IN: Reviews

“America/We Need to Talk.”

by

William Grant Still

From its founding, Coro Allegro, “Boston’s LGBTQ+ and allied chorus” has committed to social justice with commendably high musical standards. Under the skillful baton of David Hodgkins, Artistic Director, it collaborated with Heritage Chorale of New Haven, an ensemble focusing on the African-American liturgical tradition (Jonathan Q. Berryman, director), pianist Darryl Hollister, and an impressive chamber orchestra of freelancers at Sanders Theater on Sunday (3/24) in “America/We Need to Talk.” The performance featured two pieces by composer Fred Onovwerosuoke: Hollister, Hodgkins, and the orchestra revisited the Caprice for Piano & Orchestra (which they premiered two years ago); and Coro Allegro and orchestra gave the world premiere of A Triptych of American Voices: A Cantata of the People. The two choruses united with orchestra to open the concert with William Grant Still’s And They Lynched Him on a Tree from 1940.

When the white poet Katherine Garrison Chapin approached the black Still (1895-1978) to set her poem, he was motivated to do so in part because he had once witnessed a lynching. Despite the prestige of a commission from Artur Rodzinski for the New York Philharmonic, the work’s genesis was difficult, especially when Rodzinski required that Chapin change the ending of her poem, something she did only after some debate. Even then, the first performance involved the subterfuge of three versions with the choruses singing a text different from that printed in the program. Our booklets noted, “Coro Allegro and the Heritage Chorale of New Haven sing a hybrid version of the text that calls for justice and the affirmation of our common humanity.”

The work is possibly unique in calling for a “Negro chorus” and a “White chorus,” initially playing the roles of lynch mob and terrorized survivors, but uniting at the end to deplore “the long dark shadow that falls across that falls across your land” and seek justice. As it opens, the lynching has just been completed, and the murderers and their supporters are preparing to go home. On the stage the black chorus (representing hidden witnesses to the crime) stood silently in front but with backs to the audience while the white chorus faced forward, singing. Given Still’s operatic inclinations, this minimal staging felt entirely appropriate. CA conveyed the mob’s quickly dissipating adrenaline rush after the deed is done, while skillfully navigating some thorny harmonies including a strange tritonal melody labeled “The Wounding Power of Prejudice” in Still’s sketchbook. Soon the two choruses each turn 180 degrees as the black townspeople emerge from hiding. The different sounds of the two choruses further enhanced their division here: CA employed minimal vibrato (its house style) as though emotionally distancing themselves from the crime while HCNH used full vibrato, which helped evoke the troubled emotional state. The latter vividly portrayed their transition from terror to grief, leading effectively to the first solo by mezzo Sylvia V.C. Twine as the mother of the victim. In recalling her son’s birth and growth as well as describing him as an adult, Twine established a robust emotional connection with her listeners, sometimes using her powerful chest voice to evoke her undiluted pain. Regrettably, the orchestra (or perhaps the orchestration?) rendered the singer’s words inaudible from time to time; it was fortunate that CA’s booklet provided the full text. After a time, the chorus (HCNH) re-entered softly, echoing the bereft mother’s words as well as wordlessly keening. At several junctures some of the text was spoken with dramatic intensity by narrator Ron Williams, an accomplished opera/oratorio singer himself. For the final section CA had unobtrusively turned forward again to unite with HCNH as a chorus of humankind without ethnic distinction, singing in symbolic musical unison “They dragged him on his knees, and they lynched him on a tree” as well as acknowledging the atrocity of seizing a young man (albeit a convicted prisoner), killing him, and leaving him “hanging for the world to pass by.” The work built steadily to a forceful concluding stanza with the singers urging the powers that be to clear the shadow that falls across the land, ending on a painful fortissimo chord, extended by a pianissimo single viola note, perhaps implying that though the crime has been completed, it leaves a scar behind.

CA commissioned the Caprice for Piano & Orchestra from Fred Onovwerosuoke (b. 1960) in 2016 on behalf of its pianist Darryl Hollister. Onovwerosuoke was born in Ghana to Nigerian parents, growing up in both countries before settling in the U.S. He has done field research in over 30 African countries, the American Deep South, the Caribbean, and South America, searching out “traceable musical Africanisms.” The winner of multiple awards, he has composed in many different genres for the concert hall, recordings, films, and radio.  The Caprice contains two movements, each inspired by a corresponding Latin-titled poem. The first is Incolatus (resident without citizenship) whose varied moods and textures depict snapshots of “reveries, mirages, and intrigues.” Onovwerosuoke also gave the orchestra some savory moments, most notably the flute’s flutter-tonguing and the timpani’s “glissandi.” Evigilans (which may be translated as “staying watchful” or “composing/designing with care”) began with an exhilarating, whirling dance in triple time, inspired by the celebratory traditions of Eastern African warriors. A middle section featured responsorial writing among orchestra players and pianist. Finally, amid chords in the piano’s high register and pizzicato strings, an accelerando brought us to a rousing reprise of the movement’s opening dance. Hollister gave a compelling account with a combination of technical mastery, contemplation, and vivid tone-painting. Though he is soon to retire from his position with CA, one hopes he will manage to continue his distinguished advocacy for living composers.

