This year’s May Festival opened with a program featuring two major works by American composers: one by John Adams, the leading composer of his generation (my generation), and an oratorio by Nathaniel Dett, premiered at the May Festival in 1937, and largely forgotten since. This kind of adventurous programming is just what should be expected for a world class event, balanced, of course, by the old favorite, Beethoven’s Ninth, scheduled later in the festival.
James Conlon conducting
May Festival Chorus, Robert Porco, Director
Latonia Moore, soprano
Ronnita Nicole Miller, mezzo-soprano
Rodrick Dixon, tenor
Donnie Ray Albert, bass
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
What a lustrous sound! Harmonium starts with a single note and gradually builds to a glowing diatonic cluster. It features huge harmonic spaces, always enlivened with an ever evolving, often complex rhythmic surface, and almost disembodied melodic fragments. Particularly effective (and easy to describe) is the connection between the last two movements: the low, dark burial ending the second movement becomes gradually more and more agitated until it burst into the “Wild Nights!” of the finale.
The texts that Adams chose for this are profound: poems by John Donne (“Negative Love”) and Emily Dickinson (“Because I could not stop for Death” and “Wild Nights”). I find the Donne fascinating, intriguing, but far too complicated and intellectual for a musical setting, even one as complex as this. Music works much better with Dickinson’s evocative images than with the tortured reasoning in this particular poem of Donne.
This music emphasizes the collective effect. Though the work is full of technically demanding passages, it is the energy and intonation of the ensemble that is important. Consequently, James Conlon conducted this piece with unusual restraint. There were no romantic flourishes: he focused on keeping time, and keeping the group together.
And such a spectacular group it is. The chorus, as always, was well prepared. When there was homophony, the diction was crystal clear, amazingly clear for such a large chorus. The orchestra managed complexities of the score with grace and power. Together, they were awe inspiring.
Cincinnati, like most other cities, loves to celebrate its heritage. One part of that heritage is its role in the Underground Railroad. Consistent with that tradition, in 1937, the Cincinnati May Festival premiered an oratorio by a Negro composer, R. Nathaniel Dett.
This piece of history was emphasized in the concert. Preceding the music, they played a recording of the radio announcer’s introduction to the live broadcast of the 1937 performance. Later, before the large finale, they again played a recording of the radio announcer, this time saying that “because of previous commitments”, they would have to cease broadcasting the concert. If I had been bored by the music, I would have welcomed an interruption reminding me of this ugly piece of American history. However, by that time I was not interested in the history of that 1937 radio broadcast, I was engaged listening to a live concert in 2014. I found the interruption disturbing. It is possible that the performers were also disturbed by it, or that the following section of the music was not up to the standard of the rest; in any case, it took a while for me to get back into the music. If this oratorio is worthy a performance today, as I think it is, the place for the history lesson is in the program notes.
Mining material from that rich vein of folk music and using a story that had particular meaning to his enslaved forefathers, Dett wrote an oratorio in the grand European tradition, conservative enough to appeal to a Cincinnati audience of the 1930s, but original enough to still be relevant. You hear the influence not of the modernists of his day, or of the jazz that was sweeping across popular culture, but of Dvorak, who had advised American composers to look to their folk heritage for the foundation of their music. Like any good follower, his music is influenced by, not derivative of, the master.
Predictably, Dett makes use of that old favorite, “Go Down Moses”. Sometimes, his use of the theme is straightforward and obvious, but even then, the direction that he takes is fresh. More often, he uses themes that are not obviously derived from the material in this tune, but are related to it in a more subtle way. The harmony is more chromatic certainly than Dvorak, but clear in it’s direction, traditional without being totally familiar.
I find it difficult to judge the quality of a performance when I am unfamiliar with the a work. There were places when the orchestra hands off the focus from one instrument to the next: if it does not go as smoothly as I thought it should, was that because of the orchestra or the orchestration? Regardless, I found the work engaging. This orchestra and chorus consistently amaze me. Among the soloists, I particularly enjoyed the clear tenor of Rodrick Dixon, who, even when the melody twisted, landing on an unexpected note, always conveyed the composer’s intentions with conviction.
This work certainly deserves its place on the program, seventy years after the premiere.
The concert is being repeated at Carnegie Hall. It will be broadcast on NPR. I am confident it will be a major success.