The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: The prolific American composer Robert Kyr discusses the origin and interpretation of his oratorio “The Passion According to Four Evangelists,” which the UW Choral Union, the UW Chamber Orchestra and four soloists will perform this coming Saturday and Sunday. Part 1 of 2. Plus, FREE opera scenes will be performed Wednesday night at the UW. | April 23, 2013

ALERT: On Wednesday night, April 24, 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall (below) Opera Workshop will perform a Scene Recital that is FREE and OPEN to the public. The program includes scenes from the following operas: “Hansel and Gretel” by Humperdinck; “La Clemenza di Tito,” “Cosi Fan Tutte” and “Idomeneo” by Mozart; and “The Pearl Fishers” by Bizet. Opera workshop is a semester-long course designed to help the singer improve his or her competency as a singing actor. The student is given a scene from an opera to learn. During the course, the student is coached, assisted with language diction, and given tips on stage directions. At the end of the semester, students perform their pieces in front of an audience. The workshop is considered a safe place for the student to learn and grow as an artist. 


By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend will see two performances of American composer Robert Kyr’s “The Passion According to Four Evangelists” by the campus-community UW Choral Union (below), the UW Chamber Orchestra and four soloists, all under the baton of longtime UW choral director Beverly Taylor.

 UW Choral Union  12:2011

The soloists are soprano Anna Slate, mezzo-soprano Jennifer D’Agostino, tenor James Doing and baritone Paul Rowe.

The concerts are in Mills Hall on Saturday at 8 p.m. and on Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. (NOT 3:30 mistakenly printed first). Tickets are $15 for the General Public and $8 for Students and Seniors. The 
UW Box Office can be reached at (608) 265-2787. Remaining tickets are sold at the door.

Also: The American composer Robert Kyr will do half-hour pre-concert lectures in Mills for TICKETED patrons one hour before each concert. UW students are not free to these concerts. Saturday’s lecture 7-7:30 p.m. with the concert at 8 p.m. Sunday’s lecture is 6:30-7 p.m. with the concert at 7:30 p.m.

For background, here is a link to a fascinating NPR story about and interview with Robert Kyr and to Kyr’s own website:

The composer (below) — who is deeply committed to social justice and peace activism — graciously agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear:

robert kyr

Could you briefly introduce yourself and your work and career, and where the Passion According to Four Evangelists fits in?

I am a composer, writer and filmmaker who has composed 12 symphonies, three chamber symphonies, three violin concertos, chamber music, and more than 80 works for vocal ensembles of all types (with and without instruments).

Within the past two decades, most of my works explore a wide variety of topics from an intercultural perspective: Spiritual Themes (The Passion according to Four Evangelists, Songs of the Soul, and The Cloud of Unknowing); Conflict and Reconciliation, as well as Peace-Making  (Symphony No. 9—The Spirit of Time, Symphony No. 10— Ah Nagasaki: Ashes into Light, The Unutterable, and Waging Peace, which is based on first person witness testimony of the citizens of Baton Rouge about violence in their city); and Living in Harmony with Nature, preserving our environment (A Time for Life, an environmental oratorio, and  Symphony No. 11—Yosemite: Journey of Light, a multimedia symphony).

I am the chair of the composition department at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, where I also direct three musical organizations: the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium, the Music Today Festival, and the Vanguard Concert and Workshop Series. Currently, I am also the President of our University Senate, which involves doing quite a bit of mediation, as an endeavor of peace-making. (A performance of Robert Kyr’s “Now Is the  TIme” is in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

What are your current and future projects and plans?

Immediately following the performances of The Passion according to Four Evangelists, I will go directly to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for the rehearsals and premiere of a work that I finished in the past few months, Waging Peace for 6 actors and actresses, soprano and baritone soloists, a chorus of 120 singers, and an instrumental ensemble. The text is based on first-person witness accounts of the citizens of Baton Rouge about the plague of violence in their city. It was written as part of a workshop that I gave there, which resulted in 400 pages of testimony that is anguished and often terrifying, yet ultimately hopeful.

In our relentlessly violent era, I believe that music and the arts have a significant role to play as part of our individual and collective healing process. I have co-created Waging Peace with the citizens of Baton Rouge as a testament to the power of the human spirit to overcome even the most extreme adversity.

