CMNW Summer Festival SB FIXED #1, TP, Top

Nurturing nature: Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Mass” and the ongoing future of the Oregon Bach Festival

OBF artistic partner Craig Hella Johnson conducted a concert of new, old, and revitalized choral music.

|

Craig Hella Johnson conducting the Oregon Bach Festival Chorus at Beall Hall for OBF 2024. Photo by Athena Delene.
Craig Hella Johnson conducting the Oregon Bach Festival Chorus at Beall Hall for OBF 2024. Photo by Athena Delene.

I am quite sentimental about the Oregon Bach Festival. I admit it. As I parked at the Beall Hall/Pioneer Cemetery parking lot the noon-time carillon bells rang out “Mighty Oregon” and I teared up. I’m not even a Duck alum but those bells…it’s a thing. 

Moments later, as I strolled under the shade of the imposing firs, I saw Anton Armstrong–renowned music educator and the OBF Stangeland Youth Choral Academy conductor–heading toward the dorm for lunch, followed by 54 happy, humming, hungry high-school singers. Throat. Lump. I recall that same peaceful walk, though my Oregon Bach Festival Chorus days were a couple – ahem – years prior to the founding of the SFYCA.

Director Anton Armstrong leading a Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy rehearsal. Photo courtesy of SFYCA.
Director Anton Armstrong leading a Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy rehearsal. Photo courtesy of SFYCA.

Upon entering the “good old” choral rehearsal room to attend the “Let’s Talk” pre-concert discussion, I chose a seat on the far right, a perspective I never had as an alto in Helmuth Rilling’s chorus. I hugged a dear friend I had hoped to see and sat quietly for a few moments remembering the hours of rehearsal – of learning – so many of us enjoyed in that room.

And then the “Let’s Talk” moderator Stephen Rogers introduced us to the future of the OBF: artistic partner Craig Hella Johnson, who in turn introduced his co-artistic partner, Jos van Veldhoven, who was in attendance. Jump cut to the present day.

Oregon Bach Festival artistic partner Craig Hella Johnson at OBF 2024. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Oregon Bach Festival artistic partner Craig Hella Johnson at OBF 2024. Photo by Daryl Browne.

This June 30th ”Let’s Talk” topic focused on the afternoon concert that would conclude with the 45-minute Mass for the Endangered by Sarah Kirkland Snider. The first half would be a sampling of works by composers past and present: William Byrd, Maestro Johnson, Bach, Robert Kyr, Bach.

Johnson responded to Rogers’s questions thoughtfully, humbly sharing his blueprint for the upcoming program. He spoke with reverence of Snider’s innovative approach to the Latin Mass, of her gift of musical language, of the work’s fragility, tenderness and pain. The “Credo,” Johnson told us, was an alliterative festival, and he urged us to seek the child in the “Tu Sanctus” and to see if we could connect with the “expanding God” found throughout Snider’s music and the text of poet Nathaniel Bellows. It was Johnson’s desire that the total performance “break the fourth wall,” inviting all present to feel like part of the natural world through the music. But his all-embracing theme was balancing pain and praise, grief and gratitude, and discovering how to “praise” in these modern times.

Craig Hella Johnson conducting the Oregon Bach Festival Chorus at Beall Hall for OBF 2024. Photo by Athena Delene.
Craig Hella Johnson conducting the Oregon Bach Festival Chorus at Beall Hall for OBF 2024. Photo by Athena Delene.

University of Oregon Professor of Composition Robert Kyr was on hand to explain how the “Tree of Life Song” from his Earth Vigil meshed with the Snider Mass. His own text, plus a compilation of writings of Mirza Ghalib and Giacomo Leopardi, speaks to our connection to the natural world:

Sponsor

Seattle Opera Pagliacci

And I encounter eternity
In this Tree of Life
And the present alive
in our being

Craig Hella Johnson and Robert Kyr at OBF 2024. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Craig Hella Johnson and Robert Kyr at OBF 2024. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Text played a prominent role in this concert. The twenty words in Johnson’s Wild Hope chant, newly composed for this performance, balances hope and sorrow with bits by 19th -century Irish wordsmith Oscar Wilde and contemporary Welsh-Scottish poet Euan Tait

Where there is sorrow, there is Holy Ground.

(Wilde)

Earth, flesh
Broken, yet
Haunted by love,
Driven to wild places of hope.

