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CD Feature/ Jay Weigel: "The Mass of John Paul II The Great"

img  Tobias

Is there a renaissance of religious composers? This release may indeed be the first mass dedicated to Pope John Paul II, but it is actually not the first big orchestral work carrying his name in its title (this honour belongs to Rodolfo Matulich’s “Sinfonia della Croce”) and as far as the eye can see, music of faith is finding a voice and an ear. If you’re a non-believer, though, don’ let that scare you off – Jay Weigel is a composer, not a missionary: “I in no way resent the absence, or for that matter presence, of religion in contemporary music. When composers have a non-musical statement to make through their compositions, the work needs to be respected for what it attempts to do, not what it didn’t do.” And “The Mass...” certainly deserves a lot of respect.

The story of the album begins when Jay is being asked to write a piece by the Cathedral of St. Louis King of France in New Orleans in honour of the residing Pope. “One of the few Catholic churches functioning somewhat healthily”, according to Weigel, the cathedral is buzzing with activity and, thanks to its slender and elegant shape, represents one of the city’s most impressive archtitectural sites. It is also extremely proud, as its enormous and beautiful organ has just been inaugurated on the occasion of the building being elevated to the status of a minor basilica in 2004..Weigel is more than happy to take on the job. In a city in which the importance of music “appears to be second only to the New Orleans Saints football team”, it is hard to pinpoint the exact status of its musicians, but without any doubt, he is one of the town’s key figures, with a keen interest in both Jazz and contemporary orchestral music. He also has a passion for the movies and the filmic character of his score is the most striking feature of the mass: Anthemic and majestic its walls of choral voices buil dup like harmonic clouds on a clear blue sky, transforming and gently mutating over a constant root. Even though the “Credo” glides mysteriously through fluctuating states of major and minor chords, the general mood of the work is optimistic and positively overwhelming. In the energetic and contageous “Alleluia” there is a hint at Gospel and towards the end, (consciously or by total coincidence) even one of the main motives of “Star Trek” makes an appearance. But apart from that, this is a remarkably untraditional affair – Weigel has managed to include all of the elements one would ecpect from a sacral composition, yet found a way of making them sound fresh, surprising and very much up to date. Everything is set for a monumental debut, but only two weeks before the premiere, John Paul dies without having heard a single note of the mass. The reception is ecstatic nevertheless, with the audience loving every single bar played. But, again, the joy doesn’t last long. Only shortly after, Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans and both the cathedreal’s roof and the organ suffer substantial damage.

Weigel’s commission now takes on an entirely new meaning, for it is now also an artistic symbol of the churche’s restauration. Already a member of two different committees aimed at restoring the cultural splendour of New Orleans, he now designs the CD-release of the mass as a fundraising activity, with portions of its sales going directly to the cathedral. Its unique stylistic approach is highlighted by the fact that “MCG Jazz” is taking over label duties for the album. Whatever you think of religious music, judge the music by what it does, not by what it doesn’t: This work doesn’t attempt to save the whole world, but it deserves respect for iits freshness and its efforts in reestablishing an object of inspiration. Maybe this earthly goal is also the reason why the music has the potential to appeal to everyone, regardless of their faith: Its message of spirituality is a universal one.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Jay Weigel
Homepage: MCG Jazz

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