Q & A: Chanticleer's Joseph Jennings Discusses And On Earth, Peace _ A Chanticleer Mass

Classic Arts News   Q & A: Chanticleer's Joseph Jennings Discusses And On Earth, Peace _ A Chanticleer Mass
Tonight at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the world-renowned 12-man vocal ensemble Chanticleer gives the world premiere of its latest commission: And On Earth, Peace — A Chanticleer Mass. This contemporary take on the traditional Mass setting involves five composers — Douglas J. Cuomo, Kamran Ince, Michael McGlynn, Ivan Moody and Shulamit Ran — each setting one of the traditional movements.

In the interview below, Chanticleer music director Joseph Jennings talks about the genesis of this new work, how the collaboration between the composers developed, and what the group's founder might think of his famous musical offspring today.

Q: The title of your new commission is And On Earth, Peace — A Chanticleer Mass. With the state of the world as it is, with religious intolerance fanning so much hatred and violence, was your idea of commissioning composers from different musical and cultural backgrounds to compose a political statement of sorts?

Well, it didn't really start as a Mass for peace, but it ended that way. I did want different views of faith and people's experiences with faith to be represented. And I wanted our mass to represent a broader sense than just the Catholic faith, even though it is a Mass; what's represented in a Mass is more universal than what's in the liturgy. I wanted people of the Christian and Orthodox faith to be represented, but having a Jewish composer and other faith backgrounds was very important.

I also wanted to work with composers whose bulk of work wasn't choral music or sacred music. Faith reaches beyond those bounds. Many people who don't go to church have faith. I wanted to us to work outside of the traditional religious denominational box.

Q: In commissioning five different composers, was it almost an act of faith to hope that the pieces they gave you would fit together well in one work?

Yes, I had to trust whatever would come. None of these composers would know what the others were contributing to the larger work. That would be a part of the architecture. But I also knew that selections of early music there between the movements would be cornerstones — perhaps anchors are a better word — that would glue everything together.

Q: What was your reaction to hearing all of the pieces together as one work?

It was actually kind of odd because I was preoccupied with getting it all recorded and edited and mastered and that's a different kind of listening than being away from it and hearing it as a whole. Now, I've tried to go back and listen to it as a "new piece," as a fresh kind of piece. It's remarkable in that certain elements of all the composed movements overlap, even though each composer didn't know what the others were writing. They met the challenge of their individual movements, although they weren't able to think of the whole architecture. Each approached that challenge in his or her own way, and although they are all different, they do all somehow work together. There's an underlying thread of a deep kind of faith, and the plea for peace.

Q: And when did you actually come up with the name of the piece?

After we asked the composers to write their movements, we talked about a name, Et in terra pax, which translates into English as "And on Earth, Peace." Sanctus is the regular Sanctus text and the Agnus Dei ends up with "Dona nobis pacem" ["Grant us peace"]. Kamran's texts talk about people of many different backgrounds — Muslin, Christmas, Jews — coming together as one. Shulamit's piece is about faith in the face of adversity, with God as the father of all. With these ideas and connections, the piece essentially named itself.

Q: So it was almost an organic process ...

Some things need to be left alone; we need to let them do what they are supposed to do. Ivan [Moody] said something great in his introduction to his piece: "'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord' brings that apparently abstract idea of holiness to earth and to humanity in a very immediate fashion. For who truly comes in the name of the Lord but the man of peace?"

Q: How do you think Chanticleer's founder, Louis Botto, would have responded to this piece?

I think he'd be thinking that this is an exciting thing for us to do. Early music has always been part of our repertoire, and we've done lots and lots of Masses because they're a staple for us — like symphonies are for an orchestra. But to have a Mass written for us, not all written by one composer (even though some Masses have been performed in this way in the past), and for it to be representative of different faiths and beliefs: I think he'd be very pleased with what we've achieved.

