By Mark Swed - Classical Music Critic
June 20, 2023 11:11 AM PT
In 1980, soprano Beverly Sills, arguably America’s then-most popular opera singer, performed at a special benefit concert for the newly built Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. Designed by architect Philip Johnson as a megachurch for evangelist Robert Schuller, it was the world’s largest glass building at the time.
What wasn’t impressive about the cathedral, however, was its acoustics, glass being about as poor a reflective surface as you could readily find. Sills could barely be heard. “People in glass houses,” one wag — the music critic of this newspaper, to be exact — proclaimed, “shouldn’t give concerts.”
The cathedral has had its ups and downs, musically, financially and architecturally. That includes when Schuller installed the Hazel Wright Organ, the “Hazel” to many of us, in it. The fifth-largest organ in the world, it contains more than 17,000 pipes, spectacular even in its glass house.
The Crystal Cathedral Ministries went bankrupt in 2010, and, after some controversy, the building was purchased in 2012 by the Catholic Diocese of Orange. The renamed Christ Cathedral began intensive renovations, including of the organ. For the cathedral’s reconsecration — which occurred in 2019 — and that of the organ last September, Scottish composer James MacMillan was commissioned to write a large-scale liturgical work for orchestra, chorus, organ and two vocal soloists.
MacMillan’s “Fiat Lux” was given its world premiere by the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa over the weekend (I heard the Saturday performance) and will be given at Christ Cathedral Tuesday. If it seems odd to turn this Southern Californian icon over to a composer from Scotland, it is not. MacMillan is the greatest musical gift to the Catholic Church since Olivier Messiaen merged birdsong, raga-inspired rhythms and all-around ecstasy with rhapsodic faith.
“Fiat Lux” is in five sections and begins with “In the beginning.” The Earth is without form and void, but there is air. The strings make weird flickering noises while brass players become wind-makers blowing ethereal breaths into their instruments. A solo baritone chants the biblical text in Latin; a soprano responds in English. Deep brass take us from the depths of the waters, Wagner-like, to the surface.
The chorus, in the old musical forms of canon and fugue, demands light. Let there be light (fiat lux) is first a glimmer, and then, there is light. As far as I could tell, no one touched the light switches in Segerstrom, but the explosion of mass voices and orchestra and organ so overwhelmed the senses, I wouldn’t swear to that.
Music Director Carl St.Clair billed the Pacific Symphony concert “Cathedrals of Sound.” It began with the chorus, conducted by Pacific Chorale Artistic Director Robert Istad, in the brief a cappella “Miserere mei, Deus,” written for the Sistine Chapel likely in 1638. Back and forth, a choir onstage chanted plainsong, answered by another more effusive choir behind the audience. The effect, wonderfully accomplished here, is a magical dialogue about spirituality.
Richard Strauss’ early symphonic poem “Death and Transfiguration” followed. This is a young man’s idealization of a dying old man glorifying his final breaths. Recalling his youth, the dying man’s desolation turns to exultation as a heavenward journey begins. St.Clair let it rip.
But “Fiat Lux” is something far beyond and above Allegri, a composer only known for his “Miserere,” or early Strauss. At 63, MacMillan is Scotland’s leading composer. Other contemporary composers, such Arvo Pärt and the late John Tavener, have tapped into a musical representation of orthodox Christianity offering spiritual salve to a wider mainstream audience. Dubbed “holy minimalists,” they and the late Henryk Górecki (who was Catholic) found broad appeal more for their evocation of mysticism than for their message.
MacMillan — who has always centered his music on his devoutness even back in his more avant-garde days and who has written much nonthematic instrumental music along with much that is specific to his faith — operates with a wider palate. Whether religious or not, he asks us to share in his wonder. And as his catalog of instrumental, orchestral, choral and operatic has grown, so has his call to glory.
“Fiat Lux,” which was written in 2020 (the premiere was delayed, like so much else, because of the pandemic), was preceded the year before by his massive choral Fifth Symphony, “Le Grand Inconnu” (The Great Unknown). The 45-minute epic is a work of unfettered exultation and radical religiosity, as weird as it is wondrous.
“Fiat Lux” picks up where the symphony lets off, but it is not so “unknown.” The text is by the California poet Dana Gioia, who seamlessly localizes paradise as a place to be preserved. Through the verses, Gioia’s gaze deflects the light of our “August sky” and “human eye” to a “crystal spire/ built in a land/ of quake and fire.” The amen that follows reaches deep into a Californian’s soul.
MacMillan’s ultimate amen follows its own path from solemn reflection to earthy sonics (the organ thrills) to unearthly ones (tuned gongs). Chant grows into glorious song, with soprano Elissa Johnston assigned the extravagance of praise and baritone Christopher Maltman that of contemplation. They — along with the orchestra, chorus and Christ Cathedral’s organist, David Ball — shared in a thrilling exuberance that won’t let go.
St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony have had their share of triumphs, particularly with the premieres of William Bolcom’s “Canciones de Lorca” and Philip Glass’ oratorio “The Passion of Ramakrishna.” “Fiat Lux,” which closed St.Clair’s 33rd season as the orchestra’s music director, takes second place to none. KUSC will broadcast the performance on Aug. 13.