“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers --
That perches in the soul --
And sings the tune without the words --
And never stops — at all.”
— Emily Dickinson
WINCHESTER — Winchester Musica Viva will embark upon its 39th season on an ambitious journey of hope.
The actual title of Viva’s fall concert to be performed this Saturday and Sunday at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church on West Boscawen Street (times are 7:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., respectively, on each day) — is “Signs of New Life.” But the underlying theme, as to be expected when “new life” emerges, is hope.
The concert, addressing hope and new life over four platforms, is a multi-disciplinary approach, featuring the thoughtful prose of Viva artistic director Ken Nafziger, poetry running the gamut from Emily Dickinson to Maya Angelou, the organ virtuosity of Shenandoah University graduate and current Director of Chapel Music at Yale Nathaniel Gumbs, and, of course, the stirring voices of the chamber choir that is Musica Viva.
The program begins with a metaphorical reading about the mythical and majestic phoenix, which builds its own funeral pyre and then rises “gloriously” from the ashes. The metaphor underscores the starting point for this concert, or the stepping-off point for hope’s journey, as envisioned by Nafziger, a master concert-builder. And that was the April 15 burning of the one of the world’s most iconic buildings, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
Nafziger calls upon the prose of Stephen Marche, a Canadian writer, who, in reflecting on the fire, reminds his readers “that nothing lasts forever.” And yet, certainly in the lifetime of Marche’s teenage son — and perhaps in the writer’s own — Notre Dame will rise again, a testament to hope and, yes, to the myth of the phoenix.
Nafziger, in an interview Tuesday, seizes on that hope to pose a basic and obvious question: “If we could do this, rebuild this old building, why can’t we feed the hungry?”
Part I of the concert, dedicated to Notre Dame and her patron saint, the Blessed Virgin, ends with music devoted to building and Mother — “Priere a Notre Dame,” “The Magnificat,” and “Ubi Caritas.”
The other three parts of the program are not exactly variations on this opening theme, but they do follow a similar format. The second tells the story of Holy Week though a march, a deep wailing, and a dance — all meant to dispel the doubt of early Christians about the events of Calvary and beyond. It is here, in the words of St. Paul, that the concert finds its title, “Signs of New Life.
Music in this part ranges from Handel to the Negro spiritual “Were You There?”
Death, of all things, takes precedence in Part III, and is perhaps the most ambitious part of this tour de force, as Nafziger endeavors to explain “death from outside to inside” through the media of poetry and music. Is there hope in this section? Yes — and wonder, too — in poet Mary Oliver’s musing about leaving this veil for another: “I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering what it’s going to be like, that cottage of darkness.” And also in the well-known hymn, whose uplifting words tell the listener: “When peace like a river attendeth my way/when sorrow like sea billows roll/whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say/It is well, it is well with my soul.”
Part IV places the audience squarely in modern times and the present day — as Viva initiates the segment with “Este Momento,” an Argentinian tango that welcomed Pope Francis to Washington, D.C. and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The tone — though not the yearning for hope — changes when the program moves to the civil-rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and to a hymn written between the world wars gently nudging us that work for peace and justice remain unfinished (“God of Grace and God of Glory”).
As Nafziger says, this extended sojourn through hope and time points to “signs of new life, even in old hopeful things. All the troubles we go through, there’s always something to be hopeful about.”
Music, in particular.