'The Sacred Veil:' An intimate choral journey of hope and healing makes its Kansas City debut
"The Sacred Veil" is a collaboration between composer Eric Whitacre and lyric poet Charles Anthony Silvestri that will make its local debut with newly formed chamber choir Sonus. Classical KC's Christy L'Esperance, Silvestri, and Sonus founder Kolby Van Camp discuss the work, the cancer journey of Silvestri's wife, and the thin veil between life and death that touches all of our lives.
Dr. Charles Anthony Silvestri, a lyric poet living in Lawrence, Kansas, has collaborated with some of the most prominent figures in choral composition. But his relationship with Grammy Award-winning composer Eric Whitacre is special. They met in college choir and forged a lifelong friendship, collaborating professionally over the years.
But in 2020, with the release of Whitacre’s most extensive work to date, their personal and professional lives intertwined. "The Sacred Veil" encompasses the life, ovarian cancer journey, and death in 2005 of Silvestri’s wife, Julie. Silvestri grieved for a dozen years, raising their two young children, before embarking on composing the lyrics, which along with text by Whitacre and Julie herself, create a powerful and uplifting choral experience.
“The Sacred Veil” will receive its regional debut on Saturday, July 29 at Kansas City’s St. Peter’s Church under the baton of Kolby Van Camp, founding director of new chamber choir Sonus. Van Camp chose to present the 80-minute work for the group's first performance due to the impact it had on his own life.
A few months after the unexpected death of a close family member, a recording of ‘"The Sacred Veil" with the L.A. Master Chorale was released. It provided the words he couldn’t form to describe how he felt about his loss.
The title of the work is inspired by the imagery of a veil and the sacredness of the space and time that our relationships occupy in our lives. Silvestri explains that during Julie’s illness, they made many trips to the hospital.
“One of the ways that I dealt with that was by seeing the hospital and the emergency room and the operating chamber as sacred spaces, where the veil between this world and the next world becomes very thin. Babies are born in these spaces. People pass away in these spaces. And they’re sacred," Silvestri emphasized.
"To me, the 'sacred veil' is this membrane between the living and the dead, between infinity and finitude, and that thread works its way through the entire piece.”
Whitacre uses a single note, often sustained in the cello, to represent that thin division, while the motifs of Julie and her family play on either side of it. “This veil is translucent,” Silvestri says, “in that our loved ones that we've lost, they're so close to us. Heaven is not far away. It's just right here. There's no separation between us and those who have passed."
The work is scored for choir, piano, and cello, and has periods of fear and panic, alongside lightness, hope, and peace. One movement, “I’m Afraid,” sets Latin-based medical terms drawn directly from Julie’s charts to a pulsing chant, while another — “Magnetic Poetry” — pairs a refrigerator magnet verse with mystical accompaniment.
Silvestri remembers, “It's a poem that I found in Julie's journal ... the fact that it's Julie's words and my best friend's music — it's such a gift. And every time I listen to it, I feel surrounded and wrapped in the most amazing way by people that I love.”
Van Camp recognizes the importance of presenting such an intimate work with sensitivity.
“I think, psychologically because of how intense the music and the lyrics are, there's a deep introspection that is required," he notes.
"You have to feel these things that are described in the music or you won't be able to give an authentic performance. And that is the ultimate goal of this performance in my mind, to authentically represent Julie in her life and in her death, and also authentically represent the pain that everybody universally experiences in losing somebody.”
Silvestri adds, “I'd like folks to know that it's not just a somber work, that there's joy in it. There's ethereal, beautiful music. There is a laugh in an unexpected place. And yes, there's pain and there's heartache, but there's also hope and redemption and benediction at the end.”
Van Camp says that the best word to describe this work is "cathartic."
“But overall, I think that you will leave a better person once you've listened to this music.”
Eric Whitacre's "The Sacred Veil" performed by Sonus
When: Saturday, July 29 at 7 p.m.
Where: St Peter’s Church: 815 E Meyer Boulevard in Kansas City, MO.
Tickets: $10, purchase online or at the door