The Oratorio Society of New York Maintains Its Relevance With Two World Premieres at Carnegie Hall
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, April 26, 2018
Founded in 1873, the Oratorio Society of New York is celebrating its 145th season as one of New York City’s longest enduring musical institutions. Having made Carnegie Hall its home since the hall was inaugurated in 1891, and anchored by a chorus of dedicated singers, the group focuses on choral music of the oratorio variety. Oratorios represent some of the greatest art in Western musical literature, but as modern arts education has evolved, younger audiences might not even know what an oratorio is, per se.
Yet, nothing could be more rooted to the history of musical theater, and to the way we enjoy music today. Oratorios, large-scale narrative compositions for chorus, orchestra, and multiple soloists (sort of an opera without theatrical elements), tells a story through recitative, arias, and choruses, and historically leaned toward religious stories. The Society performs the most famous, Handel’s Messiah, every December.
They have always performed other types of choral pieces, as well. They gave the American premieres of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem and Wagner’s Parsifal in the nineteenth century, have been conducted by the likes of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Rachmaninoff, and have generally played a notable role in American musical history. The Oratorio Society even premiered here in Carnegie Hall the version of “The Star Spangled Banner ” commissioned by Woodrow Wilson in 1917 and still considered standard.
The Society brings its current season to a momentous close on Monday, May 7, inviting audiences to “Celebrate the Courage and Perseverance of the Human Spirit” with two world premieres. These new works promise to bring this grand musical tradition into 2018 with topics relevant to today.
A newly commissioned work by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell entitled Sanctuary Road: An Oratorio Based on the Writings of William Still, a Conductor for the Underground Railroad, takes the writing of William Still, often referred to as the “father of the Underground Railroad,” as a launching point to examine this dramatic, intriguing, and moving chapter in American history. Moravec, a professor of music at Adelphi University, is celebrated for the accessibility of his music, and there seems to be ample potential for this work to be highly effective.
The characters and stories recounted in Still’s detailed chronicle of the hundreds of slaves he helped escape to freedom, The Underground Railroad Records, are being dramatized by Moravec and Campbell with the use of a quintet of world-class soloists, in counterpoint with the chorus that alternates between participating in the dramatic action, and commenting on it, bringing these stories to life in a way only an oratorio can. The commission of Sanctuary Road was in honor of music director Kent Tritle, who is in his 11th season as conductor of the Society.
Also being premiered is We Are One, a work for chorus and orchestra, which the composer, Behzad Ranjbaran, describes as having a “message of peace, racial and social harmony, tolerance, and social justice.” Ranjbaran, a composer of Persian heritage currently on the faculty of The Juilliard School, is much lauded for the beauty of his music and his mastery of the orchestra. This piece will feature text from five languages (Spanish, Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, and English) and is composed in such a way that community choruses may sing alongside professional choirs, the theme of inclusiveness and openness, playing out from the piece’s text to its construction. The piece was commissioned (by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, but receiving its premiere here by the Oratorio Society) in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Both of these new pieces, with their messages of humanity, seem more than worthy of the efforts of this venerated choral music society. This is a concert that should be aurally appealing and emotionally uplifting.
Cover: Kent Tritle conducting the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall; photo: Tim Dwight.