Vision of hope: UNC choir, instrumentalists to premiere ‘Isaiah’

Nov. 13, 2013 @ 10:24 AM

UNC music professor, composer and pianist Stephen Anderson grew up in Dallas, Texas, where he said he was exposed to equal parts religious fervor and religious bigotry. “That fueled in me a desire to study religious history,” and to understand his own Mormon faith, as well as other faiths, he said.
That journey led him to study the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, a text that has influenced him as a composer. His composition “War Peace,” which premiered at UNC in 2010, has a reference to a passage from Isaiah (“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid”). His new composition “Isaiah” is a seven-movement piece for choir, solo soprano, string orchestra and piano. The Carolina Choir, an orchestra of local string players along with Anderson on piano will perform the premiere of the work Thursday, in conjunction with a mini-conference on Isaiah.
Anderson also records and performs his compositions for jazz trio and quartet, and in an artist’s statement about “Isaiah” he expresses admiration for the choral works of Handel, Haydn and Mozart, composers who “knew how to write counterpoint in such a fashion that the music really grooves ... and grooves hard, while at same time being spiritual, jubilant, and uplifting.” The new composition, his first choral piece, uses modern harmony, but is still melodic and accessible.
The music mirrors the contrasts in Isaiah’s texts, he said. Many passages are very dark, but others “are full of these beautiful promises, and the music does that,” alternating between “really tense and really gorgeous,” Anderson said.
Anderson spoke after a rehearsal this week, the first time that the chorus and instrumentalists had played the music together.
Biblical scholars attribute the first part of the book to the prophet Isaiah. Other passages were added later. It is a book of visions, written at the time when Israel was divided into a northern kingdom (Israel) and a southern kingdom (Judah), where Isaiah wrote. The prophet warns against political intrigue with Israel’s neighbors, addresses social injustice, but also offers a vision of a restored kingdom, and of earthly peace. “There is a lot of hope there,” said Yaakov Ariel, a professor in UNC’s Department of Religious Studies, who will speak at the conference. “There is hope for revival, for return, for reconciliation, for global peace, for peace between humans and humans, humans and animals, humans and God. It’s very compelling,” Ariel said. People often look to Isaiah “when they look to promises of peace, reconciliation, peace, harmony.”
The seven movements of Anderson’s “Isaiah” reflect the contrast in dark and hopeful passages. They are titled “Besieged City,” “The Way of Peace,” “The Burden of …,” “Speak from the Dust,” “Go, Ye Swift Messengers,” “Intercession for the Transgressors” and “Light is Come.”
Glen Nelson, founder of the Mormon Artists Group, commissioned the piece. He had met Anderson, heard some of his jazz compositions, and decided he wanted to work with him. (Mormon Artists Group is not affiliated with the Mormon Church, and Nelson stressed that the projects it funds are not always religious in content, although all artists are either present or past members of the church.)
“Most contemporary music suffers from the syndrome of premiere, then disappear,” Nelson said, but MAG wants to ensure that does not happen with “Isaiah.” After Thursday’s performance, “Isaiah” will be recorded, and released along with video and a journal that Anderson kept while composing the piece, Nelson said. Anderson also is making the score available for performance.
Susan Klebanow, director of the Carolina Choir, is conducting the piece. “It’s been a totally positive experience,” particularly for the students, Klebanow said. “It’s wonderful for them to have this living process where Steve can explain what he wants,” and Anderson in turn gets to hear his composition for the first time.
Some eight years ago, “I really found myself as a composer,” Anderson said. “This [composition] has been particularly meaningful.”

Go and Do

WHAT: Premiere of Stephen Anderson’s composition “Isaiah”
WHEN: 8 p.m., Nov. 21
WHERE: Hill Hall Auditorium, UNC
ADMISSION: Tickets are $10 general admission, available at the door.
ALSO: Yaakov Ariel, a professor in UNC’s Department of Religious Studies, and Jason Combs, a doctoral candidate in the department, will give a talk on “Isaiah: A Prophet of Hope for Jews and Christians,” from 4 to 6 p.m. in Hyde Hall. Anderson also will give a pre-concert talk.