The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why didn’t Beverly Taylor get to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Mozart’s Requiem last weekend and fill in for maestro John DeMain? Was it sexism or something more innocent? You can hear Taylor tonight conduct the University of Wisconsin Concert Choir and the UW Chamber Orchestra in J.S. Bach’s “St. John Passion” and then on Saturday night, April 26, when she conducts the UW Choral Union in Rachmaninoff’s a cappella “Vespers.”

April 12, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

There I was last Sunday afternoon, sitting in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, deeply engaged in and enjoying Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s glorious and poignant Requiem, incomplete as the original score is.

Now, I have my own personal reasons why the performance and music proved especially moving to me.

But suffice it to say that during the outstanding performance that was turned in by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), the Madison Symphony Chorus (below bottom, in a photo by Greg Anderson), guest soloists including UW graduate soprano Emily Birsan and guest conductor Julian Wachner, from the famed Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City, I kept wondering:

Why isn’t Beverly Taylor conducting this program?

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

MSO Chorus CR Greg Anderson

You may recall that Beverly Taylor has headed the choral department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music for 19 years. Before that, she was at Harvard. Plus, she regularly tours and does guest stints.

And if you are like The Ear, Beverly Taylor (below) has probably brought you more memorable moments of great choral music than any other musician in town since Robert Fountain, especially through her almost two decades at the UW-Madison during which she has directed the main community and campus group, the UW Choral Union, as well as various other UW groups, including the Concert Choir.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

She has also conducted world premieres and Midwest premieres, and she has worked with some pretty big names, singers and instrumentalists (cellist Matt Haimovitz) as well as composers such as Robert Kyr (below top) and John Harbison (below bottom).

robert kyr


So then I started thinking:

When have I heard Beverly Taylor conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra -– of which she is the assistant conductor, the same kind of post that launched the meteoric career of Leonard Bernstein (below) when he was the assistant conductor to Bruno Walter at the New York Philharmonic? Assistants often get to fill in when the principal conductor is ill or out-of-town. Same thing happened to assistant conductor Seiji Ozawa when Bernstein was ill disposed.


Perhaps memory fails me, but I could not think of a single time when I heard Taylor conduct the MSO in a regular season subscription concert.

Can it be true that she is good enough to keep her post, but not good enough to perform its duties when the occasion arises. And if it is true, is it right? Would that happen to a man?

Now, it is true that Taylor’s many duties include preparing the MSO Chorus. And she performed that important duty in a fine manner for the Mozart Requiem, which was acknowledged both in critics’ reviews and in the loud applause when she came on stage to take a bow. One suspects she herself has conducted Mozart’s Requiem several times in her long career.

Not that guest conductor Julian Wachner (below top) was in any way a failure or proved unsatisfactory. He conducted just fine, even if the program was somewhat odd because it opened with a single Slavonic Dance by Antonin Dvorak, which is usually an encore instead of a curtain-raiser; and because it featured Joseph Jongen’s “Symphonie Concertante” for Organ and Orchestra with guest organist, and a real real virtuoso, Nathan Laube (below).

The Jongen is a work that wasn’t performed here at all until the Overture Center opened with its custom-built, million-dollar Klais concert organ; and now we have heard it twice in 10 years. I think I can go another 10 or 20 years without hearing this second-tier work again. It has its moments, but they are not very many and they are not very long.

Julian Wachner conducting

Nathan Laube at console

Anyway, just to be sure, I checked the biographies of Julian Wacher and Beverly Taylor. I compared and decided that Taylor’s holds up just fine. See for yourself:

You will notice that Taylor, who has a good training pedigree, is not only the chorus preparer for the MSO, but also the Assistant Conductor -– the one who helps the main maestro and music director John DeMain help balance the orchestra during rehearsals and who consults with him on other occasions for other reasons.

And Beverly Taylor has certainly conducted her share of major chorus and orchestra masterworks with the UW Symphony Orchestra and the UW Chamber Orchestra: Requiems by Giuseppe Verdi and Johannes Brahms as well as Mozart; Benjamin Britten’s “War” Requiem’; Antonin Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater”; and many other works including Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and B Minor Mass, Mozart’s great C Minor Mass, Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” (below); Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” George Frideric Handel’s “Israel in Egypt” (at bottom in a YouTube video performance by the UW Choral Union under the baton of Taylor), Franz Joseph Haydn’s “ Lord Nelson” Mass, the “Symphony of Psalms” by Igor Stravinsky and other works by Gabriel Faure,  Anton Bruckner, Leonard Bernstein and Francis Poulenc.

Missa Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra

In fact, you can hear Beverly Taylor in action TONIGHT at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, when she conducts the UW Concert Choir and the UW Chamber Orchestra in Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” (tickets are $15 for adults, $8 for seniors and students); and again on Saturday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, when she will conduct the UW Choral Union in the large-scale a cappella “Vespers” by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) for one performance only.  Admission for the “Vespers” is $10 for the public, free for seniors and students. 


So I am again left with the question: Why didn’t Beverly Taylor get to fill in on the podium for MSO conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), who is also the artistic director of the Madison Opera and who was off in Virginia guest conducting Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” It sure seemed like her kind of program.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

I want to give the MSO the benefit of the doubt and not jump to the conclusion that Taylor didn’t get the podium to herself because of sexism, especially since the MSO has booked guest women conductors, including the Finnish firecracker Anu Tali (below top), and hired a woman concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz (below bottom), whom it has often highlighted as a soloist.

Anu Tali

Naha Greenholtz profile

But then I also remembered that the MSO used Taylor’s colleague at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, instrumental conductor James Smith, for this year’s “Final Forte” Bolz Young Artist Competition concert and broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television.

And I also read a New York Times story about how even the great and high-profile Metropolitan Opera has had only three -– yes, count them, three -– women conductors  (below top is Anne Manson leading the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra) in its entire history, even during the time when women conductors like Marin Alsop (below middle) and JoAnn Falletta (below bottom) are much in the news. Here is a link to that story:

women conductors NY Tmes Anne Manson leading the Manitoba Chamber orchestra

Marin Alsop 2


So what about our own hometown woman conductor? Maybe it really is a question of sexism, perhaps the unconscious or subconscious kind, or the kind that is camouflaged under other concerns like incompetence and low public appeal. Or maybe it is just a question of the orchestra’s history, habit and tradition in action.  Or perhaps it is something as simple and innocent as a schedule conflict or an overbooked schedule. But it looks suspiciously like the old vicious circle: She is inexperienced, so we can’t give her the experience.

I raise the question more than I claim to I have the answer. But I also want to know if I am alone in my curiosity and concern.

I want to hear what other readers and musicians in the area and elsewhere have to say, even though they may be reluctant to speak up using their real names to question or criticize such a major player as the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

But Beverly Taylor (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) is a major player in Madison too. And she deserves a chance to move from behind-the-scenes and once in a while have her talents place in the public spotlight for the same organization that she has served so well for so long.

Beverly Taylor Katrin Talbot

Who knows, she might even have saved the MSO some money in booking fees and her local fans might even have helped filled some of the empty seats I saw last Sunday afternoon.

So The Ear says: Come on, MSO, give Beverly Taylor the chance she has earned to stand alone and conduct by herself after almost 20 years of being a team player. Please shine the spotlight on her when the chance next presents itself.

What do readers and audience members think?

Don’t be shy.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Are classical music fans getting too much of a good thing? April was a rich month for music in Madison -– too rich for even a conscientious critic and fan to catch it all. Is there any solution or compromise to help correct the unfairness to audiences and performers?

May 1, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

It is May Day – the globally recognized day for celebrating labor and work. And making art – specifically, making music — is work not just for the musicians but increasingly for Madison audiences. In that spirit, here is a special posting, a provocative essay meant to spark discussion that was written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

In his years in Paris, the great humorist Art Buchwald used to write an annual column describing an imaginary marathon he called something like the “One-Minute-Louvre.” This portrayed athletic tourists who could manage to visit, within a single minute, three of the greatest objects in that vast museum: the statues of Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory, plus the Mona Lisa painting — all within one minute, mind you.

That is what Madison’s musical life has come to seem like — a marathon of overlapping and conflicting events that pile up impossibly. It is like drowning in riches. The riches are undeniable, and fabulous, but it is drowning nevertheless.

And nowhere is this more true than in the weeks just past. “April is the cruelest month,” opined T. S. Eliot in his poem “The Wasteland,” and April this year has seemed to me the worst I have ever experienced for schedule train wrecks and mid-air collisions.  So many events deserve attention and reporting, but as both a critic and a music lover, I am sure that I share with many Madisonians a feeling of battle fatigue.  Let me just sketch out — still leaving out many smaller concerts — what I myself have tried to keep up with.

