Haiti story of ELCA’s Ben Larson inspires choral, orchestra composition

Posted on

May 6, 2011

CHICAGO (ELCA) — The story of Ben Splichal Larson, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) seminary student who died in the Haiti earthquake, inspired "Peace Ascends," a new choral and orchestra composition to be premiered May 8 in New York City.

 Ben sang "God's peace to us we pray" from under the rubble in his final moments after the earthquake hit, reported his wife, the Rev. Renee Splichal Larson, who was with him in Haiti. That story moved Dr. Stephen P. Johnson of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary School of Church Music, Fort Worth, Texas, who created the composition in response.
     A 125-voice choir and orchestra from the seminary will perform "Peace Ascends" at the Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.
     "Since I began this project, I've heard story after story about when Christians come to the end of their lives and how remarkable it is to see the hope they have in those moments," he said. "The hope we have in Christ is almost tangible. I'm glad that we could have a piece to focus on the idea from a Christian perspective. (I wanted it to be) … a message full of hope."
     Renee, now serving at Heart River Lutheran Church, Mandan, N.D., and Ben's parents, the Rev. April Ulring Larson and the Rev. Judd W. Larson, Duluth, Minn., were invited to hear a preview performance of "Peace Ascends" at the seminary a few weeks ago.
     "I was very honored that such a piece of music was inspired by Ben's witness," Renee said. "It felt very spirit-led to me, especially how the composer thought about a Christian response to tragedy and suffering. Theologically, it was right on."
     The composition reminded her of the response of displaced Haitians immediately after the earthquake. "Everyone was crying out to Jesus. Singing arose in the midst of chaos," she said.
     Peace is a subject that Renee said she has thought a lot about since her earthquake experience. "In the midst of what seems to be chaos, there is and can be the peace of God, which grounds us in who God has created us to be," she said.   
     April Larson, former bishop of the ELCA La Crosse (Wis.) Area Synod, said she was "profoundly moved" by the performance. "It is a beautiful piece, an amazing composition. The text was great, the musicality was amazing. He (Johnson) articulated a Christian response to tragedy. It was humbling for me."
     "Peace Ascends" was written over a nine-month period, Johnson said. Bringing the Larsons to Fort Worth for the preview performance was significant for the seminary.
     "We've had such a great connection through all of this," he said. "It was my hope that we could honor the family in such a special moment."
     The composition is written in three movements, explained Johnson, who is dean and associate professor of theory and composition at the seminary. "The first movement, Agnus Dei, focuses on crying out to God and looking to Christ when tragedy strikes," he said.  The second, "Where Charity and Love," is specifically dedicated to Ben's memory, he said. 
     "Illumination," the final movement, begins with the biblical text from 2 Peter 3:10: "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief." The text, Johnson said, is a celestial picture that emphasizes the hope of heaven.
     Ben died in a building collapse in the Haiti earthquake in January 2010. Larson, his wife, Renee, and cousin, Jonathan Larson, were students at the ELCA's Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, and were teaching in Haiti when the earthquake struck. Ben's body was later recovered, and he was buried in Decorah, Iowa.
     Johnson said he heard the story of Ben's singing from under the rubble from Ann Hafften, an ELCA member who sings in of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary choirs.