Instrumentation: Solo piano, 2(picc).2.2.2. / 18.104.22.168. / 3 perc. / strings
Gayle Martin Henry, pianist, Charlottesville University and Community Orchestra, Old Cabell Hall, Charlottesville, VA
The Passion of St. Cecilia, for piano and orchestra, plumbs depths of experience. Here, Shatin creates sound images that are deeply impassioned, and, at times, truly harrowing. The piece begins with a cry of pain inspired by Cecilia’s impossible predicament. The piece was inspired by the story of St. Cecilia, long the patron saint of music, though her musical reputation is based on either a textual misinterpretation or a deliberate embroidering of legend in the fifteenth century. In either case, it’s a delicious irony, and a provocative one: Does it say that Cecilia should somehow be expunged from the official courthouse records of artistic inspiration? Or does it say that faith — and art — work in more powerful, mysterious ways than mere facts?”
Shatin kept this in mind as she wrote her piano concerto. But she was also inspired by the fifth-century legend of Cecilia as a Christian martyr. When the opening movement was first rehearsed, the pianist wrote on her score, “the struggle.” For the pianist, like Cecilia, it’s a spectacular and dramatic effort to make her voice heard, to raise it in protest or delight or love, and affirm her religious beliefs.
After this public confrontation, the second movement of the Passion turns inwards. Shatin calls it a “meditation on faith” — you may even hear whispers of a chorale by J.S. Bach. Soon, though, the mood of nocturnal reflection passes over, like the eye of a cyclone, and the inevitable approaches. The final movement tells of St. Cecilia’s desperation and her martyrdom. The piece ends, as did her life, with three brutal blows. Gayle Martin Henry recorded the piece with the Moravian Philharmonic, Joel Suben conducting, and it is currently available on Parma’s Capstone Collection.
“…Based on the legend of St. Cecilia, the piece uses the piano and orchestra against each other to depict the conflict between Cecilia and the society that condemned her, as well as together to express her calmer, meditative side. The coloristic effects, language and ideas are fresh and bold. [Shatin] has full grasp of her orchestral flavorings, and her sense of direction is always crystal clear. The work has beautiful sonorities yet an almost primitive character in its dramatic representation of conflict. [Shatin] uses a wall of orchestral sound in the first movement to portray society, from which the piano (as Cecilia) seems to rise. The second movement is mainly calm and lyrical; some of its harmonies are almost impressionist. The third builds to a striking finish as Henry pounds the piano with her forearms, perhaps depicting Cecilia’s beheading. The ending is almost too abrupt, but the device is tremendously effective, almost making the listeners jump to their feet. ” –The Denver Post
“Featured was Judith Shatin’s new piano concerto, ‘The Passion of St. Cecilia.’ Soloist was Gayle Martin Henry, the impressive pianist for whom the work was written and to whom it is dedicated…At the outset, ‘Passion’ portrays the persecution of the Christian saint in an all-out chaotic conflict between solo instrument and orchestra. An uneasy truce gives way to magnificent meditation in the second movement. This is followed by a vigorous and affirmative finale, brilliantly dissonant with tone clusters played by the soloist with both forearms.
The work confirmed the excitement about current events in American music that I expressed here last month. Great and original things are happening in new music. The concerto also made a triumphant statement about women in music…” –The Sunday Camera (Denver, CO)
Letter from publisher Clara Lyle Boone:
“Seldom am I at a loss for words, so I won’t give up now. The piano concerto is a stunning, smashing magnum opus, an important contribution to the repertoire…”