Updated: Nov 21, 2021
By Richard Knox Every last one of us has had, or will have, an encounter with the Sacred Veil of which the New Hampshire Master Chorale sings in this fall’s concert. As the opening lines go: “Whenever there is birth or death….” As all serious and lasting art must, The Sacred Veil deals with universals. It’s about nothing less than the first principles of human existence – being and not-being, knowing and the impossibility of knowing, loving and loss, the ineffable nature of time, space, eternity. In short, metaphysics: The big, existential, abstract questions that overhang and ultimately overtake us all. Dan Perkins, Master Chorale’s director, is always drawn to big universal themes. “They are often difficult to navigate emotionally,” he acknowledges – an observation never more apt than with The Sacred Veil. “I like that challenge.” But The Sacred Veil is also intensely personal. In a remarkably unflinching way, it tells the story of a particular man and woman and their encounter with the liminal, at times oh-so-thin membrane, between “our fragile fleeting world” and what comes before birth and after death. You can think of it as a love story, though hardly of the Hallmark Card variety. A young man and woman discover a transcendent love. They have a child and then another. They receive the devastating news that she has ovarian cancer. She struggles to survive as he stands by, helpless against “a fated force more powerful than life.” Ultimately she slips through an opening of the Sacred Veil into “the other side of eternity.”
The Backstory The Sacred Veil libretto comes from the lived experience of Charles Anthony Silvestri and his wife Julia Lawrence Silvestri, set to music by Tony Silvestri’s closest friend and frequent collaborator, the celebrated choral composer Eric Whitacre. The lyrics are elliptical and stark; experience and feelings are reduced to elemental form. The music (about which more below) is similarly spare – strikingly so, for a composer known for his distinctively lush harmonies. The piece could have been “more Hollywoodish,” Silvestri told me, but librettist and composer strove to steer clear of what he calls self-indulgent “grief porn” sentimentality. “We went through a process of scrubbing and simplifying – letting the most simple words and simple settings carry the message,” Silvestri says. “We wanted to let the audience project onto The Sacred Veil their own experience, their own pain.” This less-is-more approach achieves an alchemy of words and music that is profoundly intimate. It’s replete with breathtakingly naked evocations of spiritual and erotic love, existential struggle, parental love, fear and despair, and ultimately a coming-to-terms with death. The real-life story is full of pathos, and the timeline differs somewhat from the libretto’s sequencing. Tony and Julie Silvestri were high school teachers in Los Angeles (he history, she Latin) when they met and fell in love. They tried for six years to conceive a child. They finally succeeded, but when Julie was 11 days past her due date an ultrasound revealed fluid-filled cysts near her uterus. An exploratory laparotomy revealed a malignancy, apparently derived from (but not then detectable in) her ovaries. Treatment followed immediately after the birth of Thomas Silvestri. Julie desperately wanted to bear a second child. So before surgeons removed the cancer and nearby lymph nodes, she asked them to preserve her ovaries, Fallopian tubes and uterus if they possibly could. They were able to, and several years later – amid no signs of recurrent cancer – Julie bore a daughter. Emma Silvestri was two years old when the cancer came back. More surgery (a total hysterectomy this time) and full-on chemotherapy followed, but the malignancy had metastasized to her liver, abdomen and bones. Eight years after her initial diagnosis, Julie died, two days short of her 36th birthday. A Delayed Catharsis It took Silvestri almost a decade to tackle his unresolved grief and turn it into the libretto for The Sacred Veil. He had an excellent excuse: He’d been earning his living as a teacher while raising children who’d lost their mother when they were eight and three years old. But he was also not ready to relive the pain. The process involved, in part, combing through Julie’s journal entries and poetry, hearing her voice again, discovering some material for the first time. He bravely perused the cold clinical language of her medical records and death certificate, re-experiencing those awful moments of diagnosis and recurrence. He says he probably wouldn’t have done all that painful work without a gentle, steady, push from Whitacre. The project provided the catharsis Silvestri needed. “Sacred Veil was a huge closure moment,” he says. “Having closed my marriage to Julie and raised our kids, I have done my duty to my vow to her. Even if no one ever performed it, I would consider it to be the best thing in my life.” But the potential impact of The Sacred Veil seems large. It’s had about a dozen performances from Los Angeles to London over the past two years, with more in the works. The work has elicited strong reactions from audiences. “In every performance there’s been a range of response, from stunned silence – I mean utter silence – all the way to ugly crying,” Silvestri reports. People often approach him afterward, feel the need to touch him on the arm or shoulder and tell him about the death of a spouse, a parent, a child. “Our society does not grieve well,” Silvestri says. “People come up to me and say ‘I experienced this and had no idea how to express it.’ Most people just don’t do it. They sublimate, distract themselves or close themselves up. They never express the heartache of it.” A Kind of Ministry He and Whitacre have come to think of Sacred Veil performances as a kind of ministry. “This is a continuation of a ministry to cancer patients that Julie started when she was sick,” counseling young pregnant women with cancer, Silvestri says. “This legacy is what she would want. We get it! And we’re going to keep doing it.” But if The Sacred Veil is a sort of ministry, that doesn’t mean it’s a religious work. It’s not sacred music – that is, intended for (or appropriate for) performance in a religious service. It puts forward no theological doctrine. But if it doesn’t promise an afterlife on the other side of that veil, it does speak to the existence of a spirit – a soul, if you will. Those first lines posit a pre-existence for the not-yet-born and encourage us to consider the persistence of that spirit in a realm out of time and space. Whitacre has said he’s “not a religious person,” not an atheist but a person for whom organized religion “just doesn’t speak to me.” Silvestri discloses that Julie, a devoutly religious person herself (Presbyterian), nurtured a fond hope that she might “get Eric to be profoundly religious.” Silvestri, who teaches world religions at Washburn University in Kansas, grew up nominally Catholic but rejects traditional Christian doctrine – the kind that posits God as a white-bearded male seated on a heavenly throne, along with conventional notions of an afterlife in the sky. I asked if he believes in an alternative view of an afterlife. “The quick answer is I don’t know, of course,” he said. “But it is very comforting to me to think, if you posit there is an eternal life, then Julie’s there, I’m already there, our kids are there. Time doesn’t exist there. It’s very comforting to think she’s not gone, she’s in a reality I can’t understand. And that death is a journey across that veil.” The Music Itself The musical language of The Sacred Veil, like the sung poetry, is austere, economical, and yet highly expressive. It transports listeners through a wide range of emotions – meditative, dreamy, deliriously joyful, heart-wrenchingly poignant, harrowing, desperate and despairing, and finally elegiac and benedictive. Less obviously but importantly, the music encodes the spiritual concepts and characterizations of the poetry. As Eric Whitacre writes in an introductory essay to the score, the tonal center of the piece is middle-C, which the composer uses to represent the Veil. “Moments or even entire movements…’cross’ the veil, often times up a third or down a third,” Whitacre explains. Julie Silvestri’s theme motif is a simple minor third up and down from middle-C. It’s the first sound in the first movement, The Veil Opens, and recurs throughout the rest of the piece. (Coincidentally, Tony Silvestri notes, it’s the signature interval of The Very Thought of You, the familiar pop ballad the couple thought of as their theme song.) The building block of the third is not the only way the number three is a touchtone in The Sacred Veil. Many parts of the text, from the opening phrase – Whenever there is birth or death – are repeated three times. This induces a meditative state – a slowing-down and focusing on thoughts we often put into a “not-now-someday” part of our minds. This “thrice-ness” occurs throughout the piece, giving it a kind of chant-like texture. The effect is heightened by the way Whitacre sets all the lyrics in the rhythms of speech. “Most of this work is chant,” Silvestri notes, “approached in the way you approach Anglican chant.” The second movement, In a Dark and Distant Year, transports us into the real-life narrative of Tony and Julie, told as a medieval troubadour might recount a love story. Inspired by Silvestri’s phrase “a wand’rer ancient and austere,” Whitacre says he “constructed the music so that it ‘wanders’ from key to key to key” as the lonely wanderer discovers the girl who “unlocked his heart and let his spirit soar!” Silvestri wrote the third movement, Home, in response to Whitacre’s prompt to describe the moment he fell in love with Julie. Tony remembered that on their second date a single thought filled his mind as he watched her speak: “You feel like home.” That revelation became the simple, eloquent, repeated text for a musical setting that expresses the blossoming of love. The fourth movement, Magnetic Poetry, introduces Julie’s voice. The title comes from a poem she constructed out of those magnetic word tiles that many of us have played with to construct whimsical or provocative poems on our refrigerator doors. This lyric, which Julie later transcribed into her journal, captures in three evocative stanzas the six-year period when she and Tony were trying to conceive a child, failing (“What a bare symphony here”), and finally succeeding (“Like some diamond gift incubating in love”). Whitacre’s