Saturday, October 16, 2010

Hymnody Review: Fernando Ortega

Ortega, Fernando. Christmas Songs. Nashville: Curb Records, 2008. Audio CD. $18.98. http://www.fernandoortega.com (H)

Ortega, Fernando. The Shadow of Your Wings: Hymns and Sacred Songs. Nashville: Curb Records, 2006. Audio CD. (Found online for $9.78.)  (H)

Ortega, Fernando. The Shadow of Your Wings: Hymns and Sacred Songs. Nashville: Curb Records, 2006. Piano/Guitar/Vocal Folio. $16.95. (H)

These items have yet to appear in a "Resources Received" post. Once I sampled a little of each, they moved to the top of my review stack for a full, high-priority review. And here it is!

Perhaps the highest compliments I can give of recordings and sheet music is to include them in a "Hymnody" review (as opposed to merely edifying Christian-worldview music for the car CD player) and to say I would be willing to include any or all of these songs, hymns, and arrangements in the worship services of the congregation I serve. Further, I recommend them for similar consideration and use to the readers of QBR.

Yes, Christmas albums are a dime a dozen. This one by Fernando Ortega is special. Musicianship is first-rate. And it wears well. Even though it is mid-October as I write, the arrangements and harmonizations are fresh, engaging, and interesting.

Ortega includes three instrumentals ("Carol of the Birds," "Go Tell It On The Mountain," and "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella"). The remainder are sung and played by Ortega, arranger on all but one track. He is the writer and composer of the final hymn, "Jesus, King of Angels."

"O Little Town of Bethlehem" features a new Ortega tune that helps the listener attend the text anew.

Years ago, I heard an earlier Ortega album at a family member's home. Back then I thought it was neat that at least one hymn, "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," was included. It finds another natural home here for your edification. What a wonderful Communion hymn!

This recording will wear well, and the singable "Jesus, King of Angels" may find its way to a hymnal near you in the next decade or generation.

Instrumentation for both albums is similar, with pleasing male vocals (and harmonies by guests on TSYW), piano, strings, guitar, and occasional other instruments including light, reverent, and liturgically-appropriate percussion.

Note the track listing for Fernando Ortega's 2008 collection of Hymns and Sacred Songs, The Shadow of Your Wings:

Grace and Peace Ortega, Schreiner
All Flesh Is Like the Grass Fernanco Ortega
Let the Words of My Mouth Ortega, Schreiner
Open My Lips Fernando Ortega
Come, Let Us Worship Fernando Ortega
All Creatures of Our God and King Assisi, Geistliche Kirchengesange
Great Is Thy Faithfulness Thomas O. Chisholm, William M. Runyan
Oh God, You Are My God Fernando Ortega
I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say Bonar, Dykes
There Is Power in the Blood Lewis E. Jones
Sing to Jesus Fernando Ortega, Rich Nibbe
Crown Him with Many Crowns Bridges, Thring, Elvey
Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us Dorothy A. Thrupp, William B. Bradbury
Doxology Thomas Ken, Genevan Psalter 1551

My first "listen" of this disc was late at night when I was having trouble getting to sleep. It helped me rest.

I believe that Ortega would be a good influence for The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. Let me share his own words:

My starting point was the morning mass from The Book of Common Prayer--a pronouncement of peace, prayers of contrition, the bending of the knee. These things bring me to a right perspective for worship. From there, the record turns to the Holy Trinity--the faithfulness of the Father, the wooing of the Holy Spirit, the sacrifice and supremacy of Christ. I tried to lay these songs out with a liturgical sense, though in the form of a personal devotion, or "quiet time."

To have a modern composer even think liturgically is a good thing. I would recommend re-purposing most of the brief songs as substitutes for an Introit, a Gradual, an Offertory, Prelude or Postlude, or as special music between readings at Matins, Vespers, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, or Prayer and Preaching.

"All Creatures," "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," "I Heard the Voice," "There Is Power in the Blood," "Crown Him," and "Savior Like a Shepherd" could find use by choirs, individual soloists, or as introductions to congregational hymns.

Sometimes context makes all the difference. Consider: Lutherans often use "Just As I Am" as a Communion Distribution Hymn. "There Is Power in the Blood" could be used/reinterpreted in a similar way, mentally connecting the text to the visible Word, the means of grace.

I welcome new tunes for old texts. It is a creative way to sing a new song to the Lord. On this recording, "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" and "Crown Him with Many Crowns" receive this treatment. Both are singable and memorable.

It was a great pleasure to see they arrangements in print thanks to the Word Music companion folio. I plan on letting our congregational pianists borrow this copy until they purchase their own.

Difficulty level of the arrangements varies from easy to moderately difficult. Some keys (3 flats or 4 sharps) may provide additional challenges. Beginning guitarists or pianists could treat it as a lead-sheet edition and focus on the chords above the melody and text.

I would love to hear more from Fernando Ortega, especially hymns, and if he were to offer some specifically liturgical compositions for Divine Service (Communion/Eucharist/Mass) and the non-Communion services of the Daily Office (Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, etc.) both of the Propers and the Ordinaries.

Fernando Ortega joins a growing list of Christian composers of what I and others are calling the "modern hymn." Thanks be to God!

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.