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Professor's long-awaited oratorio released

March 26, 2009

Feb. 7, 2008, around 7:15 p.m.: The Phoenix Symphony prepares to make its first live recording since 1994.

Before the first downbeat, Phoenix Symphony president Maryellen H. Gleason gives the audience its instructions: No applause between movements. Put your programs on the floor so there will be no rustling of paper. If you need cough drops, go to the lobby NOW to stock up. In other words, be quiet.

After the orchestra performed Ferde Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” and an intermission, it was the moment ASU associate professor of English Laura Tohe had long waited for: The world premiere of her oratorio, “Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio.”

The audience was quiet, and the recording was made. Now, it’s finally ready.

On March 31, the Phoenix Symphony is releasing “Enemy Slayer” on the Naxos label under catalogue number 8559604. The CD will be on sale at major retailers and at the Phoenix Symphony Gift Shop during performances at Symphony Hall. It is priced at $8.99. (The orchestra also recorded “Grand Canyon Suite,” for possible future release.)

The Phoenix Symphony commissioned the work in celebration of its 60th anniversary during the 2007-08 Season. Tohe wrote the lyrics – her first oratorio – while Mark Grey wrote the music. As a backdrop to the premiere performance, the orchestra displayed the digital artwork of photographer Deborah O’Grady.

Baritone Scott Hendricks sang the role of the Seeker, while the 120-voice Phoenix Symphony Chorus sang the part of the Navajo elders. Part of the libretto is in Navajo, and part in English.

Tohe said last year in an interview before the premiere performance that Seeker is a war veteran, perhaps from the Iraqi war, who comes back from battle with a feeling a pride at having served his country.

"But the violence of war comes back to him as a dream," Tohe said, "then the dreams start invading his life. He descends into a dark place, and has thoughts about self-destruction. At the same time, the ancestors are calling him back.

"The story implies that words have power, that they can be dangerous," Tohe said.

"As Seeker descends to the darkest part, there's a moment when the voices of the ancestors break through. They offer him a lifeline and lift him out. He comes back into wholeness and to living a more balanced life -- hózhô" (translated as "peace and spiritual harmony").
Tohe, who is Diné (Navajo), was born in Fort Defiance, Ariz., and is Tsénáhábiãnii (Sleepy Rock People clan) and born for the Tódich’inii (Bitter Water clan).

Days before the CD’s release, Tohe said she had heard the recording but had not seen the actual disc. She said, “I'm so looking forward to holding it in my hand. I do love it!”

For more information about “Enemy Slayer,” go to