The weekend of April 19-21 began the mounting pressures.  I had to be out of town overnight on the 19th (my daughter made her theatrical debut in Wausau), which meant that I had to miss the first of the two Beethoven programs by Parry Karp and Eli Kalman (below top) at Farley’s House of Pianos. I returned on the 20th, but still had to miss the afternoon performance of the Perlman Piano Trio.  And, that evening, I had to sacrifice the student recital (at Capitol Lakes Retirement Center) of the wonderful young violist and budding conductor Mikko Utevsky (below bottom) — that so I could catch the first performance of the Madison Bach Musicians, which I reviewed for this blog.

Parry Karp and Eli Kalman

MAYCO Mikko Utevsky by Steve Rankin

Attending that performance, rather than the second one on the 21st, allowed me to catch the second and last of the Karp-Kalman Beethoven cycle at Farley’s (and it was wonderfully worthwhile!).  Before that, however, I made it to a program at Music Hall on the campus in the earlier afternoon in which three splendid products of the University of Wisconsin School of Music (Emily Birsan (below top), Jamie Van Eyck (below bottom) and John Arnold) showed their gratitude to the Paul Collins Fellowship. Of course, that meant sacrificing a production of Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” at Edgewood College that same afternoon.

Emily Birsan less tarty 2 NoCredit

Jamie Van Eyck

That weekend was stern preparation for the most recent one, April 26-28.  As a prelude I had to miss the UW Opera Scenes program on Wednesday evening, due to a prior commitment (giving a lecture for Continuing Studies).  Things moved into high gear with the first performance of the Madison Opera’s splendid production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (below, in a photo by James Gill) on the evening of the 26th (and there was John Arnold in the cast), which I reviewed for Isthmus.

madison opera don giovanni james gill No. 10

Most of the 27th was taken up with this season’s final HD transmission of the Metropolitan Opera, in this case a not-to-be-missed production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare in Egitto.”  The evening offered a pair of equal options, programs each presented that date or the next.

So, postponing the UW Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra concert, I opted for the latest program organized by the energetic and versatile Jerry Hui with his Eliza’s Toyes ensemble (below), at the Gates of Heaven. His menu offered a range of Northern Italian madrigals mostly from the early 17th century, plus some dance pieces of the period.

These were interspersed with episodes from a slender playlet, delivered by the singers in Commedia dell’Arte improvisational style, about the dangers of gambling.  All that was pegged to the date 1638, when the first authorized casino (the Ridotto) was opened in Venice.  The idea of mixing music with theater is typical of Jerry Hui’s imaginative experimentation, but it must be said that the performers’ acting skills were at a much lower level than their musical ones.

Fortunately, the latter maintained the group’s splendid balance and discipline, and in music of genuine interest.  A lovely item by Monteverdi was familiar, but secular madrigals by Giovanni Gabrieli are not, and the other composers represented are little known today. The selections, in fact, included real gems, ones sadly neglected in our time by performers and recordings.  This program was, on that count, a true ear-opener.

Eliza's Toyes 2012 1

On to Sunday, the 28th.  Now it happens this year that this date inaugurates the Orthodox Christian Holy Week (as distinct from the Western Christian dating), and the Palm Sunday service is one of the most exhausting one of the liturgical year. I sing in the choir of the local Greek church here, and so I began the day with an initial burden of fatigue.  (That was a function not of Madison’s musical schedule, of course, but we all have various personal commitments, musical or otherwise, I think.)  In the early afternoon, I attended a program on American Players Theatre involving a dear faculty friend and colleague. Yes, a non-musical commitment, but again at a sacrifice, of attending a memorial program for another colleague, recently deceased.

Pant, pant!

And now it came to finale, the performance by the UW Choral Union and Chamber Orchestra (below) at Mills Hall that evening.  A fine finale it proved to be. It was devoted to a major choral work by the American composer Robert Kyr. His “Passion According to Four Evangelists” is a fascinating 20th-century contribution to a rather limited literature, aimed at modernizing the Baroque tradition of setting the Gospel accounts of Christ’s death.  Beverly Taylor, the Choral Union conductor, was instrumental in arranging the work’s commissioning back in her Boston days, and she has already brought it to Madison once before, so it is something she clearly knows and loves.

