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Boston Globe Feature Article

Secession revisits its mystic beginnings

By David Weininger, Globe Correspondent | November 17, 2006

Boston Secession made its entry into the city's crowded choral scene a decade ago with a program revolving around mysticism in music. Tonight Secession and its music director, Jane Ring Frank , return to that same program, "Altered States," having carved out a niche for themselves in the intervening years with what the chorus calls "the music of ideas," concerts that cohere musically and intellectually.

"It's hard to believe it's been 10 years," says Frank over the phone. "It's really fun to return to an old friend like this program, especially when I can think about it a little differently."

As before, selections from 11 composers are arranged thematically, each linked to some aspect of mystical experience, which Frank defines as "a state of being that transports us from our everyday consciousness and puts us in touch with the Other." Centuries are spanned: from a chant by the 12th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen ("rapture") to an arrangement of the Beatles' "Let It Be" ("equanimity").

But what has changed is the intellectual and social context for a program about religious mysticism. Ten years ago, Frank explains, the purpose of the concert was to "delve into the idea of transcendental experience of the divine -- what does that mean and how is it represented in music? And that alone was a deep and rich conversation."

Now, she continues, "we live in a world where everyone is trying to lay claim to God. In the context of the war we're participating in and the way we live globally," the program has become a way of showing that "transcendental experiences of the divine can look a number of ways, and no one really owns them."

To get a glimpse of this diversity, consider two pieces that sit side by side on the program. First is one of Orlando di Lasso's " Sibylline Prophecies ," a highly chromatic setting of a text that has both Christian and pagan elements to it. Following that is "Removing the Demon, or Getting Your Rocks Off" by the American composer Pauline Oliveros . Many of her compositions are written to be performed outdoors or in large spaces, and often incorporate nature sounds. This "sonic meditation" asks the singers to bang rocks together and shout randomly selected words.

"The audience is going to laugh for a while," Frank admits, "but what does happen is a kind of spontaneous rhythm and music. The pitches of the rocks become a kind of terrain all their own, and I think when the audience can settle down into it, it has a real kind of magic."

At the end of the program is Benjamin Britten's cantata "Rejoice in the Lamb ," which seems to sum up the program's various threads. The text was written by the 18th-century poet Christopher Smart while he was in an insane asylum. Its wordplay borders on the surrealistic -- "For the clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like" -- and its account of animals and flowers praising God is similarly fantastic.

Then, in a quiet section toward the end, the poem's true mystical moment emerges: "For at that time malignity ceases/And the devils themselves are at peace ."

First Church in Cambridge, Congregational , at 8 p.m.; bostonsecession.org

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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