John Schlenck

John Schlenck: Ramakrishna, a Prophet for Our Time

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The ecumenical spirit that informs John Schlenck's Ramakrishna: A Prophet for Our Time (1987-2005) is perhaps its strongest draw, though the music is less than interesting in its own right and not especially attractive. This oratorio for vocalists, choir, and chamber ensemble is burdened with monotonous, quasi-modal chants with stiff instrumental accompaniments and block-like choral incantations that are designed to carry an excessively wordy text; a side-effect of the verbose libretto -- which seems to be half prayer service, half hagiographic narrative -- is that the score offers little in the way of lyricism or drama, and there is scarcely any room for the development of musical ideas. It is apparent from the opening chorus that Schlenck means to convey Ramakrishna's all-embracing theology through prayers drawn from Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, and presentations of events from the sage's life; yet Schlenck has adopted for the most part a mundane, utilitarian liturgical style, similar to the functional music found in many western churches since the 1960s, and he borrows only a few incidental features from eastern music for color. One may have an interest in the modern Vedanta movement and be curious about the life of Ramakrishna, but listening to this long, static, and musically stunted oratorio seems a much more laborious way to learn about him than reading a biography. The recording is decent, though the performances by tenor Douglas Purcell and the choir and instrumentalists of the Vedantic Arts Ensemble, directed by Timothy Mount, are merely serviceable and not of exceptional sound quality.

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