UW Choral Union and soloists w Taylor : KYR

Kyr created his own composite text, drawing not only on all four Gospel accounts (instead of using just one, as in past practice), but on other Scriptural texts (especially Psalms) and on literature beyond.  The four soloists represent not only the four Evangelists, but also characters in the action –UW tenor James Doing (below) was predictably outstanding as Luke and Jesus. 

Some of the solo writing is vocally awkward, and some imbalances from the orchestra need to be adjusted.  But Kyr is one of the few composers today who can write viable and idiomatic choral music.  He has made a point of having the chorus and the soloists interact musically to dramatic effect.  The Choral Union is big enough, but also well drilled enough to bring off splendidly Kyr’s moments of beauty, power and eloquence.  I would be cautious about calling this a great masterpiece, but it is certainly an important landmark in American and contemporary choral music.

Choral Union Kyr James Doing

Kyr himself (below) was on hand to give a pre-concert talk, which was genial and engaging, explaining his rationale in conceiving and constructing the work, at once in musical, spiritual, and humanistic terms.

robert kyr

That was a fine climax to an exhausting day.  And, for all my own individual hyperactive diversions, I wonder if other Madison music lovers might find parallels with my experience.

I am the first to praise the wonderful richness and variety of Madison’s musical life.  But is there a time — especially in these insanely over-scheduled Aprils — when abundance becomes overkill?

It is fabulous to have so many choices.  But when the choices become increasingly painful amid schedule conflicts, has the abundance become almost counter-productive?  Wonderful events have to sacrificed in favor of other wonderful events, all competing for the same audience.

I know it sounds ungrateful to want, sometimes, just a little pulling back from the over-scheduling.  And nobody would want to appoint some culture czar to blow whistles and regulate what can or cannot be scheduled, when and where.

Local organizations do, indeed, try to consult with each other, and make what adjustments or accommodations can be managed.  But each organization has its own compulsions, of individual schedules, and above all of access to facilities for which there is much competition.  Moreover, the academic year has an inevitable way of squeezing things further and further to its end.

I do not have any magic solution.  It does seem to me that “town” organizations might assume a certain deference to “gown” ones, in allowing some space to UW events and activities.  Some of the latter, too — ones less dependent on semester wind-up — could be spread out better.  Some non-UW events might be work towards earlier dates.

Well, that’s so much fantasy dreaming, up against harsh realities.  Yet among directors, performers and attendees, there ought to be a little thinking about how much overloading of the Madison musical audience is beneficial – or detrimental — to our cultural community.  Too much is simply unfair to both the audiences who want to attend concerts and to the musicians who work so hard to put them on and to attract audiences.

We should try to preserve the abundance, but be more careful about its equitable scheduling.

And, oh yes, I have a musical committee meeting Monday evening.  And then this weekend, two commitments (including the Ancora String Quartet, below top) prevent me from hearing performances with retiring UW violinist Tyrone Greive (below bottom, in a photo by Kathy Esposito)  with the UW Symphony Orchestra . . . to say nothing of this Saturday night when the Wisconsin Youth Orchestra’s (WYSO) “Art of Note” fundraising gala takes place as do concerts by the Ancora String Quartet and the Oakwood Chamber Players.

And so it goes, on and on and on …

Ancora FUS BIG John Devereux

Tyrone Greive 2013 by Kathy Esposito

Classical music Q&A: American composer Robert Kyr discusses: What should audiences listen for in this weekend’s two performances by the UW Choral Union of his “Passion According to Four Evangelists”? How does the prolific Kyr describe the sound and style of his music? What does he think of his ties to Madison? Part 2 of 2. Plus. the UW Chorale performs a FREE concert Friday night.

April 24, 2013
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ALERT: On this Friday, April 26, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Chorale will perform a FREE and PUBLIC concert under conductor Bruce Gladstone (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) with pianist Martha Fischer and student conductor Luke Hrovat-Staedter. Included on the program are John Rutter‘s “The Falcon” as well as works by Handel, Mathais, Hindemith, Ivor Gurney, UW alumnus Lee Hoiby, La Crosse composer Bob Willoughby, and the world premiere of UW alumnus Scott Gendel’s “The Singing Place.” This high-level group of 60 singers performs a varied repertoire. Most singers in Chorale have significant vocal and choral experience, and many are voice majors.


