The long-established Oratorio Society of New York closed its current season with Kent Tritle leading American music with a shared message: the human spirit cannot be conquered.
Iranian-born Behzad Ranjbaran’s twenty-minute We Are One, though premiered in New York, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in honor of Martin Luther King on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. It draws on five texts, from a range of cultures and periods, to celebrate peace, human rights and freedom, sung in their original language. At various points, the word “peace” is repeated. ‘Paz’ features a famous entreaty for peace from an 1867 speech by Benito Juárez, the first Zapotec president of Mexico. From the festive, propulsive opening, reminiscent of ‘O fortuna’ in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, it was clear that We Are One is sincere and passionate. ‘Bani Âdam’ (Farsi for Human Beings) sets verse by the Persian poet Sa’di to mostly meditative music, including passages alluding to traditional Persian melodies. ‘Shalom’ begins with a horn-call for prayer, followed by the chorus softly singing “Shalom aleikhem v’ imru amen” (Peace be upon you, and say amen). ‘Salâm’ (Arabic for Peace) sets an excerpt by Ibn Arabi, a thirteenth-century Andulusian Sufi poet to vibrant evocations of Arabic music. The final movement quotes from the Afro-American spiritual ‘We Shall Overcome’, the anthem of the American Civil Rights movement. Ranjbaran’s style veers widely and features some especially gorgeous a cappella writing. The piece concludes with a return to the joyful opening, but on a more imposing scale, including triumphant trumpet calls. Ranjbaran’s music sounded most impressive in the first and final movements, where the playing had most impetus and the singing was forceful and beautiful.
Following intermission, Sanctuary Road. In a little less than an hour, it brought to life an abundant collection of personal histories, interviews, letters, and other texts from William Still’s 1872 memoir, The Underground Railroad Records. Still was a Philadelphia-based African-American abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by African-American slaves to escape into free states and Canada. He helped hundreds and also kept detailed records. Much of this makes its way into Mark Campbell’s libretto, including many gripping and sometimes humorous first-person narratives, and some profoundly affecting thank-you letters to Still.
This performance was to a great degree dominated by the five excellent soloists, four depicting various slaves and the other, Dashon Burton, portraying Still. The chorus plays mainly a supporting role, first in the segment entitled ‘Reward!’, embodying the language of ‘Wanted’ posters with electrifying vividness, and later, in ‘Run!’, as an anonymous voice issuing encouragement to the petrified runaway Wesley Harris, the clear-voiced Joshua Blue. The 230-member chorus brought the words thrillingly to life. In ‘The Same Train’, Raehann Bryce-Davis nearly stole the show as Ellen Craft, a female escapee disguised as a frail and elderly white man with “his own valet” (in fact her future husband); her richly-colored voice was especially radiant as she announced her forthcoming marriage in Philadelphia. In ‘This Side Up’, Malcolm J. Merriweather as Henry ‘Box’ Brown brought a welcome dose of humor to his description of his escape by traveling many hours to Philadelphia while in a shipping crate, his illiterate handlers ignoring the “This Side Up” label. As Clarissa Davis, Laquita Mitchell’s ‘Come down, rain’ began softly as she gently pleaded for the rain to empty the streets of people who might want to catch her, but slowly built to an effective dramatic climax.
Tritle brought all the sonic and dramatic elements of the piece together in a well-paced, impassioned and tremendously moving premiere.