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Rare chance to hear Path of Miracles at King’s College Chapel – tonight

A very special performance is set to take place tonight in King’s College Chapel of Joby Talbot’s stunning odyssey, The Path of Miracles.

The work was commissioned by Tenebrae in 2005 and has since become the choir’s calling card as they have performed it all over the world.

Tenebrae. Credit Sim Canetty-Clarke
Tenebrae. Credit Sim Canetty-Clarke

It is based on the most enduring route of Catholic pilgrimage – the great Pilgrimage to Santiago. The four movements are titled with the names of the four main staging posts of the ‘Camino Frances’ – the central axis of a network of pilgrimage routes to Santiago. This unique, dramatic work, showcases the voices of Tenebrae’s world-class singers and the beautiful surroundings and acoustic of King’s College chapel makes it an unmissable event.

Tenebrae’s choir director Nigel Short spoke with Alex Spencer about why he believes The Path of Miracles is so special.

What makes this work Tenebrae’s most popular to perform?

We must have done 100 performances all over the world. And there’s no other program we perform that gets such a strong emotional reaction. Quite often there are people sitting there in tears. It sort of envelops the audience, grabs their attention. It is a tough listen for 70 minutes, which is at times very dramatic, very intense, and quite dark but then you’ve got this contrast and the ecstasy and the euphoria, after being on the pilgrimage and finally arriving in Santiago. That’s one of the most beautiful moments in the whole piece. When you finally actually step foot into the s city walls and slowly and reverently the word Santiago is repeating, it’s wonderful.

Could you tell me why it’s such a special work?

Well, it’s rather unique in the repertoire for choirs and unaccompanied pieces, partly because of its length. And it’s written in 17 different parts. And it involves the choir moving around the audience. It’s all based on the pilgrimage to Santiago. And so you know, there are sort of physical representations of the pilgrims moving from one staging post to another as the choir moves around, whichever venue we are singing in and really the difficulty levels with with the movement that’s involved and it’s all acapella sort of from an ensemble point of view it is pretty unparallelled

It’s an extremely dramatic work. Joby has written this sort of choral odysseythat just ranges from stuff that’s spectacularly dramatic and intense, to just serene beauty. And the dynamic contrast, the sort of variety of vocal choral textures involved is just as wide as possible. The singers know they have 70 minutes worth of hard work ahead of them. but I don’t think there’s anything else in our entire repertoire, where they love the piece so much.

Choir director of Tenebrae, Nigel Short. Picture: Sim Cannetty-Clarke
Choir director of Tenebrae, Nigel Short. Picture: Sim Cannetty-Clarke

It’s been described as your calling card. Would you agree with that?

I think probably yes. I mean, we’ve commissioned a lot of works over the years but nothing on this scale. And nothing that shows off the ability of the choir to move around the audience in the music, and in the sounds we’re making. So I think that probably is a very good way of describing it.

Is that quite rare for a choir to move around?

I wanted us not to just walk onto a stage, perform for 40 minutes, have an interval and then come back to the same place. Lots of the venues we sing in are absolutely absolutely beautiful, huge cathedrals, or chapels. And if you’re sitting 150 feet away, then you’re only getting one sort of perspective on the choir’s sound. As a boy when I was a chorister, my favourite services were in Advent and Easter when the choir would move around the building. And those used to be the sort of services that my family thought were the most beautiful and atmospheric. So when we started the choir and we were booked to perform concerts in big cathedrals. I thought, why don’t we try and find programs of choral music that give a reason for the choir to move around the audience, to give as many different perspectives as possible, so that everybody gets the choir close up to them, hears them in the distance, walking past them. As long as it’s always not a distraction, and it’s actually enhancing the audience’s experience, then I think it’s it’s a great thing to do and some some choirs do it but I think it is another calling card really in that Tenebrae presents this kind of performance whenever we can.

What do you love about performing at King’s College Chapel?

Well, we’ve performed there several times before. It’s one of the absolute architectural gems in the country, and from a choral perspective, of course, everybody knows the King’s College Choir, but they you know, they just have to have one of the most spectacular acoustics of any ecclesiastical building in the world to sing in on a day daily basis. We love the sound. It’s so beautiful, clean and the sound of any choir sort of travels wonderfully in that building. So wherever you are, you just have this wonderful sheen on the sound provided by the acoustic. So it’s a delight to perform there.

Is this a special piece to perform in Holy Week?

I know it’s not directly related. Joby said it’s not a sacred piece but of course the central theme that it is based on is absolutely religious. And I have to say when I’m performing it, if I’m in an ecclesiastical building, then it always feels very spiritual and religious to me. Holy Week is, if you’re practising Christian, it’s an intense time of year and so to perform in that venue is about as intense as it gets. So we’re all looking forward to it immensely.

Tenebrae. Credit Sim Canetty-Clarke
Tenebrae. Credit Sim Canetty-Clarke

What is the piece about?

When we commissioned the work, Joby Talbot (the composer) went on the pilgrimage route. He had just had a child. I think his first child was six weeks old. So he and his wife had planned to do the trip, and bits of the trip on foot. But of course with a newborn that wasn’t possible. So they did two weeks in a car and he decided to take on the whole work. I thought of having for maybe four movements on the pilgrimage from different composers. And when we talked to Joby he sort of said look, I want to do the whole thing. And so off he went in the car, and then he decided that he would split it up into four movements based on four different staging posts on the route.

How is the pilgrimage depicted in the piece?

The music takes on the atmosphere of the different staging posts along the route. In the first movement there is an instrument that is a metallic desk that you hit with a metal beater, and it rings and rings to represent the special bells in a monastery. When the pilgrims are up in the mountains, they would get lost walking through the area because the mists could descend sort of in a matter of seconds, and they would suddenly be lost. And whenever the fogs in the mists came down, the monks would clang these amazingly sort of resonant bells. so the Pilgrims could find their way to safety.

When the music moves on to the pilgrims arriving in Borgata, there is a very typically gothic cathedral. It’s got lots of gargoyles and fairly grim representations of hell and so forth all around the building. And so the music represents some of that greatness.

The second movement represents the physical discomfort you feel when you’re on the pilgrimage - blisters, aches and pains. And you just have to keep trudging your way to the next staging post. And so there’s a lot of dissonance in the second movement.

But, all sorts of shrines exist along the route. And so the music will suddenly stop and create a still, calm moment where a little prayer is said to the saint of the particular shrine.

In the third movement the pilgrims arrive at Leon Cathedral, which is very lofty and light, has amazing stained glass windows and the music has cascading soprano phrases going from one side to the other over a main tune sung by the men as if they are the pilgrims, and then the whole choir actually sets off walking in the third movement and goes to the back of King’s Chapel. They make their way back and then the fourth movement is just the arrival in Santiago which is kind of ecstatic. Everything arrives together in one huge climax. And then after the climax you’re in Santiago. All the Pilgrims disperse and the choir splits up into several groups and just goes off singing phrases until you can barely hear anything.”


Joby Talbot - The Path of Miracles

Conductor - Nigel Short

£35 / £28 / £22 / £15; £10 (full time education), £5 (under 18s)

Book tickets: https://cambridgemusicfestival.co.uk/event/tenebrae/

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