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A unique Advent/Christmas album sets the O Antiphons to music

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 16, 2016

As Jennifer Gregory Miller has noted, tomorrow begins the O Antiphons prayed at Vespers for the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve. Few enough even among practicing Catholics are probably aware of the O Antiphons that it is a pleasant surprise to see that an album largely based around them has been at the top of Billboard’s traditional classical music chart for five weeks—at number one for two weeks after it debuted and at number two since.

The album, O Emmanuel, was commissioned last year by the Notre Dame Children’s Choir to composer and pianist J.J. Wright. Wright, a Catholic, was trained as a jazz musician at Manhattan’s New School, is an alumni of the U.S. Naval Academy Band, and is currently studying at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music and interning with the Sistine Chapel Choir in Rome. O Emmanuel is centered around the Notre Dame Children’s Choir but also features a chamber group (the Fifth House Ensemble), Wright’s jazz trio, and a few adult singers.

As might be gathered from the above, O Emmanuel is not merely a “traditional classical” album, however felicitous its accolades in that genre. It eclectically combines traditional hymns, Gregorian chant and liturgical texts with modern classical compositional techniques, occasionally interspersed with jazz and gospel sections (at which times the jazz trio is most active). These elements are sometimes juxtaposed separately, elsewhere combined with varying degrees of complexity.

Wright displays clear competence and conversance with all these compositional approaches throughout, but for me the most interesting and moving sections were those making use of what might be called minimalist techniques, as in the overlapping and repeating clarinet runs on the traditional Basque carol “Gabriel’s Message” which prefaces the “O Emmanuel” suite. Perhaps my favorite piece, “Adonai,” cycles a simple but highly evocative three-note motive in the piano and strings, which functions not only as thematic material but as a pad for sung melodies and piano improvisation.

Other modern techniques are put to effective use as well. “Clavis” begins with eerie, dissonant vocal stuttering invoking “you [who] open and no one can shut; you [who] shut and no one can open,” eventually succeeded by the children’s choir repeating “those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,” finally relieved by a sudden stylistic switch to a child soloist singing a sweet pop-gospel melody over a simple piano chord progression. The soloist is joined by the whole choir and the chamber ensemble, repeating “come and lead those captive from their prisons, O Lord” while fluttering woodwinds above and a soft drum solo below convey a sense not so much of exuberant release but of trembling, hopeful anticipation of that release.

Old and new are effectively combined in “Radix,” where the hymn “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and a new melody for the text of the antiphon are sung simultaneously by the children’s choir and adult singers respectively, with some tension between the two that resolves only gradually. Finally the hymn takes over, the rhythm becomes more regular, and adults and children are joined by piano and pizzicato strings glimmering and winking like guiding stars in the firmament.

While the main focus of the album is on the Notre Dame Children’s Choir and secondarily on J.J. Wright’s trio, which gets to let loose on its own a fair bit as the suite progresses, I must also compliment the adult singers and classical instrumentalists for their excellent work. No small part of the beauty of “Adonai” is due to tenor Brendan Touhy and baritone David Farwig, whose deep voices blend gorgeously with the low strings and occasional subtle bassoon. The Fifth House Ensemble, a chamber group of strings and woodwinds, is well-used by the composer, adding much color throughout which greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the album.

O Emmanuel may be previewed and purchased at the Dynamic Catholic Institute’s site.

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Dec. 17, 2016 12:52 AM ET USA

    It would help to have some specific tie between the various tracks and the O antiphons.