From Bach To Spirituals, Water Theme Flows In Multimedia Immersion

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Reggie (Regg Roc) Gray and Reginald Mobley, right, in ‘Shall We Gather at the River’ at Park Avenue Armory (Photos by Stephanie Berger)

NEW YORK — How might an artist conceive a response to a crisis as big, broad, and pervasive as climate change? What tools and resources might one use? And what, ultimately, is such a project meant to accomplish? Those questions and more arose ahead of Shall We Gather at the River, a world-premiere multidisciplinary event directed by Peter Sellars that had its premiere May 21 in the Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory.

Embracing the problematic and the provocative presumably comes naturally to Sellars, famous for treating Handel and Mozart as contemporary works, and Richard M. Nixon and J. Robert Oppenheimer as mythic figures. Here, in a program commissioned jointly by the Armory and the Asia Society, Sellars brought together three cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach with five traditional African American spirituals, at least some bound loosely by themes of water and all it implies: cleansing, thirst, relief, peril, and more.

The performers included four exemplary soloists — soprano Molly Quinn, countertenor Reginald Mobley, tenor Nick Pritchard, and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody — with the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Baroque ensemble Oxford Bach Soloists, conducted sensitively and stylishly by Tom Hammond-Davies. Also deserving mention among the musicians is Mark Grey, the sound designer, whose amplification balanced singers deployed across three platforms and a lofted upper level in the cavernous hall.

A scene from ‘Shall We Gather at the River’

All of that alone might have assured a fine concert performance, but there was considerably more to take in. Choreographer Reggie (“Regg Roc”) Gray and five lithe dancers performed in a style called flexn, inspired by and derived from street dance modes rooted in Black Brooklyn communities. Photographs and videos projected on screens overhead offered images of melting icebergs, wildfires and their aftermath, grimy miners, and global citizens seated or standing in waist-deep flood waters — images shared with Coal + Ice, an exhibition on view at Asia Society.

Further elements of Shall We Gather at the River overflowed into spaces outside of the Drill Hall — an exhibition of student art, a mosaic of speaking voices stitched into a soundscape, a film collage, a photo wall — transforming what might have been a distinguished concert into an experience that genuinely warranted the term immersive.

Director Peter Sellars brought together three cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach with five traditional African American spirituals.

Even an opening processional played in near-complete darkness by Wu Tong on sheng, a Chinese mouth organ, though seemingly at odds with the rest of the music on the program, contributed to the overall statement. In a program note, Asia Society vice president Orville Schell explained that the instrument, whose warbling tone resonated throughout the hall, is viewed in Chinese tradition as an arbiter between humans and heaven; here, it proposed a similar mediation between the U.S. and China regarding climate action.

Taken as a purely musical experience, Shall We Gather at the River was splendid, with fine work from all of the vocalists. Mobley in particular transitioned with ease and grace between Bach and spirituals, his supple, clean, and potent vocalizing in the former easing naturally into his bluesy dips and curls in the latter. Thematic and textual ties were sensitively managed: When Bach’s Cantata BWV 39 Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (“Break with hungry men thy bread”) segued into “Let Us Break Bread Together,” it was clear that Bach and African Americans shared a common faith. The Oxford instrumentalists played beautifully as an ensemble and handled neatly choreographed solo and small-group episodes with precision and personality.

Factor in the non-musical components, and complications grew more evident. Mobley and Gray partnered often and beautifully; the singer’s ornate, plaintive sound was well matched to the dancer’s visceral yet vulnerable gesticulations. But if Gray’s wracked muscles evoked the weighty, timeless issues of toil, inequality, and exploitation under examination, his hip-hop derived vocabulary reminded viewers that those problems are painfully of the present moment. When other dancers performed gestures that resembled a tongue torn out or a chest cut open, the image recalled Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco Goya, and the horrors of Twitter all at once.

The production was presented at Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

A similar complexity played out on the overhead screens. A viewer could be captivated by Jimmy Chin’s images of jagged ice pillars, Geng Yunsheng’s stark black-and-white portraits, the unearthly iridescence of Camille Seaman’s Iceberg in Blood Red Sea, Lemaire Channel, and the uncanny calm of Gideon Mendel’s half-submerged subjects, while at the same time feeling revolted by what all those images really meant.

Such tension was pervasive to the extent that, for all the sophisticated intention and invention that clearly went into making Shall We Gather at the River, the results often were as subtle as a hammer flung at high velocity. But then, perhaps that was the point Sellars and his collaborators intended to make. As the admonishing words of Bach’s Cantata BWV 26 — “As swiftly as roaring water rushes by, so hurry by the days of our life” — cut through the darkness on a tiny screen over the stage, the most readily available takeaway was that the time for subtlety has passed.