William Adams, DMA

Everyone knows the power Music has in affecting our moods. We all have go-to songs for when we’re happy and want to keep feeling happy, or when we’re sad and either want to come out of those blues or stay there and work through the sadness. It really doesn’t matter what kind of music it is; everyone responds differently and various pieces will resonate differently.

Sadly, all of us have been touched by cancer. Whether it be a loved one, a friend, or even ourselves, we all know the devastating impact a cancer diagnosis can bring. We all know the tremendous joy when those seemingly miraculous words “cancer free” are spoken and we all know the devastation when the diagnosis is terminal.

In a concert benefitting the Duke Cancer Institute’s Patient Support Program and Duke HomeCare & Hospice, the Duke University Chorale with SONAM and the Duke Medical Orchestra presented “Harmony & Healing.” The focal point of the concert was The Sacred Veil by Eric Whitacre. This 12-movement work, composed in 2016, commemorates the experience of Julia Lawrence Silvestri’s diagnosis and battle with cancer as remembered through texts written by Ms. Silvestri, her husband Charles Anthony Silvestri, and Eric Whitacre. It is a powerful, intensely emotional, deeply moving, and at times cathartic piece for choir and orchestra.

Eric Whitacre’s compositional approach often paints with sound rather than present text more conversationally. He may repeat individual words multiple times or have long separations in the text that are covered instrumentally or, in his a cappella works, through an almost orchestral treatment of the choir. One could look at his writing for orchestra, at least in this work, as more choral in nature. This evocative approach requires much of the musicians. They must connect the line of the text, carry the thought and the emotion through to the next statement of text.  

Dr. Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant, Artistic and Musical Director of the Duke Medical Orchestra (also Chair of the Music Department at Duke University and a long list of other posts and accolades), conducted The Sacred Veil. With more than 100 musicians under her baton (70+ in the choir, 30+ in the orchestra), she crafted a dynamic, nuanced, passionate performance. Her conducting technique is strong and commanding yet simultaneously elegant and full of expression. The Duke Medical Orchestra was never overstated, always demonstrating great control and subtlety. The balance with the choir was excellent with only the occasional moment of text being lost in the acoustics of Baldwin Auditorium. The choir sang with a rich, warm, immensely satisfying tone. 

Dr. Allan Friedman, Director of the Duke Chorale and SONAM, conducted the second half of the concert. With the full Duke Medical Orchestra, the choirs performed three dynamic works: “Dirge for Two Veterans” from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem, and two works by composer Karl Jenkins: “Benedictus” from The Armed Man – a Mass for Peace, and “Psalm 150” from Gloria. 

Dr. Friedman is an energetic, even exuberant conductor. His passion and enthusiasm are palpable and his ensembles respond in kind. The choirs seemed more fully engaged and were cleaner and tighter in their execution. Unfortunately, there were more moments where the orchestra was just a bit too much for the choir to sing through in Baldwin’s acoustics.

Balancing The Sacred Veil with the Vaughan Williams and Jenkins works was brilliant. After the deeply emotional journey of Veil, we were asked to contemplate war and its consequences as well as our reactions to both. Then the sheer joy and hope of the “Benedictus” and “Psalm 150” brought us back into something brighter, more hopeful. All of the musicians on that stage understood this arc and the significance of it in the processes of dealing with grief and tragedy. The evening was not just for appreciating excellent musicianship. It was, instead, an experience and an opportunity for personal and perhaps even spiritual growth through the power of incredible music in a world-class concert hall by wonderful musicians invested in connecting with their audience.