Encores & Curtain Calls: Pain & passion
“There are two ways to live your life
One is as if nothing is a miracle
The other is as if everything is a miracle”
— Albert Einstein
One of the wonderful privileges of writing a column such as this is that I occasionally get to share my secret passions with readers. Whether or not they choose to take these to heart is anybody’s guess, but it’s a new year and the yuletide spirit is still with me, so here goes:
Among my all-time top 10 favorite films is “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” Franco Zeffirelli’s deeply poignant envisioning of the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, an extraordinary soul no matter from what vantage point one views him — believer, agnostic or even unbeliever. What human being, even a godless one, can deny the incredible power of a man totally in love with his world and its denizens, warts and all?
In his 44 years on earth, Saint Francis managed to break through the age-old Cain-Abel, eye-for-eye, fear-based relational paradigm of generic humanity as dramatized in the Old Testament. Clearly, something happened that tore away the instinctual defense systems and to cause him to fall in love with life, every last bit of it.
Plus — and to the doter of 15 treasured cockatiels, this is very important — Brother Francesco loved birds. Yes, he did. I know, because the movie clearly tells us so! So does every garden statue of Christendom’s most beloved saint, which show feathered friends fondly perched upon his robed plaster body.
Being an over-the-top Mediterranean, director Zeffirelli tells the story of Saint Francis passionately and persuasively: a war-torn Francis, awakening from the ravages of a long delirium after his life-changing vision and return from battle, spies a robin on his third story windowsill. He rises, still in a nightgown, and, overcome with the bird’s beauty and purity, follows it out onto the window ledge, then right out onto the perilous roof ridge of his silk-merchant father’s dwelling.
The populace of Assisi below is quick to notice and gather, wondering and watching, as a completely oblivious Francis totters, literally, on the precipice of the house, until, at long last, the bird is gently cradled in his palms. He clasps it blissfully to his lips to bestow upon it a kiss of utter adoration.
While I do this many times every day — and frankly, find it pretty blissful — I have not yet tried it on the edge of my own roof. Be that as it may, and even while not being remotely Catholic — or anything in particular, for that matter — Saint Francis has long been a hero of sorts to me, a spiritual brother, one for whom it is impossible not to feel much spontaneous affection, even, in some ways, to revere.
And so it is that, this week, my vote is for the reliably rich and moving choral offerings of Susan Dedell and her Brattleboro Concert Choir, which will be presenting British composer Richard Blackford’s cantata-like set of canticles on Francis’ life, “Mirror of Perfection,” and Benjamin Britten’s luminous gem “Rejoice in the Lamb” on Saturday, Jan. 11, at 7:30 p.m., and again on Sunday, Jan. 12, at 3 p.m., at the First Baptist Church in Brattleboro, Vt. The performance features soprano Junko Watanabe, contralto Jennifer Hansen, tenor Marc Winer, baritone Peter Shea, and introduces 10-year-old soprano Elle Jamieson as treble soloist.
In an online performance of the first of Blackford’s five canticles, accessible on YouTube and titled “(1 of 5) Canticles of St. Francis,” a narrator incants Francis’ plea to his source, clearly the words of a being who has been lifted beyond the realm of personal choice and who has no option but to embrace his world: “Love of loves, why have you so wounded me? My heart, torn from its dwelling, is consumed with love.”
And, if all the records of history are accurate, his life attests to his commitment to minister, in every way he was humanly able — in body, mind and spirit — to all who came before him: commoner or courtier, lady or leper.
The music is, like Francis himself, riven with deep pain yet flushed with profound poignancy and passion and delicately poised on a razor’s edge of reverence and quietly throbbing agony. Blackmore’s work captures not only the long-known ecstatic dynamic of Francesco’s soul, but also something that extremely few spiritual seekers, mentors or writers ever dare address: the very real possibility that inner awakening may carry us beyond the realm of personal governance and control, a very scary prospect for most.
So, it is no surprise that Brother Francis’ sojourn here was relatively brief. Indeed, how could a being, crushed between such cosmic necessity and such pathetic human frailty endure far beyond four decades in a vehicle as fragile as a mortal body?
This is undoubtedly a rare chance to witness such a luminous pair of spiritually probing musical outpourings as we will have for quite some time.
Following are some of Susan Dedell’s own elegant insights on the program:
“At the heart of this colorful cantata (‘Rejoice in the Lamb’) is an amazing text, taken from a poem written by Christopher Smart (1722–1771) sometime during the six years that Smart was confined in an insane asylum. It depicts, in the most original manner, the idiosyncratic praise and worship of God by all created beings and things.
“I have loved Britten’s ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’ since I first sang it many years ago. At that time, I was struck by the unique force of the combination of language and music, which moves me every time I approach it,” says director Dedell. “In a very simple, almost childlike way, it is filled with ecstatic visions of a world in which all beings move toward perfection and bliss. And this is made more wondrous by the heartbreaking circumstances under which the words were written.”
“Many scholars believe that Smart’s confinement in the asylum was as much due to his father-in-law’s loathing of him and his substantial financial debts as it was to his supposed religious mania. Poor Smart was abandoned during this time by most of his friends and family, but was allowed to keep his cat, Jeoffrey, whose excellence is extolled in a few lines of the text. Britten chose to set these words to music in a soprano solo intended to be sung by a child.
“Blackford’s ‘Mirror of Perfection’ is making its New England premiere, however. The ‘Mirror of Perfection’ is said to have taken London audiences by storm seven years ago at its premiere, when it was described as ‘a powerful cantata of lavish beauty, clothed in a radiance of strings, harp, horns, and percussion.’ It sets the still relatively little known poetry of St. Francis of Assisi, the music fully captures the passion and compassion of the famous saint who was known as a fanatic of love.
“We rightly think of St. Francis of Assisi as a champion of the poor, and a great friend to all creatures,” observes Dedell. “But he was also a mystic, subject to a variety of transcendent experiences — visions, voices, trances — that resulted in great outpourings of poetry. These love poems to God are highly charged, passionate, even erotic. Blackford’s ‘Mirror of Perfection’ perfectly conveys this overwhelming sense of rapture, longing, and completion.”
Tickets cost $15 general, $8 students. They can be purchased by calling the Brattleboro Music Center at 802-257-4523; or online at www.bmcvt.org.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.