I am not otherwise familiar with the work of Robert Kyr, but this intriguing collaboration with Cappella Romana and the Third Angle New Music String Quartet (actually a trio) makes me very curious to become so. As performed on Cappella’s new CD release, A Time for Life: An Environmental Oratorio is a moving musical dialogue between Judeo-Christian and Native American prayer texts about the created order and our relationship to it.
Kyr here has constructed a libretto that brings together portions of two different Orthodox texts, the Akathist in Praise of God’s Creation and the Office for the Environment (observed on 1 September by the Ecumenical Patriarchate), as well as selections from the Psalms, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, the United Nations Environmental Sabbath Service, and prayers and hymns from the Sioux, Navaho, Pawnee, Ojibway, Chinook, and Netsilik Inuit tribes. It is in three parts: Creation, Forgetting, and Remembering. Kyr’s structure seems to express the idea of our present-day ecological concerns being a function of the fall of mankind; we were created first in right relationship with God and creation, but in our hubris we chose our own way over God’s, harming our relationship to both. Parts II and III express this right relationship in terms of memory; “We forget who we are; help us to remember” is the refrain throughout Part II. Part III weaves together the different ways all of the texts use the idea of remembering. “O Lord, help me to remember who I am”, says the Orthodox Office for the Environment; “Remember, remember the circle of the sky,” replies a Pawnee/Osage/Omaha song. If we can but remember, we will be able to repent; “Restore my mind for me,” the words of a Navaho chant plead. Repentance, as Kyr’s own words then tell us at the end of the peace, will then allow us to understand, to rejoice, and to appreciate the beauty of God’s created order.
Kyr does a very nice job of arranging these texts so that the dialogue never seems forced; he seems to want them all to speak on their own terms, in their own spirit. I am familiar with similar attempts to interweave religious texts from different traditions that do not give them the same respect; Giles Swayne’s Stabat mater, for example, is principally interested in using other texts to marginalize the particularity of the Virgin Mary’s lament at the cross. Musically, Kyr’s language here is not the angry, mushy, ambient noise that so much contemporary music can be; rather, the interplay with the voices and his adeptness at sung musical phrases reminds one more of Britten (and, often, Britten’s own invocation of Purcell). His music is restrained and tasteful, allowing the texts and ideas to be front and center. The “We forget who we are” refrain in Part II is particularly haunting, as I suppose it should be.
For Cappella, this CD is something of a departure; while concert works informed by Orthodox liturgical music are nothing new for the ensemble (see, for instance, Richard Toensing’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ and Fr. Ivan Moody’s Akathistos Hymn), this is not really a choral piece but rather a piece for a solo octet, and while they have recorded with orchestra before as well as with organ, this seems to be their first time on record with a chamber music ensemble. It is nice to see Cappella championing repertoire like this; it demonstrates an impressive artistic vision.
Happily, the performance on the disc demonstrates a very real breadth of ability that is equal to that vision. All of the soloists do marvelously with the score; in particular, Mark Powell and LeaAnne DenBeste — who was excellent as the Mother of God soloist in the Toensing Kontakion — are excellent, with crispness of diction and clarity of voice that serves Kyr’s music very well. The Third Angle New Music string trio accompanies the solo octet with a lot of sensitivity, but they are also present enough to never sound like they’re holding back in order to be a “pit band”.
The booklet contains the complete libretto of the oratorio, as well as essays from Dn. Dr. John Chryssavgis, Kyr, and Cappella’s Artistic Director Alexander Lingas. The essays are very much worth reading; they provide useful context for Kyr’s composition, Cappella’s own involvement with its performance and recording, and the interest and theological perspective of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as regards environmental concerns.
I’ll close this review with Kyr’s own words. He closes his own essay with the following:
I believe that music and the arts have a crucial role to play in the transformation of the current energy of cynicism and destruction into the life-sustaining attitude and energy of creativity.
Indeed. Go and do likewise.