Coro Allegro closed with the premiere of Onovwerosuoke’s A Triptych of American Voices: A Cantata of the People, which in three parts makes effective use of the words of five diverse writers; it convincingly bookended And They Lynched Him on a Tree. Whereas the earlier piece opened with the banality of one group’s evil and the other’s horror- and grief-stricken reaction before they unite in a passionate plea to cleanse the nation of its racism, the concluding triptych reflects a more recent defiance of oppression, denunciation of and active resistance to it, self-affirmation, and a confident call to others to break the bonds of their bigotry. The several subsections of the prologue suggested the music of Native Americans as well as early Spanish settlers (“Indigenes and Immigrants” and “Fiesta”); Hodgkins and the orchestra led the listeners down some unfamiliar musical paths with assurance. The chorus’s first entry in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” (“What the caged bird feels . . .”) seized the attention with its intensity, to emphasize the need even a captive being (bird or human) has to express itself. The allegory continued and developed in the countertenor Tai Oney’s first solo, as he plangently and beautifully sang of bruised wing and sore bosom. This led smoothly into tenor Jonas Budris’s first solo, which he sang with particular expressivity when illustrating the words “a plea, that up-ward to heav’n he flings”. The chorus and soloists combined to forceful effect for the final two stanzas of the poem; it ends with three iterations of the line made more famous by Maya Angelou’s memoirs, “I know why the caged bird sings!”

Part Two initially centers on a quote attributed to George Orwell, speaking uncomfortable truth: “A people that elect corrupt politicians are not victims… but accomplices.” In a clear reference to the 2016 U.S. election, CA emphasized the text with pointed, angry delivery, sometimes seemingly goaded by the two soloists. The a capella postscript was quieter but hardly less marcato. An elegant cello solo and orchestral interlude led into Onovwerosuoke’s jazz-infused setting of Langston Hughes’s “As I Grew Older” whose central image is the dichotomy of dreams and sunshine against a dark wall separating privileged from downtrodden. Oney again sang movingly, especially in mesmerizing ascent to a pianissimo high note. Since the passage describes the rising of the oppressive wall “until it touched the sky,” the beauty contained no little irony. The poem ends with his self-exhortation, reinforced by the chorus, to use his dark hands to “break through the wall . . . to shatter this darkness . . . to break this shadow into a thousand lights of sun, into a thousand whirling dreams of sun!” This passage was thrilling despite the text’s occasional incomprehensibility.

Fred Onovwerosuoke

At the outset of Part Three the composer uses texts from the ancient Vondou Oracle of Benin Republic, both in the original dialect and translated into English, to direct listeners of color to look back to their African forebears for inspiration and strength. The men of the chorus deliver the invocation (“O heed the voice!”) in the Fon dialect and thereafter alternate with the women in English. The tenor soloist also played an important part of the texture here, as it began with calm images of a gentle wind, dancing leaves, little children, and the tender throb of a drum. Budris spun out a lovely liquid legato as the strings evoked rustling leaves. In another subsection the mood turned more urgent, speaking of a growling lioness, wars, and foes, before subsiding with the return of the earlier images. The final subsection sets the eponymous poem, “We Need to Talk!”, by Michael Castro. The singers, both choruses and soloists, here seem to represent descendants of Still’s/Chapin’s lynching-survivors who have thrown off their fear to assert their humanity and their equivalence to any other members of the human race while enjoining those still prejudiced against non-conformists of body-type, dress, gender, and sexual orientation as well as ethnic minorities, to open their closed minds (“It’s claustrophobic in there”) and leave their “echo chambers.” As with Still’s choruses, Onovwerosuoke’s two soloists of separate ethnicities look past their superficial differences, turning toward each other while singing, to suggest their willingness to begin vital dialogue. Indeed, the poem’s thrice-repeated line is the title of the entire piece. While it seems infuriating to have to reiterate these assertions in 2019, we can be thankful that all the accomplished artists in this concert are plainly committed to doing so for as long as necessary. Though Coro Allegro, Heritage Chorale of New Haven, and their directors will likely occupy a political niche for years to come, their high musical standards ensure that general audiences will flock to hear them at least as often for artistic reasons. Long may they prosper!

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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