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With its origins in the ancient Greek word for “contest” or ” struggle,” αγών was used to describe the writhing contortion of athletic competition, extreme physical striving, keen mental excitement, or even an exclamation of great joy.  Only in the 17th Century did agonia begin to take on the connotations of suffering, torment, pain, or distress that we think of when we hear the word today. In its next extraordinary concert series, The Esoterics will present three modern choral masterworks inspired by medieval poetry on this theme: striving, suffering, and monumental effort, as well as and the promise of comfort, compassion, and reprieve.

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AGONIA will begin with Alfred Schnittke’s Verses of repentance (Стихи покаянные), twelve movements composed in 1988 for the millennial celebration of Christianity’s arrival in Russia.  The texts (including the quote at the top) come from a collection of anonymous Slavonic verses, with subjects ranging from original sin to arrogance, greed, hypocrisy, fratricide, mortal decay, grief, and the hope for salvation.  Schnittke, one of the most controversial figures in Russian music history, composed this piece during his own spiritual journey from Judaism to Catholicism and Orthodoxy, in the midst of a series of strokes that would eventually paralyze him and take his life.  His music is known for its sharp juxtaposition of various styles, a reflection of his mixed heritage — as the son of a Catholic and a Jew, he was raised in a German province of Communist Russia. Schnittke’s Verses are replete with what he described as Schattenklänge (“shadow sounds”), and wander mystically, as if possessed by musical spirits of the distant past, between darkness and light, chaos and order, defeat and victory.

From the mesmerizing and haunting Verses of SchnittkeThe Esoterics’ program will continue with a cycle of madrigals by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer and author, Ned Rorem.  In time of pestilence sets the poetry of Thomas Nashe, a contemporary of Shakespeare.  Nashe’s litanies detail his grappling with the inevitability of fate, but ultimately urge the listener to “welcome destiny,” while begging for mercy from above. Rorem’s madrigals evince his talent for creating ever-changing textures, seamless melodies, and subtly surprising harmonies.

Rorem’s impassioned pleas will be followed by the Pro pace motets of the South African-born English composer John Joubert.  With intricate counterpoint in the most virtuosic architecture, Joubert’s motets render three medieval lyrics around the subject of peace: Sedulus Scottus’ prayer for deliverance from human annihilation during the Black Death (which Joubert equated with the threat of atomic war); Eugenius Vulgarius’ lament for the day that man invented weapons for use against his own kind; and Peter Abelard’s depiction of the Christ’s passion – from the tragic injustice of his crucifixion as the ultimate non-violent protest, to the triumph of his resurrection as a victory of compassion and peace.  


Please join The Esoterics for one of these three performances of AGONIA:

24 Apr 2015 | 800pm | St Stephen’s Episcopal Church | 4805 NE 45th Street | Seattle

25 Apr 2015 | 730pm | Christ Episcopal Church | 310 North K Street | Tacoma

26 Apr 2015 | 300pm | Holy Rosary Catholic Church | 4142 42nd Avenue SW | West Seattle

TICKET PRICES: General admission is $25 at the door, or $22 when pre-ordered online. Student, senior, un(der)employed, and differently-abled tickets are available at $18 at the door, or $15 in advance.