Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium
Experiencing The Passion of Yeshua
Over the course of two and a half weeks, from June 25 and July 13, more than 100 composers and performers from around the world converged for a unique experience of collaborative performance at the Oregon Bach Festival’s Composer Symposium (OBFCS) directed by renowned composer and UO Philip H. Knight Professor of Music, Robert Kyr. Now in its 25th year, the symposium featured performances of more than eighty works by its composers played by diverse ensembles comprised of participants, guest artists, Sound of Late (new music ensemble), and The Society from New Korean Music (Sinakhoe), special guest artists from Seoul, South Korea. Currently, OBFCS is the largest and most diverse symposium of its kind in the world.
A key draw of the symposium is the opportunity to attend presentations and interact with distinguished composers—both from the University of Oregon and those brought in as composers-in-residence. Celebrated composer Martin Bresnick, who has been awarded the Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Rome Prize, The Berlin Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, among many others, and is a recognized as an influential teacher of composition at Yale University, came specifically for the Composers Symposium. He provided insightful presentations of his music and composition in general. He worked with forty of the composers offering constructive, albeit sometimes challenging, feedback on our pieces and compositional processes.
Our host composer, Robert Kyr, has composed 12 symphonies, more than one hundred choral works, and much, much more. Kyr’s music has been performed widely around the world; numerous ensembles and orchestras have commissioned him, and most recently, he received an Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for distinguished lifetime artistic achievement. He delivered two enlightening seminars on his values, his approach to both music and life, with examples of his music. He begins with spiritual themes and archetypes, and composes large-scale works from there. He stated, we should “strive to create the music we believe in—an expression of who we really are—so that we can help to heal our world and move it forward.” He also taught more than 50 participants in five-person focal groups, as well as directing “The OBFCS Gamelan,” an intercultural ensemble of Balinese percussion instruments.
This year, the Oregon Bach Festival brought in renowned composer Richard Danielpour, who is considered one of the most gifted and sought after composers of his generation. He has received two awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Award, two Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships, and the Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin, as well numerous commissions from some of the most celebrated artists and musical institutions of our day. Currently teaching at UCLA, he is regarded as a devoted educator and mentor.
Danielpour conducted two seminars for the Composers Symposium. In the first, he discussed “what it means to be a composer”, including his philosophy, values, teachers, inspirations and processes. Unlike many composers, his decisions are driven more by his intuition than his brain. While he never stated it explicitly, I got the sense that social justice and social understanding are important in directing his compositional energy. He dissected his 2012 work, Toward a Season of Peace, exposing its structure and expounding the details of its three parts and seven movements. Danielpour then drilled down discussing the tactical approach of his composing and offered a “top five” list of advice for composers.
With the highly anticipated premiere of The Passion of Yeshua approaching, in Danielpour’s second seminar, he discussed the process of composing this work, which had occupied his consciousness for 25 years. At the impressionable age of 17, Richard Danielpour had heard Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for the first time. The experience helped to confirm for him that he was “put on this earth to write music.” Bach’s Passion planted the seed; as a young man he asked himself who Jesus really was and why we are still talking about him after 2000 years. He waited until the time was right, and in 2016 began gathering together the texts to create the oratorio.
Danielpour discussed creating the structure of the “scenes” of the work – creating and managing various elements of balance – including more focus on the women in Yeshua’s life. He explained the need to create the sense of place; discussed points of tension and release – letting the music breathe. He talked about his process in selecting the languages and the text source material. It’s evident that he has immersed himself in this work that has occupied his heart and mind for so many years.
I was given the opportunity to talk with Richard Danielpour one-on-one a few days ago. I asked what is absent from the program notes that one should know. “The experience of the music itself.” The text is paramount. He discussed the elements of balance and imbalance. Words and concepts (and perhaps music) that seem simple on the surface embody complex meaning underneath. At the same time, he is interested in clearly communicating the meaning of the text with listeners. The Oregon Bach Festival has a lineage of commissioning new works by high caliber composers. There is a high expectation of what a contemporary choral work could be like here. While Danielpour’s musical language is very different, he has found himself still inspired by Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion all these years later. He felt strongly that OBF is the place at which the Passion of Yeshua should be premiered.
Our 15-minute interview soared past 20. A head poked in reminding him that his car was waiting. I had one last question: when I asked him about his experience here at the Oregon Bach Festival, Danielpour’s face lit up. “Janelle [McCoy] is an important part of this. She “got” what I am trying to do.” He expressed that his experience is one of incredible warmth. He has been “met with nothing but kindness.” In my meeting, I found him equally warm and kind.
I eagerly anticipated the premiere on Sunday, June 8. On Twitter, I posted that “Today, Eugene Oregon is THE place for New Music.” I make an effort to listen to all new pieces with the open mind of a general audience member. As a composer it isn’t that easy. Sometimes we fall into the trap of listening and analyzing without actually hearing a piece. I felt privileged that the members of the Composers Symposium had additional insight into the details of The Passion of Yeshua beyond the descriptive program notes, so I was better prepared to allow the piece to unfold without my compositional head. The piece started off slowly with a choral prologue. The audience definitely appreciated the screen with the lyrics. The unfolding of the scenes was clear. The Hebrew terms grounded us in the past, while the essence of the chronology of the last days of Jesus was unchanged. The orchestration’s balance of texture and color was in complete balance with the text and character of the vocal lines. The harmonic tension increased as the piece approached the end of the first half. The second half of the piece revved up the energy without an apparent change in tempo. The increase of articulations, contrasting sections and dynamic variability characterized the building of energy toward the inevitable crucifixion. The epilogue felt reverent and prayerful. With the release of the last notes, the audience responded with an extended standing ovation.
In the experience of the premiere, the audience members had varied individual responses. Danielpour noted that for “the person of Jesus as a teacher…no one was ever excluded” and that is equally true for music itself. For me, the Passion of Yeshua represents a seminal work for those reasons and beyond. This work is relevant to our time.