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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008 01:39 am

Music says “hope” better than politics can

A transcendental evening with the Illinois Symphony Chorus

Untitled Document The subject of hope has gotten so much press, there was bound to be a pushback. During a recent debate, our guy had to carefully explain that hope doesn’t mean there’s no struggle, but the vision of what we’re struggling for empowers the work and makes it worthwhile. His hopeless opponent knows better, but she chose not to get it and soon was reduced to sarcasm in Ohio, where heaven seems far away: “Let’s get everybody together, let’s get unified, the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing. And everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect.”
Had she been here last weekend, she might have a better appreciation for the role of choirs. Hope was the theme at the concert of the Illinois Chamber Orchestra and Illinois Symphony Chorus, and music delivers the message even better than Barack Obama does. Amid the sparkling marble of the restored sanctuary of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, the Rev. David Hoefler welcomed us with a classic if unfashionable version of the hope story: “This is the season of Lent, when we remember the life and death of Christ, awaiting the beauty of the Resurrection.” Then came Karen Lynne Deal, music director of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, to conduct the chamber orchestra in another version. The orchestra performed two works by the American composer Alan Hovhaness, who died in 2000. The first, “Tzaikerk,” or “Evening Song,” began with a folk-dance sound that recalled the composer’s roots in Armenia. As I listened I could follow the composer’s word-picture of the work: “A somber solo violin melodic line enters, refusing to join in the dancing texture of the rapid melodies. The other instruments gradually become subdued by the dark solo violin’s compelling persistence. The festival gradually becomes lyrical and spiritual. The solo violin has at last silenced the antagonistic dance, and sings a long meditative melody of adoration and spiritual serenity.”
Deal, always eager to educate, told me the Hovhaness pieces are written in a “cyclical” style. She explained: “I think of composers who identify with nature. Their music feels organic. The image that comes to me is of the eclipse of the moon. By repetition we get back to the natural circle of life.” She tried again: “A typical classical composer is evaluated on how they develop their material. They’ll present an idea, then another idea. The bulk of the music is how they develop those two ideas. This is something different. It is not the development of an idea. It is more about the repetition.”
Whatever it is, I liked it, even more so with the second Hovhaness, the “Prayer of St. Gregory.” St. Gregory, the patron saint of Armenia, had been thrown into a dungeon to languish for 15 years and miraculously survived. The work is like a “prayer in darkness,” with Amy Gilreath’s solo trumpet soaring over the top. To me the trumpet said, “We can get out of this hole.” Yes we can! All that was prelude to the Symphony Chorus’ 70 Springfield voices performing the “Requiem” by Maurice Duruflé. A requiem is a funeral mass, named for the first line of the traditional Latin liturgy, Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, “Eternal rest give to them, O Lord.” This one was dedicated to the students killed at Northern Illinois University and to Vesta Nichols, a Springfield civil-rights stalwart who died in December at the age of 89. As requiems go, and there are more than 2,000 of them, Duruflé’s is serene and so peaceful that chorus director Richard Robert Rossi calls it a “requiem for the living.” The composer said of the piece, written in 1947 in war-ravaged France, that it “represents the idea of comfort, of faith and of hope.”
To teach me how this music is different, an enthusiastic chorus member explained that Duruflé entirely omits the traditional section called Dies irae, the day of wrath and judgment, and adds a section, not traditionally included, called Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem: “Gentle Lord Jesus, grant them rest.” Mezzo-soprano soloist Kimberly Parsons was angelic in her performance of this sweet prayer. The arts often lead where politics follows. Both are pointing to a transcendental moment. As I left the church, the moon shone bright on the snow. We have moved through an eclipse and emerged safely on the other side. Something good is about to happen.

The Illinois Symphony Orchestra’s next concert is March 8 in Springfield.

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.
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