Beliefnet
Lamentations and Praises
A new work by composer John Tavener
Recorded by Chanticleer

John Tavener is accustomed to confusing music critics; by uniting the ethos of the Orthodox Church and contemplative spirituality with concert music, he frequently perplexes those who listen through the lens of the last 400 years of Western classical music. But Tavener's enormous popularity shows that critics may be missing the point. The spirituality of his music obviously resonates deeply with many listeners; and his newest work, Lamentations and Praises, as recorded by the acclaimed men's vocal ensemble Chanticleer, may become one of his most popular works. For Tavener it represents a move back toward his earlier, simpler and more intimate styles, after large, dramatic, esoteric recent works like Total Eclipse and Fall and Resurrection.

Lamentations and Praises is a meditation on the death of Jesus, presented in a series of musical "icons." The closest comparison of form might be The Stations of the Cross, the ancient ritual in which one contemplates the mystery of Christ's Passion by meditating on a series of images. Lamentations and Praises asks us to consider three such images: Jesus' body being taken down from the cross; the procession to the tomb; and Jesus pulling Adam and Eve up from Hell.

The 70-minute work is in three large sections, each consisting of four parts: Descent from the Cross, Stasis, Thrinos, and Epitaphios. The Descents from the Cross are quiet instrumental interludes or "corridors" that link the larger sections, followed by a station ("Stasis") or meditation. Thrinos is a keening lament, its anguished wailing evoking ancient Byzantine chants and recalling the women weeping at Jesus' tomb. The Epitaphios sections are a solemn burial procession, repeating variations of a prayer, "Give me this stranger." Throughout the duration of the work, bells are struck every twenty beats, representing the eternal presence of God. A flute (representing the Mother of God), string quintet, and trombone round out the sound palette.

The performance of the 12-voice men's ensemble Chanticleer is breathtaking. This Grammy-winning group is well known for their vocal virtuosity and versatility, both showcased by this work. In Lamentations and Praises, Chanticleer's range is evident, as we hear the sounds of hauntingly beautiful chorales, esoteric Byzantine chant with microtonal ornamentation, and rustic Greek folk hymns, all from the same twelve voices. The exquisite beauty of Chanticleer's sound makes it easy for us to be drawn into the music, and through it to its subject. Chanticleer and Tavener make a harmonious match, and this collaboration is, we hope, the first of many.

Although Lamentations and Praises stands alone as an audio CD, Tavener conceived the work to include visual expression. At the East Coast premiere, held in the evocatively mystical Temple of Dendur of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the audience was captivated by a gentle, understated multi-sensory experience, in which the tasteful use of simple movement and color lent a liturgical feel. Chanticleer's 12 singers, dressed in pale, plain tunics, entered in a slow, silent procession, carrying two timbers, a bowl of herb-scented water, and a folded white cloth. During the instrumental overture, they assembled the two timbers into a cross, and set a crown of thorns on it. Each singer kissed the folded cloth with moving tenderness and passed it to the next person. Unfolding the cloth revealed an icon of Jesus; thereafter, the icon cloth represented the body of Jesus, as it was hung upon the cross, lovingly brought down, anointed for burial and carried to the tomb. Throughout the work, similar actions helped to amplify the meaning of the music. In one meditation, the 12 singers moved to stand very close to one another, as if they were one object. From the darkness, vivid images of icons suddenly appeared as slides were projected onto their bodies: the singers became living icons.

This transcendent music-making, enhanced by the visual elements, made possible a powerful contemplation of the death and resurrection of Christ. New York audiences are notoriously skeptical, but this one was obviously deeply moved.

The music of Tavener and the other "holy minimalists" is not a theatrical event as much as it is a state of being into which one enters for a time. Lamentations and Praises demands your full and prayerful attention; it is not background music to be played during a dinner party. To fully appreciate its beauty, consider setting aside 70 minutes for prayer; sit quietly, with no other distractions, and allow this music and these words to guide you in contemplation on the death and resurrection of Christ.

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