Culture | A new classical release and Baylor artist Jeffrey Powers draws listeners back to "the greatest good that mortals know"

Issue: "Reinventing Hillary," Nov. 17, 2007

Among the posters, diplomas, and other decorations on the walls of Jeffrey Powers' office at Baylor University is a sign containing a well-known couplet by the 18th-century English poet and essayist Joseph Addison: "Music, the greatest good that mortals know, / And all of heaven we have below."

The quote is obviously an oversimplification. There are times, however, when anyone with ears to hear or a savage breast to be soothed would agree. And as a widely traveled 53-year-old associate professor of [French] horn, Jeffrey Powers has had many of them.

He has also provided his share: the latest of which can be found on Into the 21st Century: Music for Horn and Piano. Released by MSR Classics, the disc is a program of four compositions-"pieces," says Powers, "that really deserve to be heard." Besides showcasing Powers' talent on the French horn and that of his Baylor colleague Vincent De Vries on the piano, they reflect Powers' belief that abstract music can, and should, be a part of Christian worship.

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By "abstract" Powers means "music that isn't just an arrangement of a hymn or variations on a hymn"-music, in other words, not only lacking praise-oriented lyrics but also possessing potentially daunting convolutions rooted in serious artistic movements that remain ahead of their time.

Into the 21st Century, for instance, opens with the "Sonata for Horn and Piano, Op. 7," by the late Belgian composer Jane Vignery. Next is "Appalachian Suite for Horn and Piano" by the contemporary American composer Daniel Baldwin, followed by "Sonata for Horn and Piano, Op. 47," by the late Danish composer Niels Viggo Bentzon. It concludes with "Three Pieces in the Form of a Sonata for Horn and Piano" by the late Viennese composer Karl Pilss. None of these pieces or their composers are widely known or linked to Christian themes. Yet, from the lyrical elegance of Vignery and Baldwin to the neoclassical experimentalism of Bentzon and the Straussian Romanticism of Pilss, each is a work of undeniable beauty and power.

That such music has come to be verboten among congregations whose object of adoration is the God of infinite beauty and power is for Powers an unnecessary overreaction to the over-formal trappings of Catholicism and other liturgical traditions. It's an overreaction that Powers has witnessed firsthand. Active with the Belgian Evangelical Mission for 16 years, he saw how the desire of evangelical churches to distance themselves from both Catholicism and state-sanctioned liberal Protestantism could result in an informality of worship at odds with artistic structure or depth.

"My wife and I were involved with starting a church in a little town called Hoogstraten," Powers recalls, "and we were using the simplest of music-very simple praise tunes. The point was to try to reach the unchurched."

Despite the questionable assumption underlying such an approach-that the "unchurched" lack the sophistication to be attracted to high-quality artistic presentations-it's a strategy Powers has seen repeated, most recently in the Baptist church to which he and his family belong in Waco. "When we first came here, the church had a very good and healthy [musical] balance, and our music minister was very good at leading that balance every Sunday."

When attendance reached the 3,000 mark, however, the church went from having one Sunday-morning worship service to two, thus placing strict time limits on services that, according to Powers, had previously been more open-ended. "They could go for an hour, an hour-and-a-half, and there was time for an instrumental solo, time for a vocal solo, time for a series of praise tunes, and time for some hymns. But since we went to two services, things have gotten very tight, and I'm not sure it's for the best. Apparently we are growing, but I think the music has suffered."

If the music has suffered, and if Joseph Addison was right, then the "mortals" in the pews of Powers' church are getting less of "heaven" than they used to. And apparently they aren't alone.

The Masterworks Festival, an annual month-long gathering sponsored by the Christian Performing Arts Fellowship and on whose faculty Powers serves, has been attracting many of the world's finest serious Christian performing artists to the Winona Lake, Ind., campus of Grace College for years-in part because they find there a support and appreciation sometimes lacking closer to home. "It helps us to get our perspective again and to recharge our batteries," says Powers. "It's a very special place, and it empowers everyone. I encourage my students to go at least once."


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