Go from agony to ecstasy with Chamber Singers

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

By programming several works of Spanish Renaissance composer Tomás Luis de Victoria with a relatively new work by young Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, the Chamber Singers will explore that great range of emotion, quite literally from agony to ecstasy across several centuries.

Tomás Luis de Victoria was the greatest and most famous of the late Spanish Renaissance composers. Unlike most other composers, Victoria wrote only sacred music. He captured in his music the unique passion of Spanish mysticism and intensity of Spanish belief that combined to touch hearts much in the way that Palestrina did in Italy.

St. John of the Cross (a contemporary of Victoria) wrote his poem “Dark Night of the Soul” while imprisoned for attempting to reform his own Order. The poem is a narrative of the travels of the soul from the moment of death until the soul safely reaches heaven. There are several steps in this process, each treated in a stanza of the poem.

Gjeilo uses three stanzas from the poem for his own “Dark Night,” using his own form of chant — long phrases and meditative repetition — coupled with intense rhythms to translate St. John of the Cross to today’s audience. Gjeilo says, “What this piece was really about was just the sheer desire to write something that could … convey a lot of the grace and passion that is so strong and pulsating in the poem.”

He has the ability to make the piano (the only accompaniment for his piece) an equal partner with the chorus. He uses a driving 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3 rhythm throughout the piece. While this might seem at odds with ethereal chords and flowing phrases, it proves to be the perfect contrast to the music and evokes a powerful sense of the stress and trauma these dark nights hold for all of us from time to time.

Gjeilo uses chord progressions to great effect, taking us in one direction for extended periods, then suddenly heading in another (not unlike Haydn). The careful listener might notice an almost cinematic quality — epic in its own way — in these chord progressions.

An important aspect of the grace and passion of this piece is the piano accompaniment artfully played by Lynda Hakken, the Chamber Singers’ long-time accompanist. In lesser hands, the repetitive rhythm could resemble the dull throb of an impending headache. Hakken turns it instead — as the composer intended — into a passionate, ecstatic duet with the chorus.

The tall, narrow sanctuary and splendid acoustics of First Presbyterian Church will provide a perfect setting for these works.

For more information, to buy tickets for this concert, or to assist in the ongoing financial health of Chamber Singers, please go to icchambersingers.org.

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