There’s a Yiddish German term, beschert, which means “it’s meant to be,” says pianist-composer Jeffrey Biegel over the phone September 18, 2021 — the one-year anniversary of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death.
Biegel has devoted the last 12 months to the development of two new musical works that pay homage to the late Supreme Court Justice, from the pieces’ conception to the collaborating, composing, commissioning, and — not least of all — fundraising necessary to bring them to life in only a year’s time.
Both will be presented by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at a special concert titled "Tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg" on Thursday, October 7, at the Meyerson Symphony Center.
The orchestra will world-premiere Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, featuring Grammy-winning mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, and Biegel on piano; followed by Biegel’s own Reflection of Justice: An Ode to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Lidiya Yankovskya conducts.
Though Biegel doesn’t necessarily think he was “divinely destined” to drive the projects — a literal interpretation of beschert — a spiritual connection did plant the seed.
“She attended the same synagogue in Brooklyn as my wife’s family did,” says Biegel, 60, a piano professor at Brooklyn Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College in New York.
His father-in-law went to high school with Ginsburg, as well, and often talked about her “pre-Justice” years.
“When she passed, everybody just felt this emptiness and also a sense of wonderment: What will come as a result of her legacy and what will come as a result of her absence?” says Biegel. “And certainly I can’t speak for her absence on a governmental level, but as a person representing values, I felt that it might be interesting to preserve her legacy through music.”
Though Biegel never met Ginsburg in person, he thought of The Lincoln Portrait, which composer Aaron Copland wrote for narrator and orchestra.
“And in October of 2020, I thought, well wouldn’t it be interesting to have a piece of music created to do the same thing for Justice Ginsburg, perhaps the first female historic figure this would be done for?”
Assembling the team
He approached Zwilich, a friend and collaborator for 20 years — and, appropriately, a female composer.
“I told her about the project, and she said, ‘I have goosebumps. If I don’t get goosebumps, I say no. If I have goosebumps, I’m saying yes.’”
She agreed to compose the work, evolving it into a “mini opera,” and brought in librettist Lauren Watel to write for a female vocalist.
Next he discussed the project with Ginsburg’s son Jim, who owns a classical music record company in Chicago.
“I reached out to him because I felt it was the respectful thing to do, to get the family's blessing for a project like this,” he says. “I also asked him to suggest somebody to be the vocalist. He said go to Denyce Graves.”
Graves was not only a close friend of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s, but her favorite opera singer; she had just sung at her memorial. Within one day, Graves responded to Biegel’s email: “‘I’m on board. Anything for Ruth.”
With the creative team assembled, Biegel had to do two things: raise money to pay the composer and others involved, and find an orchestra to premiere it. “And that’s not easy, no less during a pandemic,” he says.
Using social media and decades’ worth of connections, he cast a wide net.
Red-state Texas might seem an odd place to debut music honoring a liberal icon. But Dallas Symphony Orchestra president Kim Noltemy (whom Biegel knew in her pre-Dallas days at the Boston Pops) expressed interest. She agreed the DSO would co-commission the project, and by February 2021, he was able to fill in other funding from the likes of the Norma and Don Stone New Music Fund, the Billy Rose Foundation, and the American Composers Forum.
“And here we are with this wonderful piece,” he says.
On the side, Biegel had been composing his own ode to Ginsburg to stoke his creative fires during the dark days of COVID shutdowns. Written as a solo piano work, the piece was orchestrated by Brooklyn College student Harrison Sheckler in time for the DSO concert. It eventually will be part of a larger work that will include tributes to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., Biegel says.
As Ginsburg was well-known as a lover of opera, the DSO also has programmed selections from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, two of her favorites.
Driven by passion and principle
Biegel says there have been two driving influences behind the Ginsburg works, neither of them political. The first is Ginsburg’s famous love of music.
“It’s interesting to make music out of history,” he says. “In a way, it’s our way of giving back to her love of music by creating music for her.”
As Ginsburg herself was a “down to earth” person, the music is “earthy” and highly listenable, he says. The libretto won’t champion one side or another; it will incorporate metaphors — a favorite technique the Justice used in her own writings — about, for example, “not keeping people on pedestals but about taking them down,” he says.
For Biegel’s composition, he created a “musical alphabet” of scale tones based on the letters “RBG” and the names “Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” The result is a “highly songful” reflection that even incorporates bars of "The Star Spangled Banner" in one place.
The second driving force behind the projects has been the principle of respect. Biegel says that, for the last year, he has been guided by one of Ginsburg’s famous quotes: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
His passion for the projects has helped him advocate for funding and work hard toward a purpose that’s bigger than himself — but to do so in a way that leads others to join him on the journey.
“Respect is the most important thing around, no matter what you believe in,” Biegel says. “The bottom line is to use Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and legacy as a role model for — not so much for what she stood for — but the fact that what she stood for was respected. And what other people stood for, she respected. And she fought for the things that she cared about. And she led others to join with her.”
Dallas Symphony Orchestra presents "Tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg" at 7:30 pm on October 7 at the Meyerson Symphony Center. Tickets: $29-$105 at dallassymphony.org.