(Tait)

Tait was commissioned by the OBF to write modern adaptations of the texts of three Bach chorales: “Nun ruhe allen Wãlder”, BWV 392; “Wenn ir in hōchsten Nōten sein”, BWV 432; and “Wie sich ein Vatr erbarmet” BWV 17. All three “original” chorale texts lead with references to Earth or life on Earth. The first lines of “Nun Ruhe” talk of woods, cattle, cities and humankind. The second chorale speaks of our struggles in times of utmost need but ends with hope. And the third addresses a childlike relationship with God. Tait’s newly adapted texts suggest the original but in a more inclusive language. 

Are these original texts the reason Johnson chose these chorales to complement this program? Or was the music the driving force? The “Nun ruhe” could have been chosen for those luscious harmonic cadences that seem to ask questions, demand responses, just as the whole of the Snider Mass questions humankind’s dedication to the role of conservators of the Earth. This is the OBF! There’s always something to learn. In conversation and in performance. And however Tait’s thoughtful new texts came about, they endeavor to speak to us all.

Here’s something fun to try. Listen and sing along – your own private Bach karaoke – to the “Nun ruhe” using Tait’s new text offered below. I know you’ll know the tune.

Sponsor

Oregon Cultural Trust

Your life is love, unfolding,
Love’s song in you enfolding
The hearts that cry to you.
You hear a great love calling:
Rise, rise, new life begins here,
Get up, get up, and walk with me!

(Tait)

Bach himself revised chorale texts constantly to fit the church calendar. Tait’s adaptations of texts are one respectful and appropriate way to transition Bach into the present day. Tait collaborated with Johnson on the conductor’s 2023 composition Reaching and has worked with Northwest composer John Muehleisen, Shawn Kirchner and Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen, who said of Tait in a 2023 interview, “He writes in a way that connects with the world today, especially about the environment and the role of the younger generation.” 

Alive with color

The 3 pm concert was in the beautiful century-old Beall Hall, with its 2015 acoustic upgrade, the Jürgen Ahrend pipe organ installed in 1972 and those really comfortable seats. 

We began the afternoon of music with William Byrd. The Non Irascaris Domine (Be Not Angry, O Lord) is one of Byrd’s more well known motets. It’s one of those cool Byrd works where the thematic imitation is easily recognizable but not strict – the ear always searching – ah ha, there it is, no now it’s there. In the first couple measures, I wondered how the piece would progress with Johnson’s slow tempo. And then I was delighted to hear the work move forward not by virtue of pace but by the texture, ebb and flow, almost devoid of bar lines. Johnson didn’t conduct as much as coax the shape Byrd painted into the voice parts. Each time a voice was gifted with a melodic tidbit, it blossomed from the whole – not shoving others aside, just taking a turn in the dialogue. What an opening. Oh, the heights to which musical excellence can ascend in that Beall Hall acoustic.

The Byrd ended–strike that, it stepped aside–to allow Johnson’s Wild Hope chant to move the performers into the two aisles of the hall. The stage was now alive with projected color. The transitions between pieces were graceful, and by this time the audience knew better than to interrupt the flow with applause. Golly, was the fourth wall crumbling?

Oregon Bach Festival Chorus at Beall Hall for OBF 2024. Photo by Athena Delene.
Oregon Bach Festival Chorus at Beall Hall for OBF 2024. Photo by Athena Delene.

The newly composed text for the two Bach chorales that brought the singers back to the stage prepared us for Robert Kyr’s “Tree of Life Song.” 

When birds cry out their wounded song
Ash feathers fall from skies above,
How shall we live, so far from love?
And who shall heal this bitter wrong?

Sponsor

Seattle Opera Pagliacci

(Tait)

Earth Vigil is an oratorio in genre, a “musical storytelling” according to program notes written by the composer. Text, music and visual element, including some photographs from around his home, were all created by composer. 

In “Tree of Life” we heard the wonderful partnership of choral and instrumental forces. Kyr marries the two so well and the performers seemed to enjoy the intimacy of that partnership. In “Tree” it is as if the musical phrases passed from voice to voice are the limbs reaching out, each with a special message.

Listen to that movement here from the recently released premiere recording by Johnson and his Austin based choral ensemble Conspirare.

The third chorale and the wonderful third movement from Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn, “Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten” were the final “preludes” to the Snider Mass.

Praise God in His works
Praise Him in His great glory
Let all that has breath praise the Lord.
Hallelujah!

