Death of Classical 2023 Review: The Protecting Veil

Matthew Aucoin Illuminates the Night

By Jennifer Pyron

Death of Classical’s “The Angel’s Share” presented John Tavener’s “The Protecting Veil,” arranged and conducted by Matthew Aucoin with solo cellist Joshua Roman and the Contemporaneous ensemble, at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery on May 26th 2023. Matthew Aucoin, a well-known composer in the opera world, interpreted this work with a thoughtful awareness of Tavener’s meditative and oftentimes exaggerated dualistic symbolism. This is portrayed throughout as the “Veil’s” recurring motif.

Each time this theme was revisited, Aucoin conducted from a place of reflection and intimacy. The string ensemble included violinists Pauline Kim-Harris, Finnegan Shanahan, Lauren Cauley Kalal, Nikita Yermak, Sarah Goldfeather, and Camilla Caldwell; viola players Hannah Levinson and Chelsea Wimmer; cellists Helen Newby, Luke Krafka, Titilayo Ayangade, Sarah Song, and soloist Joshua Roman; and bassists Pat Swoboda, Samuel Zagnit, and Eleonore Oppenheim. Everyone played with a clear and focused direction of sound. There were moments when one felt like they were being drawn into the “Veil,” and there met with the deeper purpose of Tavener’s transcendental composition of heightened bliss. 

Matthew Aucoin Illuminated the Night

This review is a revisitation of moments where I stepped outside of my comfort zone and started thinking more deeply about what the conductor and musicians were interpreting. It is with joy that I write about how I was inspired by Tavener’s “Veil,” as this was a perfect space to explore the deeper meanings behind composition and interpretation in all forms of music. I must first address my general understanding of this piece by going directly to the source: John Tavener’s program notes. I feel a connection to his ideas thanks to his descriptions, coming from a deep historical context and yet ultimately enriched through utilization of the ethereal. As a composer he chose a path that was wildly imaginative and mystical. This piece releases into the “unknown spaces between notes” in an exquisite way that pulls you along at an exemplary pace. Tavener is unmatched in his ability to compose minimally, yet still blend together the vast universality of music’s power, sometimes intertwining inexplicable invocations.

Matthew Aucoin was the perfect choice as conductor for this performance. While I sat on my blanket and gazed at the shadowy figures around me, intently listening for the piece to begin, I was suddenly aware of Green-Wood Cemetery’s inclusivity. There I was, alive and feeling the emotions that bubbled up when Aucoin started the first movement. I sat among the graves of those who I never personally knew, but in that moment I reflected on the inevitable cycle of life and death. This is the encroaching reality that balances along a narrow line between joy and sorrow. This all came full circle when I remembered reading about how Tavener’s compositions intentionally encompass this very sensation. Tavener is known for being the interpreter, the reckoner. Matthew Aucoin showed us all this in a very genuine and uninhibited way. As he conducted, his body naturally gave in to the sweetness of the violins, the ebb and flow of the cello, and the quieted pulses of the bass. 

At one point, I could hear robins making their muted chirrups just before turning into their nests for sleep. I felt suspended among the living and the dead, plunged into the dreamworld that Tavener created in 1988. Here was a piece made to reflect on the universality of beliefs: those convictions that connect us all to a deeper knowing. Aucoin’s “Eurydice” whispered this same sense of knowing and feeling to me as well. For me, Matthew Aucoin has an enlightened perspective that develops musical themes in a calculated yet organic way. As a conductor, he drives the music forward in this natural flow. As a composer, he creates shocking moments of deeper questioning, evoking a sense of surprise and excitement. I remember seeing “Eurydice” for the first time and gasping several times throughout the performance. Audience members were rattled, in the best way possible.

Joshua Roman’s Soulful Performance

Tavener’s “Veil” is known to take liberties during the cello solos. This exaggerated approach is effective, especially when a cellist like Joshua Roman is playing. He creatively crafted and conjured the “Veil” that symbolizes the Mother of God throughout. The string ensemble was absolutely gorgeous in their sound and the supportive moments when Joshua Roman played solo. The audience was still and quiet until the final notes were finished. Everyone was in contemplation of the evening’s unfurling wonders.


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