IN: Reviews

Harmony in the Pews


At the 1806 African Meetinghouse in Beacon Hill, a small, austere space well suited to chamber music, the creaking, twisted floorboards, like the weathered deck of a ship, do not allow for stealthy entry, yet they spoke loudly of history. An audience that started at half of capacity grew steadily, filling the floor seats and spilling into the balcony for an interestingly named chamber group sponsored by the Museum of African-American History.

Castle of our Skins, according to its website, is “born of a desire to foster cultural curiosity and celebrate black artistry through music.” On this evening, the performers were Ashleigh Gordon, flutist Adam Eccleston III, and cellist Javier Caballero. They were joined by tenor Fred C. Vanness, Jr. and Amber Rose Johnson, spoken word artist. Composer Anthony Green serves as co-Artistic Director of COOS, along with Gordon. The program consisted of four short works and one extended premiere.

First came a work of Bill Banfield for tenor and cello. The tenor’s role was a straightforward rendition of Hold On! while the cellist dug into a groove, almost an ostinato, that seemed to exist in a slightly different world of time. I wonder if the score indicated freedom between the two parts, or if the cellist was instructed to cue his phrases from those of the tenor. Vanness has a marvelous instrument, but in this first work he was unnaturally committed to his music stand. This shortcoming was highlighted when the poet Amber Rose Johnson launched into her first recitation: fully committed, master of all her content, Johnson never wavered in her contact with the audience. Her words and performance drew power from articulated repetition and rubato phrases that pulled toward cadence. This first work was titled Eyes on the Prize, which was the title given to later adaptations of the Hold On spiritual. Later, Johnson would perform “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America: Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley.” I give this detail here, in a review principally concerned with music, to underline Johnson’s technique. Her abilities were not compromised when delivering the words of another poet.

Tenor Vanness offered another short work, Song of the Coffle, and the room was glad for his warm, resonant tone. In the middle section, the (not yet glimpsed) viola and then flute sounded, by surprise, from the balcony. The viola sounded a gentle drone while the flute offered echoes and whispers around the vocal line.

The majority of the program was devoted to the last work, a premiere of Anthony Green’s Oh, Freedom. The impetus for the evening’s event, dangled the possibility of interaction among three instrumentalists and two vocalists. The affiliation was a loose one, though; the poems of Amber Rose Johnson were pure intensity, but alternated with musical sections, never operating in tandem.

African-American  Meeting House
African-American Meeting House

Green seemed to organize the extended instrumentals of Oh Freedom in short sections. I perceived a leitmotif sol-ti-do, which might be related to the opening phrase of the titular song. However, the cello was clearly alluding to “Go Down, Moses” at one point; this leitmotif was then heard as “let my people go”. Textures varied from frantic unison to independent polyphony. Each individual instrument was given a virtuoso solo section, including extended techniques. Flutist Eccleston was especially effective in these moments, tossing off the technical demands without allowing them to distract from the context. These sections were framed with care: sometimes by abrupt, col legno sounds, but other times, the composer handed off the momentum from one instrument to the other in a crafty manner. Most striking was the moment when Eccleston was playing with octaves, overblowing from root to octave, when Caballero’s cello snuck in with harmonics. Especially from my vantage point, unable to see the cellist, the transition was mysterious and effective.

The expression about the job of preachers—to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—was brought to mind as both the music and poetry moved from nostalgic past to uncomfortable present. A new section featured Vanness speaking. Resonant and defiant: “Trayvon Martin”, then “Michael Brown”, then “Eric Garner” while the instruments swirled restlessly. My personal discomfort came when the names continued… dozens in all… and I did not recognize them. Furthermore, I wondered—worried—if the next name in the list might be Usaamah Rahim (it was not). The instruments finally trudged to a weary stop. Soon, though, came a sweet, affirming tone, eventually growing closer to the source material: the spiritual that my colleagues and I used to teach to second graders, “Oh Freedom.” In fact, Green created a fugato from the tune near the very end. The final section brought the adventurous instruments of Castle of Our Skins back to simple roles: cello playing a pizzicato bass, flute playing a countermelody while tenor sang the familiar tune. Soon all were clapping, many singing, and harmony prevailed in the pews.

Joshua Hawkins Nannestad is a professor of choral music education at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, and formerly a music educator in the greater Boston area.

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