Composer Dr. Jason Bahr.

“I wanted to write a work
that reminded people
just how terrible war is,
and to connect them to war.”

Dr. Jason Bahr describes
Symphony No 2, as a
reflection on the Iraq War.

Conductor Jeffrey Faux.

Conductor Jeff Faux explains,
“A composer writes something
and there it is, but it’s subject to
the interpretation, or inspiration,
or experiences of the person
who then is responsible for
presenting it to an audience.

I Hear a Symphony

by Cindy-jo Dietz

I MET WITH COMPSER Dr. Jason Bahr and Fort Myers Symphonic Mastersingers’ conductor, Jeffrey Faux at Jason’s home. After a few cocktails, we discussed Bahr’s new Symphony No. 2, New Dawn.

So, who are the Mastersingers? Jeff explains they consist of members of a community chorus, volunteer singers working with a professional core group of musicians. They specialize in performing major master works, symphonic music, requiems, anything sung with a large orchestra. The group performs two to three major works a year, plus working on smaller projects. With a focus on the Southwest Florida area, you can catch performances mostly in Fort Myers and often at Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall.

Bahr and Jeffery met when Jason decided to sign up for the Fort Myers Symphonic Mastersingers shortly after moving to his current home. He had first heard of the Mastersingers through a music teacher’s meeting at Gulf Coast University, where he is currently a professor. “I always just kind of kept it in my head. After I moved to this house, which was close to the rehearsal site, I thought I would go. They were performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony my first rehearsal.” He continues, “Jeff is a great conductor. I think he handles the people and the music very well. This is my fourth or fifth year working with the Mastersingers. I am the bass section leader and I also sing in the chamber choir. Symphony No. 2 will be the fourth work that the Mastersingers have performed of mine.”

Symphony No. 2 began its inception prior to Dr. Bahr moving to Florida. He says he started working on it during his summers, and last year Jeffery Faux encouraged him to complete the work. Dr. Bahr describes Symphony No 2, as a reflection on the Iraq War.

“When President Bush made the decision to take us into war, we weren’t asked to be on a war footing as a country. If you were a soldier or the loved one of a soldier, you had a tangible connection to the Iraq War, but if you weren’t, you were asked to go shopping. You weren’t asked to sacrifice, buy war bonds, give up steel or rubber, contribute more in taxes, or anything. At the same time, thousands of innocent people were suffering. I was angered by the disconnection between what was actually happening and what Americans were experiencing in their everyday lives. I wanted to write a work that reminded people just how terrible war is, and to connect them to war.”

Symphony No. 2 includes poetry from Walt Whitman and Wilfred Owen. I asked Jason what drew him to use their work. “I’ve been a fan of Whitman’s for a long time; not just his war poetry, but his whole body of work. As Americans, we are very fortunate to have Walt Whitman in our culture; he’s an unbelievable genius and a great communicator across generations, in terms of real basic life experiences. Being familiar with his poetry, I sought out works that would communicate what I wanted in regards to the Iraq War. I threw in the Wildfred Owen poem Dulce et Decorum est, because I couldn’t find in Whitman something as graphic as I wanted. The Owen poem described in great detail a soldier from World War I who was hit with mustard gas and died a horrible death in front of his comrades. Owen’s point is, ‘In war you are encouraged to serve your country. Of course serving your country is good, but it’s not sweet and glorious, it’s awful and wretched, and you suffer a lot.’ I wanted to include that sentiment in my piece.

In the final movement, I wanted there to be some sense of optimism and hope, and Whitman delivers this with his poem called The Mystic Trumpeter. To Walt Whitman purists, this might be offensive, but I kind of chop it up and have taken little bits of it to kind of give it a sense of poem.”

Jeff Faux clearly agrees. “I love the Owen poem. It starts out with the Latin phrase, ‘Dulce et Decorum est,‘ which means ‘How Sweet it is to Die in the Service of Your Country.’ It was a mantra of sorts in World War I, particularly in England, as a kind of rallying cry. This is an honorable thing to do, to die for your country. Owen starts there, with what would be an agreed on patriotic line, then juxtaposes it with the reality of war, very graphic. I’ve been in love with that poem for that reason, for a long time.” He continues, “I’ve just recently gotten the music for that particular movement, and it’s stunning, it paints a picture in a way, musically, that matches. Sometimes in a compositional work the music is better than the poetry, or the poetry is better than the music, and sometimes they both compliment and enrich each other. I think that’s what you’ll hear. It’s powerful.”

Dr. Bahr and Jeff Faux clearly work well together, but even though they compliment each other, there had to be challenges bringing Symphony No. 2 to a live audience. I asked Jason to describe the process. “Writing a forty-plus minute work for orchestra — it’s tough. It takes a very long time. It takes training, knowledge of how the instruments work in the orchestra, how they act individually, and how they work together. I wanted to balance knowing what our choir could do, and in the time we have to rehearse it. We have an amazing soprano, who looked at this really difficult piece and didn’t flinch, which was great, and we’re bringing in a tenor from New York. A lot of our players are from the Naples Philharmonic, top shelf folks who can really read this music. I’m spoiled. I didn’t have to put too many limitations on my creativity.”