setting, structured around two slowly alternating chords, captures the yearning and the erotic ecstasy of Julie’s poetry. Whitacre writes that Whenever there is birth, movement five, “was meant to convey the tender wonder of childbirth” and the deep love between parent and child. Accompanied by wordless chorus and piano, the cello plays themes that hark back to the “veil” motif and forward to the pathos and somber end of the story – linking birth and death. The sixth movement, I’m Afraid, jolts us out of the tender miracle of childbirth just as Julie’s cancer diagnosis brutally upended her world and Tony’s, and cast a shadow over the birth of their son Thomas. Sopranos and altos announce the diagnosis (“I’m afraid we’ve found something”) in jagged tone clusters that convey the shock and horror of the moment. This jarring announcement alternates repeatedly with dispassionate clinical descriptions of what the doctors found (“Pathology confirms grades I, II and III mucinous cystic adenocarcinoma…consistent with ovarian primary”) – words that surely have never before been set for chorus! The clinical gobbledygook eventually arrives at the dreaded word “metastasis” that spells Julie’s fate. The final words of movement six, “I’m afraid,” linger into the opening bars of the instrumental seventh movement, I Am Here, which Whitacre says is intended to convey Julie’s state of mind in the moments after her diagnosis. The cello enters with a mutated statement of the “Whenever there is birth or death” theme (a musical allusion to the cellular mutation of cancer). This central idea is repeated three times with increasing anger and despair. The brief movement concludes with Julie’s minor-third theme, again repeated three times to symbolize Julie’s “slowly picking up the pieces of her life and finding her feet,” Whitacre explains. Amid the wreckage of her hopes, she is still “here” and life must go on. And it does. Delicious Times, movement eight, is a poignant scene from Julie’s last year of life, taken from her journals, about how Thomas, then a kindergartner, and Emma, a toddler, reacted to her chemotherapy-induced hair loss. (“Mommy your hair went bye-bye, but it’ll be back soon.”) On the surface, Whitacre writes, it’s Julie “trying to dance through the madness of her condition.” But of course, it’s a snapshot from “a dark and distant year,” the first words of movement nine, One Last Breath. This refers not to Julie’s last breath but to the deep breath Tony takes before leaping into the anguish and despair of her last days. This lyric is by Whitacre because it represents Tony’s felt need to be heroic. “Eric knew I couldn’t find a way to write that,” Tony explains, “so he wrote it himself.” Movement ten, Dear Friends: Tonight I Feel That I Must Ask You to Pray, portrays Julie’s desperation as she learns she has only months to live. In the last year of her life, Julie launched a blog of her experience that accumulated several thousand followers. The music brings back the “ticking clock” motif of I’m Afraid, representing inexorable fate, as Julie pleads with those followers to “pray as you have never prayed before” – not for a peaceful death but that she will be healed “in a miraculous, supernatural way.” The words bespeak her understanding that the prayer is unlikely to be granted. The music rises in desperation, culminating in her cry (set in the minor-third “Julie theme”): “Don’t give up on me!” You Rise, I Fall, movement eleven, is nothing short of extraordinary in its intimate, agonized, protracted representation of Julie’s last moments from Tony’s perspective, set to the musical line of the first movement, “Silent, either in or out of this our fragile, fleeting world.” We are back at the Veil, the dividing line between the place Julie is entering and the world where Tony is left behind. As Julie rises out of her pain and struggle, the musical line bends upward before slowing collapsing on the words “I fall.” The final movement, Child of Wonder, sets Whitacre’s poetry in a benediction that, in both words and musical architecture, leads to the spiritual home to which Julie has returned, using the passage first heard in “Whenever there is birth or death.” In the end, the music resolves to middle-C, the tonal center of the piece representing the Veil. “This final prayer-like movement,” Dan Perkins says, “is the perfect capstone and, for me, a hopeful resolution to all the grief that precedes it.” The concert ends with Light Beyond Shadow, a more conventional choral piece, as hopeful and reassuring as a warm embrace. It was written in the early days of the COVID pandemic by Dan Forrest to text by Paul Wigmore. Perkins says the piece “is meant to be a warm, comforting, accessible response to The Sacred Veil.” Richard Knox is a writer and Master Chorale baritone who lives in Sandwich, NH.
Saturday, November 20, 2021 | 7:30pm
South Church – 27 Pleasant Street in Concord, NH
Sunday, November 21, 2021 | 5:30pm (Limited Seating)
Plymouth Congregational – On the Common in Plymouth, NH
Tickets are free for undergraduates and students in grades K through 12
$25 for seniors
$30 for general admission
Pay what you are able” tickets are also available to ensure that anyone can attend regardless of financial ability. Find the link to purchase below.