Interview: Fernando Ortega on his new album Come Down O Love Divine

So there I was at the Fernando Ortega concert on Sunday night sitting there wondering "Now how exactly am I going to find a way to talk to him after the concert? There's a lot of people here and I'm sure he's a busy guy," when in between one of his songs he says to the audience, "There's a guy whose blog I've been reading...I'm wondering if he's here tonight. Is there a Chris Marchand here?"

Who? Lil' ole me?

You see, earlier in the day Fernando had written answers in the comments section to my previous blog post where I had posed hypothetical questions to him, questions that I never actually thought would get answered. At the end of his answers he said it would be great if we could meet after the concert. I thought that sounded great, but then there's always the difficult practicalities of making that happen. Well, Fernando made things real easy for me by calling out to me himself during his concert.

Honestly, I was very surprised. I have only just started writing this blog again and I did not think that many people were reading it, let alone the exact person I was doing the most of the writing about. He then went on to mention some of the insulting things I said about him in a previous post, regarding how as a teenager I thought his music was boring. Feeling that the audience might turn into an angry mob against me, I shouted out "I was only 17!" hoping they would have mercy upon the follies of youth.

Well, after the concert his sound man led me downstairs and my wife, my mother-in-law, and I got to meet. He was very gracious, giving us several minutes of his time, and we had a nice little chat about hymns, leading worship, Anglicanism, and how his music helped us get through the first year of our son's life.

I am not going to write a full review of the concert, but I will offer some stray observations. Also, since Fernando answered all of the questions I posed to him, I am going to repost his responses as if it were a real interview at the end of this post. His answers are great by the way. Thanks so much Fernando and thanks to Pastor Vaughn and the people of Wesley UMC for putting on the concert.

Stray Observations
+++I was struck again at how bold Fernando's music is, having the opportunity to hear it person rather than just on CD/mp3 player. Since his music is so slow and contemplative, I really think it is counter-cultural and it must require a great deal of confidence for him play it in front of people. He really challenges our tendecy to "just get on with things!" expanding through music our understanding of time, causing us to enter into a worship of contemplation unconcerned with getting through to the end, encouraging us to stay in a moment and to dwell in God's presence. The first song he played during the concert was "Kyrie I," which consists of the Greek lyrics for "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy" which are repeated numerous times throughout its four plus minutes. I am not sure if the audience knew what he was doing by having us sing this ancient prayer that way, but to me it was clear he was inviting us to slow down, quiet ourselves, and open our hearts to God. The music of the Taize community has been doing this for decades, but is there anyone else in the contemporary worship vein who is making music and leading worship this way?

+++Those who have been to a Fernando concert before probably already know this, but man that guy is funny! Most of his music does not reveal his sense of humor, so I was really surprised at his between song banter. He is a really great storyteller and he had the audience laughing numerous times. I wish I could have a recording of it.

+++Wesley UMC was a really inviting place and it felt not like they were merely putting on a concert but that they had invited back a cherished friend to their congregation whom they wanted to share with the community. The concert organizer (a member of the church whose name I cannot remember) really had a deep connection to Fernando's music and it felt like he had brought him here to actually minister to people.

+++I was made aware that Fernando has written quite a few "singer songwriter" type songs. I already knew this, but I have been mainly paying attention to his hymns and sacred songs. I realize now I am going to have to spend some time discovering this part of his catalogue as well.

And finally, here's the interview:

PostConsumer Reports: The choral pieces on your new album sound great. At times they sound a little like the work of contemporary choral composer Morten Lauridsen. I’m wondering if he’s been an influence on you at all. 

Fernando Ortega: Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna is one of my favorite pieces ever written. I've often listed it among my "desert island" CDs (The recording with Salamunovich and Los Angeles). Good ear, Chris.

PCR: In line with the first question, as far as I know you’ve never included choral pieces on an album of yours before. Have you just recently started writing for vocal ensembles since you are in a new context as a music leader in an Anglican church or do you have a bunch of choral works just waiting to be performed? Also, out of curiosity, are you using any of the modes as a tonal base in any of them; at times they remind me of the setting of the Psalms in the Plainsong Psalter?

FO: This is my first real attempt at writing choral music. I've done a couple of things for my church, but not nearly as involved as these pieces. I would love to explore it further. If there are modal tonalities in any of the choral pieces, it's purely by accident. I didn't set out to write in any particular mode.

PCR: How intentional are you in making your music slow in tempo and contemplative in tone? I’m thinking especially of pieces like “Grace and Peace” off of Shadow of Your Wings and “Kyrie 1” off of Come Down? In composing pieces like this are you deliberately intending to slow down the listener or the worshipper as they open his or her hearts to God or did you compose them that way simply because that’s what you like and that’s the particular song that came out in the moment?