By Jacob Stockinger

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

Missa Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra

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

The concert are in Mills Hall on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. (NOT at 3:30 p.m. as mistkenly first printed in yesterday’s post.) Tickets are $15 for the General Public and $8 for students and seniors. Call the 
Box Office: (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 Hall for TICKETED patrons one hour before each concert. UW students are NOT admitted 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:

The composer — who is personally and artistically committed to social justice  and non-violent activism for peace — graciously agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear. Yesterday’s post offered Part 1; here is Part 2.

Robert Kyr Asian roofs

How would you describe your musical style overall and especially in that work?

My work features what I like to call a “spectrum of harmony” that is primarily consonant, but also dissonant as required for specific expressive purposes.

The engine of my music is counterpoint—the composing of musical line against line. Almost all of my music is an interweaving of melodic lines (in the manner of Bach, for instance), as opposed to the musical currency of our day, which is textural music or homophony (chords, or a melodic line accompanied by chords).

Although I was born in the 20th century, I have always felt (from my teen years onward) that I was a 21st century composer, and I’m more in tune with the eclecticism and vitality of the current 20-something and 30-something composers than my own generation.

In that sense, I am a composer who strives to synthesize many artistic concerns and interests into an organic musical expression. In regard to influences, I am most deeply connected to the music of the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods (the “contrapuntal periods”), especially the music of Guillaume Dufay (the isorhythmic motets), Josquin (his motets and masses), and above all, J. S. Bach.

You have worked and partnered with Beverly Taylor (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) before. Can you talk about how the two of got to know each other and what you think of her as a performer and interpreter of your works (she has done several, I believe) .

Bev and I met at Harvard University, where she was the director of the Radcliffe Choral Society when I was a doctoral student. She commissioned me to create a work for a cappella women’s chorus for RCS, which was entitled “Toward Eternity.” We became friends through our first collaboration, and shortly thereafter, Bev invited me to create a large-scale work for her Boston community chorus, the Back Bay Chorale.

Together, Bev and I hatched the plan of co-creating The Passion according to Four Evangelists for her ensemble, and she continually inspired me with her insights and wise musical advice. I’m extremely grateful to her for her vision and artistry, and I’m deeply moved by her performances, which convey a profound understanding of the interior life of a musical expression, as well as a complete “living out” of its sonic architecture and emotional depth.

Beverly Taylor Katrin Talbot

 I think you were in Madison for the last performance of this work. Will you be here this time and do you have any impressions of Madison and the UW Choral Union and choral and orchestral programs you would like to share?

Without a doubt, the UW Choral Union is one of the finest choruses in the country and is distinguished by its rich, vibrant, and clear sound, as well as its ability to express the emotional and psychological intricacies of large-scale works. The collaboration of Bev and the chorus is a “marriage made in heaven,” an ideal merging of artistic vision, poetic imagination, and true musical inspiration. (Below is a YouTube video of Kyr discussing his Holocaust Project work “The Unutterable,” which was premiered by Chorus Austin.)

I am thrilled that I’m able to come to Madison — a city that I love —and the University of Wisconsin (my father’s alma mater) for rehearsals and both performances of my Passion. I very much look forward to collaborating again with Bev, the soloists, the Choral Union, and the UW Symphony Orchestra.

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?


Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra will perform Brahms’ “German” Requiem this fall and Robert Kyr’s “Passion” in the spring.

August 8, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Just a quick note to share some information about an event, always much anticipated, at the University of Wisconsin School of Music:

The Ear has just learned that the campus-community group the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra (below), both under the baton of conductor Beverly Taylor, will perform his Numero Uno favorite choral work: the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms.

It will be performed in Mills Hall on Friday, Dec. 7, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 9, at 7:30 p.m.

It is a great work to my taste because it more secular and humanist than religious.

And the music is absolutely first-rate, by turns lyrical and dramatic and all simply gorgeous (at bottom.) Music just doesn’t come better than this masterpiece by Brahms (below).

The season brochure for the UW School of Music is at the printer, according to officials. It should be released to the public in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, to check out the season by date you can go to the Events Calendar at

And know that auditions for the Choral Union will be held on Sept. 3 and 4 with the first rehearsal on Monday Sept. 10. More details, including a phone number for questions, can be found at:

During the spring, the UW Choral Union will also perform a work  by  the acclaimed contemporary American composer Robert Kyr (below), “The Passion According to Four Evangelists,” with UW Chamber Orchestra in Mills Hall at 8 p.m. on Saturday and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 27 and 28.

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