A Radiant Oratorio For A Cathedral Suffused With Light

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Strictly speaking, the word “cathedral” in the name was a misnomer. “Cathedral” comes from the word “cathedra,” which originally referred to the raised throne of a bishop. Over time, the term cathedral came to mean the “seat,” or home church, of a bishop. Evangelical Protestants do not have bishops.

After Schuller’s ministry went bankrupt, the building was remodeled to be suitable for Catholic worship, and its consecration as Christ Cathedral made it a true cathedral after all.

A National Catholic Register commentary, “Christ Cathedral’s transformation is an act of providence,” notes “the deep conviction in the diocese that only Providence could explain the highly unusual path that led the bankrupt television ministry to sell its property and buildings to the Catholic diocese.”

“And it is hard to argue. A building called a ‘cathedral’ when it wasn’t one, and couldn’t be one, now is one.”

On COVID-19 time

After the remodeling was complete, a formal dedication Mass was held on July 17, 2019. The premiere of “Fiat Lux” was originally scheduled to follow in March 2020, but COVID-19 intervened. As Dana Gioia said when he first sent around an announcement about the upcoming rescheduled performances some months ago, “The music was ready, but the orchestra and choir could not perform. Rescheduling the composer, the symphony, and the chorus afterward became a huge problem.”

Finally all of the principles, the composer, the poet, the symphony, and the chorus came together in Orange County, and on June 15, 16 and 17, three premiere performances were staged at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, followed by an encore performance on June 20 in Garden Grove at the Christ Cathedral — for which the work was commissioned.

Segerstrom Hall performances

At Segerstrom Concert Hall, “Fiat Lux” was programmed as the final work in a program titled “Cathedrals Of Sound,” following Allegri’s “Miserere,” and Strauss’ “Death And Transfiguration.”

“Nearly two hundred musicians took part in the premiere, including 120 members of the Pacific Chorale,” Dana Gioia said. “Everyone knew that they were involved in the creation of a major work.

“‘Fiat Lux’ is a complex work. It required the full skill of every singer and musician. Each evening from the dress rehearsal to the final night in Segerstrom Hall, the performance gathered greater momentum, becoming more assured, luminous, and immediate.”

Gioia’s comments and other early reviews of “Fiat Lux” at the Segerstrom concert hall set radiant expectations for the final performance at the cathedral. The Benedict XVI Institute’s composer-in-residence, Frank La Rocca, attended the first performance at Segerstrom and wrote on Facebook the next day, “I can only say ‘and there was light.’ Glorious, moving, spectacular light. Bravo to MacMillan and Gioia on this masterpiece!”

Mark Swed, a veteran Los Angeles Times classical music critic, ecstatically approved in his review, “The refurbished Christ Cathedral, and its humongous organ, find unexpected magnificence”:

“‘Fiat Lux’ is in five sections and begins with ‘In the beginning.’ The Earth is without form and void, but there is air. The strings make weird flickering noises while brass players become wind-makers blowing ethereal breaths into their instruments. A solo baritone chants the biblical text in Latin; a soprano responds in English. Deep brass take us from the depths of the waters, Wagner-like, to the surface.

“The chorus, in the old musical forms of canon and fugue, demands light. Let there be light (fiat lux) is first a glimmer, and then, there is light. As far as I could tell, no one touched the light switches in Segerstrom, but the explosion of mass voices and orchestra and organ so overwhelmed the senses, I wouldn’t swear to that.”

Equally adulatory was the preview article at Classical Voice titled “Pacific Chorale and Symphony spark life into James MacMillan’s Fiat Lux”:

San Francisco Classical Voice critic Victoria Looseleaf writes:

“MacMillan, an outspokenly Catholic composer, has been exploring sacred themes for decades. His religion has influenced ‘a lot of what I’ve done, but not every piece I write is sacred. … Dana’s poem celebrates this place that is California, and there are references throughout. It hints at the consecration of a sacred space, but beyond that it’s the sacred space of this land, California.’”

Christ Cathedral final performance

I attended the June 20 performance with high expectations of sharing in some of the much-praised luminance. I was not disappointed. I might even still be glowing.

The encore performance at Christ Cathedral of “Fiat Lux” was billed as “Pacific Symphony & Pacific Chorale inconcert with Paul Jacobs,” and the opening pieces were programmed to additionally celebrate the refurbishment of the cathedral’s Hazel Wright Organ, the fifth-largest pipe organ in the world.

The concert on June 20 began with Alexandre Guilmant’s “Premiere Symphonie for Organ and Orchestra.” Prodigiously talented Paul Jacobs, who is said to be the only Grammy award-winning organist ever (in 2011 for Messiaen’s “Book of the Blessed Sacrament”) ably demonstrated the capacities of “the Hazel,” as it is affectionately known. Jacobs told the audience that a priest friend of his when he was growing up, Father John, had attended the dedication of this very organ when it was first installed in 1982, and he had told Jacobs he had “never heard anything like it.”

I have to say the same. I’ve never heard such a grand organ sound so mellow, with no squeaks or squeals or harshness, just beautiful rich sound.

Before the performance, in an interview with Pacific Symphony Orchestra conductor Carl St. Clair, Dana Gioia spoke at some length about his creative process:

“When I realized I had the honor of collaborating with James MacMillan, one of the greatest composers in the world, to celebrate the rededication of this iconic modernist church as a Catholic cathedral I knew the work that we created had to be special, had to reflect the place. I began thinking of what it’s like going into European cathedrals. They’re vast. They’re solemn. And they’re shadowy. But here you’re suffused by light. This is a modern building in which we are bringing the ancient rites of the Church. I thought that dichotomy had to be reflected,” he said. “Is there a greater act of faith than building a glass cathedral in California?”

Gioia continued:

“It just struck me. You’ll see it in the opening lines of the final hymn.

‘Upon this rock,

Our cross and spire

built in a land

of quake and fire.

‘Fragile as glass,

bright as the air,

the angled walls

folded in prayer.’

“I wanted to literally celebrate this space in which we now celebrate the sacraments. So the pitch I made to James was, ‘Don’t you think we could build the whole work around the idea of light?’ And that prompted the structure of the piece.”





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