FO: These days, everything I write comes out slow. I don't know why. For awhile, when I was traveling with a band, I used to work hard at writing faster, more punchy songs. A few of them work pretty well, but for the most part, when I try to sing other stuff, I sound contrived. My most successful work (IMO) along those lines are on my self-titled record.

PCR: I find much of your music very easy to sing. I pick up on the melodies quickly and yet they are melodies that endure. In composing your own sacred songs or in arranging older hymns, how much do you think about the needs of congregations who might potentially sing your songs?

FO: The congregation is very much on my mind when I write specifically worship songs - the key, the range, the accessibility of the song. I'm not prolific at this stuff yet, but I hope to be.

PCR: In the congregation where you lead the music do you often have them sing some of your own songs, like “Sing to Jesus” or “Come and Worship”? It’s one thing to sing your own songs during a concert, but do you at all feel self-conscious about having them sing your own music, as if it would be vain to have a congregation sing something you’ve written yourself? Also, do you typically “roadtest” songs before a congregation first?

FO: We sing several of the songs I've written at my church. I don't feel as self-conscious at my home church as I do when I'm visiting another church and they sing one of my songs. I don't think of it as a vain thing to do. Many famous guys did it throughout history when they were called to be the choral master in a given church - Bach, Purcell, Vivaldi, Hayden, Handel - etc.

PCR: I noticed in the liner notes that you did not site the original hymn “Just as I Am” as a source. Is there a reason you left that out?

In retrospect, I should have cited the original hymn Just As I Am as a partial lyric source for my new song. I'll try to correct that on the next printing.

PCR: A number of the songs on your new album are pulled directly out of the liturgy, which means that in an Anglican setting they would be sung at specific times during the liturgy and not just during a long worship set as in a lot of Evangelical churches. Were your compositions written out of necessity for your position at the church you work at or did you just like the texts and wanted to set them to music? Also what can you tell us about how your perspectives on worship and singing has changed since becoming Anglican, something you addressed in a recent blog post?

FO: Yes - all the Anglican songs were written out of necessity for our congregation, or by the request of our rector. Anglicanism has really influenced the way I think about worship music in that (like any other liturgical denomination) it follows the church calendar. The entire order for worship each year is guided by the narrative of Christ's life (as you know, being Anglican yourself). To be more specific, if I am writing a song for lent, I am very cognizant of the overall tone of lent, which is a penitential season. Advent, which is also considered penitential has a different kind of hopefulness to it, or a sense of anticipation, combined with a sense of longing. Those things affect the way we pray and carry on our devotional life at home as well.

PCR: Over the years you have been on a number of different record labels. Your new label is partly owned by Sandi Patty. What can you tell us about your new label, why you had to switch labels, and how being with a different label affects how your music is distributed, marketed, and even recorded?

FO: I'm not really signed to Sandy's label. She has just graciously agreed to be the means by which the record gets manufactured, distributed, and accounted for. Stylos Records is doing an amazing job so far and the people there are terrific.

This record was funded entirely by a wonderful group of investors, mostly friends I've know for a long time. I guess that would (sort of) make me an indie artist. Ha. The music should have become automatically more edgy and hard. Instead, it got even more mellow.

PCR: Could I have the sheet music for “Kyrie I,” “Trisagion,” and “Aaron’s Blessing”? Pretty please? Thanks!

FO: I'll work on the sheet music thing for you. Maybe we can connect at tonight's concert. I'm glad you're coming. It's been a blast reading your blog but I only figured out today how to respond. When I logged on, I was surprised to find this list of questions. You've made me laugh several times - and my friends as well. Now, you've exhausted me with this interview so I'm going to head to Chipotle to get some lunch before the concert tonight. God bless you Chris, and thanks for all the excellent press. I look forward to swapping worship leader ideas with you.

Other Fernando Ortega Articles:
Worship Leader Death Match!: Fernando Ortega vs. Matt Redman
Why I Listen to Fernando Ortega
Singing Over Our Children (songs from Rich Mullins, Michael Card, and Fernando Ortega)


Libbie said...

Hey, cool! I'm going to get this out to our congregation here at Christ the King/ABQ. I'm sure they'll be interested to hear what you're writing about Fernando. Thank you! I like your comments about his music being bold for our times. Yes! And I'm glad you weren't run out of town by an angry mob...grin! Libbie Weber+, Asst. Rector

Ray Hooker said...

Chris, I am wondering what you are doing with these songs? I am part of a church in Chapel Hill, NC. Though not Anglican, we may do some of these songs in worship starting with a small choral group I am forming. I am not sure how to contact you.

Ray Hooker
919 641-7101 (mobile)