Thinking that I was in for another rock Mass or “Jesus Christ Superstar,” I was pleasantly surprised by Phil Kline’s “John the Revelator” (the title comes from a radio preacher) as presented by organist Ray Cornils, the Portland String Quartet and the six-man vocal group, Lionheart, at Merrill Auditorium on Sunday.

This is serious music, perhaps too serious, in a style I must characterize as Stained Glass: the hypnotic, repetitive style of composer Philip Glass, plus added harmonic coloring.

The Mass, “a narrative of redemption in a blighted world,” began with five Chorale Preludes from Kline’s “Little American Organ Book,” played on the Kotzschmar organ by Cornils. They definitively set the bleak tone for what came next, even if one was in the form of a mambo.

Lionheart emerged from the wings in a processional to the tune of the old New England hymn “Northport.” One of the best choirs I have heard in a long time, from deepest bass to counter-tenor, its medieval-sounding harmonies created exactly the air of religious mystery Kline was aiming for.

Playing with microtone intervals required the partnership of a string quartet, without the equal temperament tuning of an organ or piano. The PSQ willingly obliged, until, in “Dark Was the Night,” one could barely distinguish the voices from the strings.

The form, style and rhythm of the music varied enough to maintain a high level of interest, while the selection of biblical and poetic texts, in Latin and English, could have been perfect for the setting. My quarrel with the biblical quotes is that they were from the new standard version, which lacks the necessary values, mystery and poetry, provided by the King James Bible.

On the other hand, the poetry of David Shapiro and the “Meditation” by Samuel Beckett, perfectly exemplify a modernist “dark night of the soul.”

Refreshing at first, the unrelenting “serious” tone eventually became wearing, as if the composer couldn’t break out of the gloom, even in the credo. Modulating into a major key, or singing the final “Wondrous Love” like a spiritual, would have been too easy, but redemption, in any form, never seems to come.

“Wondrous Love” was presented as if the composer were looking through the window of a rural southern church – joy glimpsed from a distance.

Kline makes a valiant attempt in the “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini,” beloved of Beethoven and Mozart, with what seems like a gospel shout in the middle of an intricate chord, but in the end, quietude is the best he can do.

A much-too-small audience gave the performers an appropriate standing ovation.

 

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at [email protected]