85 years after his oratorio was silenced, Black composer gets his due

ByToby Hershkowitz via Localish logo
Monday, September 12, 2022
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During a special Juneteenth celebration, a historic Harlem Church rights a wrong after almost a century of waiting.

MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS -- Eighty-five years after composing an oratorio about emancipation from slavery, and 79 years after his own death, Black composer R. Nathaniel Dett finally received a long-overdue standing ovation after the performance earlier this year of his piece, "The Ordering of Moses," at Riverside Church's Juneteenth celebration.

Dett was a Harlem Renaissance composer and the descendent of enslaved Americans who fled to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

His oratorio, "The Ordering of Moses" debuted on the radio in 1937, but the broadcast didn't go as planned.

"He may have been one of the first Black composers to have a major classical piece aired on the radio," says Liz Player, founding executive and artistic director of the Harlem Chamber Players. "It was broadcast nationally, but somehow, about three-quarters of the way through, it was abruptly cut. There's no record of the reason why, although a lot of people believe there may have been some racist objections to this being broadcast."

The Harlem Chamber Players is a multiethnic collective of classically trained musicians dedicated to bringing affordable and accessible music to Harlem and beyond. Given this mission, when the opportunity presented itself to perform Dett's piece in its entirety, and to right a wrong after almost a century, Player jumped at the opportunity.

"For this production, we have over 100 performers, a 75-member choir, a 60-plus piece orchestra, and five Met Opera soloists," Player said.

Player brought in award-winning artist-instrumentalist-composer-conductor Damien Sneed, founder of Chorale Le Chateau, to serve as musical director for this one-of-a-kind performance.

"Globally, it's time for us to allow the universal language of music to bring us together," Sneed said. "People are going to have an experience of musical ecstasy. They're going to be transcendentally whisked into a place of euphoric excitement. And they will hear some of the most phenomenal musicians this side of the Milky Way galaxy."

Tenor Chauncey Packer, who steps into the role of Moses, the great liberator of the ancient Israelites, finds motivation and commonality in the piece's themes of freedom and salvation, especially during Juneteenth, which commemorates when the last enslaved Americans finally found out they were free following the Civil War.

"I went through a gamut of emotions, but it's such a great joy and responsibility to do the piece. So my heaviness was balanced with that," Packer says.

Though originally planned to premiere two years ago, on the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, COVID-19 derailed those plans like so many others these past three years. But the delay added a layer of connection between the ancient allegory and the modern-day implication of its themes.

"The biblical story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt after a series of plagues will resonate with a lot of people as we're all still going through this pandemic," Player says. "I lost my father during the pandemic to COVID. So it just means everything to be able to provide opportunities for Black people who are so underrepresented in classical music, to see this come to life, uptown, in our neighborhoods."