Nothing So Exquisite
Nothing So Exquisite is a tone poem for large orchestra that depicts the conversion story of a man named Alma, as told in a sacred volume of scripture called the Book of Mormon. Alma's story is comparable to that of Paul the Apostle in the New Testament. Early in his life, though his father is the head of the Church of Christ, Alma rebels against his father's teachings and becomes a violent opponent of the Church, persecuting the Saints and seeking to lead them astray. He continues to fight zealously against God until, like the Apostle Paul, he is confronted by an angel and commanded to stop his evil ways, and he ultimately repents and is converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ. From that point on, he devotes his life to the service of God. Alma's experiences are recorded in Alma 36:6-22 in The Book of Mormon.
The jagged, dissonant theme that opens this piece represents Alma's rebellious and prideful state before his conversion. The work follows Alma's account as he is confronted by an angel with a voice of thunder and falls into a coma for three days. During this time, he is tormented by the memory of his sins and sees no hope for redemption until he suddenly recalls his father's teachings of Jesus Christ - represented in the music by a Kyrie chant played by offstage trumpets. He cries desperately for mercy, and his pain and torment are instantaneously replaced with peace, joy, and light. "Yea... there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea... there could be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy." He is then enveloped in a transcendent vision of God sitting on His throne, surrounded by numberless angels singing praises to Him. He concludes, "...and my soul did long to be there."
As I have studied Alma's account, I have always been struck by the sublime, immediate, transformative power of Christ. Exquisite pain and torment are transformed into exquisite light and joy; horror at facing God's judgement is replaced with longing to enter His presence; a bitter enemy to God is transformed into a valiant force for good. Likewise, through the course of this work, Alma's dissonant, fragmented theme is transformed into something more glorious, beautiful, and complete.
Written for the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra at Rice University. Premiered by Jerry Hou and the Shepherd Symphony on February 18, 2022 in the Stude Concert Hall at Rice University.