Tuesday , May 21 2024
Saint Thomas Church NYC
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Concert Review: ‘American Lamentation’ – a World Premiere Oratorio on Slavery, NYC and the Church by Trevor Weston

As suppression of the history of slavery spreads in parts of the United States, including by many who profess “Christian values,” it’s refreshing to learn that the Episcopal Church in New York City is taking the opposite tack. As part of its concert series Saint Thomas Church presented an oratorio by Trevor Weston, professor of music at Drew University and an alumnus of Saint Thomas’ choir school, that addresses (in the composer’s words) “the history of slavery in the American North, especially New York City, and the Episcopal Church’s role in this history.” American Lamentation received its world premiere by the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s on May 16.

Commissioned by Saint Thomas Church and Ronald Thomas, a supporter of the church’s Concerts at Saint Thomas series, American Lamentation does not seek to soften with beautiful harmonies and sweet melodies the ugly history it traces. Despair, supplication, repentance — these are the kinds of actions and feelings suggested by Weston’s musical palette here.

The music establishes a distinct voice even as it incorporates a variety of traditions. It begins on a hopeful, hymnlike note, with an African proverb that reads “Where this is love, there is no darkness.” But blue notes from the blues/jazz tradition and an icy chromatic descending scale set the tone for the harsh story that follows.

Tracing the History of Slavery in America

Weston chose the texts himself. Ranging widely in source and style over three sections and 12 movements they trace American slavery from early colonial times through the modern Church’s recognition of its part in the institution. The chant-like monophony of the second movement suggests both prayer and medieval times, fitting for its text, which comes from a 1526 letter from an African king to a colonial ruler pleading for relief for indigenous enslaved workers.

A prayer to “Almighty God” couched in solemn, cool harmonies ends unresolved, followed by an introduction of New York’s slavery history with a 1635 legal document pertaining to New Netherland. Over dissonant winds, tenor John Ramseyer sang about the settlement labor to be done by “Africans.” In turn, guest soloist soprano Aundi Marie Moore took us to 1696 and a directive to “Have each leader leant an African to work on Wednesday next for ye opening the ground for the foundation” of Trinity Church.

Part 2, “A Prayer for God to Act,” opened with Moore channeling Solomon Northrup (he of 12 Years a Slave) with spiky melodies over ominous wails from the orchestra. The choir returned singing the words of an unidentified enslaved person in mingled dark and light harmonies – despair vs. hope?

In a compelling and spectral passage the boy choristers and a boy soloist sang “Come, Ye Children” from Psalm 34. Another tenor, Alex Longnecker, beautifully embodied the words of a Black minister who sermonized celebrating the end of the Atlantic slave trade in 1808. This piece features a modified descending chromatic scale, recalling the opening movement but altered as if the spaces between some of the whole notes symbolize some relief from despair.

A third tenor soloist, Chad Kranak, brought things up to the Episcopal Church’s 21st-century repentance. The oratorio ends with heavy strikes from the brass, timpani, and organ, fading to a quiet “Amen” that exemplifies the work’s overall unresolved feeling. The story is far from over. Slavery’s aftermath still lies heavy on us today.

Under the direction of Jeremy Filsell, the boys and men of the choir, along with the always polished St. Luke’s Orchestra and organist Nicolas Haigh, made this wide-ranging, finely wrought, sometimes harsh and difficult music shine. The subject matter deserves no less.

The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at an earlier concert at St. Thomas Church, Fifth Ave. Photo by Ira Lippke.

Samuel Barber at Saint Thomas Church

The wise folks at Saint Thomas programmed American Lamentation as the second half of an evening of varied colors and moods. The choir was strong in two relatively short pieces in the first half. But the choristers sat for the highlight and most substantial work of the first half, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, an extended feature for soprano and orchestra on a prose-poem-like text by James Agee.

The first discrete section of this single-movement piece suggests pastoral ease, with a gently rocking rhythm. Moore established her buttery-golden tone here, then revealed great melodic agility in the beautiful, somewhat Stravinsky-esque second section, which evokes noisy streetcars.

Deliciously arranged harmonies coexist with dissonance as the piece progresses to its “all is well” ending. Moore figuratively towered over the orchestra with supple strength.

The first half of the program finished with the choir singing an a capella arrangement of the spiritual “Deep River.” The song expresses a yearning for “that promised land where all is peace” – a most appropriate setup for the struggle so vividly depicted by Trevor Weston’s meaty new oratorio.

I have learned that some members of another predominantly white NYC choir have bowed out of a performance of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, feeling that it’s inappropriate for them to perform a work so identified with the Black American experience. They could take a lesson from this world premiere performance of American Lamentation, which recounts so vividly the foundational strand of African American history, was written by a distinguished Black composer, featured a wonderful Black soprano – and was commissioned for and performed gracefully and forthrightly by a mostly white choir.

Find out more about the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys at their website.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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