Choral Union, Chamber Orchestra to perform Kyr's 'Passion'

April 23, 2013

In its 120 years of existence, the UW-Madison Choral Union has established a reputation for performing major choral compositions by well-known masters. But the Choral Union has also presented contemporary compositions and will do so Saturday, April 27 and Sunday, April 28 when it performs Robert Kyr’s “Passion According to Four Evangelists.”

Photo: Robert Kyr

Composer Robert Kyr

Photo: Tom Forgas

Born in 1952, Kyr is not yet a household name, but his music-making was given a lengthy profile on National Public Radio last year. Beverly Taylor, professor and director of choral activities at the School of Music and leader of the Choral Union, expects his musical contributions to endure. She shared some thoughts on Kyr and the work to be performed.

Inside UW: Can you tell us a little about Robert Kyr?

Beverly Taylor: I first heard his writing when I was the choral director at Harvard and he was a graduate student there, and have been a fan ever since. He is a prolific composer — 12 symphonies and numerous concerti as well as pieces for vocal ensembles. He has received many commissions and his works have been performed around the world. He is currently professor of composition and theory at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance.

IUW: Is the Passion a common topic in contemporary music?

Taylor: Not really. But the St. John and St. Matthew Passions are well known and former audiences would know the text well. Kyr’s work uses the gospel narrative of Jesus' suffering and death on the cross as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Soloists sing those roles as well as the roles of Mary, Mary Magdalene, Jesus and Pilate. The chorus sings the roles of a crowd, Daughters of Jerusalem, Women at the Cross, Soldiers, and Priests and Elders. Kyr also treats the orchestra as a character of its own, independent of the chorus. It’s all quite exciting to hear.

IUW: Can you give us an idea of what the music is like?

Taylor: Kyr’s sense of music comes from old traditions, so although it was written in 1995, it sounds at times both modern and ancient. He uses suspensions and long intertwining lines that have dissonances and resolutions. The Passion is a common subject in older music and Kyr uses old music styles and techniques to great success. It’s a modern look at ancient traditions. There is no need to shy away from this because it’s a contemporary work. The music is interesting and beautiful and something everyone can enjoy. There is nothing strange about it. It is accessible, tonal, engaging and filled with beauty and character — it’s just not that old.

IUW: Why did you select an unknown work instead of something more familiar?

Taylor: My selections are made from a mixture of what moves me (and what I think may move others), what works with our available instruments, and for educational reasons. Just as we cover Baroque and Romantic works, we need to cover modern things, too. The primary thing a university should do is to bring worthy works to the forefront. It’s important to encourage new things and explore new worlds in all corners of the musical universe, not just commercially big hits. This reflects the mission of the university.

Joining the Choral Union is the UW Chamber Orchestra. The soloists are UW-Madison music professors James Doing and Paul Rowe, and School of Music alumnae Anna Slate and Jennifer D'Agostino. The concerts will take place Saturday, April 27 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 28 at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building, 455 N. Park St. Tickets, $15/general public and $8/students and seniors, are available online and through the Box Office, 608-265-2787. Any remaining tickets will be sold at the door.

—Gwen Evans