Peter Togni’s Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae concerto will be showcased at the Nuit Blanche Festival in Toronto. It will be performed by Jeff Reilly and the Nathaniel Dett Chorale.

Putting Jeremiah’s journey to music

By 
  • September 28, 2012

TORONTO - The idea to capture the voice of “the weeping prophet” Jeremiah came to composer Peter Togni back when he was 19 and listening to Jeremiah’s lamentations as composed by Orlando di Lasso.

“It just blew me away, and I had this idea tucked way in the back of my brain that maybe one day I would end up writing that,” said Togni.

“No matter what religion you are or aren’t, the message of Jeremiah, to me, is a universal one. It’s really about somebody who tells the truth, and is disregarded. That’s the whole piece, in a way.”

In his work Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae, Togni, who was recently the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth medal, has charted the journey of the prophet in a four-movement concerto for bass clarinet and choir, the third of which will be showcased during Toronto’s Nuit Blanche art festival on Sept. 29-30.

“It’s the personal journey of Jeremiah through various stages of his experience of being a prophet. Imagine waking up one day and discovering that you’re called by God to be a prophet; it’s a rather difficult thing to have to assume,” said Jeff Reilly, renowned bass clarinetist, who is on both the original recording with the Elmer Iseler Singers and will be performing with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale during Nuit Blanche.

The composition has a profound effect on Reilly, as Togni (a long-time personal friend and musical collaborator) wrote the piece for Reilly specifically.

“For him to write something for me was probably a very natural extension for him of our working relationship, and, for me, probably the greatest gift I’ve ever received from any human being in my entire life was that piece,” said Reilly.

“I still look at it as an act of grace — that that piece exists.”

The four movements of the concerto act as a vehicle for Jeremiah’s suffering, contemplation and eventual acceptance of the task set before him. Togni deftly weaves the Latin text of the choir with the bass clarinet as the voice of Jeremiah — both areas work as a counterpart to the other to advance the plot and emphasize the prophet’s journey.

“In one way, it’s a virtuosic concerto… it stems from the early meanings of the word concerto which means to play together,” said Togni. “Sometimes the choir is kind of like a Greek chorus, like an architect of the space. The bass clarinet is Jeremiah, speaking in that space.”

Togni also notes that the concerto is reflective of a 21st-century paradigm, wherein he is able to allow Reilly a great element of creative control in his own right.

“The piece is 75 per cent composed, and 25 per cent improvised. Jeff is 25 per cent improvised, so he feels things in the moment. It’s kind of as if I would write a concerto for Miles Davis,” said Togni. “There’s an awful lot of trust.”

“That’s a hard thing to do,” said Reilly of the juxtaposition of sung phrase, to the instrumental evocation of Jeremiah. “They’re singing words… and they have a certain way of working and thinking as an ensemble. There is a real challenge there.

“It’s an extraordinary piece of music, and it’s an amazing performance piece.”

The original recording of Lamentatio was on the renowned ECM label, and was the first work by a Canadian composer to appear there. At Nuit Blanche, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale (which was founded by Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, artistic director) is working the movement into their set titled Oblivion, which is an exploration of silence.

“The third movement is Silentio, the one that I’m playing this weekend, and that’s his acceptance of grace,” said Reilly. “It’s a very powerful and a very beautiful movement. He takes refuge in the silence of the Lord.”

Lamentatio will also be featured at the opening gala of the Winnipeg New Music Festival in January, where it will be performed again by the Elmer Iseler Singers.

“The truth of the matter is that we’re all called upon to certain roles in our life that we don’t necessarily want to take on. But, by the grace of things beyond yourself, you have found yourself in a position to take on responsibilities, and assume a part of yourself that is bigger than the way you looked at yourself before,” said Reilly.

“It’s a beautiful story and it’s something that I think we can all relate to in a personal way. We all have to take on roles that we don’t particularly want to.”

For more information on the Nuit Blanche performance, see www.scotiabanknuitblanche.ca.

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