(Psalm 150: 2 & 6)

Snider’s Mass for the Endangered can be performed with great success without the visual component. But visual art can significantly elevate this expressive piece and its important message. A film or video or even slide presentation deserves to be an equal companion to the music – each complementing the other.

Craig Hella Johnson conducting the Oregon Bach Festival Chorus at Beall Hall for OBF 2024. Photo by Athena Delene.
Photo by Athena Delene.

The choir captured every nuance of line and texture in Snider’s music. From the orchestra, each violin solo, every lovely bassoon line, the harp – everything popped. Beall Hall’s acoustic allows the sound to ascend upon the ear in one cohesive unit. No fracturing from jutting corners or excessive absorption of choral sounds from thick fabric. It presents the music honestly; allows the audience to sink into the art without distraction.

Sponsor

All Classical Radio James Depreist

The visual element should have been afforded the same respect. Camilla Tassi’s visual production may have been beautiful art, I just couldn’t tell. Why was Tassi’s video projected onto the pipe organ instead of a screen? Would visual art ever be exhibited on a gallery wall filled with geometric patterns? If the revered Ahrend organ was intended to be a third member of the performance ensemble, then it was a success. But to my eye, three was a crowd. Working that hard to see the images was a distraction. The most gratifying visual moments were when an eagle hovered and glided just above the choir, when fully saturated color filled the stage as in the photo below, and the sorrowful slow fade to black at the conclusion of the “Agnus Dei.”

Craig Hella Johnson conducting the Oregon Bach Festival Chorus at Beall Hall for OBF 2024. Photo by Athena Delene.
Photo by Athena Delene.

I was also distracted by the words being projected just above the choir. I wanted to connect the oh-so-important text to the music but the words projected didn’t match the words being sung. Were only certain phrases pulled out for emphasis? Was everything just out of synch? As I tried to figure it all out the performance went on without my full attention. 

Musically, there were gratifying moments throughout. Solos nicely sung or played. The haunting six notes of the piano opening. The choir leaning into Snider’s poignant dissonances. The “Credo” Johnson mentioned in the Q & A was exquisite. The continuity between movements; the construction of the work as a whole. Mass for the Endangered is a modern masterpiece for our modern world. It was gratifying to see many of the SFYCA singers in attendance – especially the young women. 

Moving forward

In the pre-concert “Let’s Talk,” moderator Rogers asked Johnson about the Festival moving forward, in 2025 and beyond. Without specifics – it was only day three of the 2024 OBF, after all – Johnson emphasized the role of the Festival in the future of the musical arts. Dedication to preservation of what was, and nurture of what comes next. Some keywords and phrases hinted at that “next” – women, diversity, stories that meet the current needs of our world. He mentioned improvisation – hmmm? – and music as a way to enable people to gather and connect, as ritual. Lots to look forward to.

Chamber Music Northwest which partners with the Oregon Bach Festival in two fall and one spring concert next season titled their current summer season “The Beethoven Effect.” My sentimentality, perhaps yours too, around the Oregon Bach Festival – it’s because of the Bach effect. 

Bach’s music has the power to touch lives. The Festival has gifted us with music that touches lives for over half a century. Johnson’s programming on this concert and the repertoire on a several other events this season – take a look at the repertoire on the final “Beethoven” concert – demonstrates one way in which they, and we, can celebrate the past and elevate and celebrate the present. 

Memories have their place. But when I saw that line of hungry SFYCA “ducklings” trailing behind Anton Armstrong my sentimental reaction wasn’t just about the past. I was moved by the realization that these students were the next composers, conductors, teachers, performers and audience. What we nurture in the present becomes the future.

Sponsor

Oregon Cultural Trust

The Oregon Bach Festival continues through Sunday, July 14. Many more concerts are yet to come. Find more information about events, artists and tickets here.

Be part of our
growing success

Join our Stronger Together Campaign and help ensure a thriving creative community. Your support powers our mission to enhance accessibility, expand content, and unify arts groups across the region.

Together we can make a difference. Give today, knowing a donation that supports our work also benefits countless other organizations. When we are stronger, our entire cultural community is stronger.

Donate Today

Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

SHARE:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

CMNW Summer Festival SB FIXED #1, TP, Top
Seattle Opera Pagliacci
Profile Theatre Reggie Hoops
PAM 12 Month
OCCA Monthly
Astoria Open Studios Tour
NW Dance Project
Maryhill Museum of Art
Oregon Cultural Trust DEC 2023
Oregon ArtsWatch holder
We do this work for you.

Give to our GROW FUND.