I think he would be thrilled and excited and pleased that Chanticleer has continued to grow and has been true to its mission for almost 30 years — especially in the last ten years when he hasn't been around as a guiding force. But his vision — his dream — has lived on and has taken on a life of its own. It's still doing what it was doing before: presenting music to people everywhere. We're traveling, sometimes to remote places, to sing, and we're still very much involved in new works and commissioning important works and composers; pieces that we've done are being performed by other choirs; we're still involved in education and reaching out to young singers.

Probably what would be "funny" to him is that we have people in Chanticleer who are younger than Chanticleer itself. He'd get a kick out of that. I'd think he'd be happy to know that there are young people thinking in high school that their ambition is to sing in Chanticleer one day.

Q: What else might Louis Botto think about today's Chanticleer?

Chanticleer maintains a relationship with its roots in performing early music: that would please him. This is a new piece with early music in it and it's based on early music — meaning sacred music and the Mass form; this is something he'd be pleased with. He'd like the fact that we've brought the Mass into the present day. Even though Masses are being written and performed, big Masses are not as prevalent as they were in their proliferation period. Here is an important group commissioning a new Mass for performance and recording, to be done in several places: he'd be pleased with that.

Finally, I think he'd be as happy as I am that this piece might have a life of its own after its initial performances. Other groups might pick up some individual movements; some might do the whole thing. Some movements would work very well in a liturgical situation, others in a concert situation. That's very exciting!

Q: Would you tell us just a bit about each movement?

The simple text of the Kyrie — "Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy" — has led some composers in the past to give it less weight than the other movements. But the extended Kyrie by Douglas Cuomo is a more involved kind of work with its plea for mercy at this time. It really sounds as though it comes from a more desperate sort of place and plea, versus something perfunctory. It has deeper meaning than one might expect.

For the Gloria movement, Kamran didn't use the traditional text. The Rumi is an amazing text with captivating phrases such as "everywhere the aroma of God." It's really something!

Shulamit is Jewish and by the time I talked with her the other movements were spoken for. She told me she'd have to approach it from her perspective, and I said of course — I would expect that. Judaism is more than a religion of faith: it's a nationality of faith. She took the first words — "I believe in one God, the maker of all things" — from the traditional Mass text, and then drew from the 13 principles of faith. As it turns out, these principles are more universal than to just the Jewish faith. The idea of faith in the face of adversity is incorporated from a reading about the Holocaust — In the final line, a person says to his daughter, "Do not forget one thing: God is the father of everyone," just before they are both killed. In that instant, God is still the father of everyone — even those who persecute us. God is greater than all of these things that come into our humanness. Faith in the face of adversity means that you sometimes question God and even argue with him, but you don't deny his existence.

The Sanctus is in Greek and it's a very shimmering movement. Ivan has written a lot of sacred music and he's from the Orthodox tradition. The idea behind the setting was the mosaics in Ravenna, which brought together East and West. So he saw this as a reconciliation, as it were.

The Agnus Dei is by Michael McGlynn, an Irishman. Right away he said he wanted to do this movement because it ends with "Dona nobis pacem." He thought that movement would resonate with him and he liked the text. He started with the Gaelic version; the basic translation is the same, but the meaning of the words has more gravity than in the English translation. Gaelic speakers would know this: words seem to mean the same thing, but that doesn't cover all the meanings. It's a very peaceful movement, and also hopeful; it somehow radiates not only a plea for peace in the final section, but also an assurance and inner sense that peace will actually come — that the prayer has been heard and answered in the affirmative and peace is on the way.

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Following tonight's world premiere of And on Earth, Peace, Chanticleer will perform the work six times in California over the next two months:

May 18 - Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
May 19 - St. Joseph's Cathedral Basilica, San Jose
May 20 - First Congregational Church, Berkeley
June 1 - Carmel Mission, Carmel
June 2 - Congregation Sherith Israel, San Francisco
June 3 - St. Francis Church, Sacramento

Warner Classics will issue the new Mass's world-premiere recording in early May.

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