Given the criticisms of pigeonholed genres in music, of pandering to formulaic radio-defined success, it's a great testimony that an artist like Fernando Ortega has maintained his voice for so long. Some have said, correctly, that Christian music is a genre defined less by its melodic distinctions and more by the content of its lyrics. Nonetheless, there are occasions when an album could not exist in any other genre, when it is so connected to the spiritual underpinnings of Christian music that it stands as a unique gift to pilgrims who seek after Christ.
Such is Ortega's The Crucifixion of Jesus. It is a musical journey through the Passion week, from Old Testament prophecies of Messiah to Christ crucified. It's tempting to call it a "tool for your Easter devotions," but that sounds so prosaic and trite. Surpassing simple description, Ortega has crafted a collection of songs and readings that ponder the cross and the Christ with profound reverence. The album is a worship experience, as suitable for a corporate Holy Week gathering as it is for personal reflection.
Like the Passion, the emotions here are so varied. The music of "Prepare the Way, O Zion" is bright celebration. Naturally, though, much of the album is rooted in the cello's largest string, and is somber and contemplative. There are moments not too far removed from Gregorian chant, and others where Michael Card's "Death of a Son" would fit well.
To complete the devotional experience, this is a case in which it is worthwhile to purchase the physical CD. The booklet is a mini-museum of the world's artists depicting the events of Holy Week, and the images merit pondering alongside the songs and readings.
That album's production is excellent. Ortega's voice befits this music, and harmonies from Audrey Assad and Jonathan and Amanda NoŽl add subtle texture. Tempos are varied enough, just barely, to avoid sleepiness. There are songs that have appeared on previous Ortega albums ("Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted" was first recorded back in 1996), but everything here has an important place and purpose.
I've often wondered why, given its significance, there aren't just as many Easter albums as there are Christmas albums. But then, recognizing the emotional commitment required to listen to an album like The Crucifixion of Jesus, perhaps the reason becomes clear. A proper Christmas album can be exclusively celebratory, but an Easter album must consider the Friday that preceded that great Sunday. Consider "Stay With Me Here," a song that gives voice to Jesus's suffering and loneliness in the Garden of Gethsemane set against piano, cello, and oboe. It is a mourning so difficult to listen to, and yet so necessary.
Apart from a compilation and a live album, we haven't heard a new release from Fernando Ortega since 2011. This is an album - more than an album, really, more of a soul-stirring experience - that is well worth the wait.
- Review date: 8/4/17, written by Mark D. Geil of Jesusfreakhideout.com