ACO, guest artists ring out joy and sorrow of the black experience at the Apollo

Sun May 08, 2022 at 1:38 pm
Chelsea Tipton II conducted the American Composers Orchestra concert Saturday night at the Apollo Theater.

Black lives were front and center at Harlem’s Apollo Theater Saturday night in a multi-genre program titled “The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout.” Every note played by the American Composers Orchestra and associated artists was imbued with the African-American experience, from profoundest grief to incandescent joy.

Saturday’s one-night-only concert was the product of three years of pandemic-era brainstorming over the question: How could the New York premiere of a little-known masterpiece about black deaths, Joel Thompson’s Seven Last Words of the Unarmed for chorus and orchestra, seed a program that ultimately celebrated black life?

The spiritual analogy was to the ring shout, an ecstatic, dancing ceremony that had uplifted generations of slaves, and their African ancestors before them. (There was no dancing in the aisles at the Apollo Saturday night, but rhythmic clapping and shouts of encouragement were definitely heard.)  Ultimately, six more works by black composers, ranging from unaccompanied vocal solo to orchestral showpiece and from gospel fervor to cutting-edge sound design, shared the bill with Thompson’s dark cantata.

Credit for “creative concept and direction” went to Jonathan McCrory, executive artistic director of the National Black Theatre, a co-curator of the event with the Apollo and the ACO. Gateways Music Festival and Harlem Chamber Players were also listed in the gathering of black artistic organizations that came up with this unique event.

Somehow, the organizers managed to hold the welcoming speakers to three: the Apollo’s Executive Producer Kamilah Forbes, the ACO’s President and CEO Melissa Ngan, and the NBT’s CEO Sadé Lythcott. Their brief remarks invited the racially diverse audience to do its part in the traditional call-and-response of black performance and worship.

Then the lights went down, and Katherine Freer’s astronomical video projections beckoned the listener’s thoughts upward. The larger-than-life image of poet Mahogany L. Browne appeared among the stars and nebulae like a benign goddess, extolling the ring shout in a poem. She would return before every piece with another evocation of black experience that provided a poetic frame for the music.

The latter finally got under way as singer-composer Abby Dobson stood alone at a microphone, delivering an unaccompanied sermon-in-tones, Say Her Name. Evoking the memory of lives lost in encounters with police officers, Dobson’s gospel adagio also evoked thoughts of Mahalia Jackson, beginning prayerfully, slyly quoting the anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” and rising to a melismatic wail accompanied by applause and shouts of “Oh, yes!” from the audience.

After that potent prelude, conductor Chelsea Tipton II led the ACO and members of the Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir, Broadway Inspirational Voices, Convent Avenue Baptist Church Choir and Sing Harlem Choir in Thompson’s cantata, a work even its composer thought might never find acceptance with audiences. And indeed, more because of the subject matter than the music itself, demonstrations and walkouts greeted Thompson’s 2015 setting of the words of black persons about to die at the hands of police when it was performed at the University of Michigan and later by the Minnesota Orchestra.

In contrast, Saturday’s audience sorrowfully embraced the piece and its seven brief, eloquent movements. As one would expect, the score contained moments of agitation and anger, but there were also notes of reflection, empathy, and even hope of going to a better place. Thompson and conductor Tipton deployed the orchestra colorfully and with sensitivity. The choir, dressed in white and arrayed in the audience boxes on either side of the ornate theater’s stage, produced heavenly antiphonal and contrapuntal effects, thanks to the preparation of choir director Gregory Hopkins.

For all that, the work closed with a long decrescendo, artfully but explicitly evoking the death by suffocation of Eric Garner on Staten Island in 2014, a stark reminder of what really happened to the persons in the piece. As a counterweight to this moment of horror, a vocal septet backed by two electric guitars, drum kit, the composer on keyboard and the ACO performed the world premiere of Jason Michael Webb’s I am Loved (And Other Healing Affirmations).

Drums laid down a syncopated groove as the singers, together or in solos, belted out the affirming phrases, revival style: “I am loved…I am everything I need…It’s inside me…I’ll change the world…” The audience, encouraged to sing and clap along, seemed mostly content to sit back and drink in the show.

After intermission and a presentation of plaques to the concert’s producers by a Mr. Griffin Lotson of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Commission, honoring the adoption of the ring shout as a concert concept, the music resumed with Courtney Bryan’s Sanctum for orchestra and recorded sounds, commissioned and premiered by the ACO in 2015. Sounds of nature, of labored breathing, and an angry crowd wove through the work’s dense texture, the orchestra responding with flares of brass, blues-tinted phrases, and page after age of arm-breaking string tremolos—an impressive demonstration of orchestral skill and endurance.

Toshi Reagon’s My Name A Reflection of Home featured the composer and Josette Newsam in an exuberant vocal duet backed by guitars, drums, and the ACO. Juliette Jones’s discreet orchestral arrangement made its world premiere. Dancer Maleek Washington, in T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, amusingly played the “man on the street,” ambling or skipping across the front of the stage, interpreting the music’s fearful or inspirational moments in eloquent, muscular gestures.

The New York premiere of Carlos Simon’s Amen!, arranged for orchestra by the composer from his original version for band, still sounded plenty brassy as conductor Tipton led an all-stops-out but disciplined performance, with a wild coda that, Beethoven-like, refused repeatedly to end.

To close, the program got back to ring-shout business with singer-composer Nona Hendryx aiming, in her words “to cast a spiritual spell” with incantations in Heaven, Grace, We Rise, accompanied by keyboardist Etienne Stadwijk and the ACO and chorus (in another world-premiere arrangement). Hendryx’s voice was a gospel trumpet as she sang “Grace, grace will save your soul,” and “We rise higher and higher.” Despite her exhortations, the audience mostly observed concert decorum, but all stood up for the last few bars and applauded lustily at the end.

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