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Falletta conducts one hundred+ on Kleinhans stage for unique musical depiction of Jesus’ final hours

THE PASSION OF YESHUA, a new work by eminent composer Richard Danielpour, with its first performance last night at Kleinhans , encores this Palm Sunday, April 14 at 2:30 p.m. (with a chance to hear directly from the artists and from Danielpour himself in “Musically Speaking,” hosted by JoAnn Falletta at 1:30 p.m.) The concert will be recorded live for a future CD release on the Naxos label. Concert length is about 2 hours with one intermission.

“I’ve not ever participated in something so moving as this work” says JoAnn Falletta.

It’s the East Coast Premiere of Danielpour’s unique retelling of the story of the final hours of the life on earth of Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) which emphasizes Jesus’ Jewish heritage. With six soloists, the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and the UCLA Chamber Singers, and a full-size classical orchestra, there were precious few unoccupied square feet to be found.

And, who knows? It could result in yet another Grammy award as Naxos records will be there for the second day of recording the event live. With 116 full length CDs in her discography already, Falletta’s recording project brings an old form of music – an oratorio – into the 21st century. Oratorios are a bit like operas. There’s an orchestra and chorus and soloists and arias, and a story, but without scenery or costumes. Most people know at least one oratorio – Handel’s MESSIAH but, since we usually hear it only at Christmas, most don’t know that Handel’s oratorio was conceived for Holy week. Now while MESSIAH covers the whole story of Jesus, from the virgin birth to the resurrection of souls, there’s an oratorio by Bach that concentrates more on the six days that begin with Palm Sunday. Those six days are known as “The Passion,” and Bach took as his text just chapters 26 and 27 from The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.

That Bach Passion was one of the works that inspired composer Richard Danielpour to become a composer. “The great ST. MATTHEW PASSION of Bach was a pivotal work in my life. I heard it for the first time at 17, and hearing it was for me one of the most substantive confirmations of my belief that I was put on this earth to write music. This monumental work remained a touchstone for me over many years, so it is not surprising that when I began to think about THE PASSION OF YESHUA structurally, which is how I first conceive of any work, I found myself returning to this magnificent music of Bach.”

However, make no mistake, this is a work by a living composer and while it can overwhelm you at times, as does Bach’s Passion, it sounds much more like the music of John Corigliano (remember Falletta’s recording of his MR. TAMBOURINE MAN featuring soprano Hila Plittman won a Grammy), or Daren Hagen (whose opera SHINING BROW was also recorded by Falletta and the BPO for Naxos) or even Bela Bartok (whose opera BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE was conducted by Falletta at Kleinhans, semi-staged, with sets made of blown glass by Dale Chihuly). In other words, as is usually the case with modern works, you’re not going to go home whistling a favorite melody.

Danielpour and Falletta

In fact, composer Danielpour also wrote: “The harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, and timbral language of my work are markedly different from Bach’s, but there are moments, particularly in the last scene, which, in their own way, bow to the great master.”

Danielpour’s association with JoAnn Falletta goes back to her pre-BPO days, in fact, back to Juilliard Music School days, and it continued, the composer said in an interview when Falletta conducted one of his compositions performed for the first time by a professional orchestra. Years later, they ran into each other, and Falletta asked him to write a work for her to conduct. There was only one stipulation: “It had to be big.”

So in 2017 Danielpour completed THE PASSION OF YESHUA and it is big. This 100 minute-long dramatic oratorio in 14 scenes (with one intermission) chronicles the last day of the life of Jesus of Nazareth in music. The East Coast Premiere continues this weekend sung in both English and Hebrew, from a composer born in Iran with a double heritage – both Christian and Jewish. So called “supertitles” translate the Hebrew on a screen over the orchestra.

While Danielpour was inspired by Bach, he writes: “I also felt as a young person uncomfortable with and aware of some of the anti-Semitic sentiments that reside in this [ST. MATTHEW PASSION] very Lutheran work. I had thought as a young man if I could one day write a work without these negative connotations, I would feel as if I had done something worthwhile.”

On opening night the audience was packed with choral conductors and there was a complaint that the music lacked variety, in particular tempo, and there is a sameness to each of the movements that is undeniable. However, some of the orchestration is stunning.

