Alumni Profile: In His Own Words

July 14, 2016

Robert Bennesh


(M.M. ‘14, A.D. ‘15)

After graduating (for the last time)  from the ISM last May, I assumed the position as Director of Music at the Church of Sweden in Skanör-Falsterbo in September of 2015. These two old Swedish towns—Skanör and Falsterbo—have grown together over the years and are located on the southwestern tip of the Scandinavian Peninsula, a place often called the “Scandinavian Riviera.” In my new position, I was very interested the possibility of developing a unique music program centered around the town’s two medieval churches. With the encouragement of our active parish members, we have expanded the Sunday liturgy, re-introduced a broad the choral program, founded a bi-weekly concert series, and planned for the restoration of a small 18th century organ and the addition of a new concert organ for one of our churches.

I also met with the mayor to discuss how our parish and the town could work together to develop the music and the art scene in Skanör-Falsterbo. A vision soon emerged to introduce a festival of some sort, and after months of filling out grant applications and working with donors we were able to raise about $80,000 in funding. Through partnerships with the local and provincial governments as well as other parishes, the diocese, companies and individuals, and the provincial office for tourism, we’ve created an event that will add to the regional arts and music scene of Sweden. Inspired by my study at the Institute of Sacred Music, I proposed the idea of an interdisciplinary arts festival featuring all the related arts. We decided to call it the “Festival of Sacred Arts”.

The idea behind the Festival of Sacred Arts is to inspire the visitor to seek for the sacred in different art forms, in conjunction with each other, and in relation to nature. While what one determines as sacred is a highly personal matter, we hope this will be the starting point for further conversation. Swedish society is highly secularized, but by initiating this festival we hope to once again become the church in the middle of the town, an active participant in community discussion. During these days we invite the audience to experience music, art, drama, poetry, and nature. At the heart of the festival are thirteen concerts, but we will also present an ambitious lecture series, other performances, short films, and art exhibitions.

In creating the Festival of Sacred Arts, I am especially proud to present friends and colleagues from the Yale community to a Swedish audience. ISM faculty member Mark Miller will perform and lead workshops along with his band “Subject to Change”. Recent graduates from the Yale School of Music will also be performing—ISM alumna Molly Netter (M.M. ‘14), Sam Suggs, Doug Perry and Jonathan Allan—as well as friends from Julliard I met through the ISM’s collaborations with Juilliard415. These talented musicians will comprise the core attractions of the festival.  

The interdisciplinary environment of the ISM helped cultivate my imagination to do what I’m doing today. In widening the ways I think about music, worship, arts, and culture, I learned to see a multitude of connections I can make use of in my daily life as a parish music director. When talking about my objectives for our music program I find it easier to gain support from my colleagues when referencing other forms of expression, oftentimes using liturgy as the connecting point.  While at the ISM, I was the organ scholar of Christ Church Episcopal, where I had the benefit of being an important integrated player in the making of liturgy. At Yale, I had the privilege to get both academic and very practical training and experience; what I learned there has become a great asset in my current position.

Most of all, though, the festival I’m now planning is a direct result of the deep impression the Institute, its faculty, and students have left upon me. I see our Festival of Sacred Arts as a manifestation of the creativity represented in churches all over the world. By helping the wider community find connections between art and the sacred, we hope to create an understanding of the depth the life of the church contains. I encountered this depth for myself at the ISM, when exchanging ideas with my colleagues and learning more about their expertise in various areas of worship and the arts.  For instance, Prof. Thomas Murray helped me find my own voice in my organ playing, marrying the spontaneous approach I had when I first came with a more calm, thoughtful way of creating music. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the ISM.

Our deep hope is to make the festival a yearly reoccurring event. In building upon a strong connection with Yale University and the ISM, we want to provide a stage for graduates in Scandinavia and create a showcase for interdisciplinary collaboration. The inaugural Festival of Sacred Arts will be held this August 11-14, 2016. Please visit our webpage or “like” us on Facebook for more information and to get our latest updates.