The Underground Railroad and Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Provide Inspiration for World Premieres at Carnegie With the Oratorio Society of NY
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, May 1, 2018
The Oratorio Society of New York, one of the city’s finest choruses and one of its oldest cultural institutions, brings its 145th season to a close on Monday, May 7, 2018, at Carnegie Hall, with two world premieres: an oratorio about the Underground Railroad by Pulitzer Prize-winners Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell, commissioned by the Society in honor of its music director Kent Tritle; and a work for chorus and orchestra by Behzad Ranjbaran commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which sets poems calling for peace into five sections, each in a different language: Spanish, Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The premiere of this work occurs only a month after the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. Both pieces were completed during the past year.
Moravec and Campbell (whose collaboration on The Shining stirred so much interest two seasons back) are deeply committed to the new work—pointedly entitled Sanctuary Road—which sets passages from William Still’s 1872 landmark The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c. Narrating the Hardships, Hair-Breadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom as Narrated by Themselves or Others, or Witnessed by the Author, together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisors of the Road.
“The power of oratorio to combine the personal and the universal make it an ideal genre to lend resonance to these epic stories,” Moravec notes, while Campbell stresses their urgency: “It’s more important than ever,” he says. “There are people in our current political climate who would like us to ‘dis-remember’ the bravery of African Americans seeking freedom, and people like William Still, who chronicled that bravery. We can only move forward as a country by reminding ourselves where we’ve been.”
Tritle is even more emphatic: “When we embarked on Sanctuary Road we knew it was important, but real-life events since then have made it ever more relevant and needed. Without that real and visceral connection of life meeting art, especially now in light of the denigration of principles we hold so dear as artists—equality, mutual respect, unity through diversity—musicians, dancers, actors, and visual artists atrophy and wither. We must express the values we hold as humanists alongside those we hold as artists. There is no life for one without the other. I am personally galvanized by this music and this message, and I see it in the faces of my singers.”
Ranjbaran’s We Are One takes the opposite tack, drawing material from a vast range of cultures, religions, and eras—from traditional Hebrew prayers, to the thirteenth-century poets Sa’di and Ibn Arabi, to Benito Juárez, a nineteenth-century president of Mexico, to “We Shall Overcome”—in order to illustrate “the timelessness and universality of Dr. King’s message” of peace, diversity, and tolerance.
A remarkable cast will be on hand for Sanctuary Road, including soprano Laquita Mitchell, a Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Grand Prize winner; mezzo Raehann Bryce-Davis, who just won the George London Award; tenor Joshua Blue; baritone Malcolm J. Merriweather, who, in another part of his life, leads the Dessoff Choirs (speaking of artistic “unity through diversity”!); and bass-baritone Dashon Burton. Burton and Blue are both winners of the Lyndon Woodside Oratorio-Solo Competition, and Burton’s CD Songs of Struggle and Redemption: We Shall Overcome was one of The Times’s “Best Recordings of 2016.”
Tritle sums it up: “We are proud to present the premiere of Sanctuary Road alongside the premiere of We Are One, and we find that the very preparation of these works for public performance is healing and renewing.”
Should be quite a show.
Cover: The Oratorio Society of New York in concert at Carnegie Hall; photo: Tim Dwight.