Peace and freedom reign in two premieres by Oratorio Society of New York

Tue May 08, 2018 at 2:33 pm
The Oratorio Society of New York presented the world premiere of Paul Moravec's "Freedom Road" Monday night at Carnegie Hall. Pictyured (L to r) are condcyior Kent Tritle, librettist Mark Campbell, comspoer Paul MOravec, and two sops xxxx Photo: Eduardo Patino

The Oratorio Society of New York presented the world premiere of Paul Moravec’s “Sanctuary Road” Monday night at Carnegie Hall. Pictured (l to r) are conductor Kent Tritle, librettist Mark Campbell, composer Paul Moravec, soprano Laquita Mitchell and mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis. Photo: Eduardo Patino

There can never be too many pieces celebrating peace, human rights, and freedom, and two fine new ones were added to the repertoire Monday night at Carnegie Hall by the Oratorio Society of New York.

The Society’s music director Kent Tritle led the chorus, soloists and orchestra in the world premieres of We Are One by Behzad Ranjbaran and Sanctuary Road by composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell–two pieces whose eminent singability, colorful scoring, and uplifting messages would seem to guarantee future success.

Conciseness is also among the pieces’ virtues. Composing with the eye for detail of a Persian miniaturist, Ranjbaran brought in his choral setting of five classic texts on peace from North America and the Middle East at just over 20 minutes. The oratorio by Moravec and Campbell—the two received equal billing on the program’s title page—took well short of an hour to lay out its rich assortment of personal histories, anecdotes and other texts from the antislavery Underground Railroad of the 1850s.

Ranjbaran’s piece, though premiered here on Monday, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his death. The Moravec/Campbell work was an Oratorio Society commission, supported by former Society chorister Joanne Spellun in honor of longtime music director Tritle.

The opening movement of the Tehran-born Ranjbaran’s We Are One set a brief, benign quotation from the 19th-century Mexican president Benito Juárez to somewhat incongruously furious music, but there was no denying the excitement of the orchestra rushing this way and that while the chorus of over 200 emitted a Carmina Burana-style wall of sound.

A setting of the Persian poet Sa’di brought a more perfumed atmosphere, exhaled by woodwind solos and tinkling percussion, in which the chorus intoned a Persian-inflected melody, nicely phrased and tuned. The poem’s allusion to “human suffering,” however, brought another burst of dissonant activity from the orchestra.

Poetic atmosphere returned, of a Hebraic flavor this time, in a quiet setting of the traditional greeting “Shalom aleikhem.”  A plea for tolerance (“I follow the religion of love”) by the 13th-century Sufi poet Ibn Arabi was set to a lightly orchestrated but somewhat spiky dance with brass interjections, as the chorus slowly sang the text in medieval-sounding fifths. 

The King-honoring work closed, appropriately enough, with the text of the civil-rights anthem We Shall Overcome, although this setting alluded only faintly to the iconic original tune as the choral parts overlapped in irregular lines, like voices in a crowd.

This movement, like the first and third, concluded with repetitions of the word “peace” in multiple languages, up to 20 by work’s end, representing (the composer wrote in a program note) over 100 countries. If the celebratory finish meant singing “peace” at the top of one’s lungs, well, so be it. Ranjbaran’s work, which had packed so much local color and variety of expression into its short span, was warmly received by its first (and likely far from last) audience.

Before 20th-century African-Americans could begin to “overcome” racial prejudice in society, their ancestors had to throw off the shackles of slavery, which many did with the help of the secret network documented in the 1877 book The Underground Railroad Records by William Still, a leading “conductor” on that line. (William Still, the 19th-century African-American abolitionist, was not related to William Grant Still, the 20th-century African-American composer.)

Still not only helped countless people escape to freedom, but he saved everything—not just his interviews with fleeing slaves and their hair-raising travel narratives, but things like bills and meeting minutes. Happily none of the latter made it into Campbell’s libretto, but much else did, including many names and places (sung as a kind of sound collage by a quartet of soloists), reward posters, gripping or humorous tales from the road, interviews, and touching thank-you letters to Still.

Moravec’s setting of all this material was unquestionably an oratorio in the full quasi-operatic sense, rich in character, action, and vocal display, and also cinematic in rhythm, cutting from intimate moments to breathless chase scenes and back.

The chorus played mostly a supporting role, but did step forward as a fierce pack of bounty hunters (“Reward will be paid! Runaway slave!”) and later, in rapid dialogue with tenor soloist Joshua Blue, murmured encouragement to the terrified runaway as he jumped at every noise and shadow. While the chorus brought these moments vividly to life, it was good to have the printed text at hand, as crystal-clear diction in a group that size is a hard thing to achieve.

The performance largely belonged to the five soloists, four portraying various fugitives plus the clear-voiced bass-baritone Dashon Burton in a sturdy turn as William Still himself.

Mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis had the showstopper aria as the appropriately named Ellen Craft, riding the train disguised as an elderly, ailing white gentleman with “his” black valet—actually her future husband—riding in the slave car. Strong in the lower register, Bryce-Davis’s voice blossomed on top at the mention of their impending marriage in Philadelphia, bringing loud applause at the close.

In recurring segments titled “Run,” Joshua Blue depicted the lone fugitive’s terror and grit in his powerful tenor. With clear diction and dry humor, baritone Malcolm J. Merriweather as Henry “Box” Brown told of his 26 hours traveling in a shipping crate to Philadelphia, his illiterate handlers ignoring the “This Side Up” label.

Soprano Laquita Mitchell’s solo, a prayer for rain to keep nosy people off the streets as she was passing through, came late but was worth waiting for. The singer began furtively, non vibrato, but by the aria’s climax (“When I’m free, I’ll dance in that rain.”) she was in full-throated dramatic mode, to marvelous effect.

Between Moravec’s sensitive scoring and conductor Tritle’s astute management of balances, all the solos came across clearly, even though not all the voices were extra large. In fact, all the sonic and dramatic elements of the piece came together smoothly in a well-paced performance whose final crescendo on the word “Free” brought a tear to the eye and the audience to its feet.


2 Responses to “Peace and freedom reign in two premieres by Oratorio Society of New York”

  1. Posted May 09, 2018 at 10:41 pm by Erlinda Brent

    Pleased to say that I was there for this magic. It was spectacular!!!

  2. Posted May 12, 2018 at 2:11 pm by Patricia Lefevere

    We really enjoyed these two works and hope that both will be performed at many more musical venues — even if they may not have a chorus as illustrious as the NY Oratorio Society or as terrific a quintet of soloists.. The dramatic narrative of William Still’s documentation of those who travelled the underground railway deserves to be widely known. Music and drama are two of the vehicles for transporting this harrowing tale of freedom from the 19th to the 21st century. Art may in fact be a means of reparation for our sinful history. Kudos and thanks to all performers, and especially to Campbell, Moravec and Tritle.
    Patricia Lefevere, Englewood, NJ

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