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Constance Demby's special talent is translating the tradition of sacred music into a 21st century context. First came Sacred Space Music (1982), then her acknowledged masterpiece and "landmark recording" Novus Magnificat (1986). Now she has given us Aeterna, soaring with expansive, heartfelt piano melodies amidst rich electronic orchestrations and choirs of angelic voices. While Novus Magnificat took its inspiration from the sacred choral music of Bach, Aeterna is inspired by the late-19th century romantics Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. But with Constance Demby at the electronic podium, the music is propelled beyond earthly confines, combining the rich melodicism of the Russian masters with the sublime aspirations of Bach.
Through much of Aeterna the grand piano sings the dominant voice. In the first piece, "The Dawning," mysterious, churning clouds of sound emerge from silence, giving birth to a gentle melody stated by the piano with elegant simplicity. Woodwinds and strings join in, and the music begins to soar. Soon Demby's electronic orchestra is in full force, transmuting the innocence of the opening theme into a heartfelt expression of affirmation.
Next come the buoyant melodies and cascading piano chords of "Ocean Without Shores" a passionate, tumultuous waltz ending with a virtual tsumani. Courage and optimism then give way to more introspective emotions, and the music settles down with "Innocence." Sparkling chimes ring out over soft mists of sound like stars flickering in the serenity of night. Slow, trancelike Indonesian gamelan rhythms and a plaintive shakuhachi flute weave fluid tones in and around the piano, string instruments converse, and the extended piece builds in intensity while barely moving above a whisper.
"Cry of the Heart," with its descending minor triad, begins an extended exploration of more profound and tragic emotions. Yet for Demby there's always hope: angelic female voices hover like benign guardians above even the most sorrowful lament, and grief transforms into acceptance.
In "Eternal Return," piano and strings reappear, guitar and clarinet express an elegant loneliness, and the final symphonic chorus brings a message of hope and renewal. The final three-movement suite "Rites of Passage," shows Demby at the peak of her compositional powers with a powerful concerto for piano and electronic orchestra on the themes of remembrance and fulfillment, leaving the listener with a profound sense of serenity the aftermath of an intensely emotional journey.