Duo Orfeo on the road – Newark, NJ: 11-9-11 “La Descente d’Orphee Aux Enfers”

The spendid Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart appeared unexpectedly as we meandered the streets of Newark. We parked by a side door and went in. A large, well-dressed and well-spoken man greeted us, and, insead of ushering us into the sanctum sanctorum of one of the largest Cathedrals in the western hemishere, opened a small door marked “Stairs”

“This leads to the Crypt,” He explained. “where you’ll be playing.” We descended a flight of stairs to a dimly lit room filled with relics of last year’s nativity scene. I detected a musty smell and heard the sighing of massive heating pipes. “This, of course, isn’t the public entrance,” our guide assured us.

We followed John (that was the name of our Virgil) through a series of passageways and doors. Some were so low we had to duck. All the while we listened as he named the former Bishops and even Archbishops that were interred in this Crypt. To be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention to that. I was trying, in vain, to keep track of the rights and lefts that we took and to identify landmarks so I could find my way back out if need be.

The Crypt was pleasant enough, in fact quite elegant. It was a spacious stone chamber with a high vaulted ceiling. There was a central altar, a painting of a radiant and very approachable-looking Jesus, 100 or so chairs surrounding, and two chairs in the center for us.

“You will start playing at noon.” Our guide announced. “I will introduce you. Hmmm… Well, it’s 9:30 now, so you’ve got a few hours to kill.” With that he vanished and left us alone in the Crypt with the former Bishops and even Archbishops of New Jersey.

Ignoring a growing feeling of unease, I told Jamie that I was going to find my way back up to the car to grab something I had forgotten. This was going well enough, someone had drawn arrows in chalk on the walls to help someone in my position. I passed an elderly Janitor who smiled at me knowingly. Then I got a little lost. The arrows seemed to point in conflicting directions. My landmarks were useless. I was lost in a labrynth of pipes, dusty statues of the Virgin and unused vestry wardrobes. One corridor I was exploring became dark and the only way forward was on a small wooden plank suspended over as chasm, the dimensions of which were obscured in darkness. It was at this point that I began to lose touch with reality. Was I really in the basement of a cathedral in Newark or was I still in bed in my hotel room having an awful nightmare? For a moment I really wasn’t sure.

I was brough back to sanity by the familiar sound of Jamie’s guitar, not too distant, playing his part of one of the pieces we were about to perform. I found my way back to the Crypt, forgetting my errand to the car.

It turned out that the acoustics in the space were incredible. The room added an uncanny glow to the notes, subtly amplifying and warming the sound of our guitars. It was really amazing, probably one of the best spaces I’ve ever played in.

Totally hypnotized by the new resonances we were hearing in our playing, we began improvsing baroque cadences in the style of Marc Antoine Charpentier (whose opera Le Descente de Orphee aux Enfers we had been listening to repeatedly in the car – recorded by William Christie and Les Arts Florrisants, GORGEOUS ). Doing this we must have lost track of time because we were roused from our reverie by the entrance of some early audience members.

Our heads still swirling, we retreated to a little room and waited for the rest of of the  audience to arrive. I was so excited to play. Our program was to be all French Baroque. The combination of the sound of our guitars in that room and the fact that my head was full of our improvisations in the same style made me ready to experience these pieces (which we have played countless times) in a totally fresh way. This is always when the best music making happens, so I knew that this was going to be exactly the kind of performing experience that I live for.

John returned and, as promised, introduced us and we walked out. I was thrilled to find that it was a full Crypt! We started playing, the music flowed, the audience was smiling or closing their eyes, everyone was in it, and it was over too fast.

No more nightmare scenarios to round out this tale. We finished our program, made our bows, chatted with the audience and sold some CDs. We went out with the audience through their exit, which was considerably simpler than our entrance, just a short, well lit passageway of carved stone, and a large door that opened into the blessed sunlight.

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