In November 2015, Cal State Long Beach's choir performed during the memorial vigil for one of the school's own students, Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in that year's Paris terrorist attacks. The next day, the choir was supposed to begin rehearsing holiday music. Instead, the conductor passed out a new piece of music that the choir rehearsed and recorded in memory of Gonzalez and as a plea for peace. The work was "Let My Love Be Heard," by 31-year-old composer Jake Runestad, and it took on new life with the Cal State recording, becoming a kind of anthem for people to express their grief after the Las Vegas massacre last October and again after Parkland in February.
Now the composer is coming to Oregon in a special collaborative event, bringing work that is less a political response to difficult times and more of an emotional one. “We need to work through these events and try to make some sense of them,” says David De Lyser, the director of Portland’s Choral Arts Ensemble, one of two local choirs who reached out to invite Runestad to our state. “And music has that ability to tap into emotions that we just can’t put words to. It speaks more directly right to our heart, to our emotions, and to our grief and provides an outlet.”
De Lyser's invitation came around the same time as one from Raymund Ocampo, the director of the Linn-Benton Chamber Choir. Runestad's response was to suggest a collaboration. "Jake is actually the one who put Raymond and myself in contact with the possibility of doing a collaborative concert," De Lyser says. "Raymond had a number of Jake's pieces that he was interested in doing. I had a number of pieces that I was interested in doing as well, and we essentially just divided up the repertoire."
The result is a single evening of Runestad's music, performed by two local choirs, and themed around "the hope of loving," after a piece by the composer that will also be featured in the concert.
The repertoire—which has Choral Arts Ensemble’s 40 members and the Linn-Benton Chamber Choir’s 26 members singing separate pieces and coming together for some of the works—includes pieces performed a cappella, with piano accompaniment, and with a string quartet.
Both directors stress the depth of emotion inherent in Runestad's work. Ocampo posits that his music “evokes the human experience” and that his students connect with Runestad’s music because of how honest he is on the page.
De Lyser adds: “Jake’s music is really good about getting to the heart of the message of the texts that he’s using.”
Runestad cribs material from naturalist John Muir, Walt Whitman, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Bible, mystic Daniel Ladinksy, and, believe it or not, Twitter. “If you look through all of these pieces, there’s this constant idea of finding hope and comfort in love or nature,” explains De Lyser.
Runestad also draws inspiration from folk, jazz, and artists ranging from Earth, Wind & Fire and the Beatles to Samuel Barber and Libby Larsen. Although the choirs still perform the classics—Bach and Handel—the directors agree there’s something intimate about experiencing the music conducted by the original composer who’s writing about today’s concerns.
“It’s really important to speak to authentic human emotions, so I’m not interested in fulfilling some mathematical equation with my music,” says Runestad. “I’m interested in speaking to what it’s like to be alive in this moment in our communities and society and speak to the beauty in our world, the pain in our world, to the joy in our world in a way that allows people to connect with it in their own lives. My hope is that they find personal meaning in the music, that it speaks to some element of their life and that it connects them with others. The idea of music and its ability to create community is really powerful.”
Between rehearsals and other engagements, Runestad looks forward to his first visit to Portland. “I love the natural world," he says. "I’m a big hiker, so I think that will be really fun to explore the beauty of the area. Also, I have a thing for doughnuts, and I’ve heard that Portland has great doughnuts, so that will be a highlight, too.”
7:30 p.m. Sat, Apr 21, Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Lewis & Clark College, $17–20