Sacra/Profana Debuts Composer Amy Gordon’s ‘Songs of Hope in Strange Times’

It was impossible to ignore the irony surrounding Sacra/Profana’s premiere performance of Amy Gordon’s Songs of Hope in Strange Times at the choral ensemble’s Friday concert at First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego. In 2020, during the early trials of the COVID-19 lock-down, Sacra/Profana Artistic Director Juan Carlos Acosta and his organization commissioned the Los Angeles based composer Amy Gordon to write a large work for Sacra/Profana that would chart the collective experience of living through this pandemic, and Gordon fulfilled this commission with an expansive, five-movement work for choir and string quartet that traversed the COVID pandemic from its initial onset to the time of recovery.

Aaron Burgett [photo courtesy of Sacra/Profana]

Then, just before the week of final preparation for the premiere of Gordon’s Songs of Hope in Strange Times, Acosta was diagnosed with COVID and had to be quarantined, leaving the project in the hands (both figuratively and literally) of Assistant Conductor Aaron Burgett, who conducted the premiere Friday with laudable assurance and stirring conviction. Prudently masked, Acosta spent his first day out of quarantine in the audience to experience Gordon’s work as the highly informed observer.

Like most contemporary choral composers, Gordon is comfortable with the language of tonal harmony, and in this choral song cycle she devises themes that clearly reflect the English language speech rhythms of her poetry. These traits make this choral song cycle particularly audience friendly, and Sacra/Profana’s clear diction and well-balanced vocal sections communicated Gordon’s engaging choral writing with dependable finesse.

Gordon saved her more challenging stylistic forays for the string quartet, especially the song cycle’s agitated, ominous opening. I was impressed with her inventive accompaniment for the singers in her second movement, an ornamented chaconne for solo cello delivered with verve and welcome bright color by Joanna Morrison. The other members of the well-tuned, poised string quartet were violinists Victoria Bietz and Justina Ponulak, and violist Robyn Glasson.

Fulfilling the promise of hope in her work’s title, Gordon’s final movement gives the chorus a powerful closing statement filled with hope and affirmation, featuring a recurring phrase “We rise!” set each time to a clever ascending choral glissando.

Founding Director and Principal Guest Conductor of Sacra/Profana Krishan Oberoi returned from the East Coast to conduct Nico Muhly’s 2005 Expecting the Main Things from You. Written when Muhly was 24 years old, this work is scored for string quartet, organ, percussion and choir. An austere, modernist composition, it reveals both the bravado and elan of a young composer, a trait Oberoi called “shocking inventiveness” in his short verbal introduction to the piece.

Muhly treats the choral voices as part of his orchestral texture, and while this interweaving creates a unique sonority, it serves to mask the projection of Walt Whitman’s bold poetry. Muhly’s opening section uses one of Whitman’s most easily recognized poems, “I Hear America Singing,” but even with the words in front of me—thoughtfully included in the printed program—I found it difficult to follow the text. Muhly’s bio reveals that growing up in Rhode Island he sang in the choir of his Episcopal church in Providence, so it is safe to assume he acquired a sense of what choirs do. In this case, however, he did not do the choral performers a favor.

Kudos to Sacra/Profana’s instrumentalists who gave a most convincing account of Muhly’s challenging score: the string quartet listed above, percussionist Nathan Hubbard, and organist Adam Ferrara.

This concert was presented by Sacra/Profana at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego on Friday, May 19, 2023.


  1. Malou Rogers on May 21, 2023 at 10:53 am


  2. Renee Duenez on June 4, 2023 at 1:16 am

    Beautiful! Loved the program

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