On quite a different note, at the end of May, I will travel to Austin, Texas, to work with Craig Hella Johnson and his remarkable ensemble, Conspirare Company of Voices. They will perform an entire concert of my music, consisting of two works—The Cloud of Unknowing and Songs of the Soul, which explores the theme of love from a variety of perspectives. It includes texts by St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross — the former was the spiritual mentor of the latter  — as well as Psalm texts and excerpts from “The Cloud of Unknowing,” a guide to contemplation of the Divine by an anonymous 14th-century monk. Following their two concerts, Craig and Conspirare will record both of my works for the Harmonia Mundi record label. (Below is a photo Robert Kyr composing at a piano.)

robert kyr composing

What was the inspiration behind The Passion according to Four Evangelists?

In setting the passion text, I wanted to emphasize the universality of the story. As a narrative, it is neither doctrine nor dogma, but rather, a story told collaboratively by four individuals who emerge from “the community” as represented by the chorus.

In The Passion according to Four Evangelists, the story of Christ’s suffering and death is told from the differing viewpoints of the four gospel narrators, who join together to present a composite version of it.

The roles of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are sung by four soloists — soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone, respectively — and the shared parts of the story are set as duos, trios and quartets.

Unexpectedly, the most prominent evangelist roles—Matthew and Mark—are sung by the soprano and alto, which reverses the oratorio and opera tradition of giving women’s roles to men. In addition, each soloist also takes the part of a principal character in the drama: the soprano and alto represent Mary and Mary Magdalene in the Stabat Mater (Mary Stood Weeping); the tenor is Jesus; and the baritone is Pilate. In this way, the evangelists narrate a story that they enact, as well.

My intention to emphasize the universal qualities of the passion involves the issue of gender, as well. In The Passion according to Four Evangelists, the role of women is highlighted by prominently featuring them in two pivotal scenes—Daughters of Jerusalem (scene 3 of Part II, the central scene of The Way of the Cross) and Witness (the final scene of Part III).

In Witness, the passion concludes with an intense tableau in which the soprano and alto soloists sing Psalm 88, a psalm of desolation, while the women’s chorus (accompanied by violins and violas only) repeats a phrase from the Latin Stabat Mater text—“stabat mater lacrimosa”…Mary stood weeping.” This scene focuses on the women standing at the cross who mourn the death of Jesus.

These final moments of the work are a musical pièta expressing the lamentation of Jesus’ mother and friends. As the Stabat Mater finishes, the circle of mourners expands to include all of humanity, as represented by the full chorus (SATB), which sings the De Profundis: “Out of the Depths, I cry to you, O Lord”, followed by an epilogue that foreshadows the resurrection.

Kyr Passion CD cover

Tomorrow: Part 2 — What should the audience listen for in this weekend’s performances by the UW Choral Union of Robert Kyr’s “The Passion according to Four Evangelists”? How does the composer describe the sound and style of his music? What does he think of his ties to Madison?



  1. It is the UW Chamber Orchestra that will be performing this work, according to the school of music website and a UW symphony player I spoke with.

    Comment by Steve Rankin — April 23, 2013 @ 5:30 pm

    • H Steve,
      Right you are!
      I apologize again.
      Mistakes happen when you rush, and I did.
      I am sorry.
      It was a singer, I think, who mistakenly told me it was the UW Symphony Orchestra. But I should have checked.
      I have fixed the mistake in both parts 1 for today and part 2 for tomorrow.

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 23, 2013 @ 5:38 pm

  2. Dear Jake,

    There seems to be a confusion about the time for the Sunday performance by the Choral Union (which I am, expecting to attend). Is it at 3:30 or 7:30. You have both times identified.


    Comment by John W Barker — April 23, 2013 @ 9:21 am

    • Hi John,
      My mistake.
      I apologize and am sorry for the inaccuracy.
      It is indeed at 7:30 — NOT 3:30 p.m. — on Sunday.
      Thank you for the sharp eyes and prompt correction.
      It has been fixed for today and for part 2 tomorrow.

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 23, 2013 @ 9:57 am

  3. Thanks for the background on the Passion. The Sunday performance is at 7:30 p.m., not 3:30. Whoops.

    Comment by Gwen Evans — April 23, 2013 @ 7:53 am

    • Hello Gwen,
      Whoops, indeed!
      Plus a big apology for the typo/mistake.
      I am sorry and have fixed it in the posts for today and tomorrow, and hope that it will not create to much confusion.
      Thank you for your fine proofreading and quick reply with the correction. I apologize for the inaccuracy.
      Thanks again with best best wishes,

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 23, 2013 @ 8:02 am

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