Early on, there is a very unsettling percussive clang, the sound of a hammer driving very large nails, and that continues throughout the piece, so there’s no doubt as to how this all ends. It was chilling.

Also, the fifth scene, “In the Valley of the Shadow of Death” the orchestration was at a very high level. Using English Horn (Anna Mattix) reminding us of Sibelius “Swan of Tuonela” and its image of death; staccato blasts from the low brass reminding us of the betrayal of the hero Siegfried in Wagner’s opera, and extensive passages from the bass clarinet (Salvatore Andolina) which in any grand opera, especially one by Verdi, almost always signals treachery, was, for me, the high point of the evening. Beautiful string solos came from BPO Principal Cellist Roman Mekinulov playing in a high register on a low-voiced instrument and Guest Concertmaster Yang Xu playing gorgeous low passages on a high voiced instrument.

In addition to many other solo passages taken by individual musicians in the orchestra, there were six vocal soloists on stage including Matthew Worth as the very easy to listen to Narrator, Kenneth Overton with his purple (if not robe at least) prayer shawl and his big baritone voice, tenor Timothy Fallon as Kefa (Peter) and Pilate, and James Bass as Kayafa (Caiphus). And, as Danielpour writes: “Another central issue in the writing of the work was generated by the presence of the most important women in the Gospel narrative – Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, who apparently was an important and central disciple in the mission of Jesus, and quite possibly his companion…. I wanted these women to have a powerful and central place in the musical commentary… [to] give them a voice.” The role of Miryam Magdala (Mary Magdalen) is sung by soprano Hila Plittman (who collaborated with the BPO on the Grammy Award Winning “Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan” recording) and while everyone is making a big deal out of her, I must admit I don’t care for her voice, and never have.

J’nai Bridges Portraits in Studio
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

On the other hand, I was hoping to be, and was, blown away by the mezzo-soprano, J’Nai [say “juh-NAY”] Bridges who sings the role of Mary, or Miryam, the mother of Yeshua.

Every year the BPO collaborates with the Sphinx Competition which supports young African-Americans who pursue classical music and so it was a delight to find that Ms. Bridges is a product of the “Sphinx” system, has attended both the prestigious Manhattan School of Music and the Curtis Institute, and spent two summers as a Glimmerglass Opera Young Artist, where she was in a performance of Aaron Copland’s opera THE TENDER LAND in the summer of 2010, an opera going experience that I’ll never forget. This June she’ll be singing the role of “Carmen” for San Francisco Opera and here’s good news: Next season she can be heard (and seen) in the role of Nefertiti when The Metropolitan Opera broadcasts Philip Glass’s opera AKHNATEN live in HD on Saturday, November 23. But this Sunday, she’s here at Kleinhans.

If you are a church-goer, you’ll no doubt have come from church exuberant with the feel-good message of Palm Sunday services, and you may want to hold off on Good Friday somber reality until the end of the week, but for a complete spiritual experience, you could do no better today than to attend Kleinhans Music Hall. The concert would be even more moving if it could be heard on Maundy Thursday or during any last-three-days of Passion week Tenebrae service and, of course, it really is a Good Friday work. But, it’s today, so go and hang on to the feeling.

“One of the things that has always attracted me to the person of Jesus as a teacher” writes Danielpour, “is that, unlike organized religion in general, no one was ever excluded; he welcomed people of all walks of life. This can also be said to be true about music itself – with music no one is excluded, and all are invited.” And so you are invited to experience, as I guarantee you never have before, the compelling story of the Last Supper, to the evening in the Garden of Gethsemane, to the crucifixion of Jesus and darkness over the land.

Kleinhans Music Hall is located at “3 Symphony Circle” Buffalo, 14201 where Porter Avenue, Richmond Avenue, North Street and Wadsworth meet at a traffic circle. Visit www.bpo.org or call 716-885-5000. The concert starts at 2:30 p.m. but there’s a “Musically Speaking” event an hour before with JoAnn Falletta and composer Richard Danielpour if you want to learn more about the players or the music. In addition there should be free entertainment across the lobby in the Mary Seaton Room.

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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