Review: Kinnara chamber choir takes a glorious journey on ‘Path of Miracles’

The medieval pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, has inspired a millennium of music and culture. Among the most recent is British composer Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles, an hour-long choral work which premiered in 2005.

The outstanding professional chamber choir Kinnara, based loosely in Atlanta and led by J.D. Burnett, performed Path of Miracles Sept. 18 in the grand sanctuary of Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Buckhead. As in past Kinnara concerts, the group’s exacting standards and deep-felt musicality meant every phrase, every block of sound, was balanced and perfectly polished.

The Camino de Santiago has become all things to all people, but maybe it’s always been that way. It started in the 10th century as a Catholic path toward salvation, where sins in this life could be absolved by completing an arduous journey to Santiago de Compostela, in the province of Galicia in northwestern Spain, one of three main medieval pilgrimage sites, along with Jerusalem and Rome.

Saint James, or Santiago, was the first Apostle to be martyred by Herod’s soldiers. By legend, his body was carried to this remote corner at the western edge of Europe. Soon after his bones were “discovered,” in the year 993, a relics-for-profit scheme started attracting devout followers, as well as the hustlers and bandits that prey upon them.

Today, sadly, most of us won’t return home from our Camino pilgrimage, a Galician scallop shell hanging around the neck, and expect a certificate of indulgence, granting us a reduced time in Purgatory.

But the Camino has inspired an amazing amount of timeless music. The Codex Calixtinus, credited to Pope Calixtus, whose reign ended in 1124, is a travel guide that includes hymns and devotional songs to inspire the pilgrims and give divine thanks for protection against the harsh elements and the aforementioned bandits. Alfonso the Wise, king of Castile and León in the 1250s, compiled his own collection devoted to the Virgin Mary, the Cantigas de Santa Maria. (When I followed the Camino, in the Holy Year of 1993, the thousand-year anniversary, there seemed to be raucous and sublime Camino-related music in every cathedral town and tiny village along the way. The pilgrimage and its music were inseparable.)

Composers can’t help but write for their own times. Talbot’s Path of Miracles finds inspiration in Scripture and the Codex Calixtinus and other sources, but reflects a dominant attitude in today’s world. You might call it a post-modern, post-minimalist depiction of a pilgrim’s inner journey, an immersive experience pulled from varied global sources.

As Kinnara’s performance unfolded, I wanted to call it “New Age” -- a sensual, mystical melange that borrows or appropriates from other cultures’ sacred traditions. Shorn of any specific context and religious meaning, it becomes a feel-good “spiritual” journey. Like running your first marathon, or partying at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, it’s not so much the destination as the personal transformation -- notably, in the company of others -- that matters.

Each of Talbot’s four sections, with text assembled by poet Robert Dickinson, is named for a Spanish cathedral town along the route: “Roncesvalles,” “Burgos,” “León” and, climactically, “Santiago.” The composer structures it like a traditional symphony, with a theme-laden opening, followed by a prayerful adagio, then a catchy scherzo -- here a repeated tune sung by the sopranos -- and a finale that recaps themes heard earlier and builds to a powerful resolution.

From the start of Kinnara’s performance, the giddy realization set in that we’re living in a glorious era of chamber-choir composition. Members of the 18-member choir entered individually, theatrically, as if following their own path. A small group of tenors and basses formed a tight circle facing each other, at the center of the altar.

The first sounds heard were a technique borrowed from the Taiwanese Bunun people: a quiet, very low rumble, as if from the center of the earth, that gradually grows, sliding upward in a long, slow crescendo. After several minutes, the sound builds to a sonic roar, with the singers almost screaming at the top of their ranges, an explosion in slow motion. (Wagnerians might liken this to the start of Rheingold and the drop of water that starts a mighty river.)

When the sopranos finally enter and break the spell, it’s a thrilling, goose-bump moment. Talbot has us hooked. A gentle ting from the bell-like crotales helps bring us back down to earth and the start of our journey. The text in this opening involves seven languages and as many shifts in color. It’s highly virtuosic choral writing, of simple phrases stacked, layered, repeated, overlapping. The effects are dazzling like a kaleidoscope, more visceral than emotional.

The second section, “Burgos,” begins with the line “Innkeepers cheat us, the English steal, the devil waits at the side of the road.” Some of the harmonies are so gorgeous you want to freeze the moment. But across the movement’s quarter-hour it all starts to feel abstract. There’s no scene painting and no emotional connection between text and music.

“León” starts with a see-sawing line from the soprano -- “The sun that shines within me is my joy,” in Latin -- repeated over and over, and it’s a delight. Later, Talbot smooths over the bumps and peaks and valleys in the text, so beautiful lines like “... over river and sheep track, by hospice and hermit’s cave. We sleep on the earth and dream of the road ...” feel disconnected. Perhaps this pilgrimage, in the composer’s conception, is an out-of-body experience.

The finale returns to the energy and optimism of the opening. The landscape opens up; anything is possible. We’re nearing the end of our journey. At one point, there’s a gentle weaving of the vocal parts, almost a lullaby. There’s a lot of hazy, tonal ambiguity. Jazzy, upbeat rhythms leave a strong impression, which contrast with a fugal section in all its formality. Talbot slips into and out of an obvious English Anglican style, one more layer of deep tradition that’s used here as a device.

Still, Path of Miracles is a tour de force of chamber-choir writing, an hour that was compelling throughout. Perhaps the real stars were Burnett and his Kinnara singers. They go from strength to strength.

Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Post, London’s Financial Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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