Vijay Gupta ’07MM, on music as a vehicle for social justice

Vijay Gupta

Violinist and YSM alum Vijay Gupta ’07MM is a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the founder and artistic director of Street Symphony, an organization that “serves to foster a dialogue which tells the unheard stories of the most marginalized communities in Los Angeles through the power of musical expression,” according to language on its website. We spoke with Vijay about the artist’s role in society.

Q: What experiences at Yale and the Yale School of Music, and in New Haven, inform the work you’re doing now with Street Symphony and in terms of how the arts can be a vehicle for social justice in a larger sense?

A: Well, it was two classes in particular. One was my Hearing class with Joan Panetti, which totally transformed the way that I teach and perform and collaborate. I was actually Dr. Panetti’s TA for my second whole year at YSM, so that was really, really special for me. And it’s kind of amazing, I kind of feel Dr. Panetti coming up in my voice and in my steps when I teach, so that’s very cool. The second class was a survey of late Beethoven by Markus Rathey, and he went through, I think, from Op. 90 until the end of Beethoven. And just being able to present in his class, and being able to look at the composers for who they were as people and not just as these marble busts of dead white guys, really, really changed the way that I approach playing. And it’s a direct correlation to the way that I lead programs when I play Beethoven or Schumann in a county jail, because our audiences are not interested in how well we play, they’re interested in the stories. They’re, in a sense, interested in the humanity of the composers. So those are two things that I got from those two classes. And of course I have to give credit to my amazing teacher, who was Ani Kavafian. She was just so wonderful and kind and got me to think about different aspects of my playing that I hadn’t even thought about before, but she also cared about me as a person, which was kind of new for me having come from the conservatory system. Oftentimes in those situations my personhood didn’t count as much as how well I played my etudes. But I played a lot of Baroque violin at school with ISM; I was playing with Robert Mealy and that was an extension of what I was getting from Markus Rathey’s class and from Joan Panetti’s class. It was a very natural extension of what was going on in the life of these composers as they were composing. And one direct example of how that’s showed up for me in my organization is in our Messiah project. We do a yearly sing-along of Handel’s Messiah in Skid Row at a homeless shelter. And we’ve actually now started placing formerly homeless Desert Storm combat veterans as our soloists, and we give them lessons all year long. And when you look at the situation in which Handel performed his Messiah, it wasn’t in a concert hall, it was in an orphan’s hospital, and the first concert released 142 men from debtor’s prison. So if we’re really doing authentic performance practice, if we’re really going to put our mouth where our money is with regard to what these composers were actually dreaming and thinking as they composed, then we also have to have the same kind of social understanding of what kind of music our community needs. It became very clear to me at school that these composers were writing for their communities. I’m sorry to go on a little bit here, but Bach’s passions would have been called engagement sing-along concerts today, because everybody in the audience knew those chorales and they stood up and sang them. So what’s our modern day Messiah? That’s the kind of question that I’m asking in my head right now as I lead my life and do my stuff.

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Published August 29, 2017
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New oratorio by Martin Bresnick to be premiered at International Festival of Arts & Ideas

Martin Bresnick. Photo by Nina Roberts

A new oratorio by School of Music faculty composer Martin Bresnick will be premiered at Yale on June 20 as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, which commissioned the piece. The oratorio, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson — Passions of Bloom, will be performed again on June 21 at the Yale Summer School of Music/Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. The oratorio, which celebrates the work of its namesakes — Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and distinguished literary critic Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of the Humanities and English at Yale — will be performed by the Yale Choral Artists and members of the Yale Philharmonia. Vocal soloists include YSM faculty tenor James Taylor, who’ll sing Bloom’s words. The oratorio is modeled on Bach’s St. John Passion. Bresnick assembled the libretto using poems by Whitman, Melville, and Dickinson and excerpts from Bloom’s The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime.

Talking about the poetry of the 19th century writers he’s celebrating, Bresnick said, “These particular works have been part of my mental universe since I was a young student. Still others I only recently got more closely acquainted with.” He’s been familiar with Bloom’s work for many years. In the mid-1980s, Bresnick composed music for the PBS series Voices & Visions, which, through interviews with such experts as Bloom, explored the lives of American poets. At that moment, Bresnick said, he felt that Bloom, who earned his Ph.D. from Yale in 1956, had established himself as a kind of Marlon Brando of critics, inasmuch as the “degree of passion and devotion he brought to his explanations” was “almost poetic.” It was while working on For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, based on the William Blake poem, that Bresnick got to know Bloom and appreciate the shared “commonalities in our origins and points of departure.” In incorporating excerpts from The Daemon Knows into his oratorio, Bresnick had permission from Bloom to use “anything I wanted.”

Modeling the oratorio on Bach’s St. John Passion was a logical step considering that Bloom’s voice in the piece is not unlike that of the Evangelist — the narrator — in Bach’s passions. And Taylor, Bresnick pointed out, is a “well-known Evangelist in the world of the two Bach passions.” In addition to Taylor, Bresnick said, “I needed some very special singers.” Enter the Yale Choral Artists.

