In their 25th anniversary season, the Esoterics reimagine familiar musical forms.
The Esoterics have a reputation for giving voice to new ideas. But this past weekend’s program explored a concept that was unusual even for them.
Founding director and composer Eric Banks led the a cappella choral group in works by three contemporary composers that radically reimagine the Christian Mass. Each of these replaced affirmations of certainty with a secular or even atheist response to the human predicament.
“Confido: the reimagined mass” was the second program of the group’s 25th season, in which The Esoterics are exploring contemporary secular perspectives on long-standing sacred music forms that have shaped Western music history, such as the motet and the requiem.
The guiding idea here, as Banks explained, was to juxtapose the familiar order of the Mass (as experienced in countless musical settings) with the visions of artists who challenge the certainty of belief in their own recent compositions modeled on the former.
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The key texts of the Mass treated in musical settings are more or less invariable, representing firmly established beliefs — “the certainty from ritual,” as Banks put it. But each of the composers on the program called that certainty into question in different ways.
In his “Missa Charles Darwin,” for example, Gregory Brown replaces the original sacred Latin prayers with texts culled from “The Origin of Species,” “The Descent of Man,” and Darwin’s correspondence. Immediately after a plainchant intonation of the “Kyrie,” the voices continue: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
Brown, who was present at Friday’s performance, translated the letters from the genetic sequence of Darwin’s finches into notes to produce melody, but along with such “chance operations,” his choral textures showed a sophisticated understanding of tradition — above all in the flowing, deftly woven counterpoint of the Darwinian “Credo.” The natural scientist’s concept of the “struggle for life” found its counterpart in intricate musical processes.
Brown was originally commissioned to write “Missa Charles Darwin” for the vocal quartet New York Polyphony in 2011. He later revised it for choral ensemble, the most recent version of which received its first performance on this program. The work also plays a role in “Origin,” the thriller by his older brother, novelist Dan Brown.
Even more radical in their challenges to the traditional Mass were two settings by British composer Giles Swayne. “Petite messe solitaire” (“Solitary Little Mass”), from 1997, blends the Latin words with French texts espousing an atheist perspective (and, with a further dash of irony, originally scored for children’s choir). Swayne confronted the traditional certainties in musical terms as well: strikingly beautiful four-part settings for the Latin texts gave way to unison choruses that stopped and started, mirroring a sense of despair and confusion.
Swayne was also represented by “Missa Tiburtina” from the mid-1980s, which took inspiration from Chief Seattle’s landmark 1854 speech. Here, the chorus sang the expected Latin texts, but onto a screen were projected “diatribes” — unsung subtexts, so to speak, closer in sensibility to the tension and urgency of Swayne’s musical language. “We cry to our unknown god: give us peace, before it is too late,” reads the text accompanying the “Dona nobis pacem.”
In another unorthodox choice, Banks spliced together discrete movements from the three Masses, presenting all of the Kyries, then all of the Glorias, etc., to create a single larger Mass.
The Esoterics were divided into smaller ensembles of 15 voices each Mass setting, allowing for clarity and nuance in the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church venue. But then Banks unleashed the gathered sound of all 50 voices for the final piece: “Island in space [Dona nobis pacem],” by the so-called “dean of American choral composers,” the 92-year-old Kirke Mechem.
Writing for an American choir that toured the Soviet Union just before its collapse, Mechem set excerpts from an interview with astronaut Rusty Schweickart and a poem by Archibald MacLeish reflecting on Apollo 8’s “Earthrise” photo. For the final section — “To see the Earth as it truly is” — the chorus sustained a crescendo of impressive, cathartic tonal beauty. It brought home the point that, whatever our beliefs, what we are searching for is fundamentally the same.
The Esoterics: “Confido: The certainty of ritual.” Friday, April 13, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle. The Esoterics will continue their 25th anniversary season June 8-10 with “Designo: the reimagined motet”; theesoterics.org