Music

Sacrum Mysterium: A Celtic Christmas Vespers

Should magic actually exist, I am convinced that it comes in the form of music. Its ability to heal, to transport, to move the listener in unexpected and meaningful ways. How else to explain how, for an oh-so-brief hour and a half, I could have been so totally removed from any cares or concerns and half expect to walk out the door into the 18th century British Isles?

CD Cover - Sacrum Mysterium: A Celtic Christmas Vespers

The program was Sacrum Mysterium: A Celtic Christmas Vespers. The performers, the renowned Apollo’s Fire, The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Jeanette Sorrell, with Meredith Hall (soprano), Steven Player (dancer/guitar), Jeffrey Strauss & Amanda Powell (cantors) and Ensemble La Nef (artistic director Sylvain Bergeron). I still can’t quite believe I got to hear them, in a crowded church sancturay, on a mid-December’s night, and only five minutes from home! How were we so lucky? Ohio sometimes gets a bad rap from out-of-staters (good place to be from), but we are blessed with opportunites for rich artistic experiences.*

It is a truly lovely program, of music ranging from the 12th to 18th centuries, both sacred and secular, sung and instrumental, in English and Latin and Celtic tongues. As Sorrell says in her program notes, the Celtic Christmas traditions “straddle the crossroads–not only the crossroad of art music and traditional music, but also the crossroads of paganism and Christianity.” The balance played out with one tune flowing seemlessly into the next–often not even pausing for applause, a lack of which seemed appropriate for the most sacred selections, such as from the Vespers of St. Kentigern. At other times, the music was more lively, with one or more of the artists dancing a jig, percussion of feet rather than hands.

But the overall impression I was left with in the end–even more so than the quality and richness of what I had just witnessed–was the idea of Joy. From the solemn vesperts to the uplifting “Allelujah,” composed by Sorrell to unify and link the solumn vesters and the playful dance tunes to the gleeful jigs and reels themselves, a sense of joy pervades and colors the program.  Joy should be central to Christmas, yet we let stress or sorrow or fear or anger or pain or busyness or ambivalence predominate and distract us from our ability to know joy, to feel joy, to share joy. The blessing of the conert for me was the opportunity to reflect upon Joy and to remember that it is there for the taking, if only we so choose.

I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take Peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy. Take Joy.

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

Attributed to Fra Giovanni
A.D. 1513

*And as if one such experience in a week weren’t enough, Saturday was a trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art for a special exhibt, Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, heading to London next month. Although perhaps the layout could have been better (i.e., more spacious – it was so crowded, you could rarely really stand far enough away to get a proper view of some of the paintings), the combination for paintings from all over the world was truely special. I discovered two Spanish painters I’d not previously heard of, Joaquín Sorolla and Santiago Rusiñol. And the big “wow” moment was seeing all three panels of the Agapanthus triptych reunited into one panel.

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2 thoughts on “Sacrum Mysterium: A Celtic Christmas Vespers

    1. Thanks, Cleo! Apollo’s Fire has clips (and a video of one of the songs) on their website, which also sells the CDs. It’s also on Spotify, at least the U.S. version, if you use that.

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