Heavy-handed presentation undermines Cincinnati Symphony revival of Dett’s “Moses”
James Conlon led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, May Festival Chorus, and an appreciative audience in a rousing encore of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus from The Messiah to close its “Spring for Music” performance Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Yet it was another refrain of “Hallelujah” that loomed larger over the evening.
In 1937 the Cincinnati Symphony premiered R. Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio, The Ordering of Moses at a May Festival concert, which was broadcast live on NBC radio. About 45 minutes into the African-American composer’s hour-long work, the choristers intone “Hallelujah” in response to the drowning of the Pharaoh’s armies. Then NBC cut the broadcast for reasons that remain unknown today.
The Ordering of Moses, a landmark work by an African-American composer, was on the program again Friday night, and the performance played out much as it had on the airwaves decades ago. Conlon stopped the orchestra at the very point when the broadcast ended, and the actual taped interruption from 1937 played over the house speakers: “We are sorry indeed, ladies and gentleman, but due to previous commitments, we are unable to remain for the closing moments of this excellent performance.”
Unlike 74 years earlier, Friday’s listeners, both in the house and those tuning in on WQXR, heard the oratorio through to its exultant finish. However, it’s curious that in Conlon’s attempt to remedy an injustice—the program notes maintain that the broadcast was halted due to complaints regarding the composer’s race rather than a scheduling snafu—the conductor engaged in such a jarring and gimmicky interruption himself.
It’s unfortunate that Dett’s work could not be appreciated on its own merits and had to be couched in a such a heavy-handed bit of politically correct rehabilitation—which also included the cringe-inducing introduction from the original broadcast, calling The Ordering of Moses, “the most important musical contribution by a member of the Negro race.”
The tacky and ill-considered presentation apart, Dett’s extraordinary and engaging work tells the familiar story from Exodus through a kaleidoscopic range influences: spirituals such as “Go Down Moses,” reworked into a fugue; the lush romanticism of Dvorak; a seguidilla-like dance complete with castanets; and jazzy inflections throughout. The call and response between the chorus and the four soloists is as indebted to Handel as it is to black churches.
The Cincinnati Symphony and soloists gave a fine account of this work. Rodrick Dixon brought a clarion tenor to Moses, the soprano Latonia Moore rang over above the formidable May Festival Chorus as Miriam, and both Donnie Ray Albert and Ronnita Nicole Miller as the voice of Israel sang well. Principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn played sensitively in several solo passages.
The program was an especially fine showcase for the strengths of the May Festival Chorus and its 150 members who brought intense precision to both The Ordering of Moses and the opening work, John Adams’s Harmonium.
Written in 1980, Adams’s shimmering piece unfolds from a single tone to create variety of undulating textures, set to a John Donne poem and a pair by Emily Dickinson. Conlon wove an ethereal quality from the chorus and orchestra through the three movements exploring, in order, the power of love, a dirge-like meditation on death, and ecstatic lust.
One of the most rewarding elements of “Spring for Music,” now in its final year, is engaging with strong musical traditions from around the continent, such as Cincinnati’s pride in its choral tradition. Exhibited throughout the program, this proved particularly impressive in the encore as Conlon turned toward the house to direct Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, a tradition which annually ends the May Festival. The soloists, chorus, and audience all followed in perfect four-part harmony.
Amanda Angel is a New York-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Time Out New York, WQXR, Glamour, O Magazine, Nylon, NYTimes.com, and the Chicago Tribune.