ST. BONAVENTURE -- Eight hundred years after the birth of St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, a crowd packed the namesake chapel Sunday night to hear the world premier of the Mass written to celebrate him.
The performance of the work, composed by world-renowned conductor Fabio Luisi, seemed almost too “magnificent” for St. Bonaventure University's former president to handle.
“It was beyond anything I could ever imagine,” said Sister Margaret Carney with a breaking voice and tears shining in her eyes. “Fabio,” she said, looking over to the composer while grasping his arm, “you captured the soul of St. Bonaventure. You did. You really did.”
The conductor smiled softly, inclining his head humbly to his friend of about four years, the woman to whom the Mass was dedicated.
After witnessing the piece performed as a true religious Mass, Carney said she would need “to rest with it a bit” to process it.
Luisi, who said he felt the first performance was “great,” has been writing the piece for nearly two years, an endeavour for which he refused to be paid. In an interview Friday, the Grammy-award winner who recently finished six seasons with the Metropolitan Opera said he composed the work while traveling across the globe, including his native country of Italy as well as Japan, New York City, California and finishing in Copenhagen, Denmark.
He said he wanted the small Mass to use simple imagery and serve as an “exhibition of spirituality” of where the Catholic religion began, taking inspiration from Gregorian chanting and the words of St. Bonaventure himself, which are recited in the Mass.
When the university asked for a limited performance ensemble, Luisi said that became a plus. He limited the performers to two violins, viola, cello, timpani, glockenspiel, two soloists and chorus. He said the restricted instrumental palette allowed him to focus on the meaning of the saint’s words.
“It is not my language to be big,” Luisi said. “If we focus on the truth off this message, we don’t have to be big.”
Sunday’s performance may have not been big, but was played eloquently thanks to the musicality of the chamber ensemble of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus. They were led by conductor Catherine Matejka and accompanied by soprano Michelle Areyzaga, baritone SeokJong Baek and recitant Michel Bell.
Luisi, who is Catholic, said a central theme of the liturgy that spoke to him was “to be always alert and to consider everything around you is a work of God.”
Luisi said his self-taught compositional style -- which he added has been exercised a number of times that can be counted on two hands -- is not something he cares to be analyzed or placed into a school of thought.
“I’m not composing something new, I’m composing what I feel,” he said. “ … I don’t feel I’m traditional. I am what I am.”
He maintains he was not trying to contain his inspiration to a musical period or structure outside of the traditional Mass formula -- movements typically split into a Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. He also said he did not wish to be tied to a key, playfully dubbing the work to be in “D-minor-ish.”
The Mass opened with a thin dissonance in the strings, followed by a crawl of rising voices like fog over black rocks that showcased the baritone soloist. The restrained, elegant Gloria followed with vocal sections delivering the melody piecemeal, often dropping off into silence to serve as a frame for a soprano solo.
The Credo, a somewhat bombastic section with a wealth of portamento accented by glockenspiel, was a foil to the stripped down Sanctus, a mixture of pianissimo choir and exposed violin and soprano duets and solos.
The Agnes Dei was home to the most variations, Luisi said, because the movement is a “direct prayer to the Lamb, and I thought there are many ways to pray.” The movement was a cheerful allegro anchored in the percussion with a pentatonic-based melody.
Luisi said he also snuck in a musical tribute to Carney, and used the melody of A, G and E to spell out pieces of her name that could be transposed into notes. He said the theme is most prominent in the Benedictus section of the Sanctus.
The Very Rev. Kevin Mullen, provincial minister of the Franciscans and a university trustee, also honored Carney. Mullen invited Carney to the front of the congregation after he presided over the Mass so she could receive a standing ovation along with Luisi.
“It is (Luisi’s) gift to you and to the world that we were able to celebrate this Mass at St. Bonaventure,” he said.
The sister, however, did not reflect on the Mass being a tribute to herself.
“It’s a wonderful honor for the university and for our Western New York community,” she said.
The Mass is set to make a New York City debut Tuesday at the Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum. To purchase $65 tickets for the performance, call (212) 923-3700.