85 years after his oratorio was silenced, Black composer gets his due

MORNING SIDE HIGHS — 85 years after composing an oratorio about emancipation from slavery and 79 years after his own death, black composer R. Nathaniel Dett finally received a long overdue standing ovation after performing his play “The Ordering of Moses” earlier this year,” at the June 16 Celebration of Riverside Church.

Dett was a Harlem Renaissance composer and the ancestor of enslaved Americans who fled to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

His oratorio The Ordering of Moses premiered on radio in 1937, but the broadcast did not go as planned.

“He was perhaps one of the first black composers to have a major classical piece aired on the radio,” says Liz Player, founding executive director and artistic director of the Harlem Chamber Players. “It was broadcast nationally, but somehow it was abruptly cut after about three quarters. There is no record of why, although many people believe there may have been some racial objections to this broadcast.”

The Harlem Chamber Players are a multi-racial collective of classically trained musicians dedicated to bringing affordable and accessible music to Harlem and beyond. With that mission in mind, when the opportunity arose to perform Dett’s play in full and correct an error after almost a century, Player jumped at the chance.

“For this production, we have over 100 performers, a 75-strong chorus, an orchestra of over 60 and five soloists from the Met Opera,” said Player.

Player brought in award-winning artist, instrumentalist, composer and conductor Damien Sneed, founder of Chorale Le Chateau, as musical director for this unique performance.

“Globally, it’s time to allow the universal language of music to bring us together,” said Sneed. “People will have an experience of musical ecstasy. You are transported transcendentally to a place of euphoric excitement. And they will hear some of the most phenomenal musicians this side of the Milky Way.”

Tenor Chauncey Packer, who slips into the role of Moses, the great deliverer of the ancient Israelites, finds motivation and common ground in the play’s themes of freedom and redemption, particularly in June 16, which reminds us that the last enslaved Americans are at last found out they were free after the civil war.

“I’ve been through a whole range of emotions, but it’s such a great joy and responsibility to do the piece. So that compensated for my heaviness,” says Packer.

Though originally slated to premiere two years ago on the 150th anniversary of June 15, COVID-19 has scuppered those plans, like so many others over the past three years. But the delay added a layer of connection between ancient allegory and the modern implication of its themes.

“The biblical story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt after a series of plagues will resonate with many people as we are all still going through this pandemic,” says Player. “I lost my father to COVID during the pandemic. It means everything to be able to provide opportunities for black people, who are so underrepresented in classical music, to see this come to life in our northern neighborhood.”

https://6abc.com/music-juneteenth-black-history/12169522/ 85 years after his oratorio was silenced, Black composer gets his due

Alley Einstein

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