Chamber Singers will stage ‘Agony and Ecstasy’

Tomás Luis de Victoria was the greatest and most widely known composer of his time. He was for Spain what Palestrina was for Italy, and his works are still popular today. He was a composer, an organist, a choir director and a priest who, unlike most composers at his time, wrote only sacred music. His greatest works are those he wrote for Holy Week. The powerful themes of betrayal and sacrifice are clearly evident in his music. So carefully composed are these works that one could listen only to the music without the words and still be deeply moved.

In “Amicus meus osculi,” the text reads, “My friend has betrayed me with a kiss … he who committed murder by a kiss gave this wicked sign.” Victoria’s music carries us from this betrayal through Jesus’ own agony and ecstasy, his arrest, torture, crucifixion and ultimately his resurrection with a great Alleluia at the end of “O sacrum convivium.”

St. John of the Cross was a contemporary of Victoria’s who suffered a similar betrayal in his life. While he was attempting to reform his Order, his confreres were so outraged that they imprisoned him. While in confinement, he experienced and wrote what we know as his “Dark Night of the Soul,” one of the greatest mystical poems of the Christian faith. In it, the soul, having left the body at death (agony), passes through 10 steps on its way to heaven (ecstasy). Each step has a stanza in the poem. Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo has taken three stanzas of the poem to set to music.

Using long phrases and repetition, Gjeilo’s music takes us through some of the “Dark Night,” much in the way that Victoria leads us through Holy Week.

The humble eighth note plays a particularly important role in this piece. Arranged by Gjeilo in groupings of 2-2-3, these short notes and the Chamber Singers’ skillful pulsing at intervals provide the rhythmic engine that drives and carries the music above it, keeping everything afloat with a gentle undulation. The piano accompaniment and chorus perform a duet in tension and release that makes the “Dark Night” darker and its resolution sweeter. The soloist for the Gjeilo piece is Sarah Fisk, who sang superbly on the Schubert work last February and for “The Seasons” this past fall.

Casey Rafn, a graduate student at the University of Iowa, will play the accompaniment on “Dark Night of the Soul.” His masterful interpretation is exactly what Ola Gjeilo set out to accomplish: a duet between chorus and orchestra so important to this work.

Joining the Singers will be a string quartet and UI’s Trombone Quartet, which will play some of Victoria’s motets.

The Chamber Singers of Iowa City will present “Agony and Ecstasy: Works by Victoria and Gjeilo” at 3 p.m. Feb. 23 in First Presbyterian Church, 2701 Rochester Ave. in Iowa City.

James Petersen sings with the Chamber Singers of Iowa City and the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre chorus.