About this Recording
2.110358 - ALDRIDGE, R.: Parables - An Interfaith Oratorio (Romey) (NTSC)

Parables – an interfaith oratorio


I composed Parables between January and December 2009 to a text by Herschel Garfein. It is scored for four solo singers, SATB chorus, and large orchestra. The production presented here, in a vivid and empathetic staging by David Walsh, is the fruit of many months of preparation by a first-rate opera program, choral program and orchestral program at the University of Minnesota. It is no exaggeration to say that every single person in the entire School of Music was mobilized, infused with the spirit of what we were trying to do, and encouraged to give their all, in order to realize a piece that is replete with every kind of challenge imaginable. When I watch this Parables, as meticulously and lovingly filmed by Jeffrey Weihe and Twin Cities Public Television, and the camera pans over the faces of the young people playing in the orchestra or singing in the chorus (everyone in the chorus actually memorized their stunningly complex parts) I see a depth of conviction and artistic energy that no composer dares to dream of.

The piece began when I was approached by the conductor John Strickler with the idea of writing a ‘reconciliation symphony,’ which was to somehow combine various religious traditions, and to deal with the themes of tolerance and universality. At first, I intended only to write for orchestra. After thinking about it for a couple of days, I realized that in order to deal frankly and effectively with the religious themes beginning to form themselves in my mind, I would need an original text. What started off as a reconciliation symphony would become a symphonic oratorio. I immediately spoke to my longtime collaborator, Herschel Garfein, about undertaking the libretto for this work. He signed on. We quickly agreed that the piece should be for four soloists and large chorus in addition to the orchestra. The details of the commission were worked out. The work was to be premiered on 1 May 2010 by the Topeka Symphony Orchestra. Premiering in Topeka, Kansas, seemed particularly significant to Herschel and to me; it would eventually influence the direction of the piece. Topeka is a highly cultured, vibrant small city whose reputation has been marred in recent years by the presence of the Westboro Baptist Church, infamous for its intolerant ideologies. So, in addition to a commission, a theme, the dimensions of the work, and a deadline, we felt we had something of a mission. But at that point, we had nothing else.

What transpired during the following year was a remarkable experience for us. Parables resulted from many conversations between Herschel and me, much reading, researching, and thinking about what we could possibly say in words and music about such a vast, complicated and profound subject as religious faith and reconciliation. We decided to confine ourselves to the three Abrahamic/monotheistic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. We also realized that parables from each of these three traditions were an ideal way to frame the narrative structure of the work. And soon after that, the idea that the soloists would each embody a particular faith, and that in part they would use the original language for their music. So in addition to English, we use Arabic, Hebrew and New Testament Greek. Herschel has done inspired work in writing both original text as well as in newly translating and distilling extant religious texts from the three traditions. In a work such as this, it is as important to decide what existing text you won’t use, as it is what you will, paring it down to a beautiful, condensed poetry. Along the way, he made some rather astonishing artistic and humanistic discoveries in reading the Bible, the Koran and the Torah. In all of these instances, we have incorporated these ideas and discoveries into the work.

It is our hope that Parables tells a unique story about the intertwining of religious faiths in text and music. We did not want to reach too far, to tell too specific a story, to either be too optimistic or pessimistic, to presume that reconciliation of the faiths is possible, or that it is not possible—that we can all put our differences aside, or that we cannot. Parables tries to convey both the beauty, the power, the vitality, the commonality, as well as the complications, flaws, contradictions and misunderstandings in all religious faiths.

Parables was originally commissioned by the Topeka Symphony Orchestra and its Music Director John Strickler, with a major gift from Douglas and Andrew Reeves in honour of their parents, Jean and Julie Reeves, longtime supporters of the Topeka Symphony. Doug Reeves was also indispensable in the gestation of the idea for Parables.

Robert Aldridge, Composer

“Is It Sacrament or Calamity?” Notes on the Text

My hope for the text of Parables is that it may cast a little light on obscure corners of the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

We begin with The God of Others, our bleak but (we hope) honest assessment of the state of relations between the faiths in today’s world, in which all religions struggle “for a piece of sky.” The triumphalism and exclusionary qualities of faith come to the fore when the baritone-as-preacher leads his flock in a hymn (“There is only one God”).

Rebuttal begins with the Qu’ran’s story of Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his firstborn (Ibrahim and Ismail), which shows a humanism that we often fail to acknowledge in Islam. The well-known parallel account from the Jewish Torah is a dramatic masterpiece: Abraham’s tight-lipped, pained compliance with the divine edict and his deception of his firstborn son lead to a suspenseful climax. In the much shorter Quranic equivalent, Ibrahim touchingly consults his son right away, asking, “Consider: what do you think?” (According to Islamic tradition, that firstborn son is Ishmael, although he is not named in the Qu’ran. Since my aim was as much as possible to approach each of the three religions on its own terms, I chose to identify him explicitly as Ishmael).

