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Religious Experience

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Walking in the footsteps of Bach and Handel is nothing new for Rick Wakeman. As a member of the British progressive-rock band Yes during the early 1970s, he literally helped key a new way of rocking that incorporated the grand sweep and instrumental virtuosity of classical music.

In Yes, and in a subsequent series of solo concept albums on historical and literary themes, Wakeman may have borrowed a few licks from classical composers for his flashy sallies on an array of keyboard instruments.

Now, in a new phase of his career--as a composer and performer of Christian music--he has appropriated a major theme famously tackled by Bach and Handel but rarely done in the modern era: a full-scale musical retelling of the life of Jesus.

Wakeman, 47, is spending Holy Week in Southern California, staging the North American premiere of “The New Gospels,” a two-hour oratorio involving a 30-voice choir, an operatic tenor and a narrator--all accompanied by Wakeman’s trademark banks of keyboard technology.

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The series of five benefit concerts ends with performances Saturday and Sunday at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa in Santa Ana; they are the latest of Wakeman’s periodic U.S. appearances to raise money for ASSIST Ministries, a Garden Grove-based organization that promotes Christianity in the former Soviet Union. ASSIST’s founder, Dan Wooding, is a transplanted English journalist who befriended Wakeman in the late ‘60s and went on to write an authorized biography of the prog-rock hero.

The Gospel story is “a very dangerous subject to pick--purely because [setting it to music] has been done by so many great geniuses that you’re in danger of comparison,” the tall, affable Wakeman, whose favored conversational interjection is “by cracky,” said Wednesday in a phone interview. He was starting what promised to be a hectic day of reprogramming his keyboards to correct an unexpected technical glitch, and getting other last-minute details right for the U.S. premiere of “The New Gospels” that night at a church in Downey. It was presented Thursday in San Diego and will be repeated tonight at the University of Redlands.

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“The last thing I wanted is to have people say, ‘He’s trying to do a Bach, he’s trying to do a Handel,’ ” Wakeman continued. “That’s one of the reasons I [steered] away from doing it with an orchestra,” choosing instead to support the piece with electronic keyboards and a modest rock rhythm section. To generate the complex parts in concert, Wakeman will be joined by his keyboard-playing son, Adam.

The story of how “The New Gospels” came about may not be the greatest ever told, but it’s a pretty good one--beginning not in a manger, but 11 years ago in a church in the small English town of Camberley.

Wakeman, a noted drinker and bon vivant in his days with Yes, had recently settled down after some health problems and financial setbacks. For a brief spell in 1980, he found himself sleeping on park benches--a humiliating turn for somebody who had established himself in England not just as a rock musician, but as a regular on British television, where he continues to host comedy series and appear as a guest on quiz shows and talk programs.

In 1985, after that crisis had passed, Wakeman said he felt a need to return to the staunch Baptist faith of his boyhood. The vicar of his church asked if he would give a recital to raise money for a new organ; Wakeman agreed and wrote four short pieces for the occasion based on scenes from the Gospels.

The music called for an operatic tenor, and Wakeman thought of Ramon Remedios, whom he had heard singing in a London production of “Aida.” After the church-organ benefit, Remedios urged Wakeman to develop the fragments into a full-blown piece. Soon, there was an album-length oratorio, dubbed “The Gospels,” which Wakeman recorded and would periodically perform.

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Wakeman says, however, that playing the piece was more frustrating than satisfying--he felt it required more fleshing out in all respects. He eventually stopped performing “The Gospels,” determining to rework and expand it when he had the time.

In 1994, Roy Castle, a popular British television entertainer, approached Wakeman about playing the piece at a benefit to build a hospital in Liverpool. Castle’s request had a certain urgency: He was dying of lung cancer and wanted to leave behind the hospital as a legacy.

“I said to him, pretty tactlessly, ‘I don’t have the time, Roy.’ He said, ‘You don’t have the time? I’m not even going to be there to see [the performance].’ I felt very embarrassed.” (Castle died about a month later.)

Wakeman said he found the three months he needed thanks to a little white lie proposed by his wife, Nina: They would tell friends and business associates they were going on a long holiday. Wakeman’s wife and kids indeed took a two-month trip, but he stayed home and, without distractions, finished “The New Gospels.”

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When he began to perform it--with Remedios again the featured singer (he is on hand as well for the California dates)--"it was exactly what I’d dreamed it could be. The good Lord works in strange ways--it took a dying man to get this done properly, and it means a lot to me for that.”

Wakeman has performed “The New Gospels” about a dozen times in the U.K., mainly in cathedrals, and the piece has been heard frequently on Christian radio stations there. Besides its live premiere here this week, it is being released in the U.S. on CD and video through Hope Records, a label founded by Wakeman as a vehicle both for his religious music and for other Christian rock and pop acts.

Also newly available on Hope Records is “Simply Acoustic,” an album and video of a 1994 solo piano concert Wakeman gave at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa.

That album offers stripped-down versions of pieces from his elaborate ‘70s solo opuses, as well as a retrospective set of well-known songs he played on during his pre-Yes days as a session pianist--David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Life on Mars,” and Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken.”

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* Rick Wakeman performs “The New Gospels” on Saturday and Sunday at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, 3800 S. Fairview Road, Santa Ana. 7 p.m. Free; but donation requested to benefit ASSIST Ministries. (714) 979-4422, Ext. 757, or (714) 530-6599.


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