Coro Allegro’s “We Are Here,” imagined and led by conductor David W. Hodgkins on Sunday afternoon at Church of the Covenant Boston, intertwined themes of racism and homophobia, while juxtaposing the ongoing struggle for LGBTI rights worldwide with the struggles against racism in America. The program was built around the world premiere of Aluta Continua: the Life and Passion of David Kato Kisule by the award-winning composer Eric Banks. Nestled in between came choral arrangements of African-American spirituals and gospel.
In the opening set of four spirituals, starting with an arrangement of “Hold On!” by Jester Hairston, the energy of the ensemble demanded attention. Most sang from memory, which allowed their dynamic expression to reach the audience more easily. Coordination of ensemble was exquisite, with crisp diction and perfectly coordinated crescendos and decrescendos; in fact, the dynamic range of the group sounded remarkable. Fortissimos proved exciting but never overblown, and pianissimos, notabley for a group of this size, remained always in tune.
Celebrated countertenor Reginald L. Mobley rang out with clear, balanced tone in “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child;” his lower range showed consummate depth and richness, with interpretations compelling in simplicity. He ornamented fluidity and effortlessly expressed the work’s yearning. The piano collaborated excellently.
The choir returned then with more sensitive phrasing and well-coordinated dynamic shifts, though their articulation occasionally suffered in the soprano section on mutated vowels.
The Daniel Pinkham Award was presented to Janson Wu, a past president of the board, and singer in the group. Established by Coro Allegro in remembrance of Pinkham’s contributions both to music and to the LGBTI community, it also connects his legacy to new honorees. This bit of business served as an unofficial palate cleanser between the spirituals and the featured piece.
Aluta Continua: the Life and Passion of David Kato Kisule recounts the story and final days of the Ugandan teacher and LGBTI activist, murdered in 2011. One of the fathers of Uganda’s gay rights movement, Kisule assisted in the founding of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). As advocacy officer and activist he emerged in a time of violent homophobia in Uganda, cultivated and intensified by American evangelists including the homophobe Scott Lively. Eric Banks based the libretto for the piece on newspaper articles and blogs, documentary films, and interviews with one of Kisule’s friends, adapted for ease of understanding and fluid storytelling. The title Aluta Continua comes from the Portuguese “a luta continua,” “the struggle continues.” The phrase was a rallying cry during Mozambique’s struggle for independence and was coopted by the Ugandan LGBTI community.
The piece was sung entirely in English with the exception of the titular phrase. Running about half an hour, with solo and choral sections including some double choir, it also features double marimba as the sole instrumental accompaniment. The form was inspired by Bach’s Passions, and the parallels did not go unnoticed. The choir was joined by soloists Mobley and baritone Philip Lima, with Robert Schulz and Jonathan Hess on marimba. Instead of featuring a solo Evangelist, the primary role changed hands partway through the piece from the voice of David Kato Kisule (Mobley) to his friend the excommunicated Bishop Christopher Senyonjo (Lima). Banks wrote Western music with lush choral harmonies for choir and soloists, while he placed the double marimba played entirely in a pentatonic scale to sound more like the Ugandan akadinda, a pitched percussion instrument performed by two players who face each other.
Although most of the music was original, Banks also quoted the well-known hymns “Bethany,” “Greatorex,” and “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Their use was bitingly ironic, as the lyrics of these sections included cruel condemnations of homosexuality quoted from American preachers in Uganda.
In the interest of telling the story as clearly as possible, Banks set much of the parts of David and Christopher in declamatory style, matching the rhythms of speech. Sometimes this was a cappella, but often was accompanied by the choir singing a different, simpler text, providing emotional background for the action. Supporting characters were also voiced by the choir, sometimes by individual soloists plucked from the main ensemble, sometimes by small groups, sometimes by full sections or the whole choir.
Most of the characters of the friends and family of David were sung by individuals, while quotations from those working against him were performed by the men of the choir or the entire choir. This served to give a sense of the individual humanity of friends and family while conveying the overwhelming strength of numbers of those who sought to silence David.
Banks wrote the part of David for Mobley, who shone. The declamatory rhythms rolled from his tongue as if he had written them himself, and his powerful presence and emotional commitment to the role, compelling enough while singing, continued into his silences, as his face showed his reactions as the rest of the story unfolded. His vocal range spanned colors from full excitement to quiet vulnerability.
While most of the choir was on-book for the piece, their energy and promise remained strong throughout the many roles. As background they were delicate, never covering the soloists. In storytelling mode, they were present and clear. As the villains, they were harshly condemning, magnifying the effect of the dissonant harmonies of those sections. The soloists pulled from the choir were all of consistently high quality.
Lima performed Christopher from a place of quiet authority and deep dignity, showing the understanding of a man who had unwavering faith not only in God but in his own heart. His warm ringing baritone voice made for a dramatic foil to Mobley’s lighter tone, and this striking change in the sound of the narration did much for the drama.
The piece closed with a quote from “By the Rivers of Babylon,” which is used as a funeral hymn in Uganda. The final lines were one of the best-known quotations from Kisule: “People keep on saying that we are not here. But of late, we are here.” At the end, the audience was silent for a good 10 seconds, and when the applause broke, it accompanied an immediate and well-deserved standing ovation.
Two gospel numbers rounded out the program, rich songs all the more vivid in context of the story we just heard. The choir was joined by a rhythm section including Darryl Hollister on piano, Steven Skop on bass, and Roger Hodgkins on drumset. These songs were clearly programed to lift the audience back up after the intense content of Aluta Continua. Mobley improvised vocals over the choir. Some diction was lost because of the timbre of the drumset, but that did not detract.
That all must stand against injustice of every kind was the overriding message. The performers’ devotion to it as well as to the music was unmistakable. The ensemble’s enthusiasm was returned by the audience at show’s close with a second ovation.