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On Maura Tuffy and singers’ “Path of Miracles” by Joby Talbot: “This is about as tight as a non-static choral group of this size could possibly be, performing a work of this size and complexity”

(photo: Richard An)

On May 26, 2023, Maura Tuffy led a choir of 17 singers in a full performance of Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. 

Joby Talbot’s musical output is eccentric; scores for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Sing adorn his resume, right next to a large number of music for dance, arrangements for pop stars Paul McCartney and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as well as purely ‘concert’ works such as Path of Miracles. Visiting his website, his landing page simply reads “Joby Talbot is a composer of music for concert, stage and screen,” the brevity of which seems to belie the depth at which he is involved with all three.

A single, low, unison note begins in the tenors and basses – who are the only singers seen on stage – its resonance shifting through changes in vowel shape. Another pitch coming from below, then rising through it, begins a pattern that will become clear in just a moment; Talbot is evoking a Shepard tone, an auditory illusion which seems to continually rise without ever ending. From the BBC’s Bang Goes the Theory, “it’s like a barber’s pole of sound.”

The sopranos and altos proclaim from the balcony behind the audience. The crotales, performed by Yuri Inoo, signal the higher voices to join the lower. They walk through the aisles, flanking left and right, until they find their marks. This (and all future) transitions are tightly choreographed; the ensemble occasionally loosens their rigid lines to flex into a slightly different configuration. Without cues, singers depart from the group to form solo quartets, and, at the very end, the singers flank left and right once again, beginning the piece as it started.

On the way, Path of Miracles visits Roncesvalles, Burgos, León and Santiago along the Camino de Santiago, an (in)famous pilgrimage route in the Roman Catholic tradition; some members of the choir and the audience, in a brief pre-concert talk, raised their hands when asked who had  made the trek themselves. In some moments, parallel whole tone and octatonic scales evoke Debussy; in others, you can hear a “Dies Irae” melody snuck in.

I must praise Maura Tuffy’s conducting here; full disclosure, Maura and I met in the choral department at USC, and are friends. In a few words, choral conducting is difficult; you need to show clear beats and gestures while making sure singers don’t disengage their breath support, an issue which is usually not present conducting instrumentalists; choral conductors often don’t use batons, seemingly to prioritize the nuance of the hands at the expense of visibility and the “resolution” of beat that the pointed tip of a baton can provide. Compound that with the fact that Maura is often cueing singers she can’t see, behind her head (in the balcony, or flanking the sides of the sanctuary), and you can get an idea of the immensity of the achievement.

In speaking with the singers after the performance, I found that this group put together the nearly-70 minute work in just four rehearsals. This is about as tight as a non-static choral group of this size could possibly be, performing a work of this size and complexity. Maura’s work with the singers is monumental, and readers should look forward to when this group will perform this work next.

Maura Tuffy and Kiyono McDaniel met last year while working together for the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. With Maura’s affinity for choral conducting, and Kiyono’s ambition for arts development, they have combined their skills to make this performance possible. From fundraising and marketing, to recruiting and rehearsing, Maura and Kiyono have self produced this performance to highlight the beauty that is Path of Miracles.

7:30pm. Friday May 26, 2023

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