Handel With A Cultural Asterisk: Concert Adds Counterpoint Of Slavery

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WNYC host Terrance McKnight curated ‘Handel: Made in America,’ which was performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Rogers Auditorium. (Photos by HanJie Chow)

NEW YORK — For the Feb. 15 concert on its Met Live Arts performance series, the Metropolitan Museum of Art invited the multi-talented Terrance McKnight to curate a program inspired by the newly renovated (March 2020) British Galleries, containing 400 years’ worth of artifacts. McKnight chose to highlight the life and music of Britain’s most famous adopted composer for “Handel: Made in America.” The combination of music, music history, and personal memoir made a powerful case for taking a deeper look at the classical repertoire.

McKnight, best known in New York as the long-time radio host for WNYC’s classical evening program, is a storyteller with the mission of “de-centering whiteness from classical music.” The narration he crafted, with co-creators Pat Eakin Young and Ellen T. Harris, linked Handel’s life and music to McKnight’s own experiences with a life-changing accident and racial inequality. Under musical direction by Malcolm J. Merriweather, a chamber orchestra, Merriweather’s Voices of Harlem chorus, and a distinguished quartet of vocal soloists assured excellent performances.

The powerful mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges was one of the soloists.

The evening began with a Handel organ passacaglia, played by Nicole Keller, as the singers wandered casually onto the stage of the Rogers Auditorium, greeting one another like old friends at a reunion. McKnight came out, perched on a stool at center stage, and launched into a story of how Handel lost the use of his hands: In 1837, when Britain’s preeminent opera composer was 52 years old, he suffered a mild stroke that left him unable to use his right hand. “Those hands stopped working,” intoned McKnight, and the chorus moved into formation and began to hum a soft chord, like a gospel choir underlaying a sermon.

McKnight continued: “It happened to me,” and the chorus modulated. As a music student working his way through college, he had sustained an injury that paralyzed his arm, making it impossible to perform his upcoming piano degree recital. The damage lingered, so on a friend’s invitation he spent some time in Côte d’Ivoire, contemplating his future. The chorus chimed in with a spiritual, “Lord, I Know I’ve Been Changed,” featuring the powerful mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges. At the song’s conclusion, McKnight announced, “I’m Terrance McKnight, and this is Handel: Made in America.” As the audience clapped, I looked around for a broadcast “Applause” sign, because the pacing felt like a radio show. Not really surprising, given McKnight’s day job.

As Keller and Merriweather played a minuet, the chamber orchestra took their places onstage while McKnight reminisced about his youth in Cleveland playing music in church; he had been expected to follow in his father’s pastoral footsteps but chose instead to study music. Similarly, we learned, Handel’s father had intended for his son to study law. The charismatic bass Davóne Tines underscored the moment with “Tears, such as tender fathers shed,” from the early oratorio Deborah, and walked up to McKnight and put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

The musical centerpiece was “Amazin’ Grace”; Merriweather sang the first verse alone before turning to direct the chorus in Wendell Whalum’s richly harmonized arrangement. McKnight explained that John Newton, the composer of the hymn, had spent many years as a slave trader and investor in the trade. He experienced a miraculous rescue at sea, later suffered a stroke, converted to Christianity, and eventually became a clergyman and committed abolitionist. The theme of mortal threat triggering profound change was, McKnight speculated, the same trajectory experienced by Handel. There’s no escaping the fact that the money that put his operas onstage came in no small part from the slave trade, a major contributor to the British economy. Handel’s patrons grew wealthy from the slave trade, and Handel himself at different times invested in the South Sea Company. Could his 1737 health scare have inspired the shift from writing operas for an immoral economy to self-financing oratorios, with profits donated to charity?

Voices of Harlem performed under their director, Malcolm J. Merriweather.

In fact, Handel’s course correction was more likely a response to the growing financial pressures of putting on Italian opera in London, where tastes were changing and competition from well-financed rival companies cut into his revenues — his last few operas, written after he recovered from his palsy, were immediate flops. Shifting to the oratorio format allowed him to write and perform dramatic music, usually on Biblical stories, without the high costs of theatrical staging, and English-language libretti broadened his audiences beyond the usual aristocratic Italian opera-loving public. Messiah, written in 1741, cemented his legacy. But given the paucity of solid biographical information about Handel, it’s tempting to draw inferences, and it does make a good story.

McKnight offered fond reminiscences of learning about and attending Morehouse College, the first HBCU; he first experienced Messiah at Morehouse under the direction of the legendary Robert Shaw. Tenor Noah Stewart offered a clarion account of “Comfort ye,” and the orchestra continued with an early concerto grosso.

McKnight’s memories grew increasingly sober, including childhood racial discrimination and the tragic shadow of his grandfather’s lynching. Recalling his time in Côte d’Ivoire, McKnight pondered the negative responses of African audiences when he played European music for them. Contemplating the exquisitely decorated teapots in the museum’s British galleries, McKnight wondered about the slave labor costs of the tea and sugar grown on colonial plantations. The contradictions inherent for a Black musician in performing Western classical repertoire, financed by profits reaped at staggering cost to millions of enslaved Africans, are beyond resolution.

The performances featured the stellar vocal quartet of tenor Noah Stewart, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, soprano Latonia Moore, and bass Davóne Tines.

The program’s remaining music hammered home the struggle between despair and affirmation, with mournful airs from oratorios alternating with spirituals. Soprano Latonia Moore, barefoot and dressed in white, gave a particularly emotional rendering of an air from Alexander Balus. Bridges offered a fierce call for vengeance from Giulio Cesare (the only opera represented, and translated into English), and Tines sang Margaret Bonds’ “I, Too,” about the “dark brother” determined to stop eating in the kitchen when company comes. The rousing finale of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” felt a bit abrupt in its cheery optimism, but after so much bitter truth a hopeful ending allowed the audience some relief.

While the Handel performances were notably light on ornamentation, under Merriweather’s direction the chorus sang with clean intonation, precise yet supple phrasing, and an esprit de corps that enveloped everyone onstage. The 13-member chamber ensemble articulated crisply, and tempos felt right. Pat Eakin Young’s direction created a dynamic flow and helped to present some harsh truths in a palatable way. It was a beautifully conceived and executed evening, if unsettling in its message.

McKnight’s year-old podcast, Every Voice with Terrance McKnight, examines works from the classical cannon in the context of the Black experience. To listen, go here.