The Oratorio Society of New York Premieres Two Powerful, Provocative Works at Carnegie Hall

12/05/2018

Ranjbaran, Moravec: Laquita Mitchell (soprano), Raehann Bryce-Davis (mezzo-soprano), Joshua Blue (tenor), Malcolm Merriweather (baritone), Dashon Burton (bass-baritone), Chorus and Orchestra of the Oratorio Society of New York/Kent Tritle (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 7.5.2018. (RP)

The Oratorio Society of New York’s Sanctuary Road © Eduardo Patino

Ranjbaran We Are One (World Premiere)
Moravec – Sanctuary Road (World Premiere)

The Oratorio Society of New York premiered two powerful works at its spring concert at Carnegie Hall. The first, We Are One, is by the Iranian-born composer Behzad Ranjbaran, who teaches at the Juilliard School and whose works have been performed by artists such as Joshua Bell, Renée Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. It was commissioned by Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated 50 years ago. It fell to the Oratorio Society to premiere it.

For We Are One, Ranjbaran chose texts sung in their original languages, from different cultures, religions and time periods, which all address the themes of respect, justice, freedom and peace. The word peace is repeated many times throughout the work in 20 languages. The final passage incorporates the text of ‘We shall overcome’, a gospel song that was the rallying cry of the American Civil Rights movement. If anyone in the audience was expecting something akin to ‘Let there be peace on earth’ or Sixties sensibilities, they were in for a shock.

The opening of the work is explosive; for Ranjbaran, the struggle for justice and peace is hard. There are sections of quietude and reflection when the orchestra plays softly or the chorus sings on its own, but the prevailing dynamic level was loud. The brass, low strings and percussion predominate, although there are solos for the flute, oboe and other instruments that lighten the texture, albeit briefly. It ended with the words ‘We shall overcome’ repeated in unison.

The commitment of all on stage was obvious, but it is next to impossible to gauge such a work in one hearing. Balance was a problem, thus the subtleties and shadings of the choral parts that Tritle undoubtedly strove for were mostly lost. In the unaccompanied sections, the chorus’ sound was transparent and shimmering, but in the loud sections there was just sound.

The second premiere was that of Sanctuary Road, with music by Paul Moravec and text by Mark Campbell. It is an oratorio based on the writings of William Still, the son of a slave, who was a conductor for the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States in the period before the Civil War and used by African-American slaves to escape into free states and Canada. In his own words, ‘It was my good fortune to lend a helping hand to the weary travelers flying from the land of bondage’.

Sanctuary Road was commissioned by the Oratorio Society in honor of its music director Kent Tritle, assisted by the generosity of a former chorister, Joanne A. Spellun. A more accessible work, especially on first hearing than We Are One, its power and emotion is derived from letters from former slaves describing their escapes and thanking Still for his assistance, as well as his own writings.

Dashon Burton was Still, narrating the action in his rich, majestic bass-baritone, and urging those who found freedom to preserve, collect and compile every memory. The other four singers – Laquita Mitchell, Raehann Bryce-Davis, Joshua Blue and Malcolm Merriweather – sang of close escapes, sometimes funny in the telling, but fear was ever present. They were all magnificent. The most beautiful sound they made as a quartet was the word ‘free’ in the segment ‘Quietly’. The orchestra and chorus were silent, and only their pure, shimmering voices echoed through the hall.

The emotion and power of Sanctuary Road was no less than that of We Are One, but Moravec’s oratorio-like structure and lighter orchestrations made for an easier listening experience. (I couldn’t help but think that We Are One should be programmed with works of similar scale and intensity, such as Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto and Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, to put it in perspective.) With the lighter orchestration, the chorus could relax and make music where their emotion and musicality could be heard, not just seen. ‘I waited for the Lord’ was their best work of the evening.

Sanctuary Road concluded with the joyous words, ‘Shout from every rooftop, loud as can be: Free’. Every voice was raised and ever instrument in the orchestra was playing. The concert ended as it began, loud and powerful, with a message of hope.

Rick Perdian

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