Oberlin Fetes Historic Black Grad, Reviving Oratorio At Carnegie

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The Oberlin Orchestra, Oberlin College Choir, Oberlin Gospel Choir, and Oberlin Musical Union performing R. Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio ‘The Ordering of Moses’ at Carnegie Hall. (Photos by Fadi Kheir)

NEW YORK — An exciting concert at Carnegie Hall by an orchestra and chorus from the Oberlin Conservatory on Jan. 20 peaked with a performance of the 1932 oratorio The Ordering of Moses by Canadian composer R. Nathaniel Dett, who in 1908 became the Conservatory’s first Black student to receive a bachelor of music double major degree and the College’s first alumnus to receive an honorary doctorate, in 1926.

Oberlin graduate R. Nathaniel Dett

Oberlin College, founded in 1833 and boasting the nation’s oldest operating conservatory, pioneered both co-education and desegregated higher learning in the U.S. Dett (1882-1943), who was descended from escaped enslaved Americans, graduated with a double major in piano and composition. Subsequent Oberlin-trained Black artists prominent in the opera world have included William Grant Still, Derek Lee Ragin, Denyce Graves, and Rhiannon Giddens.

The college has brought its conservatory’s musical forces to Carnegie Hall at least since a 1983 concert anchored on choral works by Handel and Britten. (As at this year’s concert, two of the soloists at that concert, tenor Franco Farina and baritone Joseph McKee, were Oberlin-trained.) Leading the assembled forces here was conductor Raphael Jiménez; Oberlin’s last visit, also under Jiménez, was pre-pandemic, in January 2019.

The Jan. 20 program began with a deeply impressive traversal of Brahms’ 1880 Tragic Overture, with the immense string section exhibiting superb ensemble in attack and dynamics but not obscuring the (almost) universally successful contributions of the wind and brass players. This was the rare performance that left a Brahms skeptic more admiring of one of his scores than before.

Even more compelling was A Metaphor for Power by Iván Enrique Rodríguez (born 1990), dating from 2018. Working in a daringly eclectic idiom that draws heavily on late-Romantic tonality we associate with Richard Strauss and Korngold, the Puerto Rican composer fashioned an often fiery meditation on the turbulence and contradictions of American life. Citational use in distorted keys of patriotic songs like “America the Beautiful” suggest a legacy of unequally delivered societal promises. The orchestral writing, giving wide opportunities seized on by the percussion section, alternates clashing, stormy climaxes with fleeting intimations of more hopeful melody. At some points, wordless chanting underpins the playing. As an orchestral showpiece, A Metaphor for Power packs a wallop and drew a thrilled reception from the crowd.

Vocal soloists Chabrelle Williams, Ronnita Miller, Eric Greene, and Limmie Pulliam onstage at Carnegie Hall with the Oberlin forces.

The Oberlin Orchestra, notably the brass section and first cellist Amanda Vosburgh, also played well for The Ordering of Moses, but the bulk of the work fell on the spirited and full-throated Oberlin College Choir, Oberlin Gospel Choir, and Oberlin Musical Union. Diction and intonation were precise. Good discipline and training permitted the collective diminuendo on “Let my people go” in the thematically central “Go Down, Moses” movement. The oratorio is metaphorically related to the Exodus story in musical and verbal terms drawn from the oppression, yearnings, and eventual jubilant liberation of enslaved Black Americans.

The vocal soloists sometimes embody Biblical personages, sometimes enter into a call-and-response relation with the chorus in highlighting particular lines of text. The singers have brief solos, a duo, and a trio. Jiménez had the services of four fine vocalists well-launched on professional careers. Crisp diction, essential here, was happily observed. Eric Greene’s wide-ranging baritone maintained dignity as The Voice of God, and 2011 Oberlin graduate Chabrelle Williams (Miriam) deployed her light but easily soaring soprano with spirit and beauty.

Tenor Limmie Pulliam, who recently made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Radamès in ‘Aida,’ performing with the Oberlin Orchestra and choruses at Carnegie Hall.

But the evening’s real vocal thrills came from their colleagues. Ronnita Miller, billed as a mezzo-soprano but really an epochal-voiced, world-class Wagnerian contralto (she’ll return to Carnegie as Gaea in Strauss’ Daphne March 23 with the American Symphony), fairly shook the walls in her challenging solo, “O, Lord, behold my afflictions.” One wished only that Dett had given her even more to do. And Limmie Pulliam, a recent emergency Metropolitan Opera debutant as Radamès, confirmed his mounting reputation as a heroic tenor with both clarion power and tonal beauty. One awaits Pulliam’s Florestan and Peter Grimes; in May, he rejoins the Cleveland Orchestra — after a well-reviewed concert Otello last spring — for Dick Johnson in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West.

Carnegie heard various vocal and instrumental  pieces by Dett starting in 1920 with “Juba Dance” (1913) for piano and the 1916 song “Music in the Mine.” It has hosted The Ordering of Moses before. The National Negro Opera Company gave it there in 1951, led by its soprano-founder Mary Cardwell Dawson, whose legacy Denyce Graves has done much to mark and honor. And James Conlon conducted a Cincinnati Symphony and May Festival Chorus performance with another starry all-Black solo team, Latonia Moore, again Ronnita Miller, Rodrick Dixon, and Donnie Ray Albert. (Bridge Records issued this reading on a live-engineered CD.)

Raphael Jiménez conducting the Oberlin Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

Dett’s oratorio gets performed at historically Black colleges and universities; the Harlem Chamber Players under Damien Sneed performed it as part of a Riverside Church Juneteenth celebration last year. This would seem to accord with Dett’s intentions in creating a piece calling for such ambitious forces: to craft a work suitable for a ritual, community-affirmational celebration. Courtney-Savali L. Andrews, an Oberlin assistant professor of African American and African diasporic music, provided Carnegie audiences with a substantive program note detailing Dett’s referencing an extant body of Black-created music (and those emulating it, like Gershwin in Porgy and Bess).

But it’s worth noting that in shaping and scoring The Ordering of Moses, Dett also referenced a tradition and body of work in classical music with which we are generally far less conversant than musicians and listeners of Dett’s generation: the oratorio. Not only Messiah, but also Mendelssohn’s Elijah and the works of Elgar, Parry, and Stainer that it influenced were widely encountered 100 years ago. Another African diasporic composer contributing to this tradition was British-born Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose The Atonement was premiered at the Hereford Festival in 1903 and had been heard as early as 1906 in major African-American churches, including Washington’s iconic Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in 1932, with Todd Duncan (the first Porgy in Porgy and Bess) as Jesus.

Perhaps Jiménez and his Oberlin forces can give us a hearing of that to compare with their sterling work in the Dett at Carnegie.