Honoring Justice Through Music

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra pays homage to Ruth Bader Ginsburg

By: Nancy Cohen Israel | 

For Ruth, anything. Count me in.”

This, said pianist Jeffrey Biegel, was Denyce Graves’s response to his invitation to perform in the World Premiere Tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The new work, marking the one-year anniversary of Justice Ginsburg’s death, headlines the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s October 7 concert. Biegel co-commissioned the work with the DSO and also serves as Tribute’s Project Coordinator.

It was a project that was already percolating, according to Kim Noltemy, the Ross Perot President and CEO of the DSO.

“I really wanted to be able to offer a musical tribute to RBG, and Jeffrey approached me when I was thinking about how we could do that,” Noltemy said. She met Ginsburg at the Tanglewood Music Festival. “It is widely known how much loved music, especially opera.”

Biegel notably commissions composers to create new music for a contemporary repertoire. For this project, he approached Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Biegel selected Zwilich on the merit of her work; for the DSO, Zwilich fit within their Women in Classical Music Strategic Initiative.

“One component of this initiative,” said Noltemy, “is that we are commissioning at least 10 new works by women composers over the next 10 years. I’m happy to have this piece as a part of that. Ellen has a long history of composing wonderful pieces, and I was thrilled RBG was a focus of this piece. We commissioned a terrific female composer honoring one of the female icons of our country.”

It is also the accessibility of Zwilich’s music, Biegel explained, that made her the ideal choice for this work.

“Ellen is very hip,” he said. “She writes and feels music in such a fresh and vibrant way. She creates a sonic landscape that people can relate to.”

With her iconic status, Ginsburg was similarly relatable.

“Her story is fabled in a way,” Biegel said. Zwilich’s music, he continued, provides echoes of this approachability. “It gives you a feeling that this lady is brilliant but cool,” he added, noting some passages are earthy while others are jazzy.

Given Ginsburg’s love of opera, it’s fitting Zwilich created a work including passages for a vocalist/narrator in addition to a pianist and small orchestral ensemble. Tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg includes texts written by Lauren K. Watel. These portions will be sung by Graves, who was Ginsburg’s favorite opera singer. Lidiya Yankovskaya will conduct the concert.

The libretto for the current work, Biegel said, “Tells a story of her life, but there is a double meaning to the text.”

Following Zwilich’s work, Biegel will debut his own composition, Reflection of Justice: An Ode to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for which Harrison Sheckler provided orchestration. This project has a personal dimension for Biegel: His father-in-law grew up with Ginsburg in Brooklyn. This small but poignant connection gave him the impetus to enshrine her legacy through music.

In many ways, working with the DSO is a dream come true for Biegel.

“Dallas has done a lot of wonderful projects with conductors in the past,” he said.

He’s crossed paths with Noltemy before, as well as with Peter Czornyj, the Wildenthal Families Vice President of Artistic Operations at the DSO. Biegel credited both for helping bring this project into fruition.

“Kim has a vision and she likes to embrace things that are relevant,” he said of Noltemy. Czornyj’s generosity, Biegel said, also provided invaluable support.

Biegel’s determination is driven in part to keep classical music vibrant.

“It’s about bringing something important to audiences now and for the future,” he said. “I love doing commissioned projects. I get to give something new to music.” And in so doing, audiences can continue to look towards a bright tomorrow for this timeless genre.

For more information on the concert CLICK HERE.

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