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World premiere of Buddhist Oratorio


On April 22, the St. Olaf Orchestra, St. Olaf Choir and Chapel Choir were part of the global debut performance of “The Path” at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. 

The performance was composed by Justin Merritt and conducted by Steven Amundson. The group of St. Olaf students was accompanied by four opera singers: Tracey Engleman, Tammy Hensrud, Alan Dunbar and Sam Nelson. Sam Nelson, a seventh grader from Northfield Middle School, has been singing in operas at the Lakes Area Music Festival for five years. 

Composer Justin Merritt created a beautiful performance centered around Buddhist scriptures and core values. As a practicing Buddhist since 2005 he was able to successfully encompass many central ideas of Buddhism by taking words based on texts from the Pali Canon, the most ancient Buddhist scriptures. He also says that the music in The Path is meant to “sound like music traditionally associated with Buddhism.”

In the program, Merritt discussed how mindful he has been in understanding the meaning of all the words he used to avoid misrepresentation or cultural appropriation. He asserts that Buddha himself “taught that the Dhamma should be shared with people of all cultures and could be recited and taught in the local language.” 

The Path was especially unique in that it was the first ever Buddhist Oratorio Cantata. It was clear that Merritt did a great deal to be very respectful and faithful to the meanings of the sacred texts in order to share his faith with the world through music.  

“Composer Justin Merritt created a beautiful performance centered around Buddhist scriptures and core values.” – Anna Leikvold ’21

I interviewed Lauren Zimmermann ’21, a violinist in the St. Olaf Orchestra, about her experience with this performance. She said that they had been working on this piece in bits since Interim but really threw themselves into the music after the Orchestra’s Spring Concert. Zimmerman said putting it all together was difficult. The Orchestra only began rehearsing with the choirs a few weeks before the performance. However, in the end Zimmerman really learned to “trust the process,” as the performance ended up coming together beautifully. 

She also said that having the opportunity to perform in Orchestra hall was very special and how much the amazing acoustics helped tremendously. 

According to her, it was a relief to be able to “work with a composer who is alive” because the musicians could ask them questions and stay true to the intentions of the piece. 

Zimmerman was happy with how well all of their hard work turned out in the end as well as how fun it was to perform with Chapel and St. Olaf choir. 

Emma Chambers ’21, who attended the concert, said she really appreciated that St Olaf chose to do a Buddhist inspired performance and how important it is to incorporate different religions and cultures into our music here at St. Olaf.

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