A Classic Returns to Cincinnati

United StatesUnited States Adams, Dett: Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, James Conlon (conductor), May Festival Chorus, Robert Porco (director), Music Hall, Cincinnati, 7.5.2014

John Adams: Harmonium
R. Nathaniel Dett: The Ordering of Moses

Latonia Moore, soprano
Ronnita Nicole Miller, mezzo-soprano
Rodrick Dixon, tenor
Donnie Ray Albert, bass

On May 7, 1937, during an NBC radio broadcast of the world premiere in Cincinnati of R. Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio, The Ordering of Moses, the unthinkable happened. The broadcast from the stage of Music Hall was stopped more than halfway by an NBC executive because of pressure from radio listeners who protested the playing over the air waves of a musical work by a negro. Meanwhile, the audience in Cincinnati was able to hear Dett’s work played through to the end, and it gave a rousing ovation to the orchestra, chorus and soloists.

At that performance, the all-white quartet of singers included Metropolitan Opera star Frederick Jagel, soprano Agatha Lewis, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Wysor, and bass Alexander Kisselburgh; Eugene Goossens led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus. The New York Times’ music critic, Olin Downes, in Cincinnati for the occasion, wrote “The Ordering of Moses triumphed.”

In May of 1956, at the start of the Civil Rights movement, The Ordering of Moses was performed once more in Cincinnati, this time with no problems and with a quartet led by soprano Leontyne Price and baritone William Warfield, under the baton of Thor Johnson.

Now, 77 years after its first performance, The Ordering of Moses has returned to the city of its world premiere. The entire Cincinnati company will travel to New York to perform the program on May 9th as part of the Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall, an institution that was supportive of Dett, premiering his other work as early as 1914.

There are many virtues in The Ordering of Moses, a metaphoric retelling of the story of Moses and the Liberation of the Jews seen through the prism of American Blacks’ struggles for freedom and away from bondage. The work is tonal, emotional, heartfelt and at times deeply moving. There are no startling moments, no complexities, no harmonic complications, but plenty of traditional Black spirituals incorporated into the fabric of the score, often underpinned by rhythmic liveliness. This is good programmatic music that at times sounds similar to that of the best film scores of the 1930s by Dimitri Tiomkin.

The singers were sterling. Latonia Moore dominated the ensemble with Dett’s high-flying lines, soaring up and above the massive sound of the May Festival Chorus and the CSO. Ronnita Nicole Miller has one of the most impressive contralto voices heard in Cincinnati in recent memory, and tenor Rodrick Dixon displayed a ringing spinto voice and crystal-clear diction. Bass-baritone Donnie Ray Albert was rock-solid at both extremes of the range, with a patriarchal sound ideally suited to the biblical text.

The program opened with Harmonium, a 1980 piece by John Adams based on poems by the mystic John Donne and by Emily Dickinson. With its ambiguous meaning and severe structure, Donne’s somber sonnet, “The Nothing,” is not ideal material for choral singing. To make matters even more complex, Adams layers the vocal lines one upon the other, heaping them, in his own words, into “a huge, calmly rippling current of sound that takes on energy and mass until it eventually crests on an immense cataract of sound some ten minutes later….” In so doing the composer depends on projected supertitles that allow the audience to follow the words being sung, at times with two different texts juxtaposed.

In the second half of the work, Emily Dickinson’s, “Because I could not stop for Death,” a quiet embrace of the finality of life’s end as a peaceful release from earthly cares, is followed by her exultantWild Nights  ̶  Wild Nights, with Adams’ music responding to the tone of the text with more clarity.

Adams’ compositional style has evolved from his Steve Reich-influenced earlier works to more melodic, less repetitive compositions. Yet in this early-career, large-scale work he evinces his uncanny gift for writing idiomatically for the human voice – in this case 140 human voices – accompanied here by the CSO’s full assemblage of brass and percussion, plus its augmented string and woodwind sections.

James Conlon conducted the evening with unerring authority and with obvious fondness for the music on his stand, providing a wonderful start to the 2014 Cincinnati May Festival.

Rafael de Acha

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