Alternative visions of heaven are nothing unusual in concerts by the Crossing choir. But the one that will unfold this weekend, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lewis Spratlan, portrays heaven in what looks like a 21st-century recession: Gaunt angels play bent harps, the sky is smoggy, and God is rumored to have Alzheimer's.
Ostensibly a religious work, Vespers Cantata: Hesperus Is Phosphorus reflects the 71-year-old Spratlan's unwillingness to use a traditional religious text, especially when Crossing founder/director Donald Nally kept handing him unconventional writings by David Eagleman, whose 2009 book Sum contains 40 highly unorthodox visions of the afterlife.
"Working with traditional Christian texts wouldn't be resonant enough for me to feel good about what I'm doing," he explained Tuesday after a rehearsal with collaborators Network for New Music at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, where the piece will be premiered Saturday as part of the Crossing's Month of Moderns festival. "The big thumbprint of all Vespers services is the Magnificat ['My soul magnifies the Lord'], and there's a light touch of that text near the end."
That's a lot for someone whose previous religious works mix Mayan prayers with Pablo Neruda poems. Besides setting three afterlife parables by Eagleman, the hour-long Hesperus Is Phosphorus includes poems by the late Wallace Stevens and the actor Wallace Shawn — who is quite enthusiastic about being included.
"He was a total sweetheart," says Spratlan. "He's shooting a film in Canada and says he'll be able to make the second performance," on Tuesday at New York City's Park Avenue Christian Church.
Now retired from the music faculty at Amherst College, Spratlan has written works for pianist Jonathan Biss and cellist Matt Haimovitz, but is best known for his opera Life Is a Dream, which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. He has since written another, Architect, about Louis I. Kahn, that comes out on compact disc and DVD in the fall.
He says he gladly would have dropped anything to compose for the Crossing, which he has heard on several occasions — partly because his son Daniel sings in its bass section, partly because he has written for many choral organizations and considers this one ideal.
"This is the best chance that I've had for writing something thoroughly and deeply choral," he says. "I don't know what the model of the piece is."
Never has he written such a big piece so quickly. The idea, hatched only last August, is about spiritual transition: Phosphorus, the morning star, and Hesperus, the evening star, were separate deities for the ancient Greeks until they accepted the conclusion of Babylonian astronomers that the "stars" representing the two were actually only one, the planet Venus.
Though Nally has often encouraged modern composers to set ancient words, Spratlan's choices were all contemporary — and text-heavy. The composer has no aggressive librettist to blame; he even took the risk of utilizing poems whose rights he hadn't yet obtained.
"I love the words. Every single one of them," he said. "I was completely enveloped by the piece. I found it moving and freeing and very telling about society. Maybe it's hitting me in the right time of my life. I would never have touched this in my 20s. I was a big brat. I would've considered it sentimental"
It's hard to imagine any such accusations in some of Spratlan's prose choices, which include Eagleman's angry, heaven-bound communists discovering that the god they never believed in has achieved the perfect society they'd been aiming for on Earth.
"It's a challenge for us to get over our concept of ourselves and sing slangy music," says Nally. "We usually do pieces that are very serious. But the music lies right where I live — the enunciation, the inflection of the text…."
Naturally, one has to ask which of the afterlives in the piece would be his choice. "The final one," he says, "that talks about how atoms just start drifting apart. We're not pulled this way or that way. We can let all of that go and become part of it all."