On Ash Wednesday (Feb. 22), the Notre Dame Folk Choir will release its latest album, “The Passion.”
Through song and spoken word, the album’s 40 tracks present the events of Holy Week through the eyes of Jesus’ disciples, led by a character called Memory who guides them as they grieve the loss of their friend.
The Folk Choir serves the University community, including the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, as one of the principal liturgical choirs. Since its founding more than 40 years ago, it has toured across five continents and released eight studio albums.
For two years, the choir’s 60 students collaborated with professional artists, including poet and librettist Tristan Cooley, to compose the text and music of “The Passion,” staging the work over a series of workshops and retreats designed to communally rediscover the mystery of Christ’s saving passion and death.
“This collective work of praise invites listeners to find themselves in the story and to contemplate the experience of Christ’s passion,” said J.J. Wright, director of the Folk Choir. “The theology underlying this piece is that the passion as a faith environment can help us enter into a discussion about difficult things in our own lives in a meaningful way.”
Produced by three-time Grammy winner Joe Henry and directed by Wright, the album was recorded in Jerusalem at the end of the choir’s weeklong pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While there, the students traveled from Galilee to Golgotha, following in the footsteps of Jesus — an experience that was not only moving but also added depth to the project, Wright said.
“The day we recorded the crucifixion scene, we went to the Holy Sepulchre in the morning so that we could connect our artistic work with our faith and our ministerial work,” Wright said. “It was really impactful in all the ways that we had hoped. In the end, I think we were able to capture something really special because of the context that we were in.”
In support of the album, the Folk Choir is embarking on an East Coast tour, where it will perform a fully staged production of “The Passion” directed by Matt Hawkins, director of musical theater at Notre Dame. The tour, which will feature an all-student cast, will conclude with an on-campus performance on Notre Dame’s South Quad on Good Friday (April 7).
The Folk Choir and its alumni members have also partnered with FaithND to present a series of Lenten video reflections that include many of the album’s tracks. These one-minute meditations, accompanied by original poetry and music from “The Passion,” offer listeners a creative opportunity to pray and reflect upon different aspects of Christ’s final days.
“In sacred music, there is a longstanding tradition of Passion plays that goes back as far as we know, and it’s a dramatic form that lends itself to these deep issues. The great wisdom in the Passion story relates really well to the contemporary problems we’re facing and things that are happening now.”
The idea for the album began in 2019 as a follow-up to Wright’s successful Advent cantata with the Notre Dame Children’s Choir, “O Emmanuel.” That album debuted in November 2016 at the top of the Billboard Classical Charts, where it remained for eight weeks.
In light of the deepening mental health crisis among youth today, Wright and Mark Doerries, artistic director of the Children’s Choir, turned to Christ’s Passion as a way to help youth explore questions that are not often talked about in a sacred environment.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the project ultimately resonates all the more, Wright said.
“In sacred music, there is a longstanding tradition of Passion plays that goes back as far as we know, and it’s a dramatic form that lends itself to these deep issues,” he said. “The great wisdom in the Passion story relates really well to the contemporary problems we’re facing and things that are happening now.”
"The Passion" can be purchased online from the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore.