At one of Leonard Bernstein’s NORTON LECTURES at Harvard University in the 60s, the Maestro predicted that we would be soon approaching a great age of eclecticism in music. This was at a time when the avant garde was predicting something very different- that tonality as we knew it was certainly dying a fast death. Alas, as the new century began, thanks to the “new romanticism”, the minimalists, and other strains, we realized that Bernstein was indeed correct. One only has to look at the output of one of our finest living American composers, John Adams, to see how effectively a composer can combine different stylistic elements in his work. Another successful example of this is the work of the American Canadian composer Robert Frederick Jones, most recently in his new “symphony for soloists, chorus, and orchestra”, the twelve movement LA TERRA PROMESSA (The Promised Land), premiered in Montreal a few weeks ago at Vanier College. The forces included the Vanier College Choir (Philippe Bourque, director) Le Chœur Saint-Laurent (Michael Zaugg, director), L’Orchestre symphonique de l’école Joseph-François Perrault (Richard Charron, director), and the soloists Tamara Vickerd (soprano), Erica Martin (mezzo-soprano), Sylvain Paré (tenor), and Clayton Kennedy (baritone), all conducted by Philippe Bourque.
The work is brilliant and beautiful from start to finish, and shows the large musical gifts of this composer, whose work I have had the pleasure of listening to for several years. (Most amazingly, much of this hour-long work was composed at a time when the composer was in and out of the hospital with a serious illness. I believe that he was too preoccupied with his musical vision to let that slow him down!)
Where to begin describing such a work, whose overall plan, to quote the composer, depicts his vision of “how we are carried up the ‘chain of being’ from the formless void before creation, through inanimate nature (the tectonic and meteorological forces that shape the landscape of the planet), the live of the plants, of the animals, leading to the human condition, and ending with an ascent beyond the material world to the divine”?With a lesser composer, this could all turn into a huge piece of pretentious work; Jones, however, delivers the goods- his creation is a score of great skill and beauty.
The piece is sung in six languages (!), which coexist and flow together in a seemingly effortless way, opening with a wonderful sense of mystery at the start (depicting the void before creation). Elements in the symphony are sometimes a bit reminicent of Webern, Messian, and more traditional tonality; there are hauntingly beautiful melodic and harmonic materials, simple elegant choral writing, complex and intense musical textures, and much more. All of it produces a language that is uniquely Jones.
This composer has always been a brilliant orchestrator, and uses his forces with great skill and contrast, sometimes creating spare textures with just a few instruments, juxtaposing these with the big sound of his large forces, including very effective use of his full percussion section. In fact the contrasts in this work keep the listener attentive throughout. One example: in movement five (Olympic Rainforest), there is majestic but appropriately dark music in the brass and an ongoing piano music that is foreboding; this is followed immediately with a lovely tonal setting of Blake’s “The Lamb”- simple and clean, and like a breath of fresh air in contrast to the intense previous movement.
The last movement (probably my personal favorite) is the final act in this dramatic journey through creation. Called “La Rosa Celestiale” (the heavenly rose), it has the listener moving “among the petals of the celestial rose stopping here and there to savour the heavenly music”, which uses Christian prayer, a Sanskrit hymn, and Dante’s DIVINE COMEDY, showing us the souls of the redeemed in ultimate perfection. It is quite beautiful, and a fitting finale to this grand piece.
LA TERRA PROMESSA is a mystical work, and comes from a very deep place . It has an Eastern sensitivity in its concept that all paths to the divine are mingled into one stream. It’s honesty and beauty of execution should make it an appealing work to many, and I hope to see more performances of this grand effort in the future.