11 Sumptuous PlanetDavid Shapiro – Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass
The Crossing; Donald Nally
New Focus Recordings FCR389 (newfocusrecordings.com)

What is a secular Mass? What does it sound like? What is it about? These are just a few of the questions your reviewer had upon receiving this recording, as its apparent juxtaposition of secularism with one of the most apparent expressions of religiosity is inherently counterintuitive. Indeed, the relationship between a secular Mass and the humanist movement, which places prime importance on human rather than divine matters, is the nearest analogy that came to mind and, as it turns out, was not entirely incorrect.

Philadelphia-based composer David Shapiro has composed solo, chamber, vocal and instrumental works including commissions for several prominent American choirs, among them The Crossing, a professional choir dedicated to exploring and recording new music. For Sumptuous Planet, Shapiro uses the musical form of a Christian Mass to advance a scientific, atheistic vision of the world. Drawing on texts by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, physicist Richard Feynman and 17th-century Dutch microbiologist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Shapiro builds on the venerated tradition of the musical mass, adapting it for contemporary ideas about science and nature.

The Introit opens with towering harmonies setting a quote from Feynman: “Is no one inspired by the present picture of the universe?”, while Death sets Dawkins’ text of gratitude celebrating the improbability of our existence with luminous, soaring melodies. Despite his subversive premise of positing an atheist perspective within the structure of a Christian Mass, Sumptuous Planet largely exists in the same aesthetic space as its religious predecessors, drawing on a contemporary musical palette that is, perhaps rather ironically, quite divine.

In addition to being thought-provoking, this recording is also musically superb, with The Crossing and conductor Donald Nally providing a flawless interpretation of Shapiro’s harrowing, transparent score. Any error in pitch, rhythm or intonation would be dreadfully and immediately apparent. The Crossing tackles this score’s challenges in a way that approaches perfection.

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