In February of 2020, oboist Caitlin Broms-Jacobs and I met to discuss the new concerto I was writing for her and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. She expressed a desire for a work that would take advantage of the oboe’s natural lyricism, and I was only too happy to oblige. My early sketches seemed to suggest a work that would be fundamentally sunny and romantic in disposition; I remember the phrase « petals in the Sun » floating across my mind more than once, so much so that it almost became the work’s title.

This ‘sunniness’ is still reflected in the opening bars, where the oboe intones an expressive, cantabile melody atop a bed of shimmering F-sharp minor. This melody, to me, is suggestive of a seed with the potential of new life; indeed, it becomes the motivic spine of the whole concerto, growing in all directions like the branches of a tree.

This pastoral, Romantic imagery – of trees and deep lakes and mysterious forests – suffused my imagination during the creation of the work’s first few minutes. It was around this time that I stumbled across a painting by the Cuban painter Tomas Sanchez, titled « Prayer in a Green Cathedral. » I found both the title and the painting – in which the boughs of an idyllic forest form the outline of an arch, like the entrance to Nature’s cathedral – immensely evocative, mirroring the spirit with which I was writing this music, and chose to give the concerto this name.

As the music unfolds, however, the music begins to darken, as I found myself gripped by the archetype of the forest as the site of (often painful) transformation. The music passes through several stages – from a slow, hymn-like procession, to a scherzo teeming with mysteries, to a spirited dance with glimpses of radiance – before culminating in a cadenza for the soloist. The coda attempts to revisit the joy of the opening, but the joy proves elusive; a desolate denouement in C minor (the farthest interval from F-sharp) awaits, and we hear an inversion of the initial melody on the solo violin, its character tragically altered.

No doubt the challenging events of 2020 – some personal, others experienced by all – as well as the threat of imminent environmental catastrophe played a role in the eventual course taken by this music. I hope, nonetheless, that Prayer in a Green Cathedral will prove ultimately an uplifting experience for those performing it, and for those listening.