In 2005, the late American composer Stephen Paulus and librettist Michael Dennis Browne wrote To Be Certain of the Dawn as a commission from an American Roman Catholic priest to honor the lives of children lost in the Holocaust and to teach Christians their complicity in that tragedy. On Saturday (April 25) San Diego State University Director of Choral Studies Patrick Walders conducted Paulus’ profound oratorio with a 140-voice massed choir and full orchestra at College Avenue Baptist Church.
Given both the typical heroic proportions of the genre—think Judas Maccabaeus and Elijah—as well as the scope of resources required for To Be Certain of the Dawn—cantor and other vocal soloists, mixed choir, children’s choir, and full orchestra—the work unfolds in patient, almost eerie, understatement. Yet this hour-long oratorio elicited a powerful emotional response congruent with its lofty intentions.
Paulus opens and closes his oratorio with the call of the shofar, that ancient Hebrew liturgicalinstrument associated with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, only here it summons the Christian realm to contrition. The role of cantor, here sung with penetrating vocal power and conviction by Cantor Larry Kornit, acts as the oratorio’s conscience, regularly intoning the Biblical admonition in Hebrew “V’a havta le reacha kamocha,” (“You should love your neighbor as yourself”).
Only Paulus’ orchestra alludes to the violence of the Holocaust, three shattering hammerstrokes at the work’s opening and later a furious contrapuntal section titled “Kingdom of Night,” portraying both Divine awe and human depravity. His children’s choir embodies both the innocence and unquenchable hope of all children, which was eloquently portrayed Saturday by the girls and young women of the St. Cecilia Choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, trained by Martin Green.
Over the development of the oratortio, the adult choir solemnly intones terse statements from Nuremberg Laws’ dehumanizing restrictions placed upon European Jews under Nazi rule, and this choir of mixed voices poses the accusatory question “Where was the light we should have been?”
In parallel function to the chorales of the great Bach passions, Paulus’ slow, majestic choral hymns provide an opportunity for probing reflection, such as his “Hymn to the Eternal Flame” that cadences the second of the oratorio’s three movements. With their densely-textured, bass-heavy harmonies moving in poignant progression, these hymns represent Paulus’ most winning style, a musical signature that sets him apart from Lauridsen, Pärt, and other successful contemporary choral composers.
Walders fused a warm, well-focused sonority from his massed adult choir (made up of his own SDSU Aztec Concert Choir and SDSU Chamber Choir, Arlie Langager’s MiraCosta College Chamber Choir, and Sally Dean’s Palomar College Chamber Singers), and under his baton the SDSU Symphony Orchestra gave apt muscle where required and a refined string halo when asked to accompany delicate vocal solos. Although the orchestra’s usual conductor Michael Gerdes was not on the podium, he was not sitting home watching NetFlix. He did a perfectly respectable job handling the work’s shofar solos.
It was no doubt a sound pedagogical decision to distribute the oratorio’s many vocal solos and duos to a wide array of student singers instead of a quartet of soloists. While every soloist proved up to the work’s musical requirements, allow me to praise three who matched a polished vocal technique with heart-tugging emotional communication of these spiritual texts: tenor Alvin Almazan, mezzo-soprano Latifah Smith and baritone Nicholas Newton.
The one weak point of Paulus’ oratorio is his bland vocal arioso style that carries much of the poetry and several quotations (from Holocaust survivors) included in Browne’s libretto. Fortunately, just when my attention was drifting during one of these meandering ariosos, Paulus inserted a glowing hymn or winning orchestral transition.
The last century did not treat the oratorio genre well. Let us hope that To be Certain of the Dawn augers for a more compelling revival of oratorio in our 21st century.