Richard Danielpour – The Passion of Yeshua

The Passion of Yeshua is a dramatic oratorio by the contemporary composer Richard Danielpour. Written in 2017, the work has been issued by Naxos in a performance recorded in 2019 with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by JoAnn Falletta with the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, UCLA Chamber Singers and soloists Hila Plitmann, Matthew Worth, Kenneth Overton, J’Nai Bridges, Timothy Fallon and James K. Bass.

The work is a Passion Oratorio, that is an oratorio written for concert purposes telling the passion story, as opposed to a Passion which sets the Gospel texts and is written for performance in church. (With the adoption of Bach’s Passions as concert works we have rather lost the distinction between the two works).

Danielpour has assembled the text himself from both the Christian Gospels and Hebrew Scriptures, to create a work which uses both Hebrew and English for its text. Danielpour’s aim seems to have been to get back to an earlier conception of Jesus, perhaps a more Jewish conception, which avoids the ‘1800 years of European accretions and horrible acts that were committed in Europe in the name of Christianity.’ Many of the Hebrew texts, which are sung by the chorus and by the two soprano soloists (as Miryam Magdala and Miryam) are Messianic texts. Another deliberate intention by Danielpour was to bring the role of these two women forward, Miryram Magdala (Mary Magdalene) and Mary the mother of Jesus (Miryam) as they are present in the Gospels but never to the forefront. Women seem to have played a significant role in Jesus’ mission, but the creating of the synoptic Gospels during the Roman Empire effectively removed the women from the narrative.

Danielpour has been thinking about writing this work for 25 years. In his essay in the CD booklet he describes himself as an American born of Middle Eastern, Iranian parentage with an extended family which embraced both Jewish and Christian traditions. The piece was commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival, the Buffalo Philharmonic, and the SDG Foundation, was premiered at the Oregon Bach Festival with JoAnn Faletta conducting. The work was then performed in December at Royce Hall in Los Angeles with the UCLA Philharmonia and Chorus led by music director Neal Stulberg.

The work lasts around 100 minutes and is in two parts, each in seven scenes. There are seven characters (two, Kefa – the Peter figure – and Pilate are doubled here), seven choruses and four chorales, and four ‘grand’ choruses. And the number seven (associated with ‘completion’ or the idea of completion in Jewish mystical thinking) features quite heavily in the construction. The work tells a familiar story, but from a slightly unusual angle in the way Danielpour mixes texts from the two traditions. Whilst he tells the Christian story of Jesus’ Passion, he does so with a great deal of Jewish detail; in his essay Danielpour talks about one of his aims in writing the work being to ‘imagine the story of the last day of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. I thought if I could somehow take myself back in time and recreate what those last hours were like without all those later accretions’.

Danielpour studied at Oberlin College, the New England Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard School of Music. His early works from the 1980s employ a serial style, but then his palate broadened, moving towards a use of tonal harmonies as well as non-classical influences.

For the music of The Passion of Yeshua, Danielpour eschews both serial modernism and post-modern minimalism, instead opting for a richly complex, tonal, chromatic harmony which is redolent of mid-Century music and on first listen we can hear influences from William Walton (Belshazzar’s Feast), RVW (Dona Nobis Pacem) and Leonard Bernstein (Chichester Psalms and the symphonies). There is no recitative as such, with Danielpour writing rich in a rich arioso, moving to more rhapsodic writing for the arias, and throughout the orchestra plays a big role in the richly coloured music.

JoAnn Falletta gets strong performances from all her soloists. The bulk of the narrative falls on the men, with the two women contributing a series of arias and duets which provide a rhapsodic Hebrew commentary on the narrative. Matthew Worth as the narrator and Kenneth Overton as Yeshua both provide strong performances, but I would like both to have made more of the words. Oratorio is a very didactic, text-based form whilst both Worth and Overton’s experience seems to be operatic, and I did wonder whether using a pair of singers used performing Bach’s Passions might have brought out the important text more. One problem I felt throughout the performance was that I had to concentrate to tell whether the singers were performing in English or Hebrew, which rather negates the idea behind the piece.

Hila Pitmann and J’Nai Bridges both bring strongly operatic voices to the mix, contributing intensely vibrant performances. Both do well with Danielpour’s sometimes angular and effortful vocal writing.

This is a large-scale work with plenty of feeling of contrast in the textures, and Danielpour’s intensely serious approach to his subject makes for an impressive piece. At times the piece feels closer to sacred opera than to oratorio, and you wonder whether the composer’s embracing of the Passion Oratorio form was more to do with worry about offending religious sensibilities with a staging.

Throughout, the musicians of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra play with superb commitment and realise Danielpour’s complex harmonic language and richly romantic style with great sympathy and skill. Danielpour also gives the chorus a number of striking moments, including a couple of large-scale choruses and the combined chorus of the UCLA Chamber Singers and Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus do not disappoint, though my comments about diction apply here also.

Ultimately, I found this piece dignified and impressive rather than intensely moving. The cross-cultural elements mean that I found the Hebrew sections somewhat distancing, in a way that someone unfamiliar with the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgy might find the use of Latin. The music builds to a powerful and intensely wrought climax, which testifies to the composer’s thoughtful identification with his subject.

Robert Hugill

[This review first appeared at Planet Hugill.  It is reprinted with the permission of the author.]

Miryam Magdala – Hila Piltmann (soprano); Narrator (Talmuda) – Matthew Worth (baritone); Yeshua – Kenneth Overton (baritone); Miryam – J’Nai Bridges (mezzo-soprano); Kefa/Pilate – Timothy Fallon (tenor); Kayafa – James K Bass (baritone); UCLA Chamber Singers (prepared by James K. Bass); Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus (prepared by Adam Luebke); Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta (conductor); Recorded 13-14 April 2019, Kleinhaus Music Hall, Buffalo, New York, USA.

NAXOS 636943988527 [2CDs]