WASHINGTON, October 31, 2013 — It is a story that has been repeated many times in our century of aesthetic upheaval: An artist arrives at a certain point of no return, where aesthetic and spiritual concerns cause a great crisis that leads first to silence and then to glorious new music.
So it was for artists as diverse as Arvo Pärt and Krzystof Penderecki, and so it was even more recently for composer Frank LaRocca. This California composer made the difficult choice to remake himself as a man and an artist many years into his career. He has enjoyed the fruits of success ever since.
A self-described “painful upheaval” in 1995 began LaRocca’s long process of reinvention. As his relationship with academic modernism became increasingly untenable, he turned instead to the great works of composers like Tallis, Josquin, and Palestrina. The spiritual awakening that would accompany his musical exploration would gradually lead him to return to the Catholicism of his youth on Ash Wednesday, 2009.
Since that time, LaRocca has concentrated almost exclusively on choral music. The resulting output has included some truly extraordinary and sublime new works. A single hearing of his “O magnum mysterium,” or his more recent “Nunc dimittis” suffices to generate a sense of gratitude for this composer’s dramatic, aesthetic transformation, as such luminous works as these will certainly become a part of the permanent American choral repertoire.
His is a new style firmly rooted in the old, one that is created by a composer (in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas) “standing on the shoulders of giants” in order to glimpse with greater clarity a future stretching out beyond the horizon.
At the heart of LaRocca’s new style is a concern for something long swept under the wooly rug of modernism: beauty. Indeed, in a recent interview, LaRocca said that “A true understanding of Beauty is inseparable from a comprehensive philosophy of being that acknowledges that Beauty is one with Truth and Goodness and therefore always is (or should be) a reflection of the Triune God, who is its source.”
These are bold words that place LaRocca on the same spiritual-aesthetic plane as composers like James MacMillan, musicians of profound expression who do not keep their faith hidden in the closet, but instead allow their belief drive their quest for sublimity in art.
If LaRocca’s aesthetic and spiritual conversion seems extreme to some, it has paid off in spades for the composer. His recent self released recording, “In this place,” made it into the Top 25 list of best selling classical recording on Amazon. Perhaps no one was more surprised than the composer himself, who took to Facebook to thank his supporters with typical understated, generosity.
It seems as if this remade composer is just getting started. He was recently commissioned by a Catholic parish to compose an oratorio on the life of St. Rita for chamber orchestra, organ, chorus, and soloist. (For those who might be interested, librettists are still being auditioned.)
Like much of LaRocca’s current work, this commission echoes the patronage models of distant times to bring about music that is entirely, wonderfully new. It proves the continuing vitality of such partnerships between artists and the Church, and hopefully will prove the first of many such arrangements that usher new sacred art and music into a world that is arguably in need of it.
While LaRocca’s work may emerge primarily from his faith, his approach is a magnanimous one. Ultimately, he speaks of his desire to “nurture the spiritual lives of those – non-believers included – who come to the concert hall to hear my work,” he says. “Call it an ‘apologetics of beauty’ if you will.”
Clearly people today are listening to Frank LaRocca’s apologetics, and the concert hall is becoming a more beautiful place as a result.
(Video: Frank LaRocca’s “I will lift up mine eyes,” as performed at St. Ignatius Catholic Church, San Francisco, California.)
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