Ave Maria... Amen.

Our Lady of the Sign

I don't suppose that any review is objective. A review, after all, is the report of how one person sees, hears or tastes some artistic presentation, how one person is touched, moved or changed by art. We trust a reviewer who understands something of art and is honest about the influences and prejudices which weight his opinion. With that in mind, then, be aware that I came to the concert, Chosen From All Women, confident that Lauren Sprague and Carol Messina would do a fine piece of work. Indeed, they did. What I did not expect was to be drawn into music that would move me to tears with its beauty, several times.

My readers here seem not at all to have tired of the series of Ave's I posted in anticipation of this concert - nor did I tire of searching them out and choosing from so many possibilities. What is it about this prayer that calls so many composers to set it to music and us to be so moved by it? Perhaps it's the short, theologically and powerfully charged phrases:

Mary, full of grace...
the Lord is with you...
blessed are you among all women...
Holy Mary...

Mother of God...

pray for us, sinners...

at the hour of our death...

These are brief, familiar phrases uttered millions of times as a prayer before bed or as part of a rosary... sparse phrases summing up so much of Christian theology... words learned in childhood, remembered at death's door... And these are words first addressed by an angel to the one chosen from all women to be the mother of the Christ. She would be, as the Orthodox name her, Theotokos, the God-bearer, she who would bear the Word of God made flesh in her womb. And these are words addressed to the mother of Christ by his brothers and sisters who call her their mother, too, and plead that she pray for them always and especially at the hour of death.

Even those who are not believers might be moved by such words.

Is it the musical setting that brings greater beauty to this prayer? Or is it the prayer that lends an extra measure of beauty to the setting? Perhaps we need not choose between the two.

Beginning with a 9th century Carolingian chant setting of the story of the Annunciation, Lauren caught our attention with this early music's haunting sound. What the program notes described as melismatic passages drew us in, letting us glide with the soprano voice over soft hills and dales of sweet sound. This was a setting capable of bridging us with another, earlier age of belief but one familiar enough to sound at home in Monument Square on a September night.

The Ave Maria by Jehan Alain (+1940) is a rich composition where the melody allows the singer's voice to be thoroughly integrated with the organ accompaniment, like a living, breathing vox humana stop on the instrument. The composer, the soprano and the organist moved as one through this beautiful setting.

I especially liked the tempo Carol and Lauren set for the Bach-Gounod Ave. There was an easy, flowing measuredness here that did not, as in some performances, make too much of the Bach foundation at the expense of the Gounod moving across it. Those who have followed my posts on the Ave heard several renditions of this piece. The Sprague-Messina entry was more than worthy of its place here.

Not familiar with the Mascagni from its title in the program, I recognized the music in performance - and you would, too. This is a setting of the Sancta Maria based on the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana. The Intermezzo is orchestral in its original form but has been arranged as a Marian piece by several composers. Lauren sang the Steven Mercurio rendition with a final Amen which seemed to reach the clouds.

The MacMillan Ave was delivered with a liquid flow of sound, like musical mercury moving smoothly and with a brightness all its own. The 6th and final Ave on the program was the Schubert composition. I'm sure that many in the audience returned in their hearts to their own weddings or the weddings of friends as they heard this familiar piece. Rare would be the wedding, however, where it was sung as beautifully as it was here.

The last four numbers on the program brought us to contemporary compositions (1981-1994).
Mary Alone by David Guion is a prayer to Mary from the heart of a mother who has lost her son to war. Lauren provided the grieving mother a brave voice, aching out in prayer to the mother of Jesus who knew so well the loss of a child to a tragic death.

Accept the Fountain of My Tears is sung in the Byzantine liturgy on Wednesday of Holy Week. Not a Marian piece, it is the prayer of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet and dried them with her hair at the home of the pharisee in Luke 7. Composer Richard DeLong died at the age of 43. I'm grateful to Lauren and Carol for bringing this heart's song to our ears with such plaintive beauty.

Many may have recognized the Chris Eaton/Amy Grant selection, Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song). The breadth of color in Lauren's was evident here. Could this have been the same voice who, only a half hour before, had glided over the Carolingian chant? It was. A perfect close to the concert was Christmas Lullaby from composer Jason Robert Brown. Again, another dimension of Lauren's voice was revealed, giving up a hearty, "I will be like Mother Mary with a blessing in my soul!"

"Accompanist" is far to weak a word to describe the contribution Carol Messina made to Sunday night's concert. At both the piano and organ keyboards her music was, indeed, the other half of this performance. Her playing was as strong as it was nuanced, as sure as it was gentle. It's a credit to Carol's talent and skill and to her collaboration with Lauren that the two provided us with music as solid in its most quiet moments as it was in the determination of the closing piece. They tell me that at the conservatories, the word "accompanist" is being replaced by "collaborative pianist" and Sunday night's performance was a case in point.

As a liturgist, my imagination was jumping ahead to December, Advent and Christmas and the ways in which some of this music might be part of our liturgical prayer in those holy days. I'm so grateful that even now, in the season of Ordinary Time, such extraordinary music was like a gift for us, wrapped in the music of these two women who regularly lead us in sung prayer.

The free will offering went, at the performers' request, to Rosie's Place in Boston. May I suggest that as spiritual thank-you note, we might all pray an Ave Maria for the two women who helped us celebrate the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

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