"This is probably the biggest thing of my life, other than my marriage," says Stephen Dankner, pushing his hands deeper into the pockets of his gray fleece jacket as he walks into a weeknight rehearsal of the Loyola University Chorale and the New Orleans Symphony Chorus. Moments later, he disappears to the front of the rehearsal room, a blur of page-turning and piano-playing only occasionally visible over the bowed heads of the assembled singers. Perched on the piano bench, the composer-turned-accompanist listens intently to the run-through of Symphony No. 5, subtitled "Odyssey of Faith" -- a work he calls his "magnum opus."
The piece is so big, Dankner explains, because it's so personal. The three-part symphony-oratorio is his musical meditation on the subject of faith, representing not only his own circuitous, Jewish journey but also -- hopefully -- a shared religious experience. "You know, I'm not a kid anymore," he says the next day, sitting in his sunny second-floor office in the music building of NOCCA/Riverfront. "What's it all about? Is this all there is? What are the most important things? I think I've been looking for this, even outside of a kind of a quest for a return to a Judaism that I had lost. Even more important was a return to a compass, a moral compass that I feel we all need."
The sections of the resulting symphony-oratorio are titled "Genesis of Faith," "Loss of the Sacred Spirit (Abandonment)" and "Redemption" -- each a kind of dialogue between two choruses, quoting portions of the books known in the Christian tradition as Genesis, Numbers, Psalms and Ezekiel in addition to Holocaust poetry and Jewish prayers and benedictions. Musically, Dankner calls the symphony a hybrid work, a combination of every composing tool, technique and style in his considerable repertoire -- from the syncopated rhythms of Ezekiel's dry bones to the contrapuntal setting of the key Jewish prayer the "Sh'ma Yisrael," designed to create the sense of "individualized voices coming together -- everyone saying it in their own way, in their own time.
"The words themselves are so powerful, they evoke such imagery, that it would be untrue to the nature of the text not to have as broad a musical palette as I possibly could," he says. "This is a Guernica for me. This is a panorama."
It is also a life's journey.
Dankner grew up in the New York area in a conservative Jewish household, attending Hebrew school and preparing for his bar mitzvah. After that, he says, "I let it lapse for many years. I always felt that down deep I was Jewish, but it was more a cultural Judaism as opposed to what the Orthodox call a Torah Jew."
Several years ago, he began his reconnection effort in earnest by attending High Holy Day services, a period of time also known as Days of Awe. "It seemed to me, as I was reading those wonderful texts and participating in the service, that there was something that was left out for me: the awe part," he recalls. "I felt that there was something there in those words that just needed a musical expression. So much of the Old Testament is built on basically a love of God and a fear of God, and I wanted to get those two aspects, the simultaneous contradictory aspects.
"Not that I'm in love with fear so much," he adds, "but I wanted the power of those words to be heard in the music that I would write."
Writing a symphony religious in theme was not a first for Dankner, who also teaches at Loyola University and has more than 60 works to his credit. In addition to smaller, biblically inspired works, his third symphony is a musical evocation of the Song of Solomon, and his fourth, which premiered last year and won a 2003 Tribute to the Classical Arts award for Best New Classical Composition, is a setting of Psalm 131. But for "Odyssey of Faith," Dankner wanted a different kind of text and turned to Rabbi David Goldstein of Touro Synagogue, whom he met quite coincidentally through Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra music director Klauspeter Seibel.
"I came to him eventually with an idea that was very pretentious on the surface," Dankner says with a chuckle. "I wanted to write a piece that was the summation of Judaism. I already had in my mind that it would be a three-part form. I wanted to use Holocaust poetry as a central aspect of it, but I also wanted some liturgical guidance. I wanted to encapsulate the essence of the religious faith." Goldstein and Dankner settled on a handful of central texts, with the rabbi transliterating the Hebrew that the composer required for one of the choruses.
What the composer has crafted hints at an essence not bound by the particulars of any one organized religion. "I look upon the whole story as I presented it actually as a drama that is laden with tragedy, tragedy not just for Jews but for humanity," he says. "We're given the law, but we're given free will. We're aimless, and we're without blessing. And then we come back to a sense of it again. It's not really the same as it was because the bearded image of God is now long ago and far away. We have to create it within ourselves; the end is a benediction to create it within ourselves -- but ending with a question mark because we don't know if we can sustain it. There's a minor chord at the end because it never seems possible to know for sure that it's going to happen."
What does happen, Dankner says, is everyday life. "I have days where I'm in love with everybody," he says, "and then some guy gives me the finger on I-10, and I lose it just like that. I can't sustain it. My music is better than I am because my music does. And it also voices my own doubt, my own frustration, my own fear, as well as my own love and my own sense of the importance of maintaining a connection with religion -- but also acknowledging the fact that it can never last. You have to recreate it."
With so much religious philosophy infusing his work, Dankner is careful to reaffirm his status as artist. "I'm not trying to burden my music with all kinds of extra-musical things -- don't get me wrong -- but it is about something," he says. "I'm not trying to be a priest or a rabbi. It's a matter of how I look at this heritage and this literature and what it means to me, what it represents artistically. What can I do with it?"
Dankner has already completed his sixth and seventh symphonies. The sixth is a youth orchestra symphony and was nominated for a 2004 Tribute to the Classical Arts award, but the seventh returns to a religious theme one more time, mining the mystical aspects of Judaism as represented in the Kabbalah. "And that to me is the last of my attempts to reconcile all of these issues," he says. "I would welcome a kind of a dialogue to hear what people think about the issues that I've raised. I'm not saying that I need to have total agreement -- or any agreement. But at the end of the day, I am a composer first and foremost, and it's my hope that the music is the dominant voice in the message that I'm putting across."
- Terry Deroche
- For his latest symphonic effort, composer Steven Dankner (center) enlisted the assistance of Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra music director Klauspeter Seibel and Rabbi David Goldstein of Touro Synagogue.