“Several of the soloists for this performance also happen to be YSM alumni, from both the Institute of Sacred Music’s voice program and from Yale Opera, including two former students of Jimmy’s — Paul Tipton and Sherezade Panthaki,” YCA founding director and YSM professor of choral conducting, Jeffrey Douma, said. School of Music alumni who’ll be performing include mezzo-soprano Katherine Maroney ’06MM, soprano Megan Chartrand ’13MM, soprano Sarah Yanovitch ’15MM, tenor Colin Britt ’10MM, tenor Gene Stenger ’15MM, and tenor Steven Soph ’12MM. Bass-baritone Tipton ’10MM will sing Melville’s words, while Maroney and soprano Panthaki ’11AD will sing text by Dickinson. Additional vocal soloists include tenor Brian Giebler, who’ll sing words by Whitman, bass Glenn Miller, who’ll sing the words of Captain Ahab, from Melville’s Moby-Dick, and baritone Thomas McCargar, who’ll sing the words of Melville’s Ishmael.

“During his composition process,” Douma said, “Martin often showed me excerpts of the solo writing he was developing, and would describe the kinds of voices he was hearing. This helped me choose singers from within the ranks of the Choral Artists best suited to each role.”

Bresnick’s oratorio, Douma said, “references not only Bach but also Brahms and other composers. People who know the St. John Passion will hear distinct echoes of its opening chorus (“Herr, unser Herrscher”) in Martin’s opening chorus (“Shine! Shine! Shine!”). For me as conductor, knowing that Bach was a starting point for Martin has influenced my thinking about the melodic writing in the piece and its relationship to the text. Martin may not be quoting Bach, but his careful attention to the natural rise and fall of the language and his singularly expressive way of emphasizing particular words reminds me very much of Bach’s use of melody, especially in the extended recitatives we hear in his passions. It has reinforced how important it will be for the audience to connect with the language in a very direct way.”

Of the literary works that inspired the oratorio, Douma said, “I love all three of the writers who inhabit this piece, but I will admit that my understanding of each of them — especially Melville — has been enriched greatly by the process of preparing this music.”

Originally, Bresnick said, he conceived a piece that would celebrate Bloom’s writings on Whitman. “I found that that wasn’t congenial for me,” he said. “That wasn’t enough.” The piece “needed more contrast.”

Bloom, Bresnick said, is “very shy about the fact that this whole thing, in some ways, is about him.”

Whitman, Melville, Dickinson — Passions of Bloom will receive its world-premiere performance, as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, on Tuesday, June 20, at 8 pm, in Morse Recital Hall at the Yale School of Music. The oratorio will be performed again on Wednesday, June 21, at 7:30 pm, at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival.

INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF ARTS & IDEAS PERFORMANCE
NORFOLK PERFORMANCE

Published June 15, 2017
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[ students & alumni ]

Robert Bennesh founds Festival of Sacred Arts in Sweden

Porträtt Robert Bennesh

Robert Bennesh

Robert Bennesh ’14MM ’15AD, director of music at the Church of Sweden in Skanör-Falsterbo, has founded the Festival of Sacred Arts, which will launch its first season on August 11. Located in Bennesh’s home parishes in Skanör-Falsterbo, the festival seeks to provide a space in which music of various genres, art, drama, poetry, and nature intersect. The four-day event features 13 concerts, eight lectures, and other performances and exhibitions.

The festival’s name is inspired by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, where Bennesh did course work while he was a student at the Yale School of Music.

“The artistic idea of the festival is to inspire the visitor to seek for the sacred in different art forms, in conjunction to each other, and in relation to nature,” he said. “What one finds sacred is highly personal and we hope this will be the starting point for interesting discussions.”

Since his appointment to the Church of Sweden in the fall of 2015, Bennesh has been developing a unique music program at the two medieval churches of Skanör-Falsterbo. Through grants, he has raised approximately $80,000 to develop the festival, forming partnerships with the local and provincial governments as well as other parishes, the diocese, various businesses, and individuals. MORE

Published July 12, 2016
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ISM holds symposium on Haydn’s Creation

The Creation in Context:
Symposium examining the musical, liturgical, and literary contexts of Haydn’s masterpiece

The Institute of Sacred Music presents a symposium this Saturday called The Creation in Context. The event will examine the musical, liturgical, and literary contexts of Haydn’s masterpiece.

The symposium is presented in conjunction with the performance of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung by Yale Schola Cantorum and Juilliard415 on Sunday, April 29.

Melanie Lowe, Associate Professor of Musicology Vanderbilt University, will give the keynote address, Creating Chaos in Haydn’s Creation.

