Letting Music Lead the Way Out of a Dark Week

A work by English composer Sir John Tavener had its world premiere in Washington on Sunday.

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English composer Sir John Tavener receives a 'Lifetime Achievement Award' in the 35th International Istanbul Music Festival at the St. Irene museum, a 6th century Byzantine church, in Istanbul, Turkey, late Friday, June 22, 2007, before Tavener's latest major choral work, Beautiful Names, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

The London–based Legatum Institute came to Washington with a mission: To show the city of think tanks how it's done – not just differently, but in a way that soars out of the paradigm.

Arts and culture are the components the Legatum Institute adds to the usual array of think tank topics, in a rigorous yet exuberant spirit. In a gorgeous choral concert at the Washington National Cathedral yesterday, a newly commissioned work by the English composer, Sir John Tavener, had its world premiere– and guess what? There was Sir John himself to hear his "Three Hymns of George Herbert," performed for the first time by the City Choir of Washington. 

There to greet Tavener was a full house on a bright shining afternoon, well–timed after a dark week with Boston brought to its knees. His presence under the neo–Gothic arches added immeasurably to the meaning, depth and sparkle of the Legatum event honoring the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. 

Tavener, nearing 70 and ailing, somehow managed to create music again after a near–death experience in recent years. "They said I'd never write again. They said I'd never cross the Atlantic," he said, speaking of his doctors at a reception. In a bit of elegant English understatement, he said softly, "Thank you for noticing." 

[See Photos: The Queen's Diamond Jubilee.]

It was hard not to notice, for his new work is bold, laced with a rush of richness and radiant harmony that seems to float outside of time – the raised voices answered by bells and an echo choir high in the back balcony. Literally, an uplifting experience and a dialogue across time with the 17th century English poet and country pastor, George Herbert.

For the composer, Tavener, the undertaking felt like a "re–baptism," a celebration of new life. Only at the end do the elegiac notes and nuances close in. The hymns are titled Heaven, Love and Life.

"Herbert can seem very simple while being highly profound, like Tavener," Hywel Williams, senior advisor on cultural programs at the Legatum Institute, said in an interview. An upcoming cultural project, he said, will survey the arts in 1913 and 1914, "the last year of peace" prior to the first World War.

Tavener first came to the public eye when the Beatles recorded his oratorio, The Whale, in 1968. As a believer, he belongs to the ancient Church of England choral tradition, but like Legatum, is apt to break boundaries or transcend them.

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In a nod to Leo Tolstoy's devout Christianity, he put "Tolstoy's Creed" to music, almost a shout–out, which was also premiered yesterday. "Mystical" is the word Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette pins on Tavener, and it fits. His melodies may also deal in the realm of heartbreak, never more so than when his "Song for Athene" was heard at Princess Diana's funeral in 1997.

Jeffrey Gedmin, an American who is the institute's chief executive officer, said Legatum's multi–disciplinary approach does not treat arts and culture as a kind of a dessert nor as a diversion from the social sciences. Rather, he said, they are part of any society's sum and can make the sum larger than its parts in a ways that cannot always be measured in an index. Gedmin connected dots between his past and present by reaching out to his Vienna, Va. high school music teacher, the maestro Robert Shafer, who deftly conducted the concert.

In the end, Gedmin had orchestrated a rare convergence that clearly crossed (or blurred) Anglo–American lines. It was practically a public service after a bleak week. More than a thousand people swelled in a crescendo of emotion to the choir's rousing renditions of Tavener's works and a handful of classics, including "Jerusalem." But the anthem "God Save the Queen" brought the house down.

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    • Jamie Stiehm

      Jamie Stiehm is a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist. Her op-eds on politics, culture, and history have appeared in newspapers across the nation, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. She previously worked as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and The Hill. Jamie's first journalism job was as an assignment editor at the CBS News bureau in London.

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