AFRICAN SANCTUS IS UNIQUE AND STIRRING MUSICAL EXPERIENCE
By Lawrence Budmen
Occasionally a gifted musician creates a musical score that is so unique and original that it defies artistic precedent. The "African Sanctus" by David Fanshawe is just such a work - a combination of traditional indigenous African prayers and chants with a classical setting of the traditional Latin mass. This stirring, groundbreaking score received a vibrant performance on October 10, 2003 at UM Gusman Concert Hall - a Festival Miami 2003 landmark event.
Fanshawe defies easy categorization. He is a man of many talents and interests - composer, ethnomusicologist, explorer, photographer, and author. Between 1969 and 1973 Fanshawe made a legendary journey up and down the Nile and across the African continent. Long before record company executives invented the term "world music" Fanshawe audio taped the authentic music of African tribal cultures. With recordings that fused the sacred and the secular, Islam and Christianity, Fanshawe combined his extensive audio archive with his own original version of the Latin mass. The resulting score mixes live choral, instrumental, and vocal performance with the powerful taped voices of Africans. (The composer manned the tape console for this performance.) Fanshawe's multimedia presentation also featured projections of his stunning photographs of his African journey - all beautifully synchronized to the music.
Fanshawe's music traverses a wide stylistic spectrum - Stravinsky ("Symphony of Psalms"), Britten ("War Requiem"), Poulenc ("Gloria"), and Lloyd-Webber ("Requiem). Yet Fanshawe is such a skilled composer that he bridges these diverse creative impulses effortlessly. His choral writing is masterful and extremely taxing for the performers. The solo soprano role requires a vocal range from low mezzo to repeated pianissimo high Cs. Fanshawe's setting of the Lord's Prayer (combined with a Lamentation for a dead fisherman of Lake Victoria) for soprano and children's chorus is beautiful in its deceptive simplicity. (This section could make the Top Ten charts if Aretha Franklin or Patti Labelle recorded it.) The high lying writing for women's chorus in the Agnus Dei has an almost hypnotic effect. In 1994 Fanshawe added an additional movement to the score - Dona Nobis Pacem ("A Hymn for World Peace"). This haunting, other worldly melody (set for soprano solo, combined choirs and solo harp) remains with the listener long after the performance has concluded. The entire work is endlessly fascinating and deeply moving. The combination of archival tapes and live music produces many striking, unforgettable coups de theatre.
Choral director Jo-Michael Scheibe led the UM Chorale in a magnificent performance of this one of a kind score. Scheibe's superb choral conducting is one of the true glories of the UM School of Music. The ethereal beauty of the women's voices in the Agnus Dei was mesmerizing. The convulsive abandon of the opening and closing Sanctus was powerful. Here was chorale singing of absolute precision and often stunning beauty. (The innovative Scheibe was the perfect artist to bring us this wonderful score.) The Miami Children's Chorus (under the excellent direction of Timothy Sharp) sang with sweetness and splendid ensemble. Soprano Marvis Martin (a UM graduate who has graced the opera and concert stages of the world) sang the demanding solo role divinely. Her exquisite high notes, dusky lower register, and riveting declamation were striking. Her sheer musicality and graceful phrasing of the vocal line set a high standard indeed. Ghanian master drummer Sowah Mensah produced a huge range of percussive effects on a wide variety of exotic instruments. The solo harpist in the Dona Nobis Pacem section produced wonderfully lyrical pearls of sound. Here was a thrilling performance of a memorable score!
"African Sanctus" was a truly festive event for the 20th anniversary celebration of Festival Miami. David Fanshawe's brilliant cross cultural oratorio produced a moving and uplifting evening - a true song of hope for the world.!.