The symposium takes place Saturday, April 28, 2012, at 1 pm in the Sterling Memorial Library Lecture Hall (120 High Street, New Haven; enter on Wall Street). The event is open to the public and requires no registration. MORE

Published April 25, 2012
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Bach Collegium Japan performance March 26 to benefit earthquake relief in Japan

Yale Institute of Sacred Music presents Bach Collegium Japan and music director Masaaki Suzuki in Bach’s Mass in B minor

Masaaki Suzuki (photo by Marco Borggreve)

The renowned Bach Collegium Japan, conducted by its founder Masaaki Suzuki, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor at Woolsey Hall (500 College Street at Grove Street, New Haven) on Saturday, March 26 at 8pm. The Yale Institute of Sacred Music presents this concert to benefit Yale’s relief efforts for the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. All proceeds from ticket sales and donations received at the performance will be forwarded by Yale to the Red Cross for its relief work in Japan.

Bach Collegium Japan was founded in 1990 by Masaaki Suzuki with the aim of introducing Japanese audiences to period instrument performances of great works from the baroque period. Since 1995 it has acquired a formidable reputation as one of the world’s most exceptional ensembles of its kind, particularly through its acclaimed recordings of Bach’s church cantatas for the BIS label.

Music director Masaaki Suzuki is a member of the faculty of the Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music. He and the Bach Collegium Japan are touring North America this month performing Bach’s Mass in B minor.

The March 26 benefit performance will feature Hana Blazikova and Rachel Nicholls, sopranos; Clint van der Linde, countertenor; Gerd Türk, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass. Bach scholar Markus Rathey, an associate professor of music history at Yale, will give a pre-concert talk at 7 pm in the Presidents Room in Woolsey Hall.

Tickets to this benefit performance are $15, $8 students. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit music.yale.edu or call the Yale School of Music concert office at 203 432-4158. For information about Yale’s relief efforts, please visit relief.yale.edu.

Published March 22, 2011
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Joseph Mikolaj ’10MM wins the Solo Competition of the Oratorio Society of New York

Joseph Mikolaj, a student of James Taylor at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and the Yale School of Music, took first prize at the New York Oratorio Society’s Lyndon Woodside Solo Competition on April 10. Mikolaj, a tenor, performed selections from Haydn’s Creation and Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

In 1975, the Oratorio Society of New York inaugurated an annual Solo Competition, designed to encourage the art of oratorio singing and to give talented young singers an opportunity to advance their careers. The Competition has become international in scope, and well-known in the music world.

Since the Competition’s inception, more than 3,400 singers have competed.  The judges have chosen nearly 100 winners, awarding thousands of dollars in cash prizes. In addition, over 65 performance contracts have been awarded to Competition winners to appear in concert with the Society; many have also been awarded contracts with other major musical organizations.

The Lyndon Woodside Solo Competition is held in New York City every year during March and April. More than $15,000 in cash prizes are awarded, along with possible contracts for oratorio performances in New York City. The Solo Competition is open to singers of all nationalities who were born after December 31, 1969 and who have not made a formal oratorio debut in a major concert hall. Mikolaj was the youngest musician to compete in this year’s event.

Published April 15, 2010
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Martin Jean reappointed as Director of ISM

jean_martin

University President Richard Levin announced last month that Professor Martin Jean has been reappointed as the Director of the Institute of Sacred Music for a second five-year term, beginning January 1, 2010.

Levin noted that faculty and staff alike expressed enthusiastic support for Professor Jean’s reappointment.  One commentator noted, “His four years show him to have a passion for the work of the Institute, and the ability not only to administer its programs but to lead it toward a fuller realization of its mission.” Another stated, “In the years that Martin has been director, he has helped to shift the Institute’s focus to further enhance the students’ academic and performance lives, and their lives in the greater ISM community.” Many praised his efforts to develop a strategic plan for the Institute’s future. In a letter addressing the ISM community, Prof. Jean said: “I am honored to accept President Levin’s offer to serve as Director of the ISM for another five-year term.” MORE

Published December 21, 2009
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Yale Announces Appointment of Conductor Masaaki Suzuki

Maasaki SuzukiThe Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale School of Music are pleased to announce the joint appointment of eminent Bach scholar and conductor Masaaki Suzuki as Visiting Professor of Choral Conducting and conductor of Yale Schola Cantorum, the University’s renowned chamber choir. The two-year appointment will begin July 1, 2009.

Since founding Bach Collegium Japan in 1990, Suzuki has established himself as a leading authority on the works of J.S. Bach. He has remained the Collegium’s music director ever since, taking the group regularly to major venues and festivals in Europe and the United States and building up an outstanding reputation for the expressive refinement of his performances. In addition to conducting, Suzuki is also acclaimed as an organist and harpsichordist.

He is regularly invited to work with distinguished European soloists and groups, such as Collegium Vocale Gent and the Freiburger Barockorchester; he recently appeared in London with the Britten Sinfonia in a program of Britten, Mozart and Stravinsky. Forthcoming engagements with other ensembles include the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Nagoya Philharmonic and the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic Orchestras. In 2001 Suzuki was decorated with the Federal Order of Merit from Germany.

Suzuki’s impressive discography on the BIS label includes his interpretations with Bach Collegium Japan of Bach’s major choral works and sacred cantatas. He has now completed 40 volumes. MORE

Published March 10, 2009
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