It was just over four months ago—January 13, 2021, to be exact—when the first installment of this monumental project by New York’s wonderful MasterVoices ensemble was released on YouTube.
In the months leading up to it, my own personal faith was at pretty low ebb. It was tested, of course, by the uncertainty around Covid, as well as our national political future.
By mid-January, battered and bruised as I was, there were also moments of cautious optimism. But I still felt quite a distance away from the sort of confidence and trust that I associate with the idea of faith.
Yet here we are in May! So, when MasterVoices’ buoyant director Ted Sperling welcomes us to “Faith,” I actually smile.
Sperling offers some context for this chapter of Myths and Hymns, explaining that it “explores what it might feel like to be in heaven, and what solace and inspiration one can get by trusting in a higher power.” But for me—and I’m guessing many others—our first reaction is to think about this quite astonishingly prescient work as a metaphor for our recent past and cautious reemergence.
Sperling’s introduction is situated on a Manhattan rooftop with several iconic skyscrapers visible in the distance. He’s used this location before—but this time, we can watch with a sense of genuine optimism. The city that surrounds him is no ghost town; New York has actually come back to life. Cautiously, slowly—but it’s here. And so are we. Faith!
Likewise, as we swing into Myths and Hymns itself, I bring to—and take away from—each of the component parts some powerful resonances. I’m sharing a few of these with you here; you will find your own, of course.
“The Great Highway.” Soprano Kelli O’Hara offers a lovely wordless vocalise, soon joined by tenor Nicholas Phan and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. Their images are faintly perceptible over a gritty urban landscape, including a distant freeway with slow-moving traffic, and a parking lot with a truck that has been spray-painted with graffiti. Under normal circumstances, the classical formality and exultant mood of the music might seem ironically disconnected from the visual world, but not this time: the halting traffic patterns we see are nothing less than miraculous signs of emergent life.
“There Is a Land.” Musically, this is Guettel in a more whimsical, cocky mode: the pointillist contours of this section for me evoked Sunday in the Park with George. But again, the imagery feels very much in sync with the moment, as a sea of faces look directly into the camera and offer hopeful messages: “There’s a land awaiting me; on joyful wing I’ll travel there.” More visuals capture ordinary people dancing and marching over grass, projecting the joy of finally being able to move. Miles Mykkanen and Theresa McCarthy offer distinctive performances here.
“There’s a Shout” This excerpt turns on an arresting contrast. The opening mood is somber, as over a vocalizing ensemble, we first see what looks like a refugee city encampment. But suddenly onto the scene bursts Jennifer Holliday, and everything lights up in a soulful but also joyful number that puts her still-unmistakable and unique sound to fine effect. (Whatever Ms. Holliday has been doing through the quarantine, we all should have followed suit—she looks and sounds like a million bucks!)
“Awaiting You” is a lyrical, even mournful piece, featuring Mykal Kilgore, a singer with tremendous presence and a hauntingly beautiful upper register. The words speak of loss—in particular, those gone from us at an early age. Yet even here, there is resilience: “Maybe ‘faith’ is only hoping that we can rise anew.”
“Saturn Returns.” This is my favorite moment from this entire Myths and Hymns project, and I’m guessing it will bring tears to the eyes of many of us who have wondered and waited for the performing arts to return. Here, filmed in empty New York theaters (including 2nd Stage, Playwrights Horizons, the Atlantic), MasterVoices’ marvelous soloist, Larry Owens, offers a heartfelt musical prayer. (I dare you not to cry when you watch this.)
“Light After Darkness.” A host of familiar faces in a jubilant, bopping finale. You’ll recognize many of them from this project and many others. They include Julia Bullock, Elizabeth Stanley, Michael McElroy, John Lithgow, Annie Golden, John Brancy, and many more. Identifying them all is half the fun.
It’s also an awesome summary of the work and palpable love that has gone into this truly unprecedented project. Watch this section, and then watch the whole of Myths and Hymns again from the start (links to the earlier review and YouTube sites can be found below).
We owe MasterVoices a huge thank you for this… and best of all, soon we’ll have a chance to do it in person. Faith is rewarded.