On May 7, 2018, audiences at Carnegie Hall were treated to not one, but two world premieres by The Oratorio Society of New York.
The first work, “We Are One,” comes from composer Behzad Ranjbaran. It is described as “an expression of our shared desire for respect, justice, freedom, and peace… ‘We Are One’ employs a unified musical tone throughout its five continuous movements while also paying homage to musical traditions related to the chosen texts.”
The second work, “Sanctuary Road,” is a collaboration between composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell. Of his process, Moravec says “Time is the medium of music and memory is the mediator. In its sublime, mysterious way, music remembers. Composing the music for this oratorio, I was guided by my intention to memorialize indelibly the spirit and events of this extraordinary chapter in American history. As William Still sings about the slaves he aided on their road to freedom, ‘Their testimony will never be forgotten.’”
We Are One
“We Are One” began with a sudden and tremendous chord from the choir and orchestra, filling the auditorium from the instant conductor Kent Tritle’s baton fell. The strong Gregorian influence in the melody only added to the first movement’s almost-oppressive might. The text in this movement seem in opposition to the music, being a quotation from President Benito Juarez of Mexico: “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.” Together, however, the two can be said to form almost a divinely-authorized proclamation in the name of world peace. When the music cooled from this assembled ardor, the strings carried an uneasy rhythm through the silences, joined by brief voicings from the harp and xylophone; and the undoubtedly biblical horns which sounded forth in sevens.
The piece weaves together passages from Spanish, Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, and English; on top of this, the word “peace” is chanted in at least 12 languages. While thematically relevant and sublimely sung, there were moments when I lost my place in the text due to my unfamiliarity with the aural nuances of the Persian language.
The last movement, “We Shall Overcome,” saw the choir building its way back towards the initial triumph of the first movement. This finale was full of resolute affirmations, simple on paper but awe-inspiring to hear, such as “the truth shall make us free,” “we shall live in peace,” and “we shall not be silent;” the last of which I found all-too appropriate. Bringing things full circle was the return of the seven horn soundings as the choir went through its round of chanting “peace” in the different languages, concluding “We Are One” with an almost-universal prayer.
‘Sanctuary Road” is comprised of 15 movements which, when combined with Mark Campbell’s libretto, become an episodic journey through history, as seen through the lens of William Still, a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Still, played by bass-baritone Dashon Burton, served as a narrator of sorts, introducing the archives he looks after with the utmost meticulousness, as well as interacting with the characters on stage in order to provide aid and preserve testimony. This musical introduction was completed by the introductions of the characters themselves, presenting the detail of their lives in a sort of rondo where they all seemed to melt into the same, greater, narrative.
The next two movements emphasized the shared aspect of the runaway slaves and their escape. The quartet of desperate, yearning whispers which comprised the second movement “Quietly,” quickly gave way to the rapid, metallic tones in the third movement, titled “Reward!” From the orchestra, the xylophone and scarce chimes of the triangle finely evoked the image of running feet heading towards the promise of a railroad to freedom. From there, the stories diverged according to the voice type of the performers, first being mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis as Ellen Craft. True to her name, Craft disguises herself as a sick older man and boards a train to Philadelphia, keeping a safe distance from all but the passenger sitting across from her, who is none other but the brother of her former master. Davis vocally navigated her way through Craft’s unsteady inner monologue with panache, tingeing it with contempt when recalling her acts of servitude, and then pouring honeyed lyricism when her thoughts turned to the prospect of freedom with the man she intends to marry in Philadelphia.
Next was a brief interview between William Still and baritone Malcom J. Merriweather, which was shortly followed by his own account of struggle. His character, Henry “Box” Brown, undergoes a maddening trip hidden inside a shipping crate. Here Merriweather highlighted the alliterative aspect of the Campbell’s libretto, in phrases such as “Twenty-six hours of breathing through a hole in this box no bigger than a button… My brain may burst…” All of this anguish built in the orchestra as well, reaching a highly-dissonant climax as Merriweather cries for freedom “even if they hang me from a tree.”
In the 14th movement, titled “Rain,” soprano Laquita Mitchell played Clarissa Davis, sonorously invoking the heavens to pour so that she may escape to freedom by boat. The faithful underpinning of her plea was made clear as she delivered the line “Come down Noah’s Ark heavy.” Tenor Joshua Blue made frequent and fleeting appearances in his movement, titled “Run,” which made several reprises through the night. These movements were high-paced, often utilizing the fleeing xylophone and the rapid bowing of the cellos to conjure the image of the hidden roads. Blue, with his youthful urgency, captured the heights of desperation and hope in a way only tenors can.
Finally, as William Still, Dashon Burton served as a focal point which tied these stories together again. In the movements without the other characters, Burton was adamant to the point of obsession with keeping records and files. When interacting with the others, he took on a more heroic light, as evidenced by the choir lending heavenly reverberation to the ends of his words, such as “We’re giving you some new clothing, a good meal…” Though he does much good for those who visit him, Still is both a person as well as a waypoint on the journey to freedom. In further emphasizing the guiding aspects of his character, Burton’s stalwart voice was never lost within the enormous choir even in climactic moments; it managed to equal, but never exceed it. While he never steps directly into the spotlight, Burton’s presence was felt from beginning to end, all of this fittingly concluded as Still, five years later, glosses over the newest additions to his cherished archive: letters from those he helped, safe and sound, expressing gratitude which flowed and overlapped back into a joyful, revelatory quintet of the principal singers and the chorus; they all exulted in one unified cry of “Shout from every rooftop, loud as can be: Free.”