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Sacred performance and sacred symbolysm

By Boyd Pehrson (January 2002)

For about five years now, I have noticed an increase in the use of sacred symbolism during performances of choral works. Most of this attention to sacred detail has been taking place at the University's music school here in Santa Barbara. But beyond the choral conducting classes, attention to sacred symbols seems to have increased among professional performers too. "The Tallis Scholars" for instance sought out a large Roman Catholic church to sing in locally. The female choral quartet "Anonymous 4" has determined when they arrive in February to sing in a "sacred space" at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church. Interestingly, Anonymous 4's repertoire will be Medieval Italian love songs, and not sacred works. Roughly half of Anonymous 4's performances will be held in "sacred spaces."

It seems that during the mid-1980's to the mid 1990's while I had been attending performances of sacred works, the usual performance stage for choral works and sacred music was the ubiquitous large public auditorium. It seems now that most of the choral concerts I attend are being held in large churches, and the more "gothic" and stony the better it seems. For concerts that are normally held in churches, such as those at the Carmel Bach Festival, performances held at the Basilica in Carmel seem to have moved to employ even greater symbolism in their concerts. The Carmel Bach Festival included a concert series of "Lutheran Chorales" and sacred symbolism was in full force. The concerts began with a processional with the choir carrying candles and huge banners, including a cross and Bach's crest, all while singing "Come, Holy Spirit, Come" (Luther, plainsong). The concert concluded with a choir recession, and no applause was given before, during or after the performance, as the concert goers left the Basilica in reflective silence.

I have noticed most of the University choral groups begin to move their sacred concerts from the Halls of the University, into old resonant churches. The last Bach concert I attended at the University's recital halls was in 1997; it was the Cantata "Christ lag in Todes Banden" (BWV 4) performed by the University's choral group "Polyhymnia" and directed by Dr. Alejandro Planchart. Since that time, Dr. Planchart's various choral groups (who specialize in Early Music) have begun to practice more authentic performances, with director Planchart adding liturgical chants and sung litanies to fill out the original settings. The concerts tend to be held in a variety of churches, ones that tend to compliment the type of music involved. Gregorian Chants for instance are held at the St Anthony's Seminary Chapel, a narrow stone building whose ceiling is 60 feet high at the transept, and is perfect for chant. Bach's St John's Passion is performed at the large and broadly spacious Presbyterian Church, and the Monteverdi Vespers are now performed in an older Methodist Church which has more traditional stained glass and 'intimately resonant' acoustics.

The University's choral conductor Professor Dr. Marc Gervais also has employed more traditional and liturgical practices in his choral groups' performances. Recently his concert of 19th century German Motets was begun with the choirs singing procession into the church and singing recession out of the church, something that he told me afterward was new for the group, and that he would like to do from now on. This singing procession and recession caused the listener to focus on the music as 'it entered and left the building'. This certainly made it easier for the audience to begin
the concert in the right mood, and end their listening experience reflecting on all that they had heard.

It would be difficult to list all the extraneous instances of "the old" sacred practices coming back into use. I have seen them recently with the Thomanerchor's B Minor Mass DVD, where director Biller chants liturgics and litanies, and I have seen the Wiener Sängerknaben process on-stage recently singing Veni, Domine in Gregorian Chant, certainly a return to earlier practices. Concerts locally of choral works by Byrd, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Schumann, Bruckner, Palestrina, Monteverdi and others are treated to performances in sacred, resonant spaces with due attention to liturgical, artistic and reverential details.

In reflecting on the change to these more "authentic" performances over the last few years, it is interesting to think back to all those bland concert stages that I used to have to visit in order to hear this music, and I am now thinking it would be difficult to return to such places after having enjoyed the splendours of these fine churches. The "religious" aspect of these buildings and concerts seem not to be the controversial issue they were, say, 15 years ago. Perhaps there was no real controversy to begin with. For me it is definitely a change for the better. If Anonymous 4 wants to sing their Medieval Italian love songs in a church also, then more is better!

I know that boychoir directors such as Douglas have used sacred elements in their concerts and that processions are nothing new, but does anyone else see an increase in these traditional practices? I am wonder what others think about it if they have noticed. Such practices have definately helped to fill seats around here at least. Many church venue choral concerts are "standing room only" in this town, and regionally.


Feedback to the Article

Dougls Neslund wrote (January 25, 2002):
[To Boyd Pehrson] I see in this move toward "sacred spaces" the movement of the social pendulum at work. There was a time, in the 1980s in particular, when groups would be rather caught in a Talaban training camp than singing in anybody's church.

Another "no-no" of that era was the singing of spirituals - which were considered "uncool." Singing those joyous pieces today is not a problem, it seems.

For its own part, the church should welcome such a return, even by nominally secular groups; it does tend to bring people inside those cold, stony edifaces, and some might find inspiration and even perhaps more while there.

Good observation! The pendulum swings ...


Written by Boyd Pehrson (January 25, 2002)
Contributed by Boyd Pehrson (January, 2002)


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