‘The Jamie Raskin Oratorio’: Life of Maryland congressman interpreted in classical music piece

WTOP's Neal Augenstein reports on “The Jamie Raskin Oratorio,” which portrays the life of the Maryland congressman in a classical music piece.

Sometimes the written word isn’t enough — even if the story being told is a vivid, passionate, at times tragic, tale.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., listens as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

“The Jamie Raskin Oratorio” portrays the life of the Maryland congressman in a classical music piece.

Poetry by Anne Becker — Takoma Park’s former poet laureate — adapted from Raskin’s 2023 memoir is set to original music, in a work commissioned by Washington Musica Viva, a nonprofit group dedicated to the performance of classical, contemporary and jazz-based chamber music in intimate settings.

“The commission was pretty open-ended, using speeches or writings,” said Carl Banner, executive director of the group. “Music for Anne Becker’s Raskin Oratorio,” was written by the group’s composer-in-residence,  Noam Faingold.

With her poetry, adapted from Raskin’s writings, Becker describes her storytelling as a narrative. “I’m definitely not singing, but I really consider poetry as ‘word music,’ so there’s already a musical element to it.”

The 62-year-old Raskin — a constitutional law professor at American University for more than 25 years — was elected to the Maryland Senate in 2006, and the U.S. Congress in 2016. He is a progressive Democrat.

In a statement to WTOP, Raskin said: “This is completely astonishing and totally humbling. I know Anne Becker’s poetry and Washington Viva’s music will stand the test of time, but I’m just not sure about my speeches. My family is touched.”

Raskin’s memoir,  “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy,” which tells the story of the 45 days at the start of 2021 that “permanently changed his life — and his family’s — as he confronted the painful loss of his son to suicide, lived through the violent insurrection in our nation’s Capital, and led the impeachment effort to hold President Donald Trump accountable for inciting the political violence,” according to publisher HarperCollins.

Poet Becker found the source material gripping: “If it was simply political, I don’t think I would have been interested.”

However, Becker said the Dec. 31, 2020 death by suicide of Raskin’s only son, Tommy, “is really greatly intertwined with what happened in (Jamie Raskin’s) decisions in the months that followed.”

Added Becker, “He really felt his son’s suicide pushed him into trying even harder than he had been doing, to bring about a democracy that his son would have really responded to.”

Faingold’s accompanying music was written for piano and trumpet: “With those instruments, you have a kind of full emotional and color palette,” he said.

Banner plays the piano; Chris Royal accompanies on trumpet.

“For the most part, I try to stay out of the way of the poetry and let the speaking speak,” said Faingold, who asked Becker what emotions she was seeking to evoke with her words.

“I used that as a guide, to kind of activate and underline the emotions through the music,” said Faingold. “It’s kind of a call and response between those two elements.”

As she interprets Raskin’s words, Banner said, “There definitely is fear there. There’s also elation. There’s also some humor in it. And a deep concern.”

Banner said his words portray Raskin as “very friendly, and also extremely positive.”

“Even when things look bad, he can see a light at the end of the tunnel, and see ways that things can be made better,” said Banner. “Rather than hand-wringing and saying ‘What can we do?’ he usually can see a way forward and a next step.”

While describing the project as a tribute to “our hometown hero,” Banner believes the performance, Saturday, Sept. 7, at Episcopal Church of the Ascension, in Silver Spring will appeal to a wide audience.

“This is by no means a partisan project — this is fine art, fundamentally about human beings,” said Banner. “Yes, all art is political, in some sense, but not in a partisan way.”

Tickets are now on sale online.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The title of the musical composition has been corrected.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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