Saturday, March 30, 2019

IMI Artists: Boston Musical Intelligencer: Review: “America/We Need to Talk”

Mezzo-Soprano Sylvia V.C. Twine and Tenor/Narrator Ron Williams

Mezzo-Soprano and Composer Fred Onovwerosuoke  

Composer Fred Onovwerosuoke and pianist Darryl Hollister

Composer Fred Onovwerosuoke, tenor Jonas Budris, counter-tenor Tai Oney and 

conductor David Hodgkins

The Boston Musical Intelligencer

By Geoffrey Wieting

March 29, 2019

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 (4/17) 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 troubled, 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 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.


“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!”

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