When your first musical composition at the age of twelve just happens to be a wedding march for the flute and piano, you can only imagine where one might go from there. For Fernando Ortega, the journey has been limitless and has spanned decades with grace, fortitude and a humble persistence.
My first memory of Fernando’s music came over 20 years ago in the city of Chicago at Moody Bible Institute where he sang at the Friday Night Sing with Cheri Keaggy. That was where I first caught the bug and have followed him ever since. And now, all these years later, he is still singing, traveling and soothing souls with his tender heartfelt songs.
Fernando’s music is characterized by deep theological lyrics, rich in poetic beauty and outstanding piano accompaniment. If you listen to many of his CD’s, you will hear added instrumentation, but make no mistake, when he is out performing alone, you miss nothing as his skill and passion on the piano, along with the full melody and telling lyrics, are enough to mesmerize the audience for hours.
In speaking with Fernando, I could tell that his mind was one that constantly pondered many things, new and old. As we discussed the influences that his family had on him, he shared his memories of singing harmonies, the good ol’, open-the-hymnal-and-find-your-part, kind of harmonies. Fernando recalls the beauty of growing up in the church with a hymnal in his hands. As he sang, there was a tactile unity shared with the pages, as he would sing and watch the music go by; a practice that is more difficult to do these days as many churches do not use written music, but have opted for the more modern projection screens. Even so, Fernando adapts and flourishes in both worlds of the past and present.
Like many artists, the process of becoming a songwriter, was a long one. Through re-discovering his love for literature and poetry, he expanded his skills and came out writing and completing his first full album. That journey brought him to the realization that, as he says, “I am a writer, I just have a long way to go.”
As the years passed, Fernando shared that his message through music has evolved in a way that is less naive and less filled with cliches. However, he talks of the angst that younger writers have; an angst that he feels he lacked in his youth, but ironically has more of now. While Fernando still sings the songs that have aged well alongside him, he still longs for the new songs that are yet to be written.
In his latest album, “Come Down, O Love Divine,” Fernando discusses what sets this album apart from the others. He tells us, “By the time I wrote that, I understood the liturgy and the church calendar better.” This album is his most liturgical album with strong influences from the Anglican liturgy.
As one who ties the ancient, present and future together, Fernando so eloquently says, “What we choose to use in worship, if you delve into the past, the most ancient hymns and writing are relevant. Contemporary worship, modern worship should span the centuries. We should be very much aware of the writing of the early church fathers and the hymns that were sung then because it ties us to generations of Christians past. And in a very real way those saints that have passed on are part of the heavenly hosts that are singing praises before God. And so, in a very mystical way when we worship on Sunday we are joining in that eternal song praising God. So music that is ancient becomes radically contemporary because it is now.”
Fernando goes on to say, “In a time when there is such a strong idiom called Christianese language, it is hard to write songs when that is your only frame of reference. But when we go back and look at poems by John Donne, George Herbert or Emily Dickinson, writers that are not tied to this idiom, their ideas about God and the aspects of God’s character come across very fresh. Studying these writers, broadens our vernacular and rhetoric.”
One song on his latest album called, “Just as I Am,” was inspired by Billy Graham. Fernando has had several opportunities to meet Dr. Billy Graham and his family, and was asked to take part in the retrospective event of Dr. Billy Graham’s life by writing a song. After reading biographies and interviewing Dr. Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, he took the chorus of, “Just as I am,” that was famous for being used at the altar calls of many Billy Graham crusades. The song, as Fernando says, “was my imagination of what a prayer of Billy Graham would sound like”
Fast forward to a few weeks after our initial phone interview, I was passing through California in the same area where Fernando was doing a concert. We were able to connect face to face and I once again saw the impact of his music and ministry. There I sat and listened once again to the song, “Just As I Am.” I pictured, along with others, the prayer that one of the most influential leaders in our time, just might say. It was beautiful.
As our phone interview came to an end, I asked Fernando what wakes him up in the morning, keeps him going and drives his passion? He, without hesitation, said, “My daughter, teaching her about life, and respect, and being kind….She’s a big deal in my life.”
Music may be what the world knows Fernando Ortega for, but if you sit down next to him, what you will see is a man that is known for so much more–his heart for the Lord, his passion for family, and his love for his daughter.
You can visit the Fernando Ortega website: www.fernandoortega.com
Connect with him at Twitter @Ferndiggity
Facebook: Fernando Ortega Fan Page