The Book of Job is far from unexplored, and yet Bob Aldridge charged me to find some new territory within it (Job). He even had the audacity to ask me to find some comedy in it. I dismissed this as impossible until I started looking more closely at the first few chapters, and I began to appreciate the grimly funny and (I now think) almost Beckettian underpinnings of the story. Then I arrived at the stunning words that Job first utters when struck down: “Shall we accept the good from God, and not also the evil?”—words which credit God for both evil and good in the world, words which have been subtly mistranslated for centuries in tacit recognition of their uncomfortable truth—and I knew that we had found our parable from the Judaic tradition.

The choral movement, Finitum Capax Infinitum (The finite opens to the infinite), can be thought of as our Credo. It brings together texts from all three of the religious traditions in celebration of the idea that the human sphere communicates with the divine—somehow. With this theme as a guiding principle, I drew heavily on the poetry of Rumi (1207–1273) and Hafez (c.1320–1389), great masters of Sufism, the Islamic mystical tradition, which everywhere finds evidence of the divine through the agency of the human senses. I must gratefully acknowledge the work of sociologist Peter L. Berger as inspiration for this movement.

Jesus’s words are heard in the ancient Greek of the Gospels (Lilies). In a single chapter of Luke, Jesus first conveys an exalted vision of the divine ordering of the world, and then prophesizes the division—the ‘fire’—that He will bring to humanity. By including both parts of his sermon, we hope to pay meagre tribute to the soaring wonders of Jesus’s theology, and also to acknowledge the fierce, uncompromising nature of the Christian mission in the world. Christianity is not alone in this. It is a sad fact that all three of these great and good religions hope in some way to eventually triumph over the others (Division). And so our Chorus (our people, not our clerics) finally finds common ground in our shared human frailties (What Waits) and declares the need to strip away the triumphalism from faith. Only then can we at least hear the God of Others speak. Just hear.

I wrote the libretto to ‘self-translate’ at all times. Passages sung in the original languages are exactly what one has just heard (or will immediately hear) sung in English. I am grateful that the producers have followed this same path in the rather unconventional use of subtitles within the film. What one hears sung, one sees written, and one sees it in its original language. In a piece that respects the otherness of religions, it seems important to respect the otherness of languages as well.

Herschel Garfein, Librettist

Parables As Real-Life Drama

The attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001 and its aftermath have raised fundamental questions about American society and what are perceived to be American moral values and religious beliefs. For many, the idea that a divine God simply could stand by while such a tragedy unfolded is as incomprehensible as the joyous cries of “God is Great!” on the lips of the hijackers as they drove their planes at full speed into the Twin Towers. Some have seen the events of 9/11 as evidence that Satanic new forces had the country in their grip and that God had abandoned America. Others had their faith in God restored and strengthened by their experience of the huge outpouring of grief and sympathy which arose across the country from all quarters and regardless of age, race, social standing, and religious or political affiliation.

Several years later, when the idea of building a memorial mosque at Ground Zero was proposed, it met with fierce and bitter opposition. The scarcely healed wounds of those dark September days were reopened and invective flowed like blood from the nation’s tortured soul. It seemed that mutual understanding and reconciliation between the major religions in America was more remote than ever. And yet, it was precisely this debate, and the vehement feelings it aroused, which inspired the commissioning of Parables, a work whose goal has been to illuminate the antagonisms but also the points of commonality between the major faiths in hopes of “imagining” a path towards eventual healing and reconciliation. The regrettable incident of the Islamic Koran burning and violent reaction to it in Afghanistan clearly demonstrates how desperately needed is just such reconciliation. Events in Norway in the summer of 2011, and more recently in France, indicate that this is not just an American problem but one which this country shares with many nations across the world today.

Parables is a powerful cantata for large choral and orchestral forces and four soloists which was created by GRAMMY®-Award-winning artists Robert Aldridge (music) and Herschel Garfein (text). Since we are presenting the work as a dramatic representation, we have chosen to give it clearly theatrical values—such as sets, costumes, lighting, and projections. From the outset, the piece was conceived of in cinematic terms and the recorded version is both an enhancement of the stage presentation and its own unique depiction of the ‘parables’! We have chosen to incorporate twelve young dancers from the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists who add to the visual impact of the stories. The cantata is divided into seven parts. Parts one and six frame the action so to speak, depicting the most divisive and adversarial moments in the work. Parts two, three, and five represent the three “parables” which the composer and librettist have chosen to portray. They are presented in three different languages, all of which are connected to the Abrahamic traditions—namely, Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek. The central scene in the cantata is part four, which the authors regard as the “Credo” of the entire piece. In it, the chorus alone on stage, at first with great trepidation and finally with thrilling conviction and exultation, express the hope that mankind universally can aspire to and know the “Divine”—in whatever way each religion individually perceives that to be. Finally, part seven acts as a kind of coda to the entire work, in which members of every faith acknowledge the one thing that binds all human beings together—the certain knowledge that we will all die one day and that we cannot know “what waits” for us hereafter. It is both a sobering thought and yet a (potential) starting point for celebrating, right here on earth, our common humanity!

David Walsh, Director, University of Minnesota Opera Theatre

Support for this production was provided in honour of Professor Jean B. Reeves and Julie Reeves.

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