Even though music effectively brought him back from the brink, composing was not a high priority during his recovery. But eventually, when he and his wife were reading the 17th-century metaphysical English poet George Herbert, the urge to write returned. “It was the last poem, called ‘Life,’ that sort of woke me up,” says Tavener, 69, speaking by phone from London earlier this month. “It was just sort of a revelation. The music seemed to come to me from nowhere.”
Tavener is a mystical sort of figure with hair flowing to his shoulders and a strong spiritual bent, and his music is sweet and strong and gained even wider renown when a piece of it, “Song for Athene,” was performed at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. “Some people have criticized Tavener for being too easy, not challenging enough, playing on the emotions of the audience,” says the choral conductor Robert Shafer. “I don’t feel that, and you won’t hear that in the new music. There’s nothing all that obvious. It’s simple, but it’s subtle.”
Shafer will lead the world premiere of the completed piece, “Three Hymns of George Herbert,” along with another new Tavener work, “Tolstoy’s Creed,” at Washington National Cathedral on Sunday afternoon as part of a concert honoring Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. the composer, recovering from yet another medical procedure, will be in attendance.
Shafer, 67, understands about rebirths. In 2007, after he had led the Washington Chorus for 35 years (and won a Grammy with it in 2000), he was unexpectedly let go. The reasoning appeared to be that it was time for new blood. Not everyone agreed; when Shafer left, a number of singers went with him. Together, they founded the City Choir of Washington — yet another large chorus in a town that already had plenty of them.
To keep solvent, the group has had to be flexible. Where Shafer once conducted only choral masterworks, he has now branched out into work for hire — such as the “Lord of the Rings” film score performed at Wolf Trap.
“Actually it was very challenging music, very interesting,” he said with amused surprise from his Virginia home last week. “And now I know how to train a choir to sing in Elvish.” Taking on more commercial projects has enabled the chorus to present standard repertory and make it to its sixth season. And this young group, led by a conductor who once thought his conducting career might be over, is going to get to sing the first-ever performance of the work that starts the rest of Sir John Tavener’s life.
And this commission, with a price tag in the high five figures, was funded — drumroll, please — by a public-policy think tank. “I think it’s a first,” says Tavener.