‘The Passion of Yeshua’ preview: resurrecting the Jewish Jesus

Oregon Bach Festival presents the world premiere of American composer Richard Danielpour’s new oratorio, which puts the focus on the females in Jesus’s life

by CHRISTINA RUSNAK

Richard Danielpour first heard J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the impressionable age of 17. 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, Danielpour asked himself who Jesus really was and why we are still talking about him after 2,000 years.

Danielpour began seriously thinking about writing his own Passion 25 years ago. He waited until the time was right to create The Passion of Yeshua, which premieres this Sunday afternoon at the Oregon Bach Festival, which commissioned it. In this major new American composition, Danielpour reaches back to Jesus’s time to give us a more personal Passion that resurrects elements obscured by Bach’s interpretation, including the prominence of Jewishness and women in Jesus’s life.

Composer Richard Danielpour works with the Oregon Bach Festival chorus in preparation for the premiere of his ‘Yeshua Passion.’

Danielpour began writing the music in July 2016 and finished the full score for his Passion, which is set up in two parts of seven scenes each, in July 2017. This month, in two presentations to over 90 composers and performers participating in the OBF Composers Symposium and in an interview with ArtsWatch, Danielpour discussed the creation and musical structure of The Passion of Yeshua.

Danielpour 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. A devoted educator and mentor, he grew up with both Christian and Jewish faiths in his household. His parents were born in Iran, and he was free to examine his faith from multiple perspectives. Ultimately, he accepted that Jesus was the foretold Messiah, but this did not disavow his Jewishness. After all, Jesus was Jewish.

Richard Danielpour conducted a seminar at the OBF Composers Symposium on June 29. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

“One of my aims in writing this work was to bring the story of the last day of the life of Jesus of Nazareth back to its Jewish origins,” Danielpour recalls. “I thought if we could somehow take ourselves back in time and see what those last hours were really like, that we may have a more developed understanding of who Jesus really is — without the 1,800 years of European accretions and horrible acts that were committed in Europe in the name of Christianity.”

Although the Passion tale is familiar to many listeners through its appearance in Bach’s music and other Christian texts and artworks, Danielpour sought to present the story through a fresh lens. “It is impossible for Jews and Christians alike to see the person of Jesus clearly and objectively because of the history of Christianity in Europe from the time that Constantine made it the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire, shortly after 300 A.D.,” he explains. “This oratorio is, among other things, an attempt to help Jews and Christians alike understand more fully how the person of Jesus of Nazareth is so closely connected, whether one likes it or not, to Jewish history.”

Therefore, the text of The Passion of Yeshua is performed in two languages – Hebrew and English. All of the Hebrew text comes from the Jewish scriptures, while the English texts are an amalgamation from all four Gospels derived from two translations – the Revised Standard Version, from the Anglican Church, and an English version of the Complete Jewish Bible by David H. Stern that includes Hebrew words, which fits the narrative of where all of this takes place.

JoAnn Falletta conducting an OBF ‘Yeshua’ rehearsal.

For Danielpour, the text is paramount. Words and concepts (and perhaps music) that seem simple on the surface embody complex meaning underneath. For example, the structure of the piece includes many instances of the number seven, which has is associated with the idea of completion in Jewish mystical thinking and is considered the number of perfection in Christian spirituality. In the Passion of Yeshua, (7+7) x 7 equals the 98-minute duration.

Danielpour also noted that he is interested in clearly communicating the meaning of the text with listeners. Among the stories to emerge more clearly through Danielpour’s unfiltered view: the women in Jesus’ adult life, his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene. Relegated to the background in the four New Testament gospels, their presence is greater in the gospels that were excluded early in Christian history. Danielpour gives them a more central voice. Extending that intention to the premiere’s musical leadership, he asked renowned, Grammy-winning American conductor JoAnn Falletta, who directs the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony orchestras, to lead the premiere.

Danielpour and Falletta at OBF ‘Yeshua’ rehearsal.

Danielpour also participated in choosing the other performers. Because this work is deeply personal for him, in sought performers who could “be” the character — those who could have a deep personal connection to the part. For instance, Yeshua had to be a person of faith. He found that in bass-baritone Kenneth Overton.

Danielpour’s childhood personal connection to the Passion story still persists. Though his musical language is very different, he has found himself still inspired by Bach’s St. Matthew Passion all these years later. One difference: Danielpour’s Passion doesn’t propound a single dogmatic interpretation of the famous story. He wants the experience to be personal to listeners too. In the realization of the piece, the listeners at this premiere performance can be active participants and will have varied individual responses. For “the person of Jesus as a teacher,” Danielpour notes, “no one was ever excluded,” and that is equally true for music itself.

Christina Rusnak is a multifaceted Portland composer and explorer whose work reflects a diversity of styles and points of view. Passionate about composing about place and the human experience, she actively seeks to integrate facets of landscape, cultural history and art into her work.

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