New York Choral Society offers somber reflection and hope with Hailstork requiem

Wed Jun 14, 2023 at 1:49 pm
Davd Hayes conducted the New York Choral Society in music of Hailstork, Vaughan Williams and Pärt Tuesday night.

Two pleas for peace and understanding—separated by nearly a century, an ocean, and history—made up the compelling, superbly sung program of the New York Choral Society Tuesday night at David Geffen Hall.

The headline event was the New York premiere of A Knee on the Neck, a “requiem cantata” by composer Adolphus Hailstork and poet-historian Herbert Martin, inspired by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020.

Preceding Hailstork’s visionary new piece was a prophetic visitor from the past, the cantata Dona nobis pacem by Ralph Vaughan Williams, composed in 1936 to wartime poems of Walt Whitman and Old Testament texts, an appeal for humanity amid the rush of events leading to World War II.

Two crises, two crossroads in history, 85 years apart and on different continents. But what was most striking about Tuesday’s pairing of works was not the contrasts between the Englishman’s musical response and the African-American’s, but the similarities.

In each case, horrible events were recalled obliquely, at a poet’s remove. Mingled with them, and ultimately prevailing, was a vision of hope and kindness. All came wrapped in a large chorus, vocal soloists, a robust orchestra surging with brass, and contemporary tonal harmonies.

To clear the air for these visions, conductor David Hayes led the orchestra’s strings and percussion in a work of quiet meditation, Arvo Pärt’s Fratres of 1977. The piece’s title, meaning “brothers,” originally suggested monastic ritual, but on this night it was also a reminder of the bonds that hold humanity together. The circling phrases of vibratoless strings and dirge-like tread gave a foretaste of serious matters to come.

The rich soprano of Gabriella Reyes, round and open with dusky notes, rose easily above the full orchestra in the dramatic “Agnus dei” that opened Vaughan Williams’s work. The business of war was upon the listener in the Guernica-like imagery of Whitman’s “Beat! beat! drums!”, as the chorus and the tuba-heavy orchestra roared out the picture of everyday life upended.

In the third movement, “Reconciliation,” the chorus softened its tone to place a cushion under the firm, forthright baritone of Kenneth Overton, portraying a soldier approaching the coffin of his dead enemy. The burial of a father and son killed in battle, lit by a moon “like some mother’s transparent face,” brought tender legato and sensitive phrasing from the chorus in “Dirge for Two Veterans.”

An anxious, dissonant chorus contemplated war’s desolation in “The Angel of Death,” punctuated by soprano Reyes’s impassioned cry for peace. Baritone Overton responded with “O man, Greatly Beloved,” a proclamation of peace that led to a determined, hopeful march on texts prophesying a better world.

But because that world is not here yet, the work closed with the chorus in a vanishing pianissimo as the soprano tenderly appealed one last time to “give us peace.”

Hayes’s firm conductorial hand and the chorus’s clear, polished singing, which so vividly put across this Vaughan Williams classic, equally benefited Hailstork’s new piece, which was premiered in March of 2022 by the National Philharmonic Orchestra under Pyotr Gajewski. (Just last week the same orchestra and conductor premiered Hailstork’s  Symphony No. 5.)

The piece originated with poet Martin, who completed the text within a week of George Floyd’s death, then sent it to his longtime friend and collaborator Hailstork. Besides its overall arc that “bends toward justice,” Hailstork’s setting took something of the shape of a traditional symphony, its four sections functioning like a weighty sonata-allegro, reflective slow movement, scherzo, and hymn-like finale.

Thankfully, despite the work’s title, no horrific crimes were re-enacted in text or music. The “knee” became a metaphor for the throttling of life’s pleasures and opportunity that black people can suffer in a racist environment.

Martin has described the work’s opening section, “A Black Mother’s Commandment,” as a recollection of his own mother’s version of “The Talk,” a black parent’s instructions to a child for how to behave around white people, especially the police. Hailstork set this to agitated strings and dissonant brass, evoking the excitement and dangers of urban American life, plus a volley of conga drums (in a conflicting rhythm) that established an African presence.

Like Vaughan Williams but more so, Hailstork avoided show-stopping arias by dividing all the lines, even the Mother’s, among the full chorus, sections of the chorus, and the three soloists. Baritone Overton, firm and reliable as ever, was joined by the slender, polished tenor of Bernard Holcomb and by Cierra Byrd, a powerful mezzo-soprano whose high-placed voice and abundant vibrato were highly expressive but not ideal for understanding the English text.

Holcomb sang the first lines of “Folk Song,” affectingly, without accompaniment (“Mama say, ‘come home boy’”) before he and Overton reflected on the “knee…that stops all breathing” and soprano Byrd forcefully warned of the “virus that’s going round taking names”—the double virus, that is, of death by Covid and death by racism.

The jazzy scherzo “A Gambler’s Rhyme” seemed to shake imaginary dice while riffing on all those risks, but turned scary on the line “I can’t breathe,” then deeply affecting as George Floyd’s last word, “Mama,” cascaded softly down through the chorus. A last piccolo line petered out and a long silence ensued, its meaning unmistakable.

All joined in the closing “Hymn,” shaped in its text (“Feet so tired, Lord, but our will is strong”) and its andante pace by the spirituals and “sorrow songs” that have been Africa’s gift to American music. This piece too wound down to a prayerful pianissimo, on the line “Together we shall abide”—interrupted by just a few defiant conga strokes, forte.

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