O, death | AspenTimes.com

O, death

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

For Ray Adams, composing a Requiem, a choral work for the deceased, was as certain a thing as his own death. Adams has long been a fan of the Requiem form: As conductor of the Aspen Choral Society, which he has served as director for more than 25 years, he has led performances of Mozart’s Requiem and Brahms’ German Requiem in recent years, and Faure’s Requiem earlier in his tenure. As a student at the University of Eastern New Mexico, Adams sang in the choir in performances of Requiems by Verdi and Berlioz.

Adams, though, had a few items on his “to compose” list before he got to his own Requiem. Over the past few years, Adams has composed the sacred choral works “Angels” and “Revelation,” both premiered by the Aspen Choral Society.

“I had to get `Angels’ and `Revelation’ off my chest first; they just came first,” said the 50-year-old Adams. “That’s the way they were presented to me.”

The Requiem began to come into focus for Adams while he was working on “Revelation,” a piece based on the Revelation of Saint John the Divine, the last, and highly apocalyptic, book of the New Testament. That work had its debut in December 2001, clearing the way for Adams’ Requiem.

Adams will debut his Requiem at the Aspen Choral Society’s annual spring concert at Harris Hall. The concerts are set for Friday and Saturday, April 4-5, at 7:30 p.m. Soloists for Adams’ Requiem are Kathy Pelowski, Daniel Fosha, Stacey Weiss, Deborah Welden, Jeremy Moore, Virgil Simon and Susan Anderson. Also on the program is Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, with Julian Hallmark, concertmaster of the Aspen Choral Society Orchestra, as soloist. The performances will be preceded by a lecture by Adams at 7 p.m.

Divine inspiration

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Adams began the composition process for his Requiem more than a year ago. In October 2001, he spent several hours and several hundred dollars at Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstore, poring over books from a variety of religious faiths.

He already had concrete ideas about what his Requiem would and wouldn’t be: “I knew I wasn’t going to write a Catholic Mass, which is what almost every Requiem is,” he said. “I wanted a more ecumenical approach to the piece. Because death and dying is not something limited to one faith practice.”

But while he had plans for years, and text ideas for months, it was only last spring that Adams was hit with full inspiration to write a piece that addresses death.

Adams received a call from a Carbondale woman, Jodi Castellon. Castellon told Adams that her mother – Maria RaEl, who had sang in “Angels” – was dying of liver cancer. Adams also learned then, for the first time, that RaEl had been sick with breast cancer, and undergoing treatment, while she was in the “Angels” choir. On her death bed, RaEl requested that Adams come to see her.

Adams not only went to see her but read for her passages from the text he had selected for his Requiem. RaEl died while holding Adams’ hand and looking into his eyes.

“She said, while the medicine and chemicals helped, what really lifted her spirits was participating in `Angels,'” said Adams. “It was one of the most moving experiences of my life, to find out what that piece meant to her, and then to have her request my presence at her death and to read the text to her.”

Adams had already envisioned a work that conveyed death not as a door slamming shut but as life’s peaceful coda. In this, he was inspired by the Requiems composed by Faure and Durufle, rather than the better-known works by Mozart and Verdi.

“I feel people know those big Requiems – Mozart and Verdi, the grandiose, almost operatic ones, that were very Catholic, with `Your day is coming!'” he said. “The Faure and Durufle pieces were soothing and gentle. They didn’t unsettle you. They picked you up and rocked you gently, and said, `Don’t worry.'”

In his original concept, Adams was going to compose what would be called a “living Requiem,” a massive, two-part work that addressed life and death. That idea got nixed when a friend – an Episcopal priest, as it turns out – wondered how many years of his life Adams intended to devote to the piece. So he dismissed the idea and focused only on part two, a more standard idea of a Requiem.

Adams was guided by two overriding concerns. First, the piece would be in the Faure mold, in which death is welcomed as a resting place, rather than feared and avoided. Second, Adams would stray from the Catholic Mass, the standard text used for a Requiem, and instead would embrace writings from a variety of faiths and practices.

On the first point, inspired in part by witnessing RaEl’s departure, Adams said, “It’s not so much a work about death. I think it’s more an affirmation of life. It is definitely telling you not to worry and not to be afraid.

“We’ve created such a stigma of death, such an aura about it, that we’ve created it as the most unpleasant thing about being alive. When you’re alive, all you can do is the best you can. And when it’s time, let go, and let the letting go be filled with grace and dignity.”

Equally important was the multi-faith text. The core of the work is the five traditional Latin movements found in a Requiem Mass. But Adams’ Requiem also draws from Judaic, Hindu, Islamic, Native American and secular sources.

“The overriding reason to do this as an ecumenical piece is because I’ve become fatigued with the walls people have erected around their faith, their politics, their country, their beliefs, their families,” he said. “It’s just fucking ridiculous. For me, all these walls represent nothing more than fear. From fear springs hatred, misunderstanding. War.”

In assembling the text, Adams found that the various faiths’ views of death were more united than divergent. “Every piece of text, if you were to isolate it, you’d be hard-pressed to say that’s Judaic, that’s Buddhist,” he said. “Because there’s so much in the way of similarity between this stuff. For 45 minutes, all these faiths are going to get along.”

A passionate process

Adams’ Requiem may be peaceful; the process of bringing it into creation was not. The piece represents his most ambitious work by far. Whereas “Angels” and “Revelation” were written for string orchestra, the Requiem is composed for a full orchestra of strings, horns and percussion. Both of the earlier works were written for a women’s chorus, the Requiem for a mixed chorus.

“This one had everything. Except accordion. I forgot to put the big accordion solo in there,” quipped Adams. “It’s twice as big as anything I’ve done before.”

That stretch has worn Adams down. He says only in writing the Requiem has he learned the sacrifices and pain that come with serving one’s passion.

“There were many nights where I put down my head at 3 in the morning and said, `I just cannot do this anymore,'” said Adams, who didn’t finish the orchestration until this past Sunday night. “I’ve spent less time with my son. I’ve let a lot of personal things go by the wayside.

“Then I’d go to rehearsal, the choir would sing, and the singers would tell me this was the most beautiful thing they had ever sung. And I’d be able to go back to it. That’s what passion is. That’s what’s driven so many people, in any art form, literally insane.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com