Pamela Madsen – Oratorio for the Earth

The world premiere of Oratorio for the Earth by Pamela Madsen was heard in the Meng Concert Hall at Cal State University, Fullerton on May 14, 2022. If you couldn’t make it to the performance, a video of a quite satisfactory quality is now available online. This seven-movement oratorio is scored for a full orchestra, a large chorus and six vocal soloists who are the Hex Ensemble. The work offers a dramatic commentary on the uncertain state of nature and the earth in a time of portentous climate change. While the scope and scale of Oratorio for the Earth is daunting, composer Madsen’s score has risen to the challenge and the musicians have delivered a powerful and moving performance.

The structure of the piece is text-book oratorio, with four set-piece chorus movements interspersed with vocal solos and smaller settings by the Hex Ensemble. There are also spoken texts that function as recitative. The larger choral movements begin in winter and circle around to summer, following the seasons. The wide-ranging texts include sacred Latin as well as the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Frost, Sitting Bull, Walt Whitman, Sara Teasdale, Mary Hunter Austin and William Butler Yeats. According to the program notes: “Oratorio for the Earth is part of a tryptic of concert-length works focusing on Earth and the environment…”

The news about nature, the earth and climate has been discouraging for at least a decade, and “Lost Horse Mine Lament”, the opening movement of Oratorio for the Earth, clearly reflects this. Church-like chimes are heard as the chorus sings softly in Latin “Truth, the light, the truth and the life – let there be light.” This continues in a warm, full harmony with the higher voices ultimately dominating. The singing turns pensive and a syncopated accompaniment in the percussion adds to the interesting harmonies in the chorus. The chorus is always very much in the foreground while the orchestral accompaniment is appropriately restrained. Molly Pease sings a beautiful mezzo-soprano solo based on a sorrowful Rilke text at the quiet finish. Throughout this movement, and through the entire oratorio, the large orchestra never overpowers the singing. This careful balance is primarily due to the skillful conducting of Kimo Furumoto, aided by the fine acoustic of the concert hall.

The succeeding movements generally follow the somber tone of the opening. “O, Lacrimosa: Ah, But the Winter”, the second movement, has an almost melancholy feeling with solemn piano chords and vocal lines that separate into layers, weaving in and out. The somber Rilke text portrays winter as death before the coming spring. “Center of all Centers”, movement III, is more unsettled, with dissonance in the orchestra and a soaring vocal line arcing above with text by Robert Frost. As with other movements, the orchestra is subdued, with only the occasional forte phrase. Towards the middle of this movement, there is a sudden tempo change as the rhythms become more active. A soloist sings from text by Rilke “Suddenly, from all the green around you, something – you don’t know what – has disappeared;” The chorus joins in full harmony and the feeling is one of an awakening as the text speaks of plants about to spring forth. The orchestra crescendos along with the chorus as this movement reaches its climax.

“O Lacrimosa: O, tear-filled figure”, movement IV, follows and this is a fine contrast to the previous chorus. The opening consists of short vocal phrases by the women soloists with only a few piano notes in accompaniment – the orchestra is tacet. A gentle soprano solo enters with the text “O tear-filled figure who, like a sky held back, grows heavy above the landscape of her sorrow.” More female singing is heard, layered in contrasting registers with a beautiful high soprano line. Movement V opens with a cautionary text by Sitting Bull: “Behold my friends, Behold my friends. They claim our mother Earth for their own.” The ominously deep chords in the piano nicely compliment the bass-baritone soloist and higher voices join in to create an austere harmony. The text soon turns to a Latin Adoramus te and this presents an intriguing fusion of traditional Christian liturgy and Native American spirituality: Christ’s sacrifice and redemption in the context of nature’s springtime renewal. The singing here by the Hex Ensemble is masterfully controlled and complimented by the suitably spare orchestral accompaniment.

The extraordinarily deep bass of James Hayden opens Movement VI “Now the Hour Bows Down” with Rilke’s dramatic text sung in German. This movement was commissioned by Nicholas Isherwood, another bass with an extraordinary vocal range. The orchestra gradually joins in adding anxiety and the feeling now becomes one of almost total despair. At this moment of deep anguish, the female voices enter in hopeful harmony and the text shifts to Psalm 69. Soon, male and female voices join together to sing “Save me O Lord, for the waters have come into my soul.” The deep bass is now singing purposefully in English as the volume builds and confidence increases. This is a welcome ray of optimism shining out at the end of what is probably the darkest movement in the entire oratorio.

The table is now set for the final redemptive movement, “Earth Horizon”, beginning with spoken text from Walt Whitman’s “A California Song! Song of the Redwood Trees.” This describes the fall of a dying redwood in the forest, accompanied by the orchestra and chorus. The feeling is at once sad and triumphant as the choral singing gradually increases in strength and optimism. The ensemble is both stirring and beautiful, without overwhelming the mood. As the choral text turns to “There Will Be Rest”, by Sara Teasdale, a sense of serenity runs through the layers and waves of music that flow outward. A series of orchestral trills and purposeful phrases are heard as the singing shifts to Rilke’s “All Is Love”. The chorus escalates the dynamic dramatically, then subsides as the text of “Earth Horizon” by Mary Hunter Austin is spoken. This is the philosophical core of the entire piece, articulating the disappointment in our treatment of the environment but leaving room for optimism; nature will recover and humans can re-establish a mutually beneficial relationship with the earth. This is followed by a haunting alto solo, soon joined by the full orchestra and chorus singing a soothing text by W.B. Yeats. With a gentle crescendo, the final movement – and Oratorio for the Earth – is completed.

With great power comes great responsibility. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Oratorio for the Earth is the discipline and restraint in both the writing and performing. The vast musical forces at the disposal of composer Madsen could well have spun out of control given the solemn subject of this work. The use of the orchestra, chorus and soloists is precisely balanced and provides a pleasingly varied sequence of movements. The many texts are used to good effect and the orchestral accompaniment always makes space for the chorus and soloists. The overall emotional arc of the oratorio is masterfully crafted and makes the final movement that much more memorable. Large-scale contemporary music is seldom heard these days but Oratorio for the Earth shows that this form can still deliver a compelling message.

The full video of Oratorio for the Earth is available here and the program notes are here. The movement titles and sung text are helpfully displayed on the screen, and this is especially useful for some of the quiet choral pieces – the chorus is seated well to the back of the stage and the softer words are sometimes difficult to hear. The program notes contain the complete set of the texts and these can be easily followed to mark when changes occur within the movements. There is also a complete list of the performers and the technical crew. The sound, video engineering, lighting and stage management are all first rate and free of any distractions. The video of Oratorio for the Earth is a fine production of a large, complex work and provides a clear conduit for the artistry on stage.

The HEX Ensemble is:

Joslyn Sarshad, soprano
Molly Pease, soprano
Lindsay Patterson Abdou, alto
Fahad Siadat, tenor, director
Scott Graff, baritone
James Hayden, baritone
Andrew Anderson, piano

The concert program listing all the performers is available here.


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