In classical music, there is a tradition of writing an elegy in honor of people who have held a meaningful place in culture or history. When revered poet and University of Tulsa Professor of English Yevgeny Yevtushenko passed away in 2017, TU alumnus Noam Faingold (BM ‘07) wrote “The Defiant Poet: Elegy in Memory of Yevgeny Yevtushenko” in his memory.
As a Tulsan, Faingold stresses the importance of embracing cultural aspects of the city that are often overlooked. “There is little attention paid to how art and artists have shaped history,” he said. Faingold hopes his orchestral piece amplifies how Tulsa fits into the overall worldwide historical narrative.
During his lifetime, Yevtushenko collaborated with Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Shostakovich set one of Yevtushenko’s most influential poems, “Babi Yar,” to music in his Symphony No. 13. “Babi Yar” is widely claimed to have reduced anti-Semitism in Russia and is quoted in such places as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Andrés Franco, music director of the Tulsa Signature Symphony, already understood Yevtushenko’s importance to the Tulsa community and was planning a concert featuring music by Shostakovich before Yevtushenko’s death. The concert was turned into a memorial event after his passing that same year and included the premiere of Faingold’s “The Defiant Poet.“
From Zima to Tulsa
Yevtushenko was born in Zima, USSR, and called Tulsa home for almost 30 years. In 1992, former TU President Robert Donaldson recruited Yevtushenko to teach for one semester. Yevtushenko remained an active member of the university’s teaching community for the next 25 years. “Donaldson understood how transformative it is to have people who are shaping history be members of campus. It is easy to lose sight of that when you’re living daily life next to that person,” Faingold said.
Chapman Professor of English Lars Engle taught with Yevtushenko for many years and remembers him as an icon of world popular culture from the late 1950s until his death. “He knew everybody — Picasso, the Beatles, Bobby Kennedy — and he told amazing stories. Yevtushenko exemplified, for his students and colleagues, the life of the artist with its freedom, entitlement, beauty and wildness. The world seems smaller without him in it,” Engle said.
Faingold composed “The Defiant Poet“ in order to spark conversations about the importance of art. “The arts are indispensable. Communities essentially rise and fall by how seriously they take the arts,” Faingold said. The piece is also, he noted, an attempt to capture Yevtushenko’s presence in a eulogy in sound.
The craft of composing
According to Faingold, composers have an obligation to keep a historical record of the events they experience and then some. In addition, he observes that certain aspects of life translate well into musical storytelling.
One of the most profound influences on Yevtushenko was the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. “When you have a person wielding the entire power of the state against you, orchestras represent that kind of intensity well,” Faingold said. In “The Defiant Poet,” Faingold attempted to symbolize this unequal relationship by having a single instrument play against an entire orchestra. The juxtaposition of overwhelming, crashing waves against a solitary, stoic individual is woven into Faingold’s musical storytelling to represent Yevtushenko’s political activism against a totalitarian regime.
Many composers spend decades developing their storytelling language. Faingold and others spend years listening to music, learning to deconstruct it and to understand how musical metaphors can communicate. “If you do your job right, the music indicates everything that needs to be said,” Faingold remarked.
Faingold evokes Shostakovich at the beginning of “The Defiant Poet,” which, he noted, is not his normal approach: “I wanted to have a small flavor of this other composer Yevtushenko worked with to act as a stamp in the sound for people to appreciate on a deeper level.”
The Yevtushenko family supports Faingold‘s work and was involved in the lifecycle of the piece. Zhenya, Yevtushenko’s son, has been especially engaged, including speaking at the record release party in February at Magic City Books. The event featured a public listening of the recording, a reading of “Babi Yar” by Zhenya and a conversation between him and Faingold on the arts and civic engagement.
Behind the art
“You don’t want to live in a community that doesn’t have a strong commitment to the arts. Art creates community attachment and has been proven to reduce crimes rates,” Faingold said. If Tulsa is serious about long–term improvement, Faingold maintains, art must be one of the primary pillars of civic support.
In his work as an an advocate for robust support for the arts, Faingold cites several studies on the impact of the arts on communities and the economy.
The Knight Foundation and Gallup Poll’s three–year “Soul of the Community” study asked 43,000 participants in 26 communities “What attaches people to the place where they live?” The respondents said that aesthetics and education correlated higher with community attachment than basic services, the economy, safety and nightlife (Knight Foundation, 2010). In 2015, arts and cultural production accounted for 4.2% of the United States’ GDP, which is more than tourism and agriculture combined (2.6%, and 1% respectively), construction (4.1%) and transportation/warehousing (3%) (Americans for the Arts, 2017). In 2018, The Oklahoma Policy Institute reported that access to fine arts in schools is vital for college preparation, “increasing tolerance and cultural awareness,” and may lead to increasing graduation rates for students of color (OK Policy Institute, 2018).
“The Defiant Poet: Elegy in Memory of Yevgeny Yevtushenko” is now available to listen to on Spotify, Apple Music, and similar platforms, and available for purchase on Amazon, Naxos, and similar retailers.