By Peter Lefevre
Those who actively listen to music will appreciate how frequently it expresses what we find ourselves unable to articulate. When our own halting sentiments for a loved one prove inadequate, we turn to a Gershwin love song. When our own capacity to express patriotic fervor falls short, we ride on the waves of a John Philip Sousa march.
This is never more apparent than in the realm of the spirit, where music can express solace, profundity and sorrow, far beyond our ability to give voice to these experiences ourselves. Music has a mysterious power to capture our inner life, to transform a concert hall into a sanctuary, to bind listeners together in common recognition of what it means to be human.
Pacific Symphony has incorporated thematic programming over the past few years, efforts made in large part through substantial support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has funded the Symphony’s “Music Unwound” initiative. “Music Unwound” has proven itself a success over its brief history, bringing extramusical elements into the concert hall—film, theater, dance, art—in an effort to create a comprehensive artistic experience that illumines the music in innovative and unexpected ways.
In 2011, the initiative allowed the symphony to explore sacred music with “Cathedrals of Sound: A Journey of the Spirit,” which presented Bruckner’s faith-saturated Symphony No. 9 framed by Gregorian chant from the Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey, and Bach from organist Paul Jacobs. Pacific Symphony Music Director Carl St.Clair has consistently ushered audiences through such corridors, finding spirituality a rich and rewarding component of musical expression and devoting himself to its meaningful realization.
With memories of the 2011 concert’s gravity and solemnity still vibrant, the Symphony once again builds “Cathedrals of Sound” Oct. 23-25. Along with the return of the Norbertine Fathers and Jacobs, the concert features Ottorino Respighi’s Church Windows (1926), all as contextual setting for a performance of Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem.
Joining Pacific Symphony for the Requiem will be the Pacific Chorale, under the direction of John Alexander. “This whole program has much to do with my experiences during my 25-year tenure,” says St.Clair. “The Pacific Chorale has played such a central role in some of our most important moments. Many of the works we’ve commissioned have been choral works, many of our recordings feature the chorale, John Alexander and I throughout my tenure have been close friends and colleagues, and having the chorale be included in the season was incredibly important to me.” Duruflé served as organist of Paris’s St-Étienne-du-Mont Catholic Church from 1929 until his death in 1986 (in living memory!). He published only 14 compositions, but the Requiem stands as one of the great monuments of 20th-century sacred music. Steeped in chant, shaded with a sophisticated harmonic vocabulary, the Requiem takes listeners through a voyage of grief, majestic authority and finally, deep serenity.
“This program is close to All Souls Day,” says St.Clair, “and I’m thinking about that. The Requiem is a piece I really love, and the Chorale loves it as well. They recently performed it in the church where Duruflé was organist, so it’s a work close to them and to me, and it’s a wonderful way of celebrating our 25 years together.”
The Requiem is written with a significant part for organ, to be handled by Symphony favorite Paul Jacobs, navigating his way through the score on the massive and imposing William J. Gillespie Concert Organ.
“It’s important that we feature the organ this season,” says St.Clair. “William Gillespie, whose name is on the organ, has meant so much to us and this is a way of honoring him and featuring Paul who inaugurated the organ a few years back.
“The Duruflé is a little overshadowed by other large-scale sacred works—Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and C Major Mass, Brahms’ Requiem, the Verdi Requiem, all the various requiems we hear—but what I enjoy about Duruflé is that instead of having this fast and overwhelmingly powerful “Dies Irae,” the center of the Requiem is the “Pie Jesu,” the most intimate moment instead of the loudest and most powerful. It has power but a different kind of power. It ends where I like to think is paradise, so it’s going to be a very special moment for me. And my wife’s birthday is on the Thursday of that week, which is nice. She’ll know where I am.”