FEATURE – Utah Chamber Artists: Into the dark and back again

The immortal words of John Donne — “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” — took on unexpectedly personal meaning for composer J.A.C. Redford last December. That’s when Kristine Marie Gabel, his sister-in-law, was found murdered in a Salt Lake City park.

“Death is not the private possession of a person or family,” the California-based composer said. “The whole community is impacted, especially with such a public death. … I don’t think any death occurs in isolation. It spreads out like ripples, not just to the partners and relatives, family and friends of the people that are lost.”

In an effort to come to terms with his grief and to console his wife, Redford wrote a sonnet. “I never planned for it to have a life beyond personal consolation,” he said. But Barlow Bradford, artistic director of Utah Chamber Artists and a longtime friend, encouraged him to set it to music.

The piece, “Rest Now, My Sister,” will have its world premiere as the centerpiece of “Chant & Contemplation,” Utah Chamber Artists’ annual Autumn Collage concerts.

The concert program will follow an arc — from light to darkness and back to light. That will be in harmony with the interior of Salt Lake City’s Cathedral of the Madeleine, where the 40-voice ensemble and 40-piece orchestra have presented the multimedia Autumn Collage since the group was founded in 1991.

While brainstorming for this year’s event, longtime lighting designer Chip Dance pointed out to Bradford and UCA executive director Rebecca Durham that the cathedral’s windows tell a story. Traveling from west-to-east, the stained glass depicts Mary learning that she will be the mother of Jesus Christ, then witnessing his crucifixion and finally being crowned queen of heaven.

“I looked at it in terms of a generic philosophical journey, of trial and rising above it,” Bradford said.

“That’s the general life path people take,” Durham added. “We surmount obstacles, and human nature will win out.”

Chant will be the thread connecting the pieces on this year’s program, and Bradford plans to approach chant from various angles. Those different angles include two short works for string quartet by Stephen Voorhees, chosen in a competition co-sponsored by UCA and the Salty Cricket Composers Collective. Most of the connecting chant comes from the Gregorian Liber Usualis (or “common book”), but Bradford couldn’t find a Gregorian chant to match one of the pieces on the program, so he wrote his own.

UCA always has incorporated the building’s art and architecture in its collage concerts. The choir, vocal and instrumental soloists, and instrumental ensembles travel throughout the cathedral as the concert unfolds. (This year’s guest soloists are Utah Symphony cellist John Eckstein and Cathedral of the Madeleine organist Douglas O’Neill.)

Because the concerts take place at night, audiences haven’t been able to see the full splendor of the windows, Durham and Bradford said. This year, Dance will light the windows from outside the cathedral.

“The audience really enjoys not knowing” where the sound will come from next, Durham said, noting that the singers are in stocking feet to maximize stealth. “We keep the audience guessing.”

By Catherine Reese Newton

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Sep 15 2011 05:55PM
Updated Sep 16, 2011 07:51PM

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