in: Reviews

March 30, 2014

A Moving Pilgrimage at St. Paul’s

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In St. Paul’s Parish, Cambridge on Friday evening, the Boston Choral Ensemble, under Andrew Shenton, performed Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles. Talbot is known popularly for his more comedic popular music, such as the theme to BBC’s comedy League of Gentlemen, the score for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Son of Rambow. Path of Miracles (2005) stands in stark contrast to these.

Dedicated to the memory of the composer’s father, the work is steeped in religious reflection, taking its idiom from the medieval pilgrimage from Roncesvalles to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Each movement represents an important station of the journey, beginning with Roncesvalles, proceeding to Burgos, then León, finally ending in Santiago. Robert Dickinson’s libretto, composed from the 12th century Codex Calixtinus (which is housed at the cathedral in Santiago), Galician texts and original poetry, narrates this journey using several languages scored for seventeen individual vocal parts. Dickinson’s poetry meditates on the physical hardships and spiritual progress of the pilgrim, illustrating each with stories of saints and miracles associated with the route. The poem culminates in the burning of an article of clothing at the journey’s end–a renunciation of the pilgrim’s past life and journey into an enlightened future.

Boston Choral Ensemble’s undertaking of Path of Miracles is one of the most ambitious for the ensemble in a very long time—a far cry from the earlier concerts this year centered on the music of Britten, Pärt and Händel, and a very different direction altogether from any of the concerts of the previous year, many of which were centered on more canonical choral repertoire. The single hour-long work composed for a cappella choir with occasional accompaniment of crotales (small, pitched bells) was frequently satisfying to hear on a sensual level: rich harmonies in the lower voices provide sonorous stability for more intricate textures in the upper registers. But not infrequently, the work teetered on obsessive minimalism and fragmented narrative, juxtaposing an array of textures, languages, and ideas to make full use of the cacophony of voices in Dickinson’s poetry. Such an undertaking is not for the faint of heart, and BCE is to be commended for approaching Path of Miracles with such an unflagging energy, thorough preparation, and intense commitment.”

The first movement, “Roncesvalles”—illustrates the coming together of the pilgrims in a myriad of voices and languages, all recounting the martyrdom of St. James. BCE showed a remarkable discipline in this portion, producing a well-balanced sound in the extended homophonic sections, and clearly delineating each line of text in the more convoluted sections. Some tuning issues crept in near the end, particularly in solo lines, either due to exhaustion or the sheer technical difficulty. But the ensemble is to be commended on their full commitment to the treacherous rhythmic sections at the end of the piece. Given the variety of languages that “Roncesvalles employs,” it is frequently difficult to understand what is being sung, but enunciation difficulties continued into the second movement, “Burgos” which was almost entirely in English. This station of the pilgrimage paints a bleak picture of physical and spiritual pains of the journey. Almost recit-like upper voices are placed in sharp comparison to the rich sub-bass lines. Despite some additional problems in execution, this movement was BCE’s strongest, portraying a plodding, weary bass against exhausted waif-like sopranos, sometimes coalescing into righteous indignation, but always dissipating into despair. The third movement leads to “León”—a reflection on the events of the walking of the pilgrimage and the miracles that accompany it. In spirit, Talbot himself describes this as a Lux Aeterna. Indeed, the listener can find comfort here—a respite from the emotional weight of “Burgos.” Three lines of a prayer are perpetually repeated in the upper voices over a narrative poem, which is left to the rich, lower harmonies. Despite some audible exhaustion in the soprano section, the piece fared well, particularly in the closing homophonic sections that were well-controlled, yet still dramatic. The work ends in “Santiago”—the arrival at the cathedral. The movement opens in the same vein of “Roncesvalles,” repeating some of the initial material as before, but whereas earlier, the music betrayed uncertainty and doubt, “Santiago” suddenly breaks into exultant polyrhythms, incorporating texts from the Carmina Burana praising the coming of spring. Despite continuing problems articulating words and some rhythmic inaccuracies—particularly in the more motivated Carmina Burana sections, the intent of the music was vividly illustrated, bringing a welcome respite to the earlier material and concluding with a clear arrival. A closing homophonic prayer was nothing short of uplifting in this context, leaving the nave of St. Paul’s with a sense of deep repose.

Much of what I took issue with can be attributed to venue. Path of Miracles benefited in overall affect from the voluminous nave, but telling nuances seemed lost in space. Although the text was projected on a screen next to the performers, Dickinson’s poetry felt largely missing. Much of this is unavoidable in a work that is constantly morphing among different languages, but having read the powerful poetry throughout the performance, I was left wishing that the text would have held a more equal sway.

Nevertheless, the emotional impact of the pilgrimage was deep. At the conclusion a long moment of silence only slowly gave way to an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Boston Choral Ensemble repeats this program on Sunday, March 30th in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

Full disclosure: Sudeep Agarwala performed with the Boston Choral Ensemble from 2009-2011.

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