Abstract art, holy music coalesce beautifully in Rockefeller Chapel

By Joel Lanceta

Imagine: In a Gothic chapel shrouded in darkness, 13 abstract paintings of the apostles hang above the audience. Coupled with the ethereality of Felix Mendelssohn’s Te Deum, a rich tapestry of music and sound was formed.

Last Saturday, the Department of Music presented “In the Glorious Company of the Apostles,” a concert that celebrated and utilized the works of Swedish artist Michel Ostlund to amplify the sacredness of music. Rockefeller Chapel served as the setting for the concert performed by the University Chorus, the Motet Choir, the Rockefeller Chapel Choir, and the Women’s Chorus.

Ostlund is an abstract artist whose latest series of works, portraits of the apostles of Jesus Christ, are usually presented in dimly lit cathedral settings with religious music set in the background. In Ostlund’s portraits, the blurred outlines and abstract structures don’t show the apostles in any distinct physical form, but instead augment their internal attributes and make their holiness transcend the human body.

The concert, framed like the music of a liturgical Mass, sought to transcend all human boundaries. For the most part, the choirs succeeded in channeling a heavenly voice proclaiming God’s glory.

Swedish composer Hugo Hammarstrom’s version of Kyrie, the first song, was simplistic and carried only one melody. Nonetheless, it was still an evocative plea for forgiveness (the first lyric, translated from the Greek, means “Lord have mercy”). The Women’s Chorus, solemnly performing the haunting Kyrie from the back of Rock Chapel in the Organ Gallery, turned audience’s heads.

In another example of creative placement, several members of the Rockefeller Chapel Choir marched down the aisle of the Chapel performing two pieces: Venit ad Petrum (a medieval plainchant describing the humility of St. Peter) and Apostolo Glorioso/Cum tua doctrina convertisti/Andreas Christi famulus (a five-voice isorhythmic and polytextual Renaissance motet praising the holiness of St. Andrew). They were reminiscent of a procession of chanting monks. Special congratulations should go to the brave chorus members who performed—Geertui Spaepen, Pamela Bergson, Dennis Fiser, Travis Schedler, Andrew Westerhaus, and John McAllister on horn—and to Michael Anderson, the Chapel Choir conductor, for choosing and guiding such a rich, stunning selection.

The following selections were Angus Dei and Gloria, modern Swedish atonal classical pieces performed by the Motet Choir and the full Rockefeller Chapel Choir, respectively. Probably due to the compositions themselves (not the singers), the concert lagged in the same religiosity and otherworldliness displayed so effortlessly before. The experimental tone groups, repeating triads, and multiple pitches radiating from the choirs did not sound like angelic voices but more like a poor imitation by imperfect humans. Even the intensity of the Rockefeller Chapel Choir during Gloria could not hide its divergence from the rest of the pieces. (The Choir spoke rather than sang some words during Gloria, which felt more contrived than anything else.)

It was up to the elevating voices of the University Chorus to restore that same ethereal holiness to the concert with Felix Mendelssohn’s Te Deum in D, the end hymn of praise in a Christian service that celebrates God and all those who are faithful. Mendelssohn’s richly nuanced and lyrical 12-section composition, written when he was only 17 years old, shows his mastery of music.

But credit is also due to the University Chorus, who delicately and elegantly conveyed a tapestry of motifs and different moods of Te Deum, going from jubilant to penitent, intimidated to secure, and back to joyous again. It was a fitting, heavenly end to a concert that celebrated the celestial world—a chorus of humans becoming one voice of God.