Lagrime di San Pietro (The Tears of St. Peter)

Where do I start? This was one of the most astonishing musical experiences of my life. The venue was Koerner Hall in Toronto and the twenty-one singers compose the Los Angeles Master Chorale. I bought this (front row!) ticket a few months ago, and yesterday my memory was that I was going to see some Spanish singer who was backed up by a choir. Wrong! First of all it’s Italian, and the words are the name of a piece composed by Orlando di Lasso in the 1500’s, based on the poetry of Luigi Tansillo.

The story centres on the apostle Peter, who just before the crucifixion told the Roman authorities three times that he didn’t know Jesus. Peter’s remorse was deep and stayed with him for the remaining thirty years of his life. What especially haunted him was the look of sadness and love coming from Jesus when Peter cast him aside. “It was a simple and sacred turn of the head.”

Before the performance, the director and conductor sat before us. Di Lasso was dying as he composed this work and was angry with God for extending his life month by month. His body was breaking down, as we often saw in the twisted agony of the singers. The Renaissance was ending along with di Lasso, and the world was transforming into something new, including opera and Shakespeare.

Peter Sellars, the director, told us that Lagrime di San Pietro was essentially “umperformable”, as in it being extremely difficult music. The members of the Chorale have memorized all of the seven parts for all of the 75 minutes of singing … pretty much impossible. The piece was also umperformable from the perspective of the Catholic Church – blasphemous, and likely to result in di Lasso’s imprisonment if he hadn’t died first.

Listen to Tansillo’s poetry and see if you can remember a time of deep remorse in your life:

The anguish and the shame but greater grew
In Peter’s heart as morning slowly came
No one was there to see him, well he knew
Yet he himself was to himself a shame
Exposed to all men’s gaze, or screened from view
A noble heart will feel the pang the same
A prey to shame the sinning soul will be
Though none but heaven and earth its shame can see

The twenty-one faces were so often contorted. The arms reached high … and low. Astounding harmonies came from all quarters of the stage. We the audience, I do believe, were stunned.

Imagine the performers all lying on their backs, still singing. Then they raise their arms to the heavens, hands hanging in the air. Imagine couples embracing, caressing, singing to each other with mouths only inches away, finishing with a tender kiss. Imagine two rows of human beings facing each other, moving so slowly closer, reaching out and finally touching. There is much to imagine.

At the beginning of the evening, the master of ceremonies told us that there were just a few tickets left for tomorrow afternoon’s performance. After a standing ovation which must have lasted five minutes, I sat down in my seat, whipped out this phone, and got myself a repeat place amid all this beauty. And in the front row again!

How did I ever write all these words about tonight? Immensity like this brings me to silence of the mouth and, I thought, the fingers. These digits apparently have a mind of their own.

What are you doing at 2:00 pm Eastern tomorrow afternoon? I’m in seat AA16. As of a few seconds ago, AA17 is empty. Go for it.