Imagine a site, a portal, where the boundary of another dimension is nothing more than a gauzy curtain or a thin door. Ok, stop thinking about "Being John Malkovich." The Galician Catedral de Santiago de Compostela is one such aperture and the burial place of Saint James, a sacred waypoint on a centuries-old pilgrimage beginning in France and terminating on the northwestern coast of Spain. This spiritually- and physically-demanding quest is the source of British composer Joby Talbot’s rousing Path of Miracles,exquisitely realized here by the chorus Conspirare and conductor Craig Hella Johnson.
In four parts, each denoting a cathedral town along the route, Path of Miracles opens with its most audacious compositional element – an inexorable glissando, dilating in volume into an almost howl that Talbot adopted from a ritual of the Taiwanese Bunun tribe. If those lusty overtones sound familiar to Roomful of Teeth fans, that’s because vocal ace Cameron Beauchamp is on the Conspirare roster, and this timbral extension coaxes the listener expediently into an enchanted, hallowed landscape.
Talbot’s dexterity in slipping in between medieval and extended harmonic modes is impressive, emblazoning Robert Dickinson’s multi-lingual text with both solemnity and immediacy. Take the second movement, “Burgos,” which exposes the perils pilgrims encounter along the road, and which contains one of the more sublime moments of the work. Leaving an octaves-wide gulf between the voices, the lines, “Innkeepers cheat us, the English steal / We are sick of body, worthy of hell” narrow into a unison chant before spinning out into a helix of falling chromaticism.
With its preponderance of open intervals and sustained pedals, Path of Miracles demands sterling intonation and lithe tone, and Johnson and Conspirare effectively navigate both with poise. Even if the standard choral device of alternating 6/8 and 3/4 meters in the final movement, “Santiago,” does cause us to lose footing for a moment, we’re soon back on the path. This is a journey we plan to lace up for, again and again.
- Doyle Armbrust