What could this music be? An unknown choral elegy, in a language not immediately recognizable... Somehow it called to mind the first-act finale of Puccini's last opera, Turandot. No sooner has the unknown prince resolved, "though the universe crumble," to woo the cold-hearted daughter of the Emperor of China than the universe itself—reflected in the voices of the singers onstage and the brooding orchestra in the pit—cries out in lamentation. The mystery music had just this sweep, this pathos, the same oceanic undertow. Then came something very different: a soprano solo, perhaps Byzantine in flavor, the high-floating melody looping like a garland, embedded in lunar sonorities of chimes over a slow-moving bass line. Then the mood changed again. All hell broke loose in crashing percussion, blaring brass, and panic-stricken song. It was here that I figured out that I was listening to a Requiem. The text, unmistakably in Latin, was the "Dies irae" sequence, conjuring up the Last Judgment. Of the many who have set the Mass of the Dead, none has surpassed Mozart or Verdi for fear and terror. Yet here was another composer, likely of our day, bold enough to compete on equal terms. Who could it be? And why?
Such, on September 11, 2013, was my first, fragmentary exposure to the remarkable Oratio Spei, a "Prayer of Hope" by the Czech composer Juraj Filas, a name new to me. As I soon learned, it was his offering to the memory of the victims of the World Trade Center bombing twelve years before. I had tuned in on my drive home from snorkeling. The music was still in progress when I parked the car.
On the island of Maui, where I live, we make a surprising number of discoveries just this way. More often than not, the man to thank is Gene Schiller, music director of Hawaii Public Radio, who shines his spotlight into dark corners of the symphonic repertoire with the same spirit of adventure he brings to the so-called classical canon. The excerpts from Oratio Spei he played that day preempted previously scheduled selections of Josef Suk and Yashushi Akutagawa. The work had been brought to Gene's attention only the week before through the offices of the Harmony Foundation, headquartered in Rye, New York.
Taped in Prague in July 2013, as yet unavailable to the general public, the recording was being offered for commemorative air play on September 11. Very much at the last minute, ten stations made room in their lineups: WQXR in New York; six others on the United States mainland, from Connecticut to the West Coast; one each in Prague and Bratislava; and Hawaii Public Radio in Honolulu, at nearly 5,000 miles from Ground Zero the most distant of them all by some 700 miles.
Filas received the commission for Oratio Spei in the year 2000 and had nearly completed the job by September 11, 2001. Shattered by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he dedicated the work-in-progress to the victims of terrorism. The world premiere took place in the German city of Fulda in November 2006. The New York premiere, at the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, followed on the tenth anniversary of the fateful date. The recording sessions took place at Dvořák Hall in Prague in July 2013. The long-term goal going forward is to organize anniversary broadcasts of Oratio Spei on 2,977 international radio stations, one for each of the 9/11 victims. Naturally, the hope is that it also gain a lasting place on the concert stage.
Are such ambitions overblown? Are they too humble? Works of artistic merit have a way, sooner or later, of gathering associations that transcend their creation. Conversely, while at moments of crisis one artist's voice may speak for multitudes, so, inevitably, will others. In 2005, well before the premiere of Oratio Spei, there was Jonathan Safran Foer's very hopeful novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Before that, in 2002, there was On the Transmigration of Souls, a choral and symphonic prayer by John Adams. There have been other responses. There will be more.
Among all forms of mistake, George Eliot said in her novel Middlemarch, prophecy is the most gratuitous. Who can tell what audiences of the future will make of Oratio Spei? Reviewing the New York premiere, Allan Kozinn of the New York Times drew parallels to the "easy-going lyricism" of Gabriel Fauré's setting of the requiem, the "melodic litheness" of Mozart's, and "soul-shaking percussion," in which, Kozinn wrote, Filas "actually outpaces Verdi." And like Verdi, Filas sets the heart-wrenching "Ingemisco" section of the text as a tenor solo. That, in particular, seems to me a very daring tip of the hat.
But today, what impresses me more than inside references anchored in analogies or allusions is the overall architecture of the score. Musically and expressively, it rests on three pillars: seraphic compassion in those byzantine lines for the soprano; transcendental longing in ardent paragraphs dominated by the tenor and baritone soloists; and the cosmic terror expressed by the orchestra and chorus in full cry.
Once introduced, these modalities keep recurring—with variations, to be sure, but what changes may matter less than what abides. (This might be the moment to share some information I recently received from the composer: the melody that sounded Byzantine to me quotes a Gregorian Kyrie. A very similar melody appears, he says, in his Piano Sonata No. 1, written in 1981. He recycled that melody in other works, too, before discovering the Gregorian "original." He adds: "I thought to myself I must have written the Gregorian Kyrie in an earlier life, back in the Middle Ages.")
Rather than invest in painting detailed musical pictures, Filas concentrates on primary or elemental spiritual states. Rather than dwell on a mood, he lays it out, moves on, and then cycles back, again and again. Thus, over the span of 70 minutes, he suspends time, much as recent transcendentalists like Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli, or John Tavener have done. The meditation is crowned by a "Mystic Vision," led by the tenor, who declaims words of Revelation—"I am the Alpha and the Omega"—in tones of ecstasy that bring relief, fulfillment, and release.
The artists on this recording set a high bar. Highest praise to the conductor Kent Tritle, the Prague Symphony Orchestra, the Kühn Mixed Choir prepared by chorus master Marek Vorliček, for their unflagging concentration and sensitivity to the moods of the score. Likewise to the inspired trio of soloists: the limpid soprano Ana María Martínez, shimmering in her arabesques; the baritone Filip Bandžak, full-blooded and intense; and the tenor Matthew Plenk, incandescent throughout but a notch more so at the climax. Listeners may choke up or weep, but not from grief. Or not only from grief. We grieve, then we gather our forces. We go on.
Maui, January 22, 2014