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A HUMANIST HYMN?

The Agnostic, by David Chesky. Oratorio for orchestra, symphonic choir, and soloists. Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and choir conducted by Steven Somary. Compact disc, program length 70 minutes and 19 seconds. Chesky Records, New York: CD202. $16.95.

Secularists with an ear for the music of our time will find much to like in this sprawling work by composer/audiophile David Chesky. The Agnostic reflects on the human search for meaning in a world that has drained old meaning valences of their power. Though it recalls Haydn with its programmatic libretto and ambitious score for orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists, its musical idiom is edgily contemporary Prickly tonalities bear the impress of late twentieth-century experimentalism. (Listeners who dislike classical music later than Ives or Stravinsky may find The Agnostic tough going.)

Vocal soloists portray two characters who exemplify the amorality of suffering. a five-year-old who died in incomprehensible agony and a gay man who faced discrimination and died young, presumably of AIDS. Through shared introspection they realize that the world that treated them so cruelly cannot be the work of God.

"Religion," the libretto objects, "/Has always /Taught us IA world /Of answers/Instead of a world of questions." Sweeping choral passages chronicle the affirming realization that, if humans are to justify and replenish themselves, we cannot look either to God or the universe; we must reach within ourselves. The work ends in a Nietzschean celebration of self-overcoming, urging: "Have the courage to transcend ourselves/And become our dreams."

Though composer Chesky is relatively young, The Agnostic's philosophical roots are in 1950s existentialism, shaped by Beckett, Camus, Nietzsche, and Sartre, among others. Read the libretto from the liner notes and it is sometimes simplistic; the climax, in particular, veers toward an ersatz secular spirituality Listening to the performance, one forgives it all. The music is moody and evocative, sometimes grand. Technically, the recording is astonishing, with crystalline aural imaging and a startling dynamic range of more than 50 decibels.

Serious music that reflects an explicitly humanist worldview is relatively rare--more seldom still does such a work end in swelling affirmation rather than despair. If The Agnostic is not perfect, it is nonetheless a worthy addition to a secularist's musical library.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Flynn, Tom
Publication:Free Inquiry
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Dec 22, 2000
Words:369
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