O alto e glorioso Dio, the Latin prayer goes, illumina le tenebre del cuore mio.
As she knelt before the famous San Damiano cross in Assisi, Italy — the same cross St. Francis is believed to have prayed before in the 12th century — contemporary composer Joan Szymko read, and copied, the “Prayer Before the Crucifix,” posted alongside.
“All highest, glorious God,” it begins, “cast your light into the darkness of my heart.”
St. Francis’s experience before the crucifx inspired him to compose one of his oldest, most famous prayers.
Back home, Syzmko, who the New York Times has called a composer of “ethereal vocal music,” was inspired to set St. Francis’s words to music for the Chamber Choir of the First Unitarian Church in Portland.
Last summer, in the San Juans, Rhonda Muckerman, artistic director of the Telluride Choral Society, was inspired to choose Syzmko’s (and St. Francis’s) composition for the 2019 WinterSing holiday concert.
The haunting “Illumina le Tenebre” (“Light into the Darkness”) will be the opening selection Friday at Christ Church in a program that is titled “Light of the Season.”
Though Muckerman does not describe herself as religious, much less Roman Catholic, “I have a strong spiritual orientation,” she said, “and that guides me in my choice of musical programs for us to perform. Light is available to every single one of us no matter what religion we follow. Every person on earth has a sense of what that light is, and how it speaks to them.”
Settling on a musical theme was the most difficult part. Once she’d done that, Muckerman had a wealth of choices. “There’s lots of good choral music that has everything to do with light,” she pointed out. “Historically, choral music from hundreds of years ago had its beginnings in the liturgy of the church. It’s easy to find this stuff, and it’s all really appealing.”
“Illumina,” which Muckerman called “a beautiful, almost medieval-sounding piece, with a small group of singers” — to be performed, as always, in Christ Church, with its exquisite reverberative acoustics — will be followed, “as is our custom,” by a performance from the choral society’s youngest second- and third-grade singers.
They’ll sing a lullaby called “La Loo, La Low,” that evokes “the rocking of the ocean, the breeze off the mountain and the stream,” Muckerman said.
Other selections, in a program that Muckerman meticulously constructs to appeal to all ages and faiths, will include “A Hanukah song entitled ‘Light,’” and a composition by the Irish
New Age singer-songwriter Enya, titled “White is the Winter Night” (“Have you seen the candlelight,” the lyrics go, “It shines from every window. Have you seen the moon above, it lights the night in silver”).
“There’ll be an African piece called ‘Noel,’ complete with percussion,” Muckerman said, and a spiritual titled “Jubiliant Day.”
“Our teen choir, Omni Voce, will be singing a Latin composition, ‘Sanctus.’ Their selection of a light-filled piece is the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be,’” Muckerman said. “It speaks of the Virgin Mary. I’ll take it! We’ve got some really great musicians in that group who’ve been with me for years. They’re playing electric guitar and bass” to accompany the lyrics.
The evening’s most challenging selection is “Luke’s ‘Eterna,’ based on an old Latin text that’s been set to music by scores of composers. Our version is by Edward Elgar. One of our singers gave me a recording of it. I thought, ‘Dare we do this?’”
Of course she said yes — “Let’s go for it!” — even though “The music is in eight very rhythmically and melodically independent parts. The vocal range is challenging, the movement of the melodic range is challenging.” (Naturally, the piece is in Latin.) “It will be performed by a small group of my most experienced singers,” Muckerman said.
By contrast, the concert’s final selection, the holiday classic, “White Christmas,” will be performed by everybody. (Bing Crosby’s version of the famous song by Irving Berlin is the world’s best-selling single, with more than 50 million copies sold worldwide.)
“It’s not that every piece speaks specifically of light,” Zuckerman said. But the sentiment she hopes to communicate this year certainly does. “It’s really a very joyous program,” she summed up. “Let’s be festive, let’s celebrate winter and this beautiful place we live. Let’s be in the light, whether it’s the sparkle of new fallen snow, or the natural light that is getting lower and lower in the sky this time of year, or the light within the human heart.”
The Telluride Choral Society performs its WinterSing 2019 holiday concert Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 15, at 4 p.m. at Christ Church.