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Christians searching for a needle of hope in the haystack of disappointment that was 2020 need look no further than the 2021 classical-music Grammy nominees.
Contending for three awards is Richard Danielpour’s The Passion of Yeshua (Naxos). Subtitled A Dramatic Oratorio in Fourteen Scenes, it immerses listeners in a nearly two-hour journey that begins with the Last Supper and culminates with Christ’s death on the cross.
The first category in which it appears is “best engineering.” Should it win, the award would go to Bernd Gottinger, the head of the Sound Recording Technology program at SUNY Fredonia and the man responsible for doing sonic justice to The Passion of Yeshua’s multileveled dynamics.
In using the entire range of the stereo spectrum to balance six operatic soloists, the 35-voice UCLA Chamber Singers, the more-than-140-voice Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of JoAnn Falletta, Gottinger is certainly stiff competition. Recording Academy members who vote against him after listening to the explosiveness of the chorus’s cries for Barabbas’ release in “Scene XI: Behold the Man” will have some serious explaining to do.
The second category is “best choral performance” for Falletta, the two chorus masters, and all of the aforementioned singers. Simply put, the singing is superb, even thrilling. The articulation alone of the soloists—baritones Kenneth Overton (Jesus), James K. Bass (Caiaphas), and Matthew Worth (Narrator); tenor Timothy Fallon (Peter, Pilate); mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges (Mary); and soprano Hila Plittman (Mary Magdalene)—reflects their sensitivity to the demands of Danielpour’s form and content.
The final category is “best contemporary classical composition.” Given The Passion of Yeshua’s scope, it may be this award for which it’s best suited. First, there’s Danielpour’s theologically and dramatically insightful blending of Old and New Testament texts. Second, there’s his use of both Hebrew and English, the latter sourced from the Revised Standard Version and the Complete Jewish Bible by turns. What emerges is a coming together not only of cultures and sensibilities but also of past and present.
Ironically, one of the project’s most striking aspects has nothing to do with its engineering, singing, or construction and everything to do with why Danielpour composed the oratorio in the first place.
“After many years of living with the question of Jesus,” he writes in the liner notes, “I began to accept, in head and heart, that Jesus was the culmination of 4,000 years of Jewish prophets and that he was indeed the long-awaited-for Messiah.”
With The Passion of Yeshua, that acceptance would seem to be complete.