A Piece of Work

In Conspirare's annual Christmas at the Carillon, the choir's performance of Jonathan Harvey's The Angels engulfed the audience like a sudden preternatural shower of light.

Craig Hella Johnson
Craig Hella Johnson

The Angels

From Conspirare's Christmas at the Carillon

Dec. 8 An unresolved chord is suspended above our heads in the rarefied air of the church's vault. It hovers for seconds, refusing to resolve into a familiar and comfortable harmony; instead, it blurs into another tense collection of tones. Finally it touches down, distilling into a major chord -- but just for a moment. Then it's diffuse again, seemingly floating just above the pews.

The lyrics speak to us of angels, asking us to imagine them not as "ardent, fledgling children" but as "intelligences old as sunrise." A fitting lyric for this piece: Its dissonance is otherworldly, mysterious (in the religious, sacramental sense), eerie, and, at least for me, emotionally potent.

Conspirare's performance of Jonathan Harvey's The Angels engulfed like a sudden preternatural shower of light. The voices' pendular swaying into and out of the direct beam of harmony invoked a throat-tightening, hold-your-breath awe. It was like witnessing an aural tightrope dance, with no net of instrumental accompaniment to catch these luminous voices should they stray from their carefully balanced chords. There were only the expert hands of conductor Craig Hella Johnson, who played the 30 voices in Conspirare as if they were a single seamless instrument. He expanded tones to a torrent or contracted them to a trickle with a sweep of his arm. He reached into the thicket of voices and pulled out a deep, low drone, or unearthed a staccato rhythm from their atonal rumble.

As ontogeny is said to recapitulate phylogeny in the mortal world, so does Angels seem to display the characteristics of its subject. In the piece, Harvey writes that the melody of angels is "one chord of limitless communication." The work itself seems to have borrowed that very chord, conversing in the dissonant, dreamy language of the spheres.

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The Angels, Jonathan Harvey, Conspirare, Christmas at the Carillon, Craig Hella Johnson

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