Jeff Faux also had his share of challenges. “As a conductor with a new piece, I didn’t get to pull something off the shelf and get to know it here and there, or get someone else’s take on it, or even read people’s research about it, or anything. It comes at you as it is. You know? So, it’s been a different process for me. Working through it and getting to know it. The plus side of course is, when I have a question I can talk to the composer. I knock on Beethoven’s grave and he has yet to answer (laughs). We collaborate, so that’s exciting.” He adds, “Beyond that is the fact that Jason is in the choir. He’s one of the singers. So, he’s there. We’ll chat every once in a while after rehearsal and bounce ideas off of each other. For me, a composer writes something and there it is, but it’s subject to the interpretation, or inspiration, or experiences of the person who then is responsible for presenting it to an audience. That may not always be the same. I may see things that Jason may not have even thought of. My responsibility is to make Symphony No. 2 something that will appeal to an audience in a live situation, more so than the composer does.”

As a young composer, 20 years ago or more, Dr. Bahr would write a piece and think ‘Well, if they just played it the way I wrote it, it would be what I imagined” (laughing). He gained great experience when he got to hear pieces performed multiple times by different groups or different individuals, bringing a different perspective to the music each time. As a member of the Mastersingers, Dr. Bahr says he has to look at his role as a performer, which is different from approaching it as a composer. “Here, as a member of the choir, of course I know the music, but I am marking my score, occasionally making errors. I have to practice,” adding, “As a composer, I think more holistically. This will work, this fits the choir, this is what room there is for the part, something like that. As a performer, I see things on a much smaller level. How am I going to get my note from here to there? I have to mark that’s a whole step and stuff like that. So far, there isn’t anything that I’ve encountered, at least with this piece, where I performed and I wished I had done something differently, but I certainly have to pay attention to things on a smaller level as a performer.”

Faux explains that for the coming year the Mastersingers have decided to theme their performances around the concept of looking forward in the music world, versus looking backward. “When you talk about a group like ours, that performs master works, we’re performing pieces that have stood the test of time. That’s the definition of a master work. So therefore, by definition, you’re looking back to the past. You are performing work by Haydn, Beethoven and Mahler, so to then commit to a major project of a living composer? The reality is in today’s world people in our culture like to look back when it comes to classical music, but we think it’s worth looking forward. So we called our whole season ‘The Future of Music.‘ Symphony No. 2, by Dr. Bahr is part of it, as is The City of Palms Youth Choir, who will also be participating in this performance.

The City of Palms Youth Choir is an auditioned group consisting of middle school and high school age children. Jeff says they were specifically looking for kids that would describe themselves as choir jocks. “You got football jocks, and whatever. We want the choir jocks. The ones that love music so much, they are going to be the future me, and the future Jason, and the future Mastersinger singer, and at the least the future art music consumer.” He continues, “The kids are amazing and Matt Koller, the Choir Director, is very gifted with this age group.” Matt doubles as the Associate Director of the Mastersingers, but spends his time every week working with the youth choir rehearsals. “He’s gotten a great sound out of them, quickly, it’s phenomenal. There are a lot of high school choirs that would love to sound like this. It’s pretty impressive,” says Jeff.

Jason continues, “My piece is in five movements. The first four are pretty gruesome. They’re somber and angry, they depict war, but in the fifth movement we turn to something that’s more positive and optimistic about the future. The kids sing that first. “I hear the trumpeter… Give me some vision of the future.” That is the future of music! They’re announcing that future. Hoping for a time when we can get beyond war. I think it is very appropriate.”

So, what are Jeff and Jason hoping the audience comes away with after hearing Symphony No. 2? Jason says he first wants the audience to become more aware of the damage that war causes. “It’s not a statistic, or a two minute news story. There are plenty of disabled veterans that can explain their experiences, but we don’t have stories from the average person who was affected, the farmer or the shop owner who’s store was bombed. I want people to be aware these are real people who were harmed. I want people to then, with that, feel the inspiration to take action. he says. “I also want them to come away, on a much more superficial level, with a meaningful artistic experience. That would be really satisfying for me.”

Jeff adds, “The audience should come away knowing the difference between art and entertainment. Art challenges, moves and inspires. It gets you from point A to point B, whatever that is. As opposed to entertainment, where you can sit comfortably at point A, and be done at point A. Art should have an influence on you. I think this piece is capable of doing that. Its point of view is rich and worth hearing. Jason has already accomplished this in his writing, and with our performance I think that will happen. My hope is the audience walks away realizing a brand new piece of music doesn’t have to be frightening. The message is challenging and weaves itself throughout the piece, there are moments of sheer beauty that are appropriate. If people can be moved in a direction, feel comfortable in that experience, and it was done through a brand new piece of music, I think that would be exciting.” •

Jason Bahr’s Symphony No. 2 will be performed by the Fort Myers Symphonic Mastersingers, April 2 at the First Presbyterian Church of Bonita Springs and April 8 at the First Christian Church of Fort Myers. For information, call 288-2535.

March-April 2017