Racial Injustice Echoes In Music Before Solace Of Mozart’s Requiem

A poster featuring a photo of composer Patrick Hutchinson rescuing a white counter-protestor in London was on display during Oregon Symphony concerts featuring Hutchinson’s ‘Remnants for Poet and Orchestra.’ (Photos by Mikal George)

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Oregon Symphony performed music that touched on serious matters in its concert April 6 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The first half of the program featured pieces by William Grant Still and James B. Wilson that reflected on racial injustice The second half assuaged the atmosphere with a moving performance of Mozart’s Requiem.

Written in 1924, when racial segregation was enforced throughout the nation, Darker America was Still’s first orchestral work. The title is arresting in itself, because Still could have used Dark America instead. Yet Darker America implies an ongoing condition. The one-movement symphonic poem restlessly moves from sorrow to hope and wrestles with a conflicting section in which sorrow and hope collide.

Under Oregon Symphony music director David Danzmayr, the orchestra gave the opening a thick and sultry flavor, with a bluesy English horn followed by a strong melodic line from the strings that was filled with sadness. The pensive mood transitioned to a fanfare, offering a bit of lightness before sinking back into despair. After a brief prayerful phrase from the oboe, the piece climbs to higher ground, as if breaking through the clouds, but the ending is muted and not a splashy triumph.

How can we expunge racism from our culture? It is an ongoing problem that is seemingly ingrained in people’s DNA, making true change extremely difficult. Wilson’s Remnants for Poet and Orchestra, which received its U.S. premiere at this concert, reflected on that goal with a thought-provoking combination of music and text. The piece was inspired by the action of Patrick Hutchinson in 2020 during a Black Lives Matter protest outside Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre in London. Hutchinson, a Black man, rescued a white counter-protestor from death at the hands of the crowd, which had been riled by the counter-protestor. A famous photo by Dylan Martinez/Reuters showed Hutchinson carrying the man over his shoulder and out of harm’s way.

In Wilson’s piece, the orchestra set the chaotic moment of the BLM event with trumpets slowly climbing and swelling blasts from various sections, followed by ominous and threatening tones accompanied by heavy beats from the bass drum. The orchestra then settled into a quiet drone while actor Lauren Modica-Soloway began to speak the poetic text by Nigerian-British writer Yomi Sode. With mesmerizing clarity and forcefulness, she spoke of the impact of the photo of Hutchinson and how he rose above the situation to save the counter-protestor’s life. In the process, we learned that the man he rescued was a retired police officer. Yet Sode’s words also reflected anger and frustration — that despite such a heroic action by Hutchinson and the accolades that followed, racism is still endemic in our culture.

The concert’s second half comprised a performance of Mozart’s ‘Requiem,’ with the vocal soloists standing amid the chorus.

The piece ended with a sequence of rising tones that gradually subsided so that only the harp, cymbal, and triangle gave the final notes, leaving us with the feeling of a bittersweet, unanswered question.

The second half of the concert put the audience on more reassuringly familiar territory with Mozart’s Requiem. The setup onstage was a little different, with the soloists — soprano Yulia Van Doren, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor Miles Mykkanen, and baritone Hadleigh Adams — seated with the Portland State University Chamber Choir behind the orchestra. The arrangement worked well because the Oregon Symphony spent $5 million three years ago on a Meyer Sound Constellation System to improve the acoustics of the hall.

Augmented by alumni and guest singers, the chorus, prepared expertly by Ethan Sperry, created a glorious sound. The additional voices helped the men, who have sounded weak in the past. This time around, they came through loud and clear — at times even dominating the balance with the women. Overall, the choir’s diction and dynamics were outstanding. Sforzandos, crescendos, decrescendos, and crisp articulation made the piece riveting. Danzmayr chose a more clipped pronunciation in the “Rex tremendae maiestatis” than what I am used to, but, all in all, he elicited a supreme sound from the choir.

All of the soloists sang with conviction and beautiful tone, with Van Doren leading the way and O’Connor generating the warmest of passages. Early on, Mykkamen got into a Heldentenor mode that was not ideal for Mozart, but he dialed it back for the rest of the piece. Adams managed to project the bottom of his range fairly well in the “Tuba mirum” section, but his resonant voice was much more easily heard when the music got out of the basement. All of the quartet numbers, except for the first one — “Cum vix justus” — blended very well.

In his introductory comments, Danzmayr related how he grew up in Austria hearing the Requiem ending after the “Lacrymosa” because that was the final movement that Mozart penned — well, the first eight bars of it. So, Danzmayr took a long pause in the concert after the “Lacrymosa” was sung, and it seemed to add poignancy and weight to the performance.