It’s not every day I find myself sitting next to the composer of a world premiere of a choral piece. But that’s just what happened Sunday afternoon in the packed pews of the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel in St. Paul.
Cantus and the National Lutheran Choir gave their second performance of the weekend of “Keeping of the Soul” by Jay Gordon, the composer who slid into the pew next to me and my wet raincoat. To think I almost made him move down because a friend and I were trying to save seats for others in our group. Once he explained who he was, I wasn’t budging. I also took it as a sign from above that I was no longer off-duty and it was time to pull out a pen and take notes on the program.
During the intermission (just before his work was to be performed), I peppered him with questions and compared notes. We both really liked Cantus’ performance of Bobby McFerrin’s “The 23rd Psalm (dedicated to my mother).” You can check out a previous performance by Cantus of “The 23rd Psalm” on YouTube.
Gordon was particularly impressed by “Gloria,” also sung by Cantus, the nine-member male chamber choir, with an assist from the chapel’s majestic organ. The 59-member National Lutheran Choir nearly brought me to tears with an achingly beautiful interpretation of “My Song in the Night,” a Southern folk hymn.
I also wanted to know which venue Gordon thought was better for the vocal instrument: the intimate St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel or the cavernous Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, where the “Soul” concert was staged Saturday night.
“I had thought the Basilica would be better,” he said, “but I’m getting much more of a read of the singers and their individual voices, tones and notes here. … You can get lost in the Basilica. This (St. Thomas) is a pretty extraordinary place; it has a beautiful sound.” Which is a good thing, it turns out, because the choirs recorded the concert for broadcast.
Gordon seemed pretty calm in the moments leading up to the performance of his complex work by both choirs. And after the rousing applause and handshakes, he paid the chapel (on the campus of the University of St. Thomas) the ultimate compliment: “There was so much more clarity.”
“Keeping of the Soul,” which looks at how world religions respond to death, is sung in nine languages including Latin, Lakota, Hebrew and Pali (the language of the Buddha). Gordon turned to the Internet to find translations for such phrases as “Humans flow into life, ebb into death.”
Pali wasn’t much of a problem. “I am a former Buddhist monk,” said Gordon, who received his music education at the University of Minnesota.
Interestingly, Gordon is a classical guitarist but not a singer. He wrote “Keeping of the Soul” on his guitar. “Notes are notes,” he explains, “and tones are tones.”
All in all, my first encounter with Gordon, Cantus and the National Lutheran Choir was truly noteworthy. I’m looking forward to more.