12-man group's extraordinary range, power, and beautifully balanced blend influenced many compositional choices. Ran even flew to San Francisco to hear the group in rehearsal so she could decide which singers to assign certain parts, including narration.

"As I was there listening to them," she recalls, "I was all the more awed by their amazing sound, the unbelievable blend. They really are like one instrument when they need to be, but at the same time they have this incredible variety of individual color and character." The ensemble's celebrated male sopranos invited her to supply soaring high melodies, while stentorian bass Eric Alatorre was granted some powerful solo passages.

Whatever the reason, "there is a surprising amount of unity" of sound in the finished product, says Chanticleer Assistant Music Director and tenor Matthew Oltman. "None of [the composers] wrote anything straightforward — no canons, fugues, hymns. It doesn't have the pomp and circumstance of a religious ceremony, or a dramatic structure. Instead, they wrote much more reflective, inward-looking pieces. They all float, or rise above — there's this element of mysticism. Maybe in our day and age, being spiritual has this ethereal quality, and the music reflects an inner spirituality."

That common emphasis on inner spirituality rather than institutional dogma led the composers to transcend the literal message of the traditional Mass texts. Rather than writing music exhorting listeners to assume a single belief, the composers sought to evoke broader themes suggested by the words they were assigned. For example, the Turkish-American composer Kamran Ince jettisoned the text of the Gloria and substituted lines from the Persian poet Rumi. "It says that everywhere people will start to gather and raise their voices and chant in unison," Oltman explains. "Isn't that what spirituality should really be about — not about division but about bringing people together? Maybe Kamran's Gloria gets the point across better than hundreds of years of Catholic dogma."

Although he used the simple original text of the Kyrie, Cuomo — whose parents rebelled against their Jewish and Catholic upbringings and raised their son in neither faith — was thinking about "the different ways you can ask for mercy and what that means. You can do it in some more contemplative way or some desperate way. I tried to see it as a parable or metaphor, to make it more universal — it's really about the idea of forgiveness."

Ran made perhaps the most dramatic departure. Assigned the most prescriptive passage, the Credo's assertion of the Christian faith, she devised her own dramatic statement of belief. After the opening phrase — "I believe in one God, the maker of all things" — she incorporated Maimonides' 13 principles of Judaism, including "Ani Ma'amin," Hebrew for "I believe."

"I come to this from my sensibility as a Jewish person, so it was important to speak from my experience as a Jewish person," she explains. And after centuries of oppression, discrimination, and even genocide, a Jewish account of faith must be tested by adversity. "The further I got into this, the more I wanted to ask, 'What does it mean to say I believe in God?' Following the Holocaust, a lot of people asked, 'How is it possible to believe in God?' And other people said that after the Holocaust, we must believe more in God. Both views are valid and speak to the experience of different people."

Following that statement of belief, Ran includes a passage from an Auschwitz account of a father being taken from his daughter to die, and reminding her with his last words that God is the father of everyone, even those who persecute others. (The unabridged version of Ran's composition, not included in these performances or the recording, also recounts the story of an Orthodox Jew who stayed with his injured friend in the World Trade Center after the September 11 attacks rather than fleeing, and died as a result.)

After such harrowing tests of faith, Ran comes down on the side of hope, concluding her dramatic narrative with "a short Hosanna, which is a word that comes straight out of Hebrew that means, 'For you, salvation I hope' — the sense that everything we aspire to is for our salvation as a human," she says. "It's a statement of my faith in the possibility of goodness."

The Mass' Agnus Dei, composed by Ireland's Michael McGlynn, along with a brief plainchant epilogue, add to the work's concluding note of consolation and hope.

It's one of the ironies of this project that the turning point of a work in a quintessentially Christian form is written by an Israeli Jew. Another is that a form originally dedicated to promulgating a single belief system winds up as a paean to tolerance and diversity, focusing on the fundamentals that unify humans across religious boundaries. "It's a piece composed from different perspectives, so there are different perpectives from which to listen to it," Jennings explains. "It's not a situation where we want everybody to feel this way or we want everybody to hear it this way. There's enough aspects to it that it's really up to the listeners to feel the parts they resonate with. And because it's not [presented] in a liturgical situation, it reaches people in a different way than if it were taking place in a church service.

"Many people would say they have spiritual beliefs, but that denomination and church are more of a hindrance than a help in their relationship with the divine," he says. "When we can present this essence of belief in faith [through] music, not connected with a doctrine or dogma — all those 'thou shalt nots' — the listener can experience it on a personal level, without having to subscribe to any denominational dogma. I'm hopeful that the whole of the work shows that cultures and beliefs can coexist."

Yet for all its diverse appeal, Jennings acknowledges that certain threads do bind the movements together. "There's a deep sense of spirituality in each movement, but from different viewpoints. There's a basic underlying tenet of faith that moves across cultures and denominations and religions that defies labeling. No matter what belief you subscribe to, faith is faith. There's a place for everyone's faith in this existence."

Ran agrees: "The notion of faith really does transcend specific religions which come to this from different directions. The conclusion can be very different. For some, it's a belief in God — you can say which God? For some, it's a belief in those ideals that belief in God can promote, whether you believe in God or not. Atheists can be equally committed to things spiritual and things that have to do with the best in humanity. So in that sense a project of this kind can speak to all of us."

__________________________________________And on Earth, Peace can be heard: May 18, 8 p.m., Grace Cathedral, San Francisco; May 19, 8 p.m., St. Joseph's Cathedral Basilica, San Jose; May 20, 7 p.m., First Congregational Church, Berkeley; June 1, 8 p.m., Carmel Mission, Carmel; June 2, 8 p.m., Sherith Israel, San Francisco; June 3, 5 p.m., St. Francis Church, Sacramento; (415) 252-8589, $25-$44, www.chanticleer.org. __________________________________________

Brett Campbell writes about music for The Wall Street Journal, Willamette Week, Oregon Arts Watch, SFCV and many other publications.