The haunting landscapes and mystical skyscapes of his native New Mexico form the backdrop for the story Fernando Ortega tells through his music. Each song has its own narrative (some of them crushing), but the impact of Ortega's music is the larger story that subsumes them all: God meets us in human situations, and sometimes those are dark places.
Ortega has recorded seven albums, but his three most recent—Night of Your Return (RPI), This Bright Hour, and recently released The Breaking of the Dawn (the latter two with Myrrh)—represent a body of work that establishes Ortega as a voice that departs from the "let's-just-praise-the-Lord" script. His music takes listeners where they might not have planned to go when they popped the cd into the stereo.
Handel, Smetana, Tull, and Joplin
Ortega's piano playing undergirds his arrangements, and his imaginative use of uillean pipes (Irish bagpipes), fiddle, cello, accordion, and flute accompany a haunting array of ballads, hymns, love songs, even a waltz. His songs have distinct Celtic, Spanish, and earthy folk flavor. These elements, combined with what one reviewer calls the "longing in his delivery," gives Ortega's music breadth and depth that embodies the mysticism of Michael Card; vulnerability like the late Rich Mullins; the pathos of Bob Dylan; and the vocal quality of James Taylor.
His musical sensibilities were ignited at the age of eight when he started training in classical piano. He was mesmerized by Handel's Water Music and Smetana's "The Moldau," but by age 13 he was "hooked on" Jethro Tull, Janis Joplin, the Beatles, and James Taylor.
His sensibilities about worship came about more circuitously. An odd mix of church experiences throughout his teens and twenties helped him discover what worship is not. He felt the emotionalism of a Pentecostal church, the "utilitarian approach" of his four years on staff with Campus Crusade, and the "worship survey" approach of a seeker-sensitive congregation taught him that worship was more than "abandoning yourself to emotions," a means to an end, or the sum total of what people "liked."
After a short stint with Chuck Swindoll's Evangelical Free Church congregation in Fullerton, California (which won him a loyal following), Ortega left the realm of church ministry to launch a recording career that would capture his vision for what worship is. "I simply longed for a worship experience that had its roots in an awareness of God's transcendence," he says.
Psalms for human situations
His music juxtaposes "hard songs" (dealing with raw human emotion) with hymns and prayers and ballads set in exotic landscapes dealing with family themes. This interplay of the earthy and the exalted gives his music the feel of contemporary psalms. "The Psalms are songs of worship filled with remembrances of God's faithfulness throughout generations," he says. So when he sings, for example, of a brother who died alone; a mother who agonizes over a prodigal daughter; and a baby daughter who was lost, he does so recognizing that lofty notions, like "God's faithfulness," are often played out in messy human situations.
People have asked him how he, as a Christian, can sing something like "the world spins without meaning now that you're gone" (from "Now That You're Gone," on Night). Human stories, especially tragic ones, he says, "deal with the weight of the incarnation of Christ. It is no different than Jesus saying, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' or Job saying to God, 'At least for a tree there is hope.' "
But along with songs about grief and loss there is a waltz that makes you want to dance and a Spanish folk song that makes you want to sing backup. And then there is a hymn—a confession of faith. Classics like "Jesus Lover of My Soul" (Night); "Children of the Living God" (for which he won a 1998 Dove Award; on Bright); and "Be Thou My Vision" (Dawn) are the vehicles Ortega uses to pull listeners into the bigger Story: that there is a God and he can be trusted. This, for Ortega, is worship: "finding a way to abandon yourself to something that is so much bigger than you are."
"The most successful hymns are those that speak of God or to God in a straightforward manner without contriving to elicit some sort of predictable emotional response," he says (in Prism), "predictable" meaning here "mawkish emotionalism." "There is no place for sentimentality [in worship]," he says.
The dreams, mountains, highways, fields, friends, children, grandparents, siblings, woven blankets, and Joshua trees in his lyrics color the narratives that fill in the Story. "So much of the Christian walk," he says, "is about being in a place where you recognize that God's mind and his will are inscrutable"—and praising him anyway.
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