A Worship Leader Interview by John Andrew Schreiner
Almost 25 years ago, a gifted pianist and singer living in Orange County, CA went into Mad Hatter Studios in Los Angeles to record the piano parts for an album that would be titled “Hymns and Meditations”. Fernando Ortega had been on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ and was offered a low budget recording contract with the organization’s label for a simple recording of hymns. Fernando chose songs that highlighted various aspects of Christ’s work of salvation. Many of the tracks were hymns that Ortega sang and played while others, like “Near the Cross” were performed as instrumentals, featuring the cello work of Cameron Stone. With very little promotion, news of the recording quickly spread, and CD sales steadily increased, as many listeners bought copies for friends and family. Over the next couple of years, Fernando’s voice couldn’t be ignored by Nashville, and he was offered a recording deal with Word Records. His debut release on Word was called “This Bright Hour” and it was warmly received by critics and fans. Fernando’s simple, soft and heartfelt songs endeared him to many. Soon he began receiving letters describing how his music helped bring comfort following a family tragedy or how his CD was played in the background while a mother gave birth.
Over the years, Fernando recorded quiet versions of a number of beloved hymns, but he also composed many beautiful, loving songs of tribute to different family members, friends, and acquaintances in his life. Of note was one he wrote for his grandfather, who was a renowned blanket weaver. Another for his landlady who sang in the choir at his church. The songs resonate with his New Mexican heritage, his prayerful struggles, doubt, and regrets.
Much has changed in 25 years. Fernando has moved back to Albuquerque to be near his siblings and aging parents, has an elementary age daughter named Ruby, and leads worship most Sundays at Hope Evangelical Free Church.
It’s been 6 years since the release of his last release, “Come down, O Love Divine”, which was also preceded by the space of a few years. Still, the sound is familiar, his recognizable voice, accompanied by piano, cello, guitar and percussion, a sound that evokes the great expanse of the Southwestern landscape. Fernando’s songs have always been prayerful, even when not devotional, and there has always been a sense of pondering and consideration of the lyrical subject.
In his new release, Ortega’s attention turns to the crucifixion of Jesus. Worship Leader Magazine interviewed Fernando to talk about the ideas and heart behind this new release.
WL: I’ve noticed that the songs are interspersed with readings from scripture. This is a new side to your recordings and I’m curious as to what led you in this direction.
Fernando: I wanted this recording to be listened to as a whole experience and not just a collection of single songs.
The readings are all taken from passages surrounding the passion of Jesus Christ. When I served at an Anglican church in Albuquerque, I was really taken with the beauty and rhythm of the church calendar. The idea of spending days and weeks meditating on significant events of the salvation narrative had a big impact on my approach to faith and worship. One of the pastors at Hope EV Free Church, where I currently serve, is a former Anglican pastor named Gary Villa and we worked together to compile passages that would help focus the heart and mind; putting these songs in a fitting context.
WL: So the spoken passages are there to help put you in the scene?
Fernando: Yes. The passages let you sit with them and then the music comes to interpret these in a way that seems appropriate to me. Of course, there are songs that might work on their own without any pretext, but I feel most of these songs work best in the context of the whole.
WL: Is there a model you followed for picking the various themes for this project?
Fernando: The project is intended to move from scene to scene, starting with the triumphal entry. So after that comes the cleansing of the temple and that song is called, “House of Prayer.” Then we move to the last supper, and after that, the disciples spill out to the Garden of Olives and we experience Christ’s agony there.
WL: “In My Father’s Kingdom” is the song about the last supper. This is my personal favorite from this project. What can you tell us about this song?
Fernando: This is my favorite as well. It’s taken from the verse in Matthew where Christ says, “I will not drink from this fruit of this vine from now on, until that day when I drink it new with you in my father’s kingdom.” There is a hope of future realization and fulfillment of our deepest longings when we look forward to the heavenly banquet that Christ is preparing for his loved ones. This project is not a comprehensive collection of all the events that led up to his crucifixion, but it is a grouping of ones that seemed important to me. Originally, I had thought of doing “Recitatives” which are sung narratives usually leading to a chorus. But that got really complicated and, as it was, this project was a year and a half in the making. I’m hoping to continue in this vein and record future projects about the Resurrection, Pentecost, Advent, etc. including the church season known as ordinary time.
WL: Your CD comes with a booklet of images inspired by the last week of Jesus’ life. Also, for the past few years, you have been posting on Facebook some beautiful photos of sacred art that you have found. Why the focus on art and what prompted you to feature this artwork with the CD?
Fernando: My collection of sacred art images was the triggering point for this project. I have several hundred images on my computer which we use in various ways at my church. Generally, I pick one to be projected in the sanctuary each Sunday to help with the pastor’s sermon and also to beautify the space. It’s had a huge impact on the congregation and on people visiting for the first time.
I believe we respond to visual beauty because it’s a reflection of God’s creativity and imagination. A beautiful painting by Caravaggio of the crown of thorns being pried onto Christ’s head causes the worshipper to respond on many levels. We respond emotionally to the agony Jesus must have felt and the patience he displayed. We respond personally because it helps lead us to repentance. We also marvel at the genius of Caravaggio to interpret such a scene with a brush and some oil paint. These responses cause us to recognize something higher than ourselves – something transcendent.
WL: Once again you have enlisted the help of some really thoughtful and creative artists on this project, like Audrey Assad and Jonathan and Amanda Noel.
Fernando: Yes – I had the privilege of working with some super talented people. Brandon Bell, a Grammy winning engineer recorded and mixed the project. Bernard Chadwick was my co-producer. James Isaacs played oboe and English Horn, Nat Smith and Cameron Stone on cello, bassist Glen Holmen, drummer Gunnar Johnson, guitarist Alex Strahle, the list goes on.
Fernando’s new CD is entitled “The Crucifixion of Jesus” is available on his website www.fernandoortega.com, and also available